A Mediterranean Mix

Off the coast of Tunisia, a speck of Italy

MY first visit to the island of Pantelleria was six years ago. When I left, nostrils full of the fragrances of wild flowers and sea air, eyes saturated by a thousand colors, soul at peace, I promised myself I would come back. I left with some trepidation, for there was then talk of striving to put Pantelleria on the international tourist map.

Early this May, Gwen, my companion, and I came to the island to mend the wear and tear of urban life, to plan and think in peace and quiet -- in other words, for a vacation. We eschewed the sea route (a ferryboat leaves Trapani, the western tip of Sicily, at midnight and reaches Pantelleria at 5:00 A.M.) for the clean speed of flight: a half hour from Trapani (it would have been a full one from Palermo, or one and a half from Rome) and we were there, at the end of Italy. Seventy miles southwest of Sicily, Pantelleria is Italy's southernmost point. Then again, at forty-four miles off the North African coast, it is geographically and ethnically closer to Tunisia.

Seen from the air, the island looks like a roundish scarab thrust up from the sea: it is contoured by steep cliffs, craggy, dark, and foreboding. Where planes descend, the landscape suddenly turns flat, green, and reassuring -- just what you would wish for a landing. And once in the main town and port, also named Pantelleria, we began to think that my concerns about an onslaught of tourism were premature: yes, the airport is more modern, the flights are more numerous, and we did spot a supermarket and a new gas pump on the way to town, but the place is still unassuming, quiet, and slow-paced, without noisy traffic jams or the buzzing of motorbikes that is so irritatingly common in Italy today.
There are five hotels in town, another five or so around the island, and many condominiums and private homes available for visitors to rent. We stayed about two miles out of town, at the Mursia Hotel. It is modern, efficiently elegant, but not, as resort hotels can be, overbearing. The architecture, like most of the island's, is whitewashed, arched Moorish; the recall of North Africa is immediate. We were attracted by the staff's gracious, smiling hospitality (this trait is in evidence throughout the island) and the one-stop practicality. If we needed a car or a boat, one was available for rent, and the restaurant's food was excellent and reasonably priced.

Through the open French doors of our room the perennial breezes brought in the sound and the moist fragrance of the sea, which was just a few steps away. But do not expect a sandy beach: there is hardly one on the whole island. Using the hotel pool would have been cheating. Cement steps, or steps carved in the rock, lead to landings by the sea. The water changes color like a kaleidoscope with the slant of the sun, and yet its transparency is absolute: water like a liquid sky. With a diving mask you can marvel at how far down the light penetrates. That swimming-in-the-sky experience can be had in hundreds of coves and inlets all around the island.

PANTELLERIA, in a formative geophysical spasm, bubbled up to the surface 300,000 or so years ago. Its black volcanic appearance justifies the name the Phoenicians gave to the island: Black Pearl of the Mediterranean. Live favare, or mini-geysers, continue to puff boiling-hot steam here and there, and several warm mineral springs attest to the still-active geology. In fact, the whole area is mischievously unrestful, puzzling geologists today as it did civilian authorities of the recent past. In 1831 an island about three miles in circumference surfaced a few miles off Pantelleria's coast facing Sicily. It was immediately made part of the territory of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and named Ferdinandea in honor of King Ferdinand II. French scientists intent on studying it named it Julia (the surfacing happened in July), and sailors from a British frigate in the vicinity, who had been sent to plant His Majesty's flag on the still-wet rock, named it Graham. But after a short time the islet sank again. (It had performed the same trick in 10 B.C. and 1200 A.D.) All that remains today is a shallow volcanic bank, a paradise for a multitude of fish and for the scuba divers who go after them. On Pantelleria itself volcanic eruptions have piled lava upon lava, creating grotesque constructions here and there: arches plunge into the sea, rocky columns sprout from it, and one famous formation looks like a huge elephant dipping its trunk into the water. This is L'Elefante, the landmark most closely identified with Pantelleria. Like searching for characters in the billowing of clouds, discovering animal or human figures in the volcanic rock is fun. Among the gnarled and tortured black rocks, especially in the east-central part of the island, a multitude of indigenous plants grow. Botanists from the world over come to admire and study what I was told are 569 varieties of plants divided into seventy-three families, 306 genera, and 429 species. These cover a full dictionary of botanical terms and names, coldly technical and Latin, and hardly evocative -- to my ears -- of the plants' and flowers' beauty. One plant that is ubiquitous and particularly appealing, for the contrast formed by its lily-white blossoms sprouting from cracks of the harsh black rock, is the caper. It takes so well to this soil and climate that its edible buds are first-quality, and capers are grown commercially here, generating a sizable income for the island.

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