“It seems to be hanging between Italy and the African continent, in a dramatic yet sweet way. It’s as black as the lava stones, as green as the Zibibbo grapes and its capers, as blue as its own lake and as indigo-colored as the sea. Pantelleria is indeed an island at the limits”.
This is how the Italian writer Giosuè Calasciura describes Pantelleria in his highly poetic travel essay “Pantelleria – the last island”, about Italy’s fifth biggest island. Situated in the triangle area between Sicily and Malta and only 70 kilometers from the Tunisian coast line, the island almost seems to be hidden away beyond the most distant European border.
As you approach Pantelleria by plane, some of Calasciura’s color descriptions might very well spring into your mind: here, from high above, you’ll notice hundreds of small white dots contrasting with the green vegetation or the black lava stones. A few moments later, after landing, you’ll realize that they are actually the island’s famous dammusi-houses which are scattered around its fascinating landscape, even on the most impervious hillsides. This was the first surprise I got, when I visited Pantelleria for the very first time many years ago. But it certainly wasn’t the last.
You'll soon be able to verify with your own eyes why Pantelleria has a reputation as being the Italian island with the most Arabic atmosphere. The dammusi houses are just one example. With their tiny domes on their rooftops they resemble small mosques which seem to fit perfectly into a natural environment. The domes together with the thick walls ensure a cool indoor temperature, even on the hottest summer days. It seems like a small miracle!
The wind’s daughter
The dammusi houses expressa concept of harmony since they somehow create a connection between architecture and the surrounding nature. And speaking about harmony, it actually seems as though quite a number of things on this 14 km long and nine km wide island, which covers an area of about 83 square kilometers, are present to create harmony to the joy of its only 8,000 inhabitants and the thousands of visitors who double the population in the summer months.
From a historical point of view, Pantelleria’s strategic position – situated as it is in the Sicilian Channel - has made the island a popular target for foreign conquests. From a military point of view, the island is in an almost perfect position, and for many years it was considered commercially perfect as a port of call for ships sailing between Europe and Northern Africa. For that reason, throughout the centuries the island was conquered by the Phoenicians, the ancient Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spaniards, and the Austrians until finally – in 1860 – the Italian state was able to run up il tricolore, the Italian flag, on the island.
The Arab colonization from 835 to 1123 especially laid the foundation of Pantelleria’s now so fascinating Arabic-Italian atmosphere. You’ll see this in the island’s unique architecture, as already mentioned. The major part of the dammusi houses are built of black and grey lava stones from past eruptions. Numerous lava stones have also been used to build myriads - actually thousands of kilometers - of stone walls all over the island which delimit the terraces where grapes, olive trees and caper plants have fertile growth conditions.
Also from a linguistic point of view you’ll meet Pantelleria’s Arab past. Just listen to the beautiful sound of many exotic places such as Benikulà, Mueggen, Sibà, Bukkuram or Kattibuale, some of Pantelleria's neighbourhoods.
And it was actually the Arabs who gave Pantelleria its name. Originally called Bint Ar-Riàh – The wind’s daughter - it was later named Pantelaream and then Pantelleria. The wind … oh yes, this is indeed a topic of discussion on Pantelleria, because it can be cold, harsh, steaming hot and everything in between, and if you want to get into contact with the local population during a dinner party, “the wind” is the perfect key word to start a small scale climate analysis!
The very first time I visited Pantelleria I was quite surprised by the number of locals who enquired about the impact Pantelleria had had on me. It was only some time after that I found out why. Pantelleria is definitely not a postcard slick island that in every sense tries to please you. It is, on the contrary, a rough island with a tough soul and a take-me-as-I-am-or-leave-me attitude. So, you should definitely leave your wristwatch-mentality at home and instead pull out the most flexible part of your character. You should be ready to let you guide by the island, to follow its rhythm to get the most out of it. If you manage, you’ll find yourself highly rewarded.
Remember that, especially when you go to the sea. The island boasts a total of 51 kilometers of coast line, but not a single traditional sand beach! So, how on earth do you actually manage to go to the beach (as the locals nevertheless say) on an island that has no beaches?
The most important tool in that aspect is your index finger. Lick on it and put it up in the air in order to find out from which direction the wind is blowing. Accordingly – to avoid onshore wind – you’ll be able to choose where to go. And you have plenty of possibilities – Punta Kharuscia on the north side with good jump possibilities from the cliffs, the impervious Balata dei Turchi which also provides a great nature experience or perhaps Marina di Suvaki on the western side. These spots – and many more – all provide great bathing possibilities from the lava rocks.
One place that you should not miss is the Lago delle Ondine, The Water Nymphs’ Lake, which is wedged between black and grayish clotted lava rocks. The small lake is situated at Punto Spadillo, from where you can descend towards the sea. You’ll need a good deal of bravery and climbing skills to move through an almost surreal rock landscape, which was created by the lava. However, your efforts and courage are generously rewarded when you reach this small gem, where, on days with a strong northern wind, the small lake is injected with impressive sprays from the sea.
Speaking about nature’s own creations, Pantelleria offers several surprises in terms of natural and unusual phenomena. My all time personal favorite experience is to walk up to the Favare-area in the zones of Favarelle and Serraglia. From here you start “climbing” the Gibele Mountain, which reaches a height of 700 meters above sea level. Once you have reached this plateau you’ll discover an incredible moon-like landscape with hundreds of lava stones, small paths and a massive outflow of boiling steam coming out of the rocks.
Furthermore, in Benikulà, not far from Sibà, at the foot of the mountain, Montagna Grande, you’ll be able to visit la sauna naturale, nature's own sauna. Just follow the path, and soon the panoramic view of the Monastero plateau will become quite extraordinary as you reach the rock where the sauna is located. Squeeze yourself inside the cave, and you’ll find that constant hot steam creates such high temperatures, that the cave is perfectly able to compete with the hottest Finnish sauna. The sauna is said to have healing powers, and locals have come here throughout the years to heal rheumatic pains and gout.
A wine land
If you happen to be on Pantelleria in August, don’t miss the year’s wine event, Calici di Stelle, which takes place in Castello Barbacane, in the center of Pantelleria town. Here you’ll be able to meet a myriad of local producers and taste their products, of which the major part is made on the local sweet Zibibbo-grape. In fact, it’s quite impressive how many producers are able to organize wine production on a fairly limited surface of land.
A wine experience I never miss is a visit to the Cantina Basile, in the Bukkuram-area, not far from the airport. The cantina is run by Fabrizio Basile and his wife Simona and their tasting sessions have become so popular that you need to make a booking to be sure to get in. When you go there you’ll find out why: the aperitivo is so big in terms of the food that accompanies the wines that it’s almost like a true restaurant experience. In the evening, when the sun is hanging low over Fabrizio’s wine fields, you are likely to be seduced by Basile’s white wine Sora Luna made solely on Zibibbo. In my opinion, this wine represents the taste of Pantelleria.
Cantina Basile is a fairly small producer, but you will also find some bigger and well-known ones. One of these is the Cantina Donna Fugata that has a production unit on Pantelleria, near Khamma. Here you’ll be able to taste the whole range of the company’s production including the much praised sweet dessert wine passito, which for years has been considered as the island’s top wine product. Its fragrance notes range from dates over honey and apricot to mature fruit. After a glass of the cold amber colored passito, you are ready to believe the legend according to which the famous Casanova served a glass of this wine to his women. In this way il passito helped him in his game of seduction!
Despite being a genuine lifestyle product, strangely enough the wine is not Pantelleria’s most popular product. It’s beaten by a small green wonder – the caper - which is the island’s true “kitchen superstar”. According to local history books, capers have been systematically grown on Pantelleria since the middle of the 19th century. In 1996, Pantelleria’s capers gained success thanks to the prestigious PGI recognition, the only one to have been awarded to capers in Italy. However, the caper tale doesn’t end here, because in 2014 the way the caper plant is grown on Pantelleria – “ad alberello” – was recognized as an immaterial UNESCO heritage. Practically, this means that the caper plant is pruned as though it was a small tree in order to protect it from the harsh wind.
In Pantelleria’s delicious kitchen which is certainly Italian but with a huge amount of Arab influence, it’s possible to find capers in a variety of dishes. And if you should happen to like these tasty explosions in your mouth, Pantelleria’s caper expert Rosario Cappadona’s recipe book may be of interest to you. The title is “In the kitchen with capers” and it contains hundreds of recipes where capers are used.
On clear days you can see the Capo Bon point of Tunisia. Especially, when the sun is going down. When I see it myself, I often think about the so-called “African disease", i.e. the feeling that you are longing for Africa. When I see that kind of a sunset on Pantelleria, with a glass of passito wine in my hand, I know that I’m suffering from the “Pantelleria disease": I don’t want to go away.