Ever since I read that Pantelleria is one of the possible places where the mythological Calypso seduced the mythological Ulysses, keeping him from returning home for seven years–OK, all symbols of procrastination are near and dear to my heart!–I have been wanting to visit Pantelleria. But it’s not that I’ve been procrastinating in getting to this tiny volcanic island 65 miles southwest of Sicily…and so close to Tunisia (36 miles) it’s practically Africa! Three times over the last 15 years I have been in Sicily and attempted to go; three times my planes have been grounded by gale-force winds (well, Ulysess ended up here because his ship was wrecked!)
On the fourth attempt, this week, I made it. And boy was I curious to see what this place really is: exotic, captivating land of myth, or another tourist destination in the Mediterranean?
I’m not going to proscrastinate in telling you what I found; in this post I will give you my first impressions, next week (Tuesday, Sept. 18) I will tell you more about the island’sand .
Well, here’s the headline: it’s no run-of-the-mill tourist destination! It’s simply not accessible enough for that. Italians often have to take several flights to get here, and therefore don’t come a whole lot.
But come they do…particularly from northern Italy, particularly in the middle of July to the end of August. They are joined by a trickle of Germans, English, French, Americans and a few others. There are no magnificent resorts to greet them, no star gastronomic destinations. So far, I’ve only seen the most-visited part of the island, which is the town of Pantelleria and its environs, in the northwest corner of the island Pantelleria. It feels a lot like a Greek volcanic island: the soil is black (like Santorini), the airport’s not charming (like Santorini!), the sea-fronting strip of the main town is lined with unpromising-looking restaurants.
But in just a a few hours at my nice-enough resort just south of Pantelleria town, I’ve had enough to convince me that I love it here, and wish to return. I’ve been enchanted by the sea, and the sunsets. Here’s the simple beauty I’m viewing off my terrace right now, as I write this at 6:30 PM:
I am taken by the island’s history, more palpable in the present than most. I have already seen some of the “Arab gardens,” circular stone walls which protect crops from the fierce winds. (Like Trapani, in western Sicily–in fact, Pantelleria is officially part of the Trapani administration, though the sea separates them–Pantelleria is rife with echoes of the Arabic presence just before and after the first millenium. The very name comes from Arabic: Pantelleria is derived from “Bent El-Rhia,” which means “Daughter of the Wind.”)
The Arabic influence is alive in another palpable way: cuisine. Many of the things we associate with the medieval Middle East are in play here…plus one unmistakable Arabic element…couscous! As in Trapani, couscous rules. (More on this next week.)
Intriguingly, according to my friend Fausto Luchetti, retired head of the International Olive Oil Council, and a proud part-time resident of Pantelleria, “despite the best possible conditions, fishing has never been a passion on Pantelleria…because it is not a big part of Arabic culture.” Nevertheless, there is much fish coming in every day from across the channel–Mazara del Vallo in northwest Sicily is the big fishing center–and my first few meals have featured wonderful fish. Don’t forget…this is Italy…so all the usual “wonderfuls” are firmly in place…except that I see even more care here at simple places than I normally do.
My first dinner involved exquisite red shrimp, simply grilled–but given an island spin by the application of wild and wild-tasting herbs:
My first lunch brought beautiful octopus, small pieces from small cephalopods, just kissed with lemon and local olive oil:
The next dinner featured brilliant linguine–go figure!–tossed with superior langoustines:
But there has already been much else, as well. Caponata, the Sicilian sweet-sour-eggplant codiment, is everywhere…as it was on a gorgeous platter of grilled things from this Arabic agricultural stronghold:
If you play your cards right, which ain’t hard…you’ll likely be consuming these things on some shaded terrace near the sea:
You’ll be drinking delicious local, some of it from the fabled Zibibbo grape, which has a Muscat-y, Gewurz-y character. Much of the harvest is turned into sweet (more on that next week!), some of it is turned into dry (I had a brilliant one that smelled like Alsace but was much lighter on the palate than Alsace), and, of course, if you come in September–probably the ideal month to visit Pantelleria–you will be Zibibbo grapes at your table everyday. They are remarkable, firm, juicy, meaty, complex:
What else? Ah…yes…the one thing that Pantelleria is known for around the world…capers! Apparently, the fertile volcanic soil of Pantelleria (like the fertile volcanic soil of Santorini) is great for cherry tomatoes…..
…and even greater for capers. This week, I will be visiting caper farms; next week, I’ll be bringing you a full caper report.
So there we are. No Calypso, no sounds of flutes coming from the hills to lure me to sleep. No matter. There is great, verdant hills (like Capri, Pantelleria features a tall central mountain, this one called Montagna Grande), historic Arabic structures called dammusi which can be rented for long-ish stays, and, above all…a sense of peace.
The inaccessibility of Pantelleria becomes a bonus once you get here. Unlike Capri, or Santorini, there is no “shoulder” season in September; the restaurants and hotels remain open, but there are hardly any tourists. Right now, I am truly feeling isolated, cut off, far away…but also sensuously pampered. It’s a rare combination in 2012! I’m told by Fausto that the kind of upscale visitor who rents a dammusi is on the rise, but the kind who comes in for a three-day party at a resort is on the decline. Great for us…preserves the solitude!
Not a bad idea to start making your September 2013 plans now….don’t procrastinate!
NOTE: Fausto has given me the following info for renting a dammusi on Pantelleria; he tells me these folks are top-notch.
Antonella D’Orso (39.349.678.9793)
Luca Genovese (39.335.635.5746)