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ON AN AUSTERE ITALIAN ISLAND - The New York Times 5/9/18, 09)43

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ARCHIVES | 1986

ON AN AUSTERE ITALIAN ISLAND


By SUSAN ALLEN TOTH

Climbing a steep hill, we looked down upon a Mediterranean landscape both


ancient and eerily modern.
Like dots among the green patchwork plots, white stucco domes gleamed in
the afternoon sun. Some were single, others clustered together. Rising and gently
swelling, the far ones might have been bubbles from the volcanic fires that had
once seethed beneath the skin of Pantelleria.
With a faint Moorish air, these dammuso houses spoke of old conquerors -
Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Turks - all the history of this small island in the
center of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. Yet the echoing purity of
their curves, forming the only visible manmade structures, seemed as if a
modernist architect had been given free rein in a carefully controlled development.
Some dammusi are contemporary, others very old. The Arabs who began to
cultivate Pantelleria in the ninth century built the dammusi to be close to their
fields and vineyards. Today most are still used by farmers for that purpose, though
newer ones provide vacation homes for summer residents.
To anyone who has visited the popular Mediterranean islands frequented by
tourists and cruise ships, where shop-bedecked villages welcome foreigners and
where sandy beaches slope into the sea, Pantelleria is a surprise. Despite its intense
cultivation, it does not feel tamed. Forbidding high walls of black volcanic rock

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ON AN AUSTERE ITALIAN ISLAND - The New York Times 5/9/18, 09)43

separate the land into small terraces, a fascinating pattern endlessly unfurling over
the hills. Within the dark walls are patches of muted color, soft grays and greens
accented with the brilliant yellow, white, red and blue of wayside flowers and
shrubs. And everywhere are the harmonizing curves of the dammusi.
The strange homogeneous atmosphere of Pantelleria is heightened by its air of
isolation. Although the island is only an hour's plane ride from Palermo, or four
hours by ferry from Trapani, few tourists come here except during the short season
of July and August. Since the island airfield is not big enough to land chartered
jets, organized tours seldom include Pantelleria on their itineraries, and one hotel
owner told us mournfully that he has to make his entire annual income in 40 days.
The rest of the year the island belongs to its inhabitants. Americans are rare.
During our week's stay a year ago, we spoke with only one person who knew more
than a few words of English.
The best introduction to Pantelleria's austere but compelling scenery is a drive
around the entire island. Because Pantelleria is only nine by five miles, this is an
hour's trip. The narrow black-topped road climbs and swoops, sometimes close to
the water and sometimes high above on precipitous cliffs, with a surprising variety
of views. On the north coast, the land sinks into the sea in a tumble of black rock, a
vision of abandoned chaos. Elsewhere the fields come almost to the water, with
dammusi sprinkled among them. Although this volcanic island is essentially
treeless, the vineyards soften its starkness and make the land look almost friendly.
In other places, all civilization seems to disappear, especially on the dietro
isola, the wild, dry and totally uninhabited back of the island. From a high cliff one
can look way, way down, a breathtaking drop to a rocky peninsula or the open sea.
No car is likely to pass for some time. All one hears are bees and other insects, and
the sound of the sea.
In a few spots, the rock slopes gently enough to the shoreline so that
swimmers can sit on flat ledges and dive straight down into clear, deep water.
Although neither my husband nor myself had ever used a snorkel before, we
quickly learned the pleasures of paddling about in a private cove - with so few
visitors, almost every cove is private - and watching the waving fields of seaweed
far below. Our cove, accessible by a jolting dirt path, was in the curve of L'Elefante,

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ON AN AUSTERE ITALIAN ISLAND - The New York Times 5/9/18, 09)43

a sheer, high arch of rock that resembles an elephant's trunk. All around were
deeply carved rocks, grottoes and shallow caves, the wild stuff of dreams or
nightmares. Though the cove was small and well protected, I would not have been
surprised to see the flick of a sea monster's tail. Once we saw a scuba diver emerge
from the depths, like a visitor from a faroff world, carrying his speargun and a line
on which he had strung several fish and a large, wriggling octopus.
Despite the chilliness of the Mediterranean, even in mid-June, we preferred
swimming in the sea to the waters of another of Pantelleria's tourist sites, Specchio
di Venere or Venus's Mirrors, a lake formed from an old crater. At one edge of the
lake, hot sulfuric springs create a gurgling mud bath, where we watched several
grown-ups reliving their childhood, jumping, laughing and smearing each other
happily with gooey brown mud. In the lake itself, though the water was
comfortably warm, the slick clay bottom made me slip and slide, then sink to my
knees in goo. We quickly went back to the cove. Everywhere on the island the sea is
a constant presence. Walking along the main road, one can always see its deep
blue. Even when hidden behind a ridge of hills, it may sparkle into view at the next
high turning. Sitting on our terrace, we watched a continuing stream of commercial
ships, fishing boats, tankers and freighters, slow-moving along the horizon.
Having a terrace to sit on is an important part of vacationing on Pantelleria.
Although there are archeological curiosities, from prehistoric ruins to Phoenician
tombs to Roman cisterns, sightseeing is not a full-time activity for the casual
tourist. The main port town, also called Pantelleria, is utterly forgettable.
During World War II, the Fascists made the island their main base in the
central Mediterranean, and it was heavily bombed in 1943. The new town is
square, concrete and ugly. Beyond it, one can maneuver the narrow dirt tracks to
quiet villages or to the heights of Monte Grande, a volcano alive but quiet since
1891, which towers over the island. These are hot, jerky drives, with flat tires a
constant hazard. Walking is of course possible, but given the high rock walls and
intense cultivation, routes must follow the few roads. In a rented boat, one can also
explore some distinctive grottoes.
But most satisfaction on Pantelleria derives from the quiet rhythms of daily
life in the sun and sea. Many tourists find these rhythms while staying in a

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dammuso. An indigenous form of architecture, the dammuso is ingeniously


designed for a treeless environment that needs protection from a fierce sun. Over a
cube of dry stone walls, the builder places an arched framework of timber. Then
the domed roof is carefully built of the same volcanic rock as the walls. This roof is
usually stuccoed, inside and out, for smoothness and weather protection.
Expecially on the older dammusi, the artful stonework is a marvel. The interior is
simple, with one or more alcoves opening off the main room for a sleeping area and
with small windows. With whitewashed walls, the effect is spare, clean and airy.
This basic form has not changed over the centuries. Contemporary dammusi
may have more rooms, more adjoining domes and such amenities as kitchens and
bathrooms, but their shape and height and material are the same as the ancient
crumbling houses found on many of the hillsides.
Architects from around the world come to Pantelleria to study this traditional
form. Even my architect husband, who never works on vacation, was unable to
resist constantly photographing and sketching the subtle variations of the
dammuso design. Although our dammuso belonged to an old friend, another
architect who had bought, restored and added onto it, dammusi are easily rented
as well.
Because of its owner's careful planning, our renovated dammuso had a special
airiness and charm. Nestled high on a hill, it had to be reached by a nearly vertical
path, but the view was worth the climb. The main room fronted full on the sea,
with glass doors leading onto a small stone terrace. Hollowed into one side of the
room was the sleeping alcove, a ledge just broad enough for a double mattress,
with two tiny windows for ventilation. From the opposite side of the room, a door
opened onto a shaded terrace with table and chairs for outdoor meals.
Behind the main room were a long narrow kitchen, with sink, gas burners and
a small refrigerator, and a bathroom with indoor shower. For the brave, a cold-
water shower was also tucked into a corner of the front terrace. Still another small
courtyard just outside the kitchen led to an extra sleeping room in its own
outbuilding, a private retreat. A third bedroom had been slotted into a second-
story space behind and above the main building. Everywhere, judicious windows
let in light without too much heat. Simple furniture, bright spreads and pillows,

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paper lanterns over the lightbulbs, white tile floors and the bright white of the
stuccoed walls gave the interiors freshness and gaiety.
Staying in a dammuso has many pleasures. Waking early in the morning, since
the sun poured heat into our cool sleeping alcove by 5:30 A.M., we relished the
enveloping quiet. Far below, we could just barely hear the lap of waves on the black
rocks. On a prebreakfast walk along the main road, we could see a few farmers
working alone, by hand, in their small fields. But aside from crowing roosters, and
an occasional barking dog, all was still. Eating on our sunny terrace, we marveled
at the sweep of sky and water, the explosive colors of flowering shrubs that survive
and thrive in the glaring sun, and the stillness that would not be broken until we
drove into the port of Pantelleria to do our shopping.
Later, during the traditional Italian afternoon rest, we swam, slept and read.
After 5 o'clock, when the sun was less daunting, we walked along the road, or hiked
up a narrow track that led to our closest village, a small settlement called Tracino,
where in a tiny dark room a woman dispensed fresh-baked bread. After dinner we
watched the changing colors of the sky at sunset. Later, when we went to bed, the
stars were so thick the sky looked like a dark garden filled with innumerable white
flowers.
Planning our meals, and preparing them, were major occupations. Morning
shopping was an adventure, since no one in town spoke English -though the
butcher, who had been interned in an Australian prison camp in World War II,
smiled and struggled to recall simple phrases.
Although our Italian pocket dictionary was indispensable, it did not cover all
emergencies. For a time one morning I despaired of finding a bottle of drain
cleaner. The owner of my favorite alimentari tried hard to interpret my dictionary
gleanings of ''sink,'' ''drain,'' ''stuck,'' and other approximations. Valiantly she
brought out cleansing powder, dishwashing liquid, dishrags. Finally, in an inspired
burst of pantomime, I turned on an imaginary faucet, first left, then right, made a
swirling gesture, and emitted a melodic ''glug, glug, glug,'' which indeed sounded
like our kitchen sink that morning. Her face lit up, and instantly she returned with
an Italian version of Drano.
Up and down the unmarked, dusty streets we went, plastic shopping bags in

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hand, to find the one store that sold matches (the tobacconist), the one vegetable
stand that carried Boston-type lettuce, a grocery that wasn't out of butter, the
pasticceria that offered simple almond-flavored pastries, and an all-purpose store
that stocked such miscellany as knives, mugs and potholders.
Our favorite stop was always the fish market, a few busy stalls at the far end of
the wharf, where housewives pushed and argued loudly. There, as a taciturn
fisherman waved away flies with a floppy brush, we gestured how thick we wanted
our slices of swordfish, hacked to order from the whole fish. Once, for about $3, we
bought a sack of fresh crayfish, large, plump crustaceans to be sauteed in garlic and
Sicilian olive oil. Other days we tried red snapper, squid and panfish whose names
we didn't know.
Remembering how expensive fresh fish had been in Greek tavernas, we
congratulated ourselves on finding one place in the Mediterranean where fish was
cheaper than meat. From the vegetable stands we chose tender yellow potatoes, as
well as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, olives, peaches and oranges. The hard-crusted
bread, fresh daily, was perfect for French toast in the morning. So three times a day
we feasted on our terrace, sipping island wine and watching the boats in the
shipping lane below.
Every paradise has its snake, however, and for me, ours buzzed and bit. Living
in Minnesota, where the mosquito is sometimes referred to as the state bird, I
never imagined the same pest would follow me to the Mediterranean. But small
biting flies and mosquitoes liked the climate as much as we did. My husband was
not bothered by a single nibble, but I soon armed myself with skin repellent and
bug spray, necessary protection among the delights of screenless, open-air living.
Our stay on Pantelleria was so slow-paced and quiet that when we left, we
acutely noticed the clanging and rattling of cars and trucks loading onto the ferry.
We quickly escaped to an upper deck, where, as on the island, we were alone with
the sun and the sea. Although the large ship could have held several hundred
passengers, we counted only about 30. We stayed on the deck, playing cards and
watching the horizon, relaxed and sleepy. VISITOR'S GUIDE TO PANTELLERIA -
Lodging All rates are for double rooms with private bath or shower, including
tax. In Pantelleria, the newly renovated Albergo del Porto Hotel overlooks the

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wharf and ferry landing. Though obviously noisier than hotels in the countryside,
its rooms are sparkling clean. $34; telephone 911257. Also in Pantelleria, the
Agadir, an older hotel with a less inviting location in the center, is open all year.
$25, including meals; 911651.
Just outside Pantelleria, the Punta Tre Pietre, near Scauri. smaller and more
charming, has an open-air restaurant perched blow the hillside hotel, just above
the water. It too has a pool. Rooms here are apt to be booked months in advance.
High season (July 27 to Aug. 24), $54 including meals; 916026 or 916072. The
imposing Di Fresco Mursia Hotel, near Mursia, is quite close to the port, perhaps
too much so, since its road soon leads to a nearby industrial plant and encroaching
urban sprawl. It has a huge swimming pool for guests who do not want to brave the
rocky shore. High season, $50, including meals; 911217.
For dammuso rentals, information is available from EPT Trapani Associazione
Turistica, Pro-Loco Pantelleria (telephone 911638.) A volunteer handed us a list of
65 rental dammusi in various parts of the island. Then, with an enterprising smile,
she produced her own typed advertisement, describing a dammuso with a small
apartment that sleeps two or three, or a larger apartment for four to six, with
refrigerator and stove, paid utilities, drinking water (a scarce resource on the
island) and other amenities. Weekly rates for her apartments varies according to
season, from about $41 from November to March, to $82 in August. Food
Seasonal restaurants open and close so quickly, changing names and locations
as well, that you need to keep a sharp eye out for signs and then simply inspect the
interior and food of whatever cafe you find. Within Pantelleria, simple meals can
be made from visits to the local shops. Food is reasonably priced; try the local fresh
hard-crusted bread, cheese, olives, new potatoes. At the fish market, enough fresh
shrimp for two cost the equivalent of $2.50. The vineyards of the islands produce
several varieties of wines. - S.A.T.
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Susan Allen Toth is the author of ''Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood'' and ''Ivy Days:
Making My Way Out East'' (both published by Little, Brown and by Ballantine).

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A version of this article appears in print on July 6, 1986, on Page 10010018 of the National edition with the
headline: ON AN AUSTERE ITALIAN ISLAND.

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