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.

Rosario Di Fresco, who is the president of the local archaeological club, a defender of all that is Pantelleria, and the animator of much that will be, showed Gwen and me around the island. He explained that human settlement began some 5,000 years ago, with the arrival of the Sesioti, who were probably a tribe of entrepreneurs given to quarrying and exporting the obsidian found in great quantity on Pantelleria. Obsidian was the black gold of the Neolithic era -- a glass-rock material essential for producing sharp-edged knives, cutting tools, and arrow points. Several archaeological sites are marked on Di Fresco's map of the island, including the Sesioti's large Neolithic tombs. The sites have in general been left to age without much human protection, and to me this added to their interest, for they have escaped the embalmed, preserved feeling of the fenced-off archaeological grounds found in all the rest of Italy.

The position of the island as a stepping-stone between Africa and Sicily, at the intersection of sea lanes in the Mediterranean, where sailors could rest and restock their ships, made Pantelleria strategically very appetizing, Di Fresco explained. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors, and Normans (who finally annexed it to Sicily) took over the island in turn, all leaving ethnic and architectural traces of their presence. The island's location on the sea routes gained it the Greek name of Kossyros, The Smaller One, probably because as a navigational reckoning point it came after the larger Malta. It was known to the Romans as Cossyra.

Other foreign marks -- actually scars -- were left during the Second World War. Mussolini called Pantelleria the unsinkable Italian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean (the Italian navy having no real aircraft carriers) and also, unwisely, boasted that it concealed a secret submarine base. These pronunciamentos were taken seriously by the Allied air forces, which bombarded the island heavily, softening an already soft landing target. Pantelleria was the first parcel of Italian soil to fall to the Allies with essentially no casualties -- the most distressing incident, as Churchill tells in his memoirs, occurring when a local donkey bit a Tommy. Nonetheless, the bombs added many man-made craters to the natural ones.

Of all the leftover ethnic influences, Arabic is still the foremost: the local language retains some Arabic-derived words, and many sites have names in or from Arabic. Even the name of the island is a corruption, it is said, of the Arabic Bent El Rion, Daughter of the Wind -- a sobriquet that couldn't be more appropriate. The winds that sweep the Channel of Sicily from all four cardinal points hit the island on an average of 337 days a year. Wind is truly one of Pantelleria's shaping forces: caper bushes, olive trees, and grapevines are trained to grow low on the ground, out of the wind. The good news for the visitor is that there is nearly always a protected leeward side somewhere. And generally the wind is warm: the average temperature is about 68. Of course, it is warmer in summer, or when the southern sirocco blows up from the Sahara, and slightly colder with the storm-laden libeccio during the short -- and still mild -- winter months.

A GOOD road circles Pantelleria; by car the circuit can be made in a few hours, though many people elect to take the trip on foot, boasting afterward of the rewards of the adventure. The road runs sometimes at sea level but mostly up at the edge of high cliffs, rivaling the beauty of the Amalfi Coast road -- and without the hairpin turns, the traffic jams, and the incessant honking of tour-bus horns.

To the east lies the fishing village of Gadir. Off its diminutive port are mineral springs that form hot bathing pools on the edge of the sea. But Gadir's greatest claim to fame rests with a set of dammusi -- traditional constructions peculiar to Pantelleria -- that Giorgio Armani has built there for himself and his guests. Dammusi derive their name from the Arabic damus, for "domed edifice." Large or small, built of volcanic-stone blocks, these one-story houses are unique for the squashed-down domes that form bumps on their otherwise flat roofs. Each room has one -- count the bumps and you know how many rooms a dammuso has. In a water-poor land their purpose is to collect rainwater and channel it through spouts into holding cisterns. Dammusi also have thick walls that efficiently retain warmth in winter and coolness in summer. By now many spartan old dwellings have been made modern and comfortable.

An admirable case in point sits high on a hill not far from Gadir, in the village of Tracino. Here Aldo Volpi, a native of Milan, has transformed an abandoned windmill dammuso into a series of elegant dining rooms, with windows and terraces offering wide-angle views of sea and sky. More important than the architectonic feat is the fact that Volpi has created a superb restaurant, I Mulini, whose menu of strictly researched traditional local dishes is enriched with modern interpretations of the same. Memorable are Volpi's ammogghiu, a garlicky sauce of grilled tomatoes, herbs, and local first-pressing olive oil; the ravioli amari, filled with local cheeses and mint; and the mustazzoli sweets, accompanied by moscato passito di Pantelleria wine.

In general Pantelleria's food marries different gastronomic heritages and products of land and sea, a union that creates a family of culinary delights. Herbs, vegetables, fruits, and olives seem to squeeze all the essences out of the soil they grow in and all the aromas out of the wind, to achieve an intense, concentrated flavor. The list of special dishes is long and covers the whole range from soup to sweets, but to me the best is the couscous di pesce-- fruits of the land and the sea joined together by the generosity of Allah. Couscous is steamed in the aromatic broth of, and served with, a stew of many different fish (local grouper presiding), and peppers, zucchini, and eggplant.

South of Gadir and down from Tracino begin, in seemingly unending procession, spectacular sea coves and grottoes -- possibly the most beautiful I have ever seen. Because they are at the bottom of perpendicular cliffs, they can be admired and explored only from the sea. Boats can be chartered for the purpose, and we chose one named Green Divers to take us around the island. The young sailors on board (I guessed that none of them was older than twenty-five) expertly guided us in and out of the grottoes, all the while filling us with the lore and myths of caves and cliffs -- the tales, like the caves themselves, becoming more colorful as the tour progressed. Close to and just around Pantelleria's southern tip (aptly named Dietro Isola, or Opposite Side of the Island) is another spot sought out by scuba divers and fishermen for the abundance and variety of its fish. Northwest of there is the Grotta di Sataria (Cave of Good Health), where, legend has it, Ulysses, though pining for Penelope, spent seven years with the lusty nymph Calypso. Calypso's grotto sports three successive pools with water temperatures progressing from tepid to warm to decidedly hot.

The cruise ended at sunset, and the crew, encouraging us to come again, promised that no matter how many times we circumnavigated the island, it would always be a new experience -- it is so for them. We believed them. And next time we will carry more film and more sunscreen.

The day before leaving we went walking again with Di Fresco. Several roads lead to the interior--to the various hamlets and up to Monte Grande, the top of the island. From the heights we gazed down on all of Pantelleria, the hills and the valleys, the mosaic of green cultivated patches separated by walls of black rocks, white cubes of dammusi dotting the landscape, orchards of low-growing olive trees and grapevines.

"You are looking at the heart of the Mediterranean," Di Fresco told us. "All the people who shaped Western civilization stopped and nested here. Pantelleria is a concentrate of Mediterranean."

Another description, we thought, to add to Black Pearl of the Mediterranean, The Smaller One, and Daughter of the Wind. If we had our way, however, we would call Pantelleria The Unspoiled.

G. Franco Romagnoli wrote eight cookbooks with his late wife, Margaret, including (1988) and (1996).

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; A Mediterranean Mix; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 48 - 52.