Pantelleria sightseeing

Exloring the Homeric myths and natural hot springs and saunas on this Mediterranean island of capers and calypso

I had only popped next door to borrow a corkscrew.

Two hours later, I finally managed to excuse myself from Maria’s rambling, scattershot discussion of local history and her overdose of local hospitality, which took the form of pasta, cakes, and glass after glass of various wines—my friendly neighbor insisted I try every type the island had to offer.

I staggered out of Maria’s kitchen—corkscrew (and bottle of homemade wine) clutched in one hand, plate of leftovers in the other—and stumbled up the steps of my rented damusso for a suddenly much-needed afternoon nap.

Hiking the trails

There are plenty of hiking trails criss-crossing the moutainous landscape of Pantelleria. Arm yourself with a map from town and a scooter for getting around and you can explore them at your leisure.

Crops spill their greenery down steep hillsides and ripple across the lower slopes in graceful terraces originally installed by the Phoenicians, whose cisterns and irrigation systems first turned this hardscrabble island into fertile farmland some 3,000 years ago.

On the hardscrabble trails that crisscross the terraces I stumbled across the occasional gun emplacement harking back to World War II, when the Fascists set up shop here to harass Allied ship convoys mercilessly. The Allies ended up bombarding it, invading it, and capturing 11,000 prisons while suffering only a single casualty: one soldier was bitten by a mule.

A natural sauna

The Specchio di  hot tub
The Specchio di , a natural hot tub.
Above the mountain village of Sibà, a trail twists for 45 minutes through the thick bramble of Mediterranean macchia and a profusion of prickly pears, past lowing cattle and terraced fields, to the Grotta Sibà Benikulà.

Nicknamed the bagno asciutto (dry bath), this natural sauna is well hidden, a short hike off the trail and little more than a cleft in the rock issuing tendrils of steam.

I scrambled deep into the narrow cave to stew on a rock ledge, a sour mineral tang coating my tongue as I gasped in the dry heat. I nodded at the trio of Italians half-hidden in the gloom of swirling vapors, sweat dripping from the tips of their noses. They nodded back.

After a bit, one warned me “Only stay in for ten minutes,” then went back to sweating quietly. A spot on the ceiling dripped condensed steam onto my head. I reached up to touch the low roof and burnt my fingertips on the hot stone.

The mirror of Venus

Purged of toxins, I aimed my scooter to the northeast side of the island and the Specchio di —Venus’ Mirror—a stagnant lake puddled in a volcanic crater. Along one edge, where hot steam bubbles up through the waters, people had stacked stones in a series of little curls to create a daisy chain of natural hot tubs.

As I soaked in one, I asked a Speedo-clad neighbor what these hot springs would do for me—in the Mediterranean, any source of mineral waters is held to have a specific salubrious effect. He grinned and said “Potency.” Ah. That would explain the Speedo, then. His wife just rolled her eyes.

Of wine and capers

The only relatively flat bit of Pantelleria is the Piana di Ghirlandaia, a valley planted with regimented vines and low caper bushes. A sign by the driveway to the AgrIsola farm (tel. 011-39-338-975-1793, advertised direct sales, so I stopped to buy capers for my mother, who loves to cook.

Inside the lava-stone building was a kitchen where three women sat at a table surrounded by mounds of Zebibbo grapes. They were splitting the grapes with their thumbs, flicking out the seeds, and filling large silver bowls. On a stove against the wall, oversized skillets bubbled gently. The vendemmia (grape harvest) had just finished, and they were making marmalade. Signora Gabriele, the owner, insisted I try some, spooning warm marmalade directly from a skillet onto freshly sliced bread.

I was on my third serving when her husband, Diego, walked in. He took one look at me and turned to his wife. “What, you didn’t give him any of our wine?” Diego fetched a cheap plastic bottle that had one held mineral water but was now filled with a liquid the shade of aged brandy, and poured me a glass. Like all Pantelleria wine, it was too sweet, too powerful, and too good to put down.

The farm’s manager Mauro, a tall man with gray stubble on his head and a sweaty blue shirt stretched over his belly, had arrived with Diego. Mauro pointed to my glass. “That’s my wine,” he said, thumbing himself in the chest proudly. “I made that wine!” He mustered all seven of his remaining teeth for a smile. Then he frowned. “Oh!” he said, turning to Diego. “Where’s my glass? Don’t I get any of my own wine?”

Diego hurried to pour his employee a glass. Mauro drained half of it in one draught. “Ah!” he sighed, smacking his lips noisily.

Mauro proceeded to expound upon something in a lispy Sicilian dialect. I only caught every third or fourth word, but it seemed to deal with the difference between wine made for personal consumption and that made for sale.

As Mauro talked, Diego rounded up some glasses for himself and his wife and began pouring another round. I sighed, settled in for another bout of Pantelleria hospitality, and reflected it was a good thing, now that the sun was setting, that I already knew well the way back to my damusso.

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