On the top of a volcanic island in the middle of the Mediterranean, Giuseppe Barbera surveyed the strange landscape that had taken root in his life more than 25 years earlier. Rocky scrubland, warming beneath his leather shoes, fell steeply away into a wide valley of terraced vineyards. Rising from its centre, cloaked in pine trees, a perfect crater cupped the sky. “The Sahara is just over there,” Barbera said. Shirt sleeves rolled up, he gestured south towards the orange haze over the horizon. “You know we are closer to Africa than Italy?”
Visitors to Pantelleria hear this fact a lot. The remote Sicilian island, cast adrift between Europe and north Africa, lies just 45 miles east of Tunisia, and 60 miles south of Sicily itself. The islands of Linosa, Lampedusa and Malta are further still to the east. Isolated yet caught between empires and continents, the rugged rock, home to just 7,000 people, has been contested, colonised and exploited for its natural resources, from black obsidian stone in the Bronze Age to grapes and olives today.
For Barbera, it was the Pantescan caper that helped turn a love affair into a serious relationship. He first visited as a curious young Sicilian student of agriculture in the 1970s. Immediately seduced by the island’s rough beauty, he set about growing a career around it. Now 68, he is a professor of horticulture and landscape at the University of Palermo — and a world-leading caper expert. “There is a pact between me and the caper,” he told me with a wink. “They respect me, and I respect them.”
Like olives and the Zibibbo grape, which is used to make Passito, the island’s renowned dessert wine, capers thrive in Pantelleria’s volcanic soil and bright sunshine. Picked just before blooming, the salted flower buds are renowned among foodies and chefs all over the world. They feature on every menu in the island’s handful of laid-back restaurants: in the Pantescan potato salad and in caponata, the unctuous Sicilian vegetable stew.
But Pantelleria is, on paper at least, among the least inviting Sicilian islands for tourists. It lacks beaches or villages that would trouble the postcard industry. It is almost always buffeted by winds, the hot Saharan sirocco colliding overhead with the colder European mistral. Jellyfish, or medusa in Italian, patrol the jagged coastline. Various conquerors, who have included Turks, Arabs, the Carthaginians and the Romans, have used it as a penal colony.
Yet for decades, the “black pearl” of the Mediterranean has also earned a reputation among the dressed-down Italian elite, appealing to fashion royalty and hip young Milanese. Madonna and Sting have stayed in the island’s square houses with their metre-thick walls of volcanic stone and gently domed roofs. These dammusi, still built in a fortified style developed in the 10th century, rise across the island like loaves of bread from their tins. Giorgio Armani has visited his cliff-top dammuso regularly since he bought it almost 40 years ago.
The island’s popularity has grown only gently with the spread of luxury rental properties, and with the attention of interiors magazines and location scouts. It was cast perfectly alongside Tilda Swinton in last year’s brooding psychological thriller A Bigger Splash. But now Pantelleria is waving from its distant mooring with the arrival of its first five-star hotel. Fully open this summer, after a trial soft-opening last year, the 20-bedroom Sikelia Luxury Hotel has a sunset view above the fishing village of Scauri reaching as far as Africa on clear days. The morning before I met Barbera, I sat beside the hotel’s walled swimming pool. The improbably buff man lying next to me, I learnt after returning home, played football for Inter Milan. The Sikelia would be a suitable base from which to untangle the island’s mysterious appeal.
Barbera waved his long arms as he enthusiastically described Pantelleria’s unique agrarian traditions. To survive, olive trees and vines have been trained over centuries to crouch low over the ground, sheltering between black drystone walls built to limit the moisture-stripping effects of the wind. Lemon trees survive only inside the giardini in which they are planted. The circular stone windbreaks, some hundreds of years old, dot the island, lending their solitary occupants a sort of citric sanctity. Attempts by outsiders to introduce taller plants with higher yields always fail. “Everything here has to adapt to Pantelleria, not the other way,” Barbera said.
I had asked the professor to join me on the island, a 40-minute flight from Palermo in Sicily, not just to admire the view, but to talk about a mysterious wildfire that has rattled Pantelleria’s precarious equilibrium. The sky burnt a deep red for two days and nights in May 2016. Barbera was flying in to spend time in his own dammuso, which he bought in 1992, and saw the fire from the air. “I felt very great pain,” he recalled. By the time it had gone out, 10 per cent of the island’s vegetation had been destroyed, including a third of its pine forests.
Arson is suspected, and rumours of mafia involvement have spread while an investigation goes on. The damage was plain to see a year later as Barbera drove me up the winding road to the lookout, his rented Fiat Panda straining with each hairpin bend. Thousands of pine trees stood as charred silhouettes against the blue sky, the dominant myrtle shrub between them now reduced to ashes.
Fire is part of the island’s ecology, and Barbera was encouraged as he knelt down by the road to see tiny pines rising from the black wastes. As nature intended, the intense heat had burst open pine cones, showering the ground in seeds. But destruction on such a scale is not normal. Barbera fears dead wood will inhibit new growth, and that the destruction will affect the island’s position as a stepping stone for migrating birds.
The response from Rome was swift; two months after the fire, the government named Pantelleria Sicily’s first national park. Barbera hopes the move will galvanise conservation efforts and work by his university to record and preserve the island’s specialist farming methods.
In the meantime, a national fundraising campaign aims to clear dead trees and reforest up to 15 hectares with more than 10,000 new ones. “The future of this island is now the future of a national park,” Barbera said. “But this is also a cultural park, a human park.”
The fire did not trouble Scauri, where the ferry comes in from Sicily (journey time: two to seven hours, depending on the boat). But at Sikelia, a mile and a half above the village, the hotel’s owner, Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti, is used to being guided by Pantelleria’s shifting fortunes. She, too, was quickly seduced by an early visit to meet friends, in 2001.
“You almost feel a different energy from the soil,” she told me in the hotel’s courtyard above the pool. Her long grey hair flowed over a voluminous kaftan, and she wore a permanently mischievous smile. “Some people say I’m like a witch, but the energy here will calm you. It’s like you take a pill, an incredible prescription and you feel like you are in heaven.”
Gelmetti is a former professional basketball player who made the lucrative transition to the boardroom at Grandi Stazioni, a company that manages Italy’s biggest railway stations. She stayed with friends here and rented dammusi before buying her own in Rekhale, just east of Scauri, where the vineyards roll over cliffs. Her own friends, whom she in turn lured to the island, would remark on its lack of stylish hotels. In 2006, she bought a ramshackle collection of dammusi from a Neapolitan lawyer and began dreaming.
The 2008 crash stopped everything. In 2011, American fighter jets screamed overhead during bombing sorties to Libya. “It was hard to imagine that people wanted to come here so we stopped for two more years,” she said. The build took three years, overseen by Gelmetti, who designed the interiors, and Gabriella Giuntoli, an island architect and queen of the converted dammuso (she did Armani’s place, among many others).
The results are startling right from the narrow road outside, where a giant golden door shimmers in the setting sun. Inside, the vaulted rooms with metre-thick walls feel like well-appointed caves, giving shelter from the wind and bright sun. Imported palm trees dot the compact grounds around the restaurant and bar, where steps lead to the domed roofs. After dinner, which included a surprisingly good tiramisu specked with capers, the vivid smudge of the Milky Way arced overhead as I sipped a chilled glass of passito from Gelmetti’s own vineyard.
It would have been easy to have done nothing for four days but read books by the pool or under the shade of the almond tree outside my room. But the island’s alchemy only reveals itself to the explorer, preferably by way of a rented Fiat Panda (nowhere is more than 30 minutes away).
In Gadir, a tiny fishing village where Armani takes walks from his clifftop dammuso above, I happily discovered that no beaches do not mean no swimming. Slipways and decks provide easy access to the sea at the unspoilt villages and coves that dot the coast. After a dip, and an encounter with a jellyfish, I washed down grilled sardines and caponata with a beer at Da Andrea, where tables are arranged under a canopy made from an old sail.
Before I left Barbera to catch his flight back to Sicily, he told me to swim at what almost qualifies as Pantelleria’s sole beach. Not far from the airport, Specchio di Venere, or Venus’s mirror, is a perfect azure oval of naturally heated spring water framed by vineyards and pines. The water bubbles up, bath-hot, in pools at the edge of a beach baked hard in mud. As I bathed, a private jet came in to land. Barbera, who visits the lake every day when he is on the island, is pleased about the new hotel. He hopes that a modest increase in tourism might help raise awareness of the island’s fragile ecology and recovery from the fire. But, now approaching 70, he finds the rough terrain and steps harder to manage.
“There are not so many more people here than when I came for the first time in the 1970s,” he tells me. “Like everything, Pantelleria selects the tourists, too. But if you love natural landscapes like I do — the wind, the wild idea of the Mediterranean — nowhere else is like this.”
Simon Usborne was a guest of Sikelia, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Double rooms cost from £288 per night. EasyJet flies from five European cities to Palermo, from where Mistral Air flies to Pantelleria (45 minutes). In summer there are direct flights from Rome, Milan, Turin and Venice on Alitalia and Volotea
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