Enjoy a unique slice of la dolce vita closer to Africa than Italy, on the A-list island of Pantelleria
I was sitting outside La Nicchia, a perenially popular restaurant in the tiny town of Scauri on Pantelleria’s southwestern coast, when all of a sudden a large blacked-out people carrier pulled up outside. There was a frisson of anticipation amongst the other diners on the terrace, as everybody knew who was about to get out. It was the island’s most famous occasional resident, Giorgio Armani, accompanied by a suitably bronzed and beautiful entourage. Within seconds he was whooshed through the restaurant to the relative privacy of its interior walled garden.
Afterwards, one of the waiters obligingly gave us all a run-down about what Signor Armani and his friends had eaten for dinner – a comprehensive selection of La Nicchia’s specialities like delicately fried swordfish, prawns with grape jelly and the delicious ravioli stuffed with mint and the local ricotta-like “tumma” cheese.
It is easy to see Pantelleria’s appeal for the likes of Armani and the almost exclusively Italian stream of visitors who make their way to this small Italian island throughout the summer months. Its solitude is certainly a big draw, marooned in the middle of the Mediterranean, 110km from the coast of Sicily and closer to Tunisia, just 70km from the African coast.
Pantelleria’s geographical location also goes some way towards explaining its exotic feel. There’s no doubt that most of its holiday home-owners are of the well-heeled variety, but there’s a very understated feel to the island and a welcome absence of bling, beach clubs and expensive boutiques. The sense of being a bit of a world apart is further reinforced by the presence of just one internet café in Pantelleria town, whose connection feels as slow as the six-hour ferry journey that it takes to get to the island from Trapani on the Sicilian “mainland”.
Pantelleria has been a stopping-off point along the Mediterranean’s sea routes for centuries. The Romans were frequent visitors and local legend suggests even Odysseus dropped anchor here. For 400 years the island was colonised by the Moors, whose legacy is in evidence everywhere (the island’s villages have names like Khamma, Rehkale and Bukkuram), and most obviously in the island's name, derived from the Arabic "Bent-el-Rhia" or daughter of winds. Winds are certainly something that you can expect a lot of if you visit any time outside June to September, when the island closes up for winter and the last of the sun-seeking Italians have closed up their shutters and headed for the mainland.
You can drive around the island's 52km perimeter in a matter of two hours, but chances are it will take you much longer than that. The narrow road that skirts the coastline barely accommodates two passing cars and offers some stomach-churning switchbacks as well as panoramic vistas out over the sea. After each new twist and turn in the road, you will want to stop, get out and soak it all up.
Most of the island's main attractions are in its interior and can be dealt with in a matter of a day or so. In the centre is the Montagna Grande, the island's highest peak and one of the most obvious reminders of Pantelleria's volcanic heritage. Nearby, you can brave the already baking temperatures for a short sweaty walk up the narrow path to the Grotta di Benikula, a "stufe" or natural sauna hidden through a small opening at the foot of the mountain. The island is also scattered with funereal mounds called "sesi" built by mysterious Neolithic visitors believed to have hailed from Libya. You can also spend the afternoon slathering yourself, as Madonna once did, in the thermal mud of the Lago di Venere, or take to the ancient footpaths that criss-cross the island in search of volcanic vents and Byzantine ruins.
Another feature of Pantelleria’s Arab past are the unique dammusi - tiny cubic houses constructed from lava boulders with Moorish-style domed cupola roofs. These crouch in dwarf-like huddles all over the island and have pretty, high-walled giardini Arabi to protect plants from the vagaries of the many winds. The houses' construction is perfectly adapted to the climate, keeping interiors cool during the fiercely hot summers and warm during winters.
My stay on the island was in one of these dammusi, set in a tranquil valley in the island’s southwest corner, close to a vineyard part-owned by French actor, Gerard Depardieu. At night, with barely another house in sight and the stars twinkling in the sky overhead, it felt like very little had changed for decades.
But despite the absence of any sandy beaches, it’s the coastline that seduces most visitors and the occasional visiting A-lister. All around the island you can find some of the most picturesque swimming coves you'll ever experience and some of the clearest water in the Med. Some, like the Balata di Turchi and Punta di Nica, are best reached by boat. Others are an easy walk or a hot scramble down a path, rewarded by isolation and a dip in the sea to cool off. The first stop for any new arrival though, has to be an inaugural swim in the shade of the natural rock formation known as the Arco dell' Elephante, so-called because it looks like an elephant dipping its trunk for a slurp of the sparkling water. Ever so slowly, you will be seduced by the pace of life on Pantelleria, the landscape, the food and its unique sense of place. Not quite Italy and not quite Africa but a unique place somewhere in between.
Where to eat
One of Signor Armani’s favourites, in the tiny village of Scauri Basso. It has also opened a wine-bar, La Nicchia sul Mare, on the seafront of Pantelleria town.
This excellent seafood restaurant in Scauri also serves Pantescan couscous – a vestige of the island’s Arabic past.
Azienda Agrituristica Zinedi
Expect the freshest of ingredients at this charming trattoria, which forms part of a large farm that produces much of what ends up on your plate, as well as freshly landed fish. (5km from the centre of Pantelleria)
Set in the heart of Pantelleria town, Donne Fugate serves local specialities like spaghetti served with ricotta, capers, cherry tomatoes and oregano, as well as fish dishes like stuffed swordfish.