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Italian Isle in Center of Med Close to Africa

September 20, 1987|INGEBORG MERKER | Merker is a West German journalist living in Hamburg

PANTELLERIA, Italy — For days the Tramontana has been blowing hard, ruffling the silver-gray leaves of the olive trees and rattling the shutters.

"When the wind comes in sideways at 25 knots, the air traffic comes to a standstill," says Timmo, and sips from his glass. "Another passito , signorina ?"

The small bar at the port is crowded. People wait for the ferry from Trapani on Sicily that will arrive with some delay. I was lucky to catch a plane from Palermo a few days earlier, a small Fokker that landed on the aeroporto of Pantelleria, a warped path between two hills.

Pantelleria is the largest of the 14 islands around Sicily, and rises at the passage between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. It is nearer to Africa (Tunisia) than to Europe, and at first sight looks rough and inaccessible. But those who take their time to discover this peculiar volcanic island will spend a holiday full of surprises.

Island's Variety

The island has two faces, the sun-blazed west facing Africa and the blooming face of the north turned toward Europe: hilly landscapes and savanna plains, plateaus and lava deserts, black craters and naked mountain scenery, fertile plains and a 50-mile wild and rocky coastline with a sea as clear as crystal.

Although Italy's state flag flutters overhead, the language, the menus and the nature of the islanders differ a lot from the rest of the country. The people are fishermen, farmers and wine growers, a mixture of Sicilians, Ligurians, Maltese and Arabs.

It was the Arabs who built the first dammusi , cubic houses with cupola roofs, and who gave the villages their names: Scauri, Khamma, Siba, Rakhali. The island's cuisine has such Arabian delicacies as millet and mutton, plus couscous and the vegetables and sweets of old Tunisian recipes.

Farm Lodging

In the village of Grazia I took lodging at a farm that belongs to a friend from Milan. It was a dammuso as brown as desert clay, with white cupolas and long ropes that bore tomatoes and onions drying in the sun. Rooms had tiny niches and alcoves, the walls rust-brown bricks and the floor tiled with terra cotta. Under the vaulted ceiling stretched a huge, leather-knotted hammock.

I climbed over small stone stairs to the whitewashed cupolas and enjoyed the view that extended far down to the sea over steplike terraces with vines and fields of bushes bounded by low walls of lava blocks. The wind played in the green fan of the date palm, and I smelled the earth and the sweet scent of the orange blossoms.

Next day a Jeep took me around the island to the Montagna Grande, at 830 meters the highest point on Pantelleria, and to the Piano Ghirlanda, a fertile plain with olive groves and vineyards where the famous Moscato di Pantelleria ripens.

Delicious Wine

In a small tavern we tasted the delicious wine called Khamma and Cuddie, which is rolled along in barrels. We sat at long wooden tables eating fig bread, tumma (cheese) and spicy capers, and tried to make conversation with fishermen Roberto and Salvatore, as well as wine growers Turi and Mimmo. They speak Italian mixed with crumbs of exotic Arabic and calmly drank their passito --an umber-colored, sweet dessert wine. Time did not seem to play a role on the island.

Of particular interest is a trip along the coast jagged by bays and caves, to grottoes where 100-degree heat rises from cracks in craters. Near the grottoes, between the Hotels Punta Tre Pietre and Punta Flava, are the natural saunas of dry baths with temperatures of up to 70 degrees. From the baths one can jump directly into the sea, into rocky diving paradises with trumpet anemones and corals, glassy shellfish and turtles, rock thistles and sea onions.

Stone Age Caves

The island also offers archeology such as Stone Age caves and prehistoric tombs called sesi , which are similar to early Mediterranean areas of settlement on Malta, the nuraghi on Sardinia and the talayots of Ibiza and Majorca. Near the Valle di Monastero are Phoenician tombs and remains of the Acropolis of Cossyra, the island's ancient name.

Piero, the neighbor's son, negotiated the Jeep into the isolated heart of the island. We drove through yellow gorse bushes and fragrant macchia (maquis), thyme and rosemary, wild fennel, sage and lavender.

When the path ended an adventurous ride began, up hill and down dale past mysterious rock cones and high reliefs, past bizarre cones of rocks to high lands that shoved their saffron-colored gravel through a lunar landscape.

The wind blew around black columns and square blocks. It is a grotesque world of stones--pillars and peaks like pyramids, fabulous animals of volcanic limestone, rock fingers, a decayed triumphal arch.

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