Italy's Pantelleria Feels Like Africa

Sciroccos, saunas, and sweet, sweet wine beckon you to leave the modern world behind.



Arco dell' Elfante.

Kristan Lawson

 

When Europe starts feeling too homogenized, you head farther and farther south. But Rome’s too frenetic, so you decamp for Sicily, which has marzipan and Mount Etna but after a few days feels too big to be a proper getaway. Another southward leap, just a half-hour by air from Palermo, lands you on the island of Pantelleria.

That’s where you know you’ve finally left the modern world behind.

While technically part of Italy, Pantelleria is actually off the African coast; on clear days you can see Tunisia from its rounded peaks. Relentless Saharan sciroccos are sometimes so strong that flights (from Palermo and Trapani year-round, Rome and Milan in summer) are cancelled, casting Pantelleria into solitary confinement. This isolation is exactly what popularizes Pantelleria among jet-setting, paparazzi-shy Euristocrats.

For rent at the airport are Fiat Pandas, so tiny that you keep expecting them to disgorge streams of circus clowns. But their smallness suits the narrow roads roller-coastering around vineyard-striped slopes commanding stunning vistas toward a stonewashed-denim sea.

Sprinkled around this olive-green landscape are distinctive domed houses known as dammusi, ubiquitous here, but seen nowhere else in the world. Pigeon-gray stone walls up to 3 feet thick deflect heat and wind; the domes are ingeniously designed to collect and conserve rainwater.

Many Pantellerian place names—Mueggen, Bugeber, Bukkuram—spring from medieval Arabic, thanks to a circa–700 CE North African invasion sandwiched between onslaughts of Phoenicians, ancient Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Crusaders, Spaniards, Turks, and Italians. The Arabs made the deepest marks, producing a thriving wine industry, a dialect midway between Maltese and Sicilian that baffles even Italians, a cuisine that positions couscous alongside caponata and ricotta-filled desserts, and unmistakably Moorish architecture: not just dammusi, but also stone giardini panteschi, circular garden enclosures that protect citrus trees from wind, sun, and sea-spray.

Most visitors shun the capital, also called Pantelleria: a dull concrete assemblage erected after most of its dammusi and other historic structures were destroyed in 1943, when British and American bombers tragically missed the message that the occupying Italian garrison was ready to surrender. Other settlements—such as mountainside Khamma, home to farmers and vintners, and slightly downscale Scauri, flanking the port where overnight ferries arrive from Trapani—aren’t towns so much as a few dammusi huddling closer together than elsewhere.

But if you’re seeking urban excitement, you shouldn’t be on Pantelleria.

Relax. Rent a dammusi for its rustic charm or a seaside hotel room if you prefer a pool and amenities. But above all explore the countryside.

Ancient mule tracks converted into hiking trails wind past vineyards, squat olive trees, and stone shacks built to shelter donkey-drivers from the wind. Fresh capers—the most prized of their kind in all of Italy—plucked and eaten straight off the bush taste like the flower buds they actually are.

This is the kind of place where, wandering in bone-toasting sunshine through a centuries-old vineyard while slaking your thirst with pilfered grapes so big and juicy that each one is like its own glass of must, you meet local farmers who helpfully tell you the ripest fruit is “up by the Byzantine ruins,” and sure enough halfway up the viney hillside you really do encounter a crumbling Byzantine villa, abandoned and unmarked.

Land meets sea in sheer cliffs. Pantelleria erupts from the water with volcanic grandeur, its landscape dotted with hot springs, fumaroles, and steam jetting straight out of solid rock. While some of these geothermal marvels now sport chi-chi resorts such as those near the village of Gadir, many remain ungated, free and wild, letting savvy visitors soak in natural cave-saunas and mineral mud baths. Meanwhile, sea coves lure snorkelers. On calm days, kayakers explore the Arco dell’ Elefante, a natural sea arch whose cascading black “trunk” is Pantelleria’s iconic symbol.

The island’s economy depends on neither tourism nor fishing, but on viniculture. Every valley, every hillside is terraced with vineyards growing sun-loving, wind-resistant, green-and-amber Zibibbo grapes whose ancestors were probably brought here by Phoenician colonists. Dubbed “Moscato d’Allesandria” (“Alexandrian Muscat”) thanks to its ancient North African origins, Zibibbo is considered by oenologists to be among the world’s oldest varietals; it was the grape of choice in ancient Egypt.

Most of the harvest becomes passito de Pantelleria, a nectar-sweet golden dessert wine made from plump raisins; one sip completely recalibrates your brain with an ecstatic new awareness of what the gods drink in paradise.

So keep Pantelleria green: Drink up.

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