Pantelleria, in my opinion, is one of Italy’s best kept secrets. My husband first introduced me to this speck of an island off the coast of Sicily when we were planning our first Ferragosto (the name of Italy’s official August summer vacation) together. He suggested that we go Pantelleria as a friend of his was getting married on the island.
In all honesty, I had never heard of the island, but I was super excited to go and explore. I had no idea what a treat I was in for nor did I know that this would become our go to place to unwind and relax. Pantelleria is now part of our annual Ferragosto tradition and we always try to carve out a week or two in August to go. Pantelleria is intoxicating and it is always in the back corner of my mind; especially on days like today when it is cold and grey outside.
Pantelleria is my happy place. The moment I step off the plane onto the tarmac, I feel the hot, dry desert trade winds wisp my face and I inhale the herbaceous perfume of the island with all of its grapevines, olive trees, and caper plants dotting the landscape. My shoulders relax and a peaceful calm washes over me. No need for therapy, just a trip to Pantelleria.
Pantelleria is certainly a juxtaposition of contradictions. A volcanic island, it has a rugged and wild beauty with its rolling, terraced hillsides of grapes vines and olive trees falling into the craggy volcanic cliff coastline. There is a harsh yet peaceful beauty to the island and as you make your way around the narrow and twisting roads and sometimes white knuckle curves, there is always a spectacular view of the shimmering blue-green Mediterranean sea around the every corner.
The island is not full of fancy restaurants, designer shops, raucous clubs or sandy beaches. This is probably why the island does not draw large crowds of vacationers which, for me, is the perfect kind of vacation.
Pantelleria, in fact, has a long and unique history; which is difficult to wrap your head around when you cast your first glimpse of the island as it is no more than a black dot situated between the island of Sicily and the North African coast. Tunisia is a mere 37 kilometers away and in the evening you can see the lights twinkling on its coastline. Archaeological exploration has unearthed dwellings and tools dating back a staggering 35,000 years. The island actually gets its name from Arab invaders who settled in the island in the 9th century. They named the island Bent el Rhia which means the daughter of the wind. This is certainly an appropriate name for the island as on most days you will find a fairly strong wind blowing over the island. It is why plane landings are not for the faint of heart. The locals living here will tell you that if a strong wind blows in, it will last for either three or five days. Surprisingly, this is quite true. In fact, the winds are so regular and strong that the grape vines and olive trees are stunted and grow low to the ground.
Even though Pantelleria is technically part of Italy, it definitely has a much more North African feel. This is particularly evident in the traditional houses or dammusi that dot the island’s landscape. They are constructed out of thick stone walls that usually appear black due to the extensive use of volcanic rock in the structures. Their characteristic white painted domes have a dual purpose. They help keep the houses cool in the summer and are also used to collect precious rainwater that is diverted to underground cisterns.
The North African influence also spills over into the island’s cuisine…it is food fusion at its best. The typical dishes of the island are a mash-up of the various cultural influences…where East meets West. This can be seen in the island’s signature dish of couscous which is usually mixed with vegetable and seafood or meat.
Pesto Pantesco, is another fusion of cuisines and was born out of the traditional basil pesto Genovese that was brought to the island when the people of Liguria ruled over the island. It is a North African influenced pesto with tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, capers, basil ground almonds, mint, oregano, and chili and served either with bruschetta, pasta, and sometimes dried fish. My favorite way to eat this is mixed with spaghetti and dusted with toasted bread crumbs (Pantelleria’s version of parmigiano cheese).
There are also delicious Italian delicacies that are traditional to Pantelleria to be had. Case and point…baccio di Pantesca. Crispy fried dough sandwiched between a dense, sweet ricotta cream; much like the cream used in cannoli.
While the main town of Pantelleria is not eye catching due to the horrific bombing it experienced during World War II and the subsequent haphazard reconstruction, it is where everybody congregates late afternoon to stop in at Katia’s Gelateria or to have a late afternoon aperitivo.
Stopping by Katia’s is a must when you come to Pantelleria. All of the gelato and granita are homemade and Katia comes up with a couple of new signature flavors every summer. This year when we were there the new flavors were dark chocolate with capers and ricotta with honey and ginger. I know what you are thinking, chocolate and capers?! I was thinking the same thing and my husband was even less convinced that this was a good idea. However, it was surprisingly good. The capers in Pantelleria are bigger and seem to have more of a floral note than the smaller capers you find on the mainland. The bit of saltiness from the capers hits the back of your tongue and it actually intensifies the chocolate flavor. Another must is to pick up a few of Katia’s cannoli for an after dinner treat. All I can say is that it is heaven in a bite…a slightly sweet, crunchy fried shell filled with honey infused creamy ricotta cream. I dream about these cannoli.
I admit that Pantelleria is not for everyone. It is wild, rustic, enchanting, harsh, and stunningly beautiful all at the same time. If you love nature, solitude, raw beauty, and the sea then most likely Pantelleria will grab hold of you and never let you go.
For my husband and I, Pantelleria is like coming home. That warm, familiar feeling…meeting up with friends that you haven’t seen since last year’s vacation even though it only feels like last week. We always stay with our friend Flaviano who has 3 small apartments (dammusi) for rent. Waking up to the quiet peaceful sounds of nature…the busy buzzing of the bees around the fuschia colored flowers in the early morning sunlight and the birds happily flitting from tree to tree chirping as they go as if they have some important gossip to share… literally melts the stress away.
And then there is the spectacular sun kissed view of the terraced hills falling into the ocean. This is my Pantelleria, my bliss, where I can center myself and hear myself think…all of the clutter in my mind is swept away and I feel a renewed spirit of life.
A typical day on Pantelleria for us consists of us waking up, having a liesurely breakfast over coffee, biscotti regina and if we are feeling indulgent, which is usually every morning, we dip these slightly sweet, toasted sesame flavored cookies into nutella. I can’t convey how utterly sinful and delicious this is. I will be posting soon a recipe for these little gems.
Once we are sufficiently awake…which means at least two sometimes three coffees for me, and yes my husband is always gently prodding me to cut back on my coffee intake, we decide where to go for the day. We usually head to one of the coves for swimming and snorkeling or go out on the boat with friends for a little scuba diving, swimming, and a liesurely lunch on the boat…and, yes, this includes wine ;).
Later in the afternoon we head into town for an aperitivo at Bar Tiffany or maybe hit up Katia’s Gellateria for a gelato. If we are cooking at home, we buy some vegetables, maybe some fish or a piece of meat from the local butcher. If not, we head back home for a shower and off to one of the restaurants on the island for dinner. It is certainly not an exciting or outrageous routine, but it is a routine that allows for the utmost relaxation which is what a holiday is usually supposed to be about.
On our most recent visit, though, we ended up doing a bit more exploration of the island since we had friends from Germany come with us. A few highlights from our most recent trip included a visit to the volcanic lake, lago Venus, which is a stunning. The lake has a mud bottom which is famously known for its curative properties. So, the idea is to scoop up a bunch of this mud, if you can stand the smell of the sulfur, and slather it all over your body and let it dry in the sun before rinsing it off. I couldn’t believe how soft and smooth my skin felt after doing this. In fact, there are skin care companies that procure and jar this mud, but it is certainly a lot cheaper if you go to the source.
I would also suggest a visit to La Cantina Basile (http://www.cantinabasile.com) if you want to try the local wines and passito. Passito is a sweet dessert wine made from allowing the grapes to dry in the sun to develop and concentrate their sugars.
The owners of La Cantina Basile are a husband and wife team who are dedicated to keeping the local tradition of the cultivation of grapes and wine alive on the island. In fact, the practice of growing the local zibbibo grapes, which means raisin in Arabic and can be dated back to the Phoenicians, was recently added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. If you ask, Simona, the wife, she will give you a tour of their facilities before you sit down for a wine tasting. It is quite lovely as they pair the wines with several local gastronomic delights including tumi cheese (fresh cow’s milk cheese), dried tomatoes in olive oil, cured meats, and eggplant caponata.
Pantelleria is truly a magical place. It is one those harsh yet beautiful places that is either for you or isn’t. There is really no in-between. If you are feeling adventurous and want to take a trip to a truly unique corner of Italy here is some information to help you along.
Where to stay:
There are a few very upscale hotels as well as medium range ones. If you want a truly unique experience, though, I would suggest renting a dammusu as well as a moped to get around the island. We always stay with our friend Flaviano who has three individual dammusi for rent. You can check out his dammusi at his website: www. dammusi-pantelleria.it.
How to get there:
If you want to fly, there are two major companies operating out of Italy that fly to Pantelleria:
Alitalia: (http://www.alitalia.com) operates flights to the island from Rome Fiumicino, Milan Linate, and Sicily (Trapani and Palermo)
Blue Express: (http://www.blu-express.com) operates flights from Rome Fiumicino and Bergamo)
If you prefer to go by sea, there are two major ferry companies that have daily trips from Sicily:
Ustica Lines: http://www.libertylines.com