What do you call something that comes from Pantelleria, that tiny Italian island closer to Africa than Italy?
Of or from Pantelleria.
That’s one of the first things I learned when I lived there.
Did I just type “lived”? The word flew out of my fingers like a truth my mouth hasn’t caught up to telling. I’m not going to erase it, though. I’ll keep it because, actually, now that I think of it, it’s true. I lived on that volcanic, simmering thermal rock of an island for a brief but wondrous four days. In October, I went on a whim, a last second attempt to catch the final weekend of the summer season before everything closed for winter. I wanted to get the lay of the land for our upcoming retreat this spring. After furiously foraging for flights -- six separate tickets: London-Rome, Rome-Palermo, Palermo-Pantelleria and back again I was on my way. I arrived and promptly decided it was easier to fly from New York. I hear New York has direct flights to Palermo. And from Palermo it’s just a forty-five minute puddle jumper. But for however tricky it might be to get there, it’s well worth it.
Totally off the radar, Pantelleria is one of those paradoxical places that feel unreal because it is precisely that: real. Almost completely devoid of traditional tourism, there are no mega resorts, no chains or franchises and even shops are hard to come by. When you arrive and rent a car, they’ll make it sound like they’re doing you a favor and hand you the keys to their “newer” model Fiat Seicento which turns out to be a banged up old gray clunker, ratty tatty from roads that aren’t kind to cars, full bladders or people who have a problem with heights.
That’s what strikes me first aside from the landing: the roads. They’re the only tangible thing you’ll find tethering you to Earth or whatever you once thought of as reality. Being on the island made me feel like I’d suddenly grown taller than the whole wide world. Its landscape of lowly pruned grapevines and the way the earth’s surface seems to swirl off into nowhere left me feeling teetering and unbalanced and curiously delighted. From the second the plane lands on a sweeping plateau just above the island’s mythical blue-green lake, Specchio di Venere or the Mirror of Venus -- I won’t tell you the details so you can experience the oddness for yourself -- the place catches you off guard. Near, far, up, down: all points of reference are up for grabs. It’s a willy-nilly wild place, not at all manicured yet always holding your attention.
Day One I feel totally on edge, because I am. I have to remind myself to breathe as I make my way down between what are beyond being classified as potholes -- mostly in first, trying not to think about the absent guardrail -- to the island’s most ‘accessible’ rocky “beach” from which to fling my snorkel-wearing self into the shimmering emerald green blue water. While the rest of the Mediterraneans were mourning the end of summer, Pantelleria was relishing in the season’s last borrowed hours of golden warmth. I was one of less than ten other lucky humans toasting themselves like lizards on the warm, black rocks that slide off into the sea.
Day Two I’m still edgy with the newness of the island, a place so unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. I’m electrified by the quiet, lulled by the multicolored sunsets, intrigued by the orange sliver of land marking Tunisia forty kilometers away in the distance. Not far from the Tenuta, I decided to mosey on down to another beach, the closest to the villa. I had heard it was a schlep to get down to but I was up for a hike so I drove down what would be considered a cliff in most parts of the world, parked then set off in my Birkenstocks. I’m not normally afraid of heights and I like a good hike and yet still...had I known, I probably wouldn’t have gone. When the path before me disappeared and air was all that separated me from the rocky beach hundreds of feet below, I figured I’d gone off course until I spotted a rope. I clambered down clumsily, startled that in some places there was nothing to hold onto at all. The path wasn't below me, it was either above me or at eye level. At various points I held onto twigs from scrubby shrubs that seemed more rooted than I was. Once safe on the rocks below, I snagged a spot to sit, secured my snorkel, perched myself on a rock and dove in. Just before I did, a local man hoisting himself back up the rocks gave me a tip. “Swim back into that cove,” he said, “and you’ll get the warmth of the thermal pockets.” He was right, the warmth against the regular water temperature made the regular temperature turn icy against my skin. I was mystified by the blurry heat that could be seen seeping from hidden vents underwater. Like everything else on this island, it was all as pleasant as it was strangely unsettling in its uniqueness.
My last day some of the locals who had adopted me took me to the place to be on a Sunday for lunch. A hip, hodge-podge white washed wooden porch overlooking the small port of Scauri. They served local specialties with sardines, cold local beer and I was the only one who didn’t know everyone. I quickly learned that even the Italian-speaking locals weren’t native but implants -- they touted the island as their own but like me, they’d also come from elsewhere: Milan, Palermo, Venice. As you do when you fall in love with a rare, little-known treasure, they scoffed at each other behind one another’s backs, each feeling an entitled sense of propriety to their beloved Pantelleria. It made me chuckle because I was no different. No one is immune to this island's magic. Pantelleria knows what she’s doing. She makes you feel special and chosen as if she has saved everything she has to offer for you and only you. The island invites you to enter into a relationship with the landscape. An invitation that feels precious, precarious and unpredictable, one which elicits all kinds of opportunities for surrender. Here, I discover there's nowhere to hide because it is the hiding place. No wonder Giorgio Armani bought a chunk of her hillside and carved out a home for himself here. I hesitate to tell you that because it implies that the island is like that, only it isn’t. Pantelleria is the epitome of unassuming beauty, the only thing tethering you between sky, air and sea, a place that’s very much the only thing it can be: itself. Pantesca. I part consoled only by the fact that I’ll soon be back.