Monday, 28 June 2010


After almost a week in Spain, half a week on the Cote D’Azur and a week traipsing around southern Italy on my own, it was time to reunite with Nina.

I flew from Palermo to Pantelleria which sits 100km southwest of Sicily and just 70km off the eastern coast of Tunisia. Nina aptly described Pantelleria as having a rough beauty which I grew to see in my time there. Over the course of the time I spent exploring this tiny volcanic island, I went from being unimpressed to growing really quite fond of it.

This is a small island. The road that encircles the island takes about an hour to drive before you are back where you started. The 7000 inhabitants live spread out on large pieces of property; many of which are kept in their rough state. There is not a lot of manicured land which struck me at first; the island looked wild.

The majority of the tourists who do visit come from Sicily which I didn’t understand; they live on one small island and holiday on another even smaller island in the same region. Not a lot of diversity between the two islands. So, the people who do come here to visit know what to expect because they already live in a similar place. By a standard European perspective and certainly from a North American perspective this was not a luxurious island. There are no beaches; just an endless rocky shoreline. In fact, there is little to do on this island that involves creature comforts that don’t occur naturally. If you like holidaying in nature or in surroundings that maintain their natural traits with little interference; this is the place to be. This is one of the things I learned to appreciate this about the island in time.

I wanted to spend a fair amount of time in the water as I had thoroughly enjoyed my time swimming on the Cote D’Azur and Amalfi Coast. We found some “beaches” on Pantelleria where we spent a number of afternoons. Instead of laying out on the sand (because there wasn’t any), we sat on large slabs of rock and in one case the hardened lava had flowed in a way that had created these gentle dips that simulated deck chairs when you sat in them. The water was a lot colder than in the rest of the Med due to the fact this miniscule island sits in the middle of a large straight. Essentially, we were swimming in the middle of the sea.

The restaurants on the island were bare and as local as an eating establishment can get. A few of them had hand written menus because their dishes were fully dependent on what they could source each day. This sounds wonderful, but the food was immensely basic and underwhelming. As the majority of products have to be shipped to the island, the restaurants mostly offered fish as it was caught locally. After a week I was tired of fish grilled whole and with no sauce or accompanying flavours. On our last night we found a restaurant that served lamb and it was truly remarkable; a place to remember for next time.

The island is known for a few products; capers (big green ones unlike the small black ones we are used to with smoked salmon) and Zibibbo grapes. With this grape they make a sweet local wine called Passito which is similar to a port.

What really sold me on Pantelleria were the people. Nina goes there to do her field work and stays in an apartment suite within a house; a luxurious house compared to most of the homes on Pantelleria. As a side note, Georgio Armani has a holiday home here (acreage more like it). The owners of this house are Laura and Benedetto who rent out the suite to students and vacationers at various time throughout the year. Laura is originally Venezuelan and teaches ballet and dance out of her home studio and Benedeto is a dentist who offers his services on a few of the Sicilian islands. They have become a second family for Nina by welcoming her into their home and lives. They don’t like the idea of her eating alone in the suit while she is there working and multiple times a week she would dine with them and their friends. They are very close with another couple on the island; Linda and Salvatore who are also fond of Nina.

I arrived on the island in the late afternoon on a Sunday. Sunday is a big day in Italian homes as a large lunch starts around noon and commences a couple of hours later. My waistline is glad I missed this. Nina took me to suite where I unpacked and showered. She had been to Linda and Salvatore’s house for lunch many hours earlier with Laura and Benedetto who were still there.

We walked over (which is highly unusual; no one walks on Pantelleria! In fact, the roads throughout the whole island are barely big enough for 2 cars to pass. There is simple no where for pedestrians to be. You have to walk along the roads cautiously as they have many tight bends and corners. As you approach you listen for the honking of a car horn to alert you to the fact someone is coming the other way.) We arrived to big hugs and kisses from strangers who were treating me like I was a long-lost relative who finally located them. Only Salvatore spoke English out of the four of them and he was fully self-taught from listening to Beatles albums. He had no English grammar; just vocabulary. But surprisingly, I understood more than I thought I would.

Having understood I had just arrived and had not had supper, they insisted we eat (I was kind of hoping they would). Linda and Laura went into the kitchen and started whipping up leftovers while Salvatore’s 89 year father arrived. Within 15 minutes there was a fantastic spread on the table with more than enough food for an impromptu dinner for 7.

They served me some local white wine. It was so local, in fact, they were pouring it out of old water bottles. They drive to the winery up the road where they fill up their old water and Coke bottles from the large wine casks.

Pantelleria is a windy place. Due to its location, it sits in a straight that is conducive to lots of wind; some of which is hot off the Sahara. In fact, the island is a hotbed of natural resources between the wind and waves, the incredible amount of sunshine they receive and the geothermal from the volcanic activity, it’s a shame they power the island with diesel generators. Most homes use solar to heat their water, but the electricity is diesel-based and costs most homes €150/month.

There are hot springs throughout the island. On our first “beach” day we walked along the rugged coast on a path that led us to a section of rock next to the ocean. Someone had dug baths into the rock which were being fed by the springs.

Nina took me to a section of road with a staircase that winds down a cliff toward the water. At the bottom of the stairs is the mouth of a large shallow cave with a paved floor. The waves were crashing at the base and spilling cool water along the concrete which we dodged as we walked in. At the back of the cave were a couple of hot tubs that had been created and fed by the springs. Next to them was a small bathing area, still inside the cave, that was being fed by the ocean and allowed one to cool off. I had never seen anything quite like it before.

We found a perfect swimming location one day. We parked by a small cluster of houses on the “quiet” side of the island (away from the one and only town). We hiked down a path to a small bay. At one end were smooth rocks which led to the edge of a gorgeous inlet perfect for swimming. The water was deep and clear allowing a perfect view down to the bottom which was a good 3-4 metres and of the various sizes of fish swimming around. I lay out on the rocks to warm up and when I couldn’t take it anymore and had to jump in the water, I noticed (with horror) the inlet was also full of jellyfish! The locals called them medusas and we had been warned the variety around here were the stinging kind. We later found out the tides push them to certain sides of the island and had we picked a location elsewhere, we could have easily avoided them and had a day of swimming.

So instead we went to the one small lake on the island. Its waters were crystal blue and as it had such a tiny diameter, it wasn’t deep. We walked along the shallows and encircled half the lake until we came to the springs which fed a section with warm bubbly water. Someone had used rocks to try to build an enclosed area to sit in where the warm water would pool. We saw some young Italian guys who were covering themselves with the ample supply of mud that covers sections of the lake bed and it reminded me of the Dead Sea.

Nina had hired a boat, before I arrived, as she needed to get to sections of the island that were only accessible by water. While talking to different sailors she met an eclectic group of expats; an old crusty German sailor named Capitano Trutz and a weathered hippy New Zealander named Kiwi Pete. Every morning at 10am they met at one of the coffee shops on the harbour front for their morning coffee and remained there through the late morning. Nina was invited back any time and took me to meet them. We arrived around 11:30am by which time they had long progressed past the espresso and onto the beer. They were both original characters that kept us aptly entertained.

Capitano Trutz was unapologetically abrasive; yet friendly. He had spent his life as a merchant marine and was now retired on Pantelleria where he ensured the large stocks of beer were being attended to from morning through to night.

Kiwi Pete had sailed almost all corners of the globe. He was a sports medicine doctor by trade (trained in California and was part of the US Olympic team) and also spent time working in a hospital in South Africa. Disenfranchised and jaded by his experiences he quit medicine and now lived on his 52 foot sailboat. He had crossed the Atlantic twice; once solo claiming to have gone 46 days without seeing land. It takes a certain type of person to do that, and although I am very much not that type of person, I find it incredibly fascinating talking to them.

We were invited to the “marina” where the two of them lived on their respective boats. One evening we took them up on their offer and came round for a visit. We arrived at the location they had told us and found ourselves in the commercial harbour where all the fishing boats moored. We found Capitano Trutz’s boat as it stood out like a sore thumb. It was sitting on land being supported by a handful of wooden beams and was full of crap. A rickety ladder was the only means of entry and lucky Trutz was sitting at a table on the ground saving us from entering his junk boat.

Kiwi Pete’s boat was a few metres over in the water and still seaworthy. We discovered he had been in Pantelleria for a year now as they weren’t strict with visas on these small islands which allowed him to stay longer than the 6 months he would otherwise be entitled to. He had a computer with Internet access and would burn music CDs for the fishermen whose boats surrounded his. He traded them music for fish.

One afternoon we drove up the highest peak on the island called Montagna Grande which housed the main telecommunications tower. It afforded us fantastic views down including a look into one of the volcanic craters whose past explosion Nina was here to investigate.

Like most volcanic islands, the peaks are centred in the middle of the island and petered off as they worked their way toward the shores. Some sides of the island had gentle slopes that let to the water’s edge while others had massive jagged cliffs that abruptly ended with dramatic cliffs.

Like many parts of Italy, a lot of the farming was accomplished on terraced fields with stone walls segmenting the sections and giving narrow platforms for the farmers to work on.

We dined twice at Laura and Benedetto’s house; both times with Linda and Salvatore. The picture below was taken in Laura and Benedetto's kitchen and was a cook's dream. The following sunset picture was taken from their deck.

We found out these two couples dine together multiple times a week (it wasn’t just because we were there). I was not utterly blown away by the food in the restaurants in Sicily and Pantelleria. However, the experience of dining in an Italian home (with Italians) made my whole trip worthwhile. First of all, Laura — who is not even Italian — cooks Italian food like I have never had it before. She made a meal that is typical of home-cooked Italian food; something you wouldn’t get in a restaurant. She served us each a bowl with spaghetti in a Bolognese sauce which was to die for alone. Then she brought out a platter of meat which had been in a huge pot simmering for the past 5 hours. It included pork, chicken and beef in the form of cutlets, sausages and ribs. The flavours were intense and it ranks as one of my most memorable meals. Period!

On our last day in Pantelleria we went on a boat tour of the island. The central harbour in the town of Pantelleria (it’s the name of the island and one town) is full of tour boats which only operate during the summer months. Yet, in three months the owners earn enough money to keep themselves going for the rest of the year! I believed it when we arrived early in the morning. The empty harbour filled up with people who seemed to arrive out of thin air. The man coordinating the affairs on the shore would load people onto one of the many boats and as it filled up, it departed. We saw two fill and leave in the 15 minutes we stood there waiting for the boat we chose to go out on. A bus arrived, unloaded onto the boat and we were off.

Throughout the day we slowly floated around the island. As it’s only 15 X 6 km around, we probably could have gone around a good 4 or 5 times if the captain put the boat in gear and didn’t stop. Instead, we putted around slowly taking the full day to make one circumference of the island. We following the shoreline and rode into and out of the natural harbours along the way.

We stopped 4 times for swimming/snorkelling breaks in quiet locations and almost always where there was a cave to swim into and explore. The first break was still a little too early for us, so we watched as a few brave souls (all Italians) jumped in. As the day progressed, the number of boats did as well and at one point we counted 7 such tour boats in one harbour.

At lunch time we tied up to a larger boat which had a proper kitchen onboard whereas ours was a small schooner with a hut from which the captain drove. The rest of the vessel was open air and deck space.

The larger neighbouring boat produced a platter of bruschetta and then a hot plate of spaghetti for us each. And of course it was accompanied by an ample supply of local white wine. This was typical Italy.

I ventured into the water three of the four times and enjoyed what I knew would by my last time swimming in the Med for a while. Nina and I took the opportunity to swim into one of the caves as I have never done this before. The mouth was fairly large and as we swam deeper it got smaller. I didn’t even swim to the end and I was already a good 3 or 4 metres into the rock face.

It was a great way to spend out last full day.

Nina celebrated her birthday in Pantelleria. I had bought her a top-of-the-line bread maker before I left on my trip. Obviously, it was too large to bring with me, so I presented her with the owner’s manual on the morning of her birthday. I have never seen anyone get so excited by documentation before. Certainly, no one has responded like that to any documentation I have ever produced.

That morning we were upstairs visiting with Laura and Beneditto. I let it “slip” out that it was Nina’s birthday and they insisted we join them for dinner (which secured our second meal with them). This time they put together a similar meal to the last experience except with a fish platter and a Nutella chocolate cake. Although I couldn’t communicate directly with them, I could see they were very sweet people who had really bonded with Nina. They were so good to her.

That evening Linda and Salvatore gave Nina a red coral necklace which perfectly matched the red coral bracelet I had brought her from Amalfi. And Laura and Benedetto gave her/us a caffettiera for making proper Italian coffee. Of course, this meant we had to bring some beans back with us as the quality of coffee in the UK is dreadful.

We left Pantelleria from the tiny airport feeling a longing or sadness. I had arrived with unrealistic expectations and was slowly won over by the natural beauty of the island. But most of all, I was taken by the hospitality and warmth of the people I had just met. It was odd to think I had only been there for 5 ½ days considering how welcome these strangers had made me feel.

It’s a different way of life in Sicily compared to the rest of the world. And compared to Pantelleria, Sicily is a fast-paced hectic place.