So close to Sicily, so far from the crowds

For years I had heard about the island of Pantelleria, the rugged, hard-to-reach Eden of tranquility in the middle of nowhere that lies 89 miles southwest of the island of Sicily and about 50 miles east of Tunisia. Luca Guadagnino’s 2015 film “A Bigger Splash” painted a seductive idyll of mud baths, romantic ruins and secluded swimming coves. Celebrities such as Madonna, Sting and Julia Roberts visited the place, attracted by the striking African-Italian atmosphere, along with Giorgio Armani, a part-time resident since 1980. The fact that no one was impressed by them added to the appeal.

“We always tell newbies that they’re either going to love it or hate it,” said fashion stylist Sciascia Gambaccini, who has owned a vacation home on the island for 33 years. “This is not Capri. We don’t have Chanel. There are no luxurious tourist hotels. There is constant wind. “The beauty is in the slow pace and the wild landscape.”

The absence of white sand beaches is worn like a badge of honor. Locals load their own gear onto the rugged lava rocks that line the coast and cannonball into the turquoise sea. The old pasticceria and dingy olive stalls of the town of Scauri give it a “Godfather”-like charm.

And the wind, well, it’s part of the package. As the locals will tell you, nature rules here, and when a sirocco sounds, you should go with the flow.

Thousands of years ago, farmers in Pantelleria, a rocky, windswept area with no fresh water, discovered how to farm.

They built terraced walls with porous lava rock that blocked the wind and irrigated fruits and vegetables with dew. These steep terraces undulate across the island, giving a primordial texture to the lava rock cliffs. The ubiquitous lava stone dwellings called dammusi also contribute to the otherworldly landscape.

The topography of Pantelleria changes completely as you move from one part of the 32-square-mile island to another. As I drove along the narrow main road and unpaved side routes, the landscape transitioned from lush caldera valleys to arid plateaus covered in Mediterranean scrub, to hilltop towns adorned with pink bougainvillea and forested mountains. Flowering cacti and capers with purple stamens grow with abandon, as do herbs. When the wind blows it smells like wild oregano.

Reminders of Pantelleria’s ancient roots are everywhere.

In Mursia, the Sesiventi bar overlooks Bronze Age funerary monuments. In Nikà, I thought of the Romans as I soaked in the bubbling thermal baths they carved into the stone. The town of Pantelleria is dominated by a castle built in the Byzantine era, Norman additions and a bell tower built later by the Spanish.

It is not easy to get to the island. Danish airline DAT, Spanish airline Volotea and Italian airline ITA Airways fly there from within Italy, but only on certain days. After the high season, which runs from late May to late September, things become more challenging with one-off flights or an overnight ferry option from Trapani on the main island of Sicily. (Pantelleria is part of the province of Sicily).

I flew from Palermo last June and, after the shock of landing on a volcanic point in the sea, I felt the siren song of laziness. It was hot. And the combination of wind and cicadas was like an island lullaby. My arrival in the late afternoon coincided with the aperitif time, which has its own format at Pantelleria. People go up to the roofs and sit on pillows to watch the sun set in the sea. I experienced this quiet rooftop scene, or anti-scene, at different restaurants, hotels, and homes during my week on the island.

Of note, there was no loud music. Nature was the main event and was treated with reverence. Tesla? Mercedes? Land Rover? No way. Everyone drives beat-up cars, with the Fiat Panda being the most popular. When a friend picked me up on this toy-like contraption, I knew why. Its small size and light weight make it easy to park in tight spaces and navigate oncoming traffic on single-lane roads, a maneuver that often involves stopping in bushes or on a narrow cliff.

While there may not be beach days, there are certainly swimming days that take place over lava outcrops. Balata dei Turchi was my favorite, in part because it was such an adventure to reach this bay beneath roughly 800-foot lava cliffs. It involved negotiating steep, unpaved terrain in my friend’s decrepit Panda, bouncing over rocks as plumes of dust clouded the windshield. After parking, it was a 10 minute walk down the rocks. We placed towels on the black rocks and immersed ourselves in the sea. A thick rope fixed to the rocks helped the swimmers to rise.

Some days, bathing was spontaneous. After a wine-soaked lunch at La Vela in Scauri Harbour, I discarded my clothes (I learned to stuff a swimsuit in my bag) and walked past sea urchins towards the crystal-clear sea. Around me, beachgoers were reading (real books) and kids were snorkeling and playing (real) games. It seemed like 1985.

A boat tour offers the best perspective of the island. But with the wind, it had been difficult to schedule one. Finally, the gusts subsided and I headed out with an agile, Speedo-clad skipper to explore the lava-formed grottoes that can only be accessed by sea. We headed to the Grotta delle Sirene and then to Sataria, the sponge-covered grotto where, according to legend, Odysseus was bewitched by the sea nymph Calypso. We approach the Arco dell’Elefante, a lava arch that resembles an elephant drinking water. We then anchor in front of the Punta Spadillo caves for a panini lunch before diving into the blue-green sea, rich in parrot fish. We only saw one other boat, which left when we arrived.

If people know Pantelleria, they are likely to mention its two most famous exports: passito, a sweet wine made from the zibibbo grape, and capers. It is not an easy task to produce wine on an arid island without fresh water. The vines were trained to grow horizontally to avoid the wind. For self-watering, they were planted in holes so that dew could drip onto the roots at night. This centuries-old practice is recognized by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage.”

The island’s 22 winemakers produce their own amber-hued version of passito, and each winemaker waxes poetic about how the harsh conditions produce this “vino de meditazione,” or meditation wine, for slow sipping after dinner. “When you drink it, you can feel the people and the land behind the flavor,” said Antonio Rallo, fifth-generation co-owner of Donnafugata vineyards and president of the Sicilia DOC wine consortium. “It could never be manufactured anywhere else but this island.”

The sun, the wind and the mineral-rich volcanic soil are also the secret of Pantelleria capers, whose exceptional sweetness makes them appreciated throughout the gastronomic world. Since most vineyards grow grapes and capers, wine tastings include foods that showcase both flavors.

Emanuela Bonomo, a rare winemaker here, explained how the wind created a concentrated flavor of lava and salt minerality in both her products and small-batch wines. At the vineyard he served fried zucchini with mint and oregano; caponata; and cheese topped with dried zibibbo grapes along with fig jam and huge lemons, sliced ​​and drizzled with oil. Everything was covered in aromatic capers. Bonomo also wanted to make sure I understood that everything was “fatto a mano”: she and all the other farmers still harvest by hand.

At Mr. Rallo’s vineyard, guests can walk among olive trees and centuries-old gardens and through a natural amphitheater of stone walls to examine low, gnarled vines and caper bushes. There are multiple tasting options, the most exciting being a dinner under the stars that pairs wines with classic Pantescan dishes.

In addition to inspiring the rugged terrain, geothermal activity has turned the island into a spa with hot springs and natural saunas. Near Mr. Armani’s compound in the fishing village of Gadír is a small marina with tubs carved into the stone. I followed the locals’ lead and soaked in a slightly slimy bathtub (the water is between 104 and 131 degrees Fahrenheit). for about six minutes and then cooled off in the adjacent port. The smell of egg doesn’t matter. The sulfur and mineral content is the reason why the waters are effective in relieving aches and pains.

On the day of my ship I swam to the Sataria cave, which has three algae-filled hot spring wells with water temperatures ranging from warm to medium hot. The island’s largest hot spring, Specchio di Venere (Mirror of Venus), is an aquamarine lake located in a volcanic crater surrounded by mountains and vineyards. Plus the gurgling water at 104 degrees, draw is a therapeutic (and stinky) mud that bathers smear all over their bodies. Works? Well, the heat rash on my arms and chest stopped itching and my travel-tight back relaxed.

The springs were lovely, but what I was most excited about was detoxing in a natural stone sauna hidden in a mountain grotto. I walked along the western slope of Montagna Grande for about 10 minutes and knew that I had reached the Benikulá cave, or Bagno Asciutto, when I saw puffs of steam seep through a crack in the rocks, and then an older man in a very slippery Speedo emerged. Inside, nine people sat on very hot stones and the floor (bring a towel!), soaking in vapors that can reach 104 degrees. Afterwards, everyone relaxed on shaded benches with panoramic views of the Piana di Monastero valley.

Thanks to the volcanic cliffs and green valleys, you can take excellent hiking routes to counteract the effects of pasta and wine: 80 percent of the island is a national park, the Parco Nazionale dell’Isola di Pantelleria, with 63 miles of trails through the Mediterranean scrub, and up to the forests of Monte Gibele and Montagna Grande.

At every step, I continued to expect the rush of tourists I had seen in Rome at the beginning of the month. But it never happened. Not at Dispensa Pantesca, a trendy place for snacks; not at La Nicchia or Il Principe e il Pirata, the “it” restaurants; and not at Allevolte, a fashion boutique filled with the kinds of silk caftans and impeccably tailored linen pants that travelers dream of purchasing during a vacation in Italy.

If Sikelia, my elegant 20-room hotel, had been in Amalfi, guests dressed to the nines would have been competing for selfies amid fireball sunsets. Not here. “This island is fascinating. But it is not for everyone,” said the hotel’s owner, Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti. “Getting here is a challenge. Getting to the sea is a challenge. It attracts a specific type of person. For those who succeed, the reward is enormous.”


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