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At Peace on the Black Pearl

Just 44 miles from North Africa and still undiscovered by tourism, Pantelleria works a special magic.

May 27, 2001|G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI | G. Franco Romagnoli is a cookbook author and chef in Watertown, Mass

PANTELLERIA, Italy — When my wife, Gwen, and I left this mystical island after our first visit nine years ago, we brought home vivid memories: the fragrance of wildflowers and sea air, the scenery suffused with a thousand hues, the peace that had settled over our souls. We returned three years later to make the memories come alive again.

Pantelleria is 70 miles southwest of Sicily, and just 44 miles off the Tunisian coast--actually closer to Africa than Europe.

The ferry from Trapani, in western Sicily leaves at midnight and reaches Pantelleria at 5 a.m., so we opted for the speed of flight: a half-hour jump from Trapani's airport.

From the air, Pantelleria looks like a round scarab; the Phoenicians called it the "Black Pearl of the Mediterranean." The water changes color like a kaleidoscope with the slant of the sun, yet it remains nearly transparent.

A geophysical spasm thrust Pantelleria out of the sea 300,000 or so years ago. Several warm mineral springs attest to the still-active geology, and steam puffs out of the ground here and there. The island is contoured by steep cliffs, craggy, dark and foreboding. Where planes descend, however, suddenly the landscape turns flat, green and reassuring.

We were returning to Pantelleria with some trepidation, for there had been talk of attempts to put it on the international tourist map. But once in the main town and port (also named Pantelleria) we realized our concerns were unfounded. Yes, the airport is more modern, the flights more numerous, and we did spot a supermarket and a new gas station on the way to town. But the place is still unassuming--quiet and slow.

No high-rise hotels had sprung up cheek by jowl along the coast, as has happened in other places we once liked. No traffic jams either; on the ride to our hotel we passed only a handful of cars.

Celebrities--designer Giorgio Armani, actor Gerard Depardieu and pop stars Madonna and Ricky Martin--have found the island, but they mostly keep to themselves. Some discos and clubs have opened, but one has to search for them. Along the port promenade, people walk or sit at sidewalk cafes to see and be seen, but in a subdued, family-style fashion. Pantelleria is still a long way from becoming a Capri or Portofino.

There are five hotels in town and another five or so peppered around the island, and private homes and condominiums are available to rent. We returned to the whitewashed, Moorish-style Mursia Hotel, two miles out of town. It is modern and efficiently elegant but not, as resort hotels can be, overbearing.

We went back to the Mursia because of the gracious, smiling hospitality and the one-stop practicality. If we needed a car or a boat, one was available for rent, and the restaurant's food was excellent and affordable.

The ocean was just outside our room, and the constant breeze brought in the sound and fragrance of the sea. We knew not to expect a sandy beach; there are hardly any on the whole island. Instead, steps lead down to the water, with its promise of memorable swims in hundreds of coves and inlets all around the rocky black island.

Volcanic eruptions have piled lava upon lava, creating grotesque constructions: Arches plunge into the sea, rocky columns sprout from it, and one landmark, l'Elefante, looks like the huge beast dipping its trunk into the water.

A multitude of indigenous plants thriving in the tortured landscape attracts botanists from around the world. One plant with lily-white blossoms that sprouts everywhere from cracks in the gnarled rocks is particularly valued. It takes so well to the soil and climate that its edible buds, capers, are grown, harvested and packed commercially, generating a sizable income for the island.

A good road circles Pantelleria, mostly along the cliffs 300 to 400 feet above the water. It affords magnificent views and superb picnic stops, and the whole circuit can be driven in a few hours.

By deviating slightly from the coastal route, we could visit the sites of settlements established 5,000 years ago by the Sesioti, a tribe of entrepreneurs who came to the island, probably from Sicily, to quarry and export its obsidian. This glass rock was the black gold of the Neolithic era, essential for producing sharp-edged tools and arrow points.

The Sesioti left funeral monuments to mark their place here, sites that have been generally left alone to age without much intervention. To us this added to their attraction; they have escaped the embalmed, preserved feeling of the fenced-off official archeological grounds found in the rest of Italy.

Pantelleria has historically been a steppingstone between Africa and Europe. Lying at the intersection of Mediterranean sea lanes, it was strategically very appealing to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors and Normans. In turn, each group took over the island, leaving its cultural and architectural footprints.

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