Pantelleria is the largest of Sicily’s satellite islands with a surface area of 83km2; it is also the most westerly, lying a mere 84km from the African continent, at the same latitude as Tunisia. Its warm climate, however, is constantly being tempered by ever-present strong winds blowing in from the sea, hence the justification for the islands Arabic name Qawsarah or Bent el Rion, meaning Daughter of the Wind. The current name is in fact late Greek or Byzantine in origin and may mean “rich land of offerings”.
The island is endowed with a jagged coastline bathed by clear blue sea, that hides a wealth of varied marine life: its rocky slopes, fashioned by dry stone walling into terraces fit for cultivation, together with the local dammusi (typical kind of house) combine to confer upon the place an exceptional and unique beauty. The distinctive colours of the soil and base rock, which for the most part are basaltic, have earned the island a nickname, namely the black pearl of the Mediterranean”.
Volcanic land – The highest point on the island is Montagna Grande (836m), an ancient crater. The rocky black lava coastline is riddled with caves and small headlands projecting into the sea. The land mass being volcanic is extremely fertile and well drained, and therefore suited to the cultivation of the vine. Solimano, a sparkling wine with a delicate bouquet, together with the
Passito di Pantelleria made with zibibbo grapes, are the principal specialities of the island. Second to these are the salted capers, which are harvested from plants that produce abundant numbers of exquisitely delicate flowers.
Various phenomena provoked by volcanic activity are still much in evidence on Pantelleria: hot springs emerge from the sea floor just off the coast; sulphuric vapour emanates from natural caves, and jets of steam (known locally as favare) are intermittently emitted from the volcanic rock, especially in the vicinity of the craters (see below).
Evolution of a house style – The first residents of Pantelleria may have come from Africa in Neolithic times to extract its black gold, namely obsidian which, at that time, was highly sought after. Near to a village dating from this period with fortifications of a type found elsewhere only at Los Millares in Spain (near Almerìa), are a number of megalithic funerary structures of a kind that is distinctive to the island, known locally as sesi (see below), yet reminiscent in shape of the nuraghi of Sardinia. Next came the Phoenicians: they called the island Kossura and provided it with a large harbour on the exact spot occupied by the island’s main port today. There followed waves of Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs, who boosted the local agriculture by introducing cotton, olives and figs, and improving the cultivation of the vine. Many of the island’s farming communities preserve their Arab names: Khamma, Gadir, Rakhali, Bukkuram, Bugeber and Mursia.
During the Second World War, Pantelleria’s key strategic position right in the middle of the Canale di Sicilia separating North Africa from Italy, earned it the attentions of the Fascist government, who began to fortify the place. As a result, it was subjected to systematic bombing raids in 1943 by the Allies based on the Tunisian coast.
The traditional type of house found on Pantelleria is the dammuso: this is Arab in origin. The square constructions are built with square stones (now only used to face the exterior). The roof doubles as a terrace, but rather than being completely flat, the surface is gently undulated so as to permit rain water to be channelled away, and subsequently collected for domestic use. At one time, each individual house constituted a single residential unit, more often than not, divided into two rooms: one for human habitation, the other for sheltering animals. Nowadays, however, many have been bought up and converted into summer homes, often grouped into a residential complex comprising several units.
The inhabitants of Pantelleria, who by trade tend traditionally to be farmers rather than sailors, have tried to resolve the problem posed by the strong winds that blow during the greater part of the year and prevent trees from growing tall (even the olive-trees have been adapted and helped by man to grow at ground level by pruning them into a circular fan of low-lying espaliers). The solution they have devised is the Pantelleria garden, a circular or square enclosure with high stone walls, in which one or more citrus trees might grow, protected from the wind. Sometimes these gardens are physically attached to a house, others might be situated in the centre of some field – an oasis of green, especially when seen from the air.
TOUR OF THE ISLAND BY CAR
Approx 40 km round trip. A scenic coast road provides glorious views of the landscape.
Pantelleria – The houses of the islands main built-up area are clustered around the harbour, having been reconstructed without any formal planning after the Second World War. The main landmark is the Castello Barbacane; this was probably founded in Roman times, since when it has been demolished and re-built on a number of occasions, it owes its present appearance to Frederick Il of Swabia. Follow the west coast, heading south.
Neolithic Village – The archeological site is situated some 3km beyond Mursia and the Kuddie Rosse, ancient craters of a reddish colour. The only discernible feature among the low stone field boundary walls and scattered piles of rubble is the Sese Grande (just beyond the quarry, at the end of a long wall, continue left some 50m; the sese lies behind a villa, on the left). This structure rises from an elliptical base of large blocks of lava into a kind of tower. It is surrounded by an ornamental lodge which spirals its way up to the top. The base has twelve entrances serving as many low passages that interconnect the same number of domed funerary chambers. Here, the dead were entombed in the foetal position, their head pointing westwards, surrounded by their personal grave goods.
A little further on, the rocky black Punta Fram points out to the sea. Past the tip of the headland, a flight of steps leads down from the right side of the road, to the Grotta di Satana which contains pools of water fed by hot springs.
Scauri – High up on the cliff edge, enjoying a spectacular position. Scauri overlooks its picturesque little harbour, fed by hot springs. Marvelleus views are to be had from the cemetery. After continuing some way along the coast, park the car and walk into Nikà.
Nikà – 30min on foot there and back. The minuscule fishing village nestles in a lava gorge. Among the nearby rocks emerge a number of hot springs. Back on the coastal road, turn left at the junction for Rekhale, one of the few villages that preserves various dammusi and Pantelleria gardens in their original state.
Return to the coast, which at this point drops steeply down to the sea. After a bend in the road appears Saltalavecchia (which literally translates as the “old lady’s leap”), a village perched on the cliff at one of the highest points, relishing the incredibie and very dramatic view down a sheer face to the sea, over 15m below (be very careful here as the ground can give way).
Balata dei Turchi – This was where the Saracens used to land on the island unseen. It is one of the few sheltered caves with access to the sea (a broad, flat rock), protected from the wind and therefore overgrown with tall vegetation, notably bushes of wild juniper and sweet-smelling pines.
Dietro Isola – The road provides splendid views out over the coastline which here is dominated by this great headland.
Punto dell'Arco – At the far end of the promontory sits the Arco dell’Elefante, a rather spectacular naturally-formed archway of grey lava which, in colour and shape, resembles the head and trunk of an elephant.
Gadir – The little harbour full of fishing smacks bubbles with water from thermal springs (in the harbour hollow). A short way beyond, a path leads off to the right of the road to the lighthouse on Punta Spadillo. When the lighthouse comes into view, branch left along a second track towards a collection of abandoned houses; then climb up to the batteries. Behind the white one, follow the path downhill between low stone-lava walls which eventually open out by the tiny Lago delle Ondine (lake of waves). Almost completely surrounded by glorious tall cliffs and wonderful lumps of vulcanic rock, this small lava hollow collects water from the breaking waves to form a small emerald-green pool of stillness. After the fine Cala dei Cinque Denti (the bay with five teeth), turn left at the fork.
Specchio di Venere – This Venus’ looking glass (besides being an attractive purple wild flower) is a delicicus lake of green water fed by a sulphur-rich spring on its western flank. Its name is bestowed by the ancient myths: for, according to the legend, Venus studied her reflection in this lake when comparing her beauty with that of her rival Psyche.
Leave the town of Pantelleria by the airport road and continue to Sibà. Beyond the village is the Benikulà Cave or Bagno Asciutto (natural sauna).
Grotta Benikulà – Coming from the direction of Sibà, there are no signs: access to the cave is down a road on the left (signposted from the other direction). Leave the car and proceed on foot. It takes 10min to walk there and back. Those intending to have a sauna should take a swimming-costume and a towel. Looking down over the valley from above, two Pantelleria gardens may be seen.
Inside the cave, the temperature of the steam rises the deeper in one goes. It is worth pausing at the cave entrance and to enter only once accustomed to the heat. It is advisable not to spend too long inside as the temperature can be overwhelming.
La Montagna Grande – The road up to the Montagna Grande offers magnificent views over the surrounding landscape. The mountain is covered with pine-forest (equipped with prescribed picnic sites). By the building marking the end of the road, leave the car and continue on foot past two other buildings (a dammuso house and a chapel); a little further on the left, a series of stone steps lead up to the Grotta dei Briganti, a large cave in which the temperature is constantly warm, which is why in the past it served as a refuge for outlaws (hence its name too).
Ghirlanda – Costa Ghirlanda, on the east side of the island, conceals a number of tombs of indeterminable age. Access to them is by an extremely bumpy dirt track for which a four-wheel drive vehicle (or a horse) is recommended. In an oak wood (on the left) is a collection of rock-hewn tombs, which local tradition claims to be Byzantine. The exceptional beauty of this mysterious place alone makes the excursion worth-while.
Monte Gibele – This old volcano, now extinct, provides the perfect context for an agreeable walk: from Rakhali, head inland and, at the junction, fork right until a path appears on the left. Continue on foot. The path leads to the crater, now covered in vegetation. On the way, the track skirts past the Favara Grande, a powerful geyser which issues jets of boiling hot steam.
TOUR OF THE ISLAND BY BOAT
The perfect complement to an exploratio of the island’s land mass, is to go off and discover her other splendid attributes by sea. The opaque blackness of the lava rocks contrasts sharply with the deep blue sea which, in places, appears an emerald green.
The coastline is interrupted by little, delightfully secluded creeks, ravines and intriguing caves. Starting out from Pantelleria, a clockwise tour of the island will first reveal the jagged and low-lying north cost; in the area of Cuddia Randazzo, the rocks assume strange black profiles which can be construed as figures of animals or other weird creatures. There follows a series of inlets and caves, perfect for swimming. Then comes the Arco dell’Elefante (see above) and a further succession of caves and hollows divided by pillars of lava. The most dramatic grottoes are situated between Punta Duca and Punta Polacca, however these can only be fully explored by the smallest craft: Grotta del Duce, Grotta del Formaggio and Grotta della Pila dell’cqua. This is the most spectacular stretch of the island’s coast, with its towering great cliffs reaching far into the sky and large monolithic rocks pointing sharply out of the sea until, at last, the drama culminates with a view of Saltalavecchia.
Ever taller rocky outcrops follow (like section of coastline around Scauri), before settling out among flatter and low-lying boulders as in the vicinity of Cala dell’Alga.
Access – The quickest and easiest way of getting to the Island is by air, be it from mainland Italy or from abroad. Direct flights from Trapani and Palermo are provided both by Alitalia and Air Sicily: during the summer, their direct flights operate out of Rome and Milan. These already in Sicily, ideally in the area of Trapani, might like to consider the ferry travelling overnight on the outward journey (approx 5hr 45min) and – returning by day (approx 2hr 45min). For information contact Siremar 0923-91 11 04.
Tourist Information – There are several operators, some private, which supply information on the various types of accommodation and facilities available: most can arrange holiday packages, car and boat rentals. Pro Loco 0923-911938; Associazione Turistica Pantelleria 0923-91 2948; Promozione Turistica di Pantelleria 0923-912257.
Overnight accommodation – When intending to stay one or more nights on the island, it is well worth renting a dammuso, one of the typical local Arab-style houses (see below). Tourist information providers are there to mediate terms and conditions.
Local transport – The best way of exploring the island is by car be it one’s own or hired independently. This means that all the island’s special surprises may be enjoyed at leisure. The road that runs around the island is asphalted but very narrow. To explore the coast from the sea, rubber dinghies may be hired; organised boat trips are also provided. Further details and costs are available from the tourist information providers.
Special purchases – Visitors should not really leave the island without buying a few capers and a bottle of the excellent dessert wine, the Passito di Pantelleria for which the island is renowned. These may be acquired from shops in the built-up areas or from the land-holdings where they are produced.