Pantelleria – Italy’s most Arab island

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Text and photo: Jesper Storgaard Jensen

The volcanic island of Pantelleria offers a magnificent natural scenery, crystal clear water, an unpredictable wind, and an exotic cuisine with tasteful sweet wines. To really enjoy the island you should forget all about time and pull out the most flexible part of your character. That’s exactly what the Italian-American Page did.

“It seems to be hanging between Italy and the African continent, in a dramatic yet sweet way. It’s black as the lava stones, green as the Zibibbo grapes and its capers and it’s blue as its own lake and indigo-colored as the sea. Pantelleria is indeed an island at the limits”.

   This is how the Italian writer Giosuè Calasciura has described Pantelleria in his poetic travel essay “Pantelleria – the last island”. Situated in the triangle area between Sicily, Malta and only 70 kilometers from the Tunisian coastline, the island almost seems to be hidden away.

   Soon after arriving at Pantelleria you’ll be able to verify the island’s reputation as being the Italian island with the most Arabic atmosphere. The small dammusi houses is just one example. With their tiny domes on their rooftops they resemble small mosques which seem to fit perfectly into a natural environment. The street names and the cuisine are two other examples. 

The wind’s daughter

From a historic point of view, Pantelleria’s strategic position, in the Sicilian Channel, has made the island a popular target for conquests. Militarily speaking the location of the island was in an almost perfect position, and for many years the island was regarded as commercially perfect as port of call for the ships sailing between Europe and Northern Africa. For that reason, throughout the years the island has been 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 the years 835 to 1123 especially laid the foundation of Pantelleria’s now so fascinating Arabic-Italian atmosphere. 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.  

No sandy beaches

Pantelleria boasts a total of 51 kilometers of coast line … but not a single traditional sand beach! The pleasure is all on the volcanic rocks, and to find the best places your most efficient tool will be you index finger. Lick on it and put it up in the air in order to find out from which direction the wind is blowing, because only with an offshore wind it’s possible to get into the water … and to get out again!  

   As regards bathing spots you’ll find plenty of possibilities – Punta Kharuscia on the north side with good jumping possibilities, 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 experiences 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 have to 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 is able to supply you with several surprises in terms of natural and unusual phenomenons. A very interesting experience is a walk up to the Favare-area, in the zones of Favarelle and Serraglia. From here you start to “climb” the Gibele Mountain, which arrives at a height of 700 meters above sea level. Once you have reached a plain you’ll find 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. When following the path the panoramic view to the Monastero plain gets 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 as in a real sauna.  

A wine land

If you happen to be on Pantelleria in August, don’t miss the year’s wine event, Calici di Stelle, that 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.  

   A wine experience I never miss when being on Pantelleria 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 tasting sessions have become so popular that you need to make a reservation 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. This wine, to my opinion, represents the taste of Pantelleria.

   Another very charming wine tasting experience is at the Cantina Minardi. Here a guide will take you through the cantina’s premises and explain how the wine production is carried out on Pantelleria. Afterwards a rich tasting experience awaits the participants inside the cantina, where a line-up of the company’s five wines – white, red and passito dessert-wine – will be served with small delicious titbits. Also here, your guide will explain the participants everything there is to know about each wine. After the tasting session it will, of course, be possible to buy the Minardi wines. 

   The passito-dessert wine is one of Pantelleria iconic products, and each cantina has it’s own proposal. Its fragrance notes range from dates over honey and apricot to mature fruits. The island’s tradition of making passito goes way back. According to a legendary history Casanova often served a glass of this wine to his women. In this way il passito would help him in his game of conquest!

   However, despite being a real lifestyle product, strange 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 the local history books the capers have been systematically grown on Pantelleria since the middle of the 19. Century. In 1996 Pantelleria’s caper gained the prestigious IGP recognition, which is the only one in Italy for capers. 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 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 Arab influence, it’s possible to meet the capers in a variety of dishes.  

Looking towards Africa   

On clear days you are able to see the Capo Bon point of Tunisia. Especially when the sun goes down. When I experience this view myself, I often think about what you popularly call the “African decease”, i.e. the feeling that you long for Africa. When I see that kind of a sunset on Pantelleria, with a glass of passito wine in my hand, I’m know that I might be suffering from the “Pantelleria decease”: the intense feeling that you don’t want to go back to where you came from.

General info on Pantelleria:

www.ilovepantelleria.net/ (only in Italian)

www.solopantelleria.com/en

How to get to Pantelleria:

In July and August it’s usually possible to fly directly to Pantelleria from Torino, Bergamo, Verona, Rome, Milan, Venezia, Bologna and Trapani.

The companies are Volotea, Alitalia, Blue Panorama and DAT

From Trapani 

Sleeping:

Mursia Resort

Sikelia Resort

www.sikeliapantelleria.com

Vivere Pantelleria is the best homesite where to look if you want to book a typical dammuso-house. 

www.viverepantelleria.it/

Eating:

Il Tramonto

www.ristorantealtramonto.it/

Il Principe e il Pirata

www.ilprincipeeilpirata.it/

Ristorante La Vela

www.facebook.com/ristorantelavelapantelleria/

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