Our week in Pantelleria
We arrived in Pantelleria late morning yesterday after a bit of a rocky start in Trapani. The Ryanair flight from Dublin arrived at the Trapani airport around nine PM. After picking up our luggage, Pia and I walked to an area marked "Taxi." As it turned out, no taxis actually show up at this stand so we rented a car from Avis (the vast majority of cars in Italy are stick-shift so we were lucky to secure an automatic Nissan Sentra on second try).
We drove into Trapani at 11 pm after some difficulty trying to locate the city center. The pensione Pia reserved for us was overbooked so we knocked on the doors of various other bed and breakfasts until we found a room for 70 euros a night at Nuovo Albergo Rossi, in the heart of the small town. As we had not had a meal in nine hours, we walked to a bar nearby and ordered food by pointing hands to various dishes (there are very few English speakers in this part of Sicily so the Italian phrasebook we bought would come in handy later). We ordered a few panini sandwiches, Fanta drinks, and a croissant and profiterole for breakfast the following morning. Pia and I woke up the next morning to the sounds of seagulls and other birds that were circling over the sea.
The town of Trapani is located on the Western coast of Sicily which is closer to North Africa than the Italian mainland. The town serves a major port in the region, and is steeped in history. Trapani was once a Phoenician trading center and a central stopover linking trading routes between Tunis, Naples, Aragon (the Norman king, Peter of Aragon arrived in Trapani in the 13th century to claim the throne of Sicily).
The city is now mostly a fishing port with a great deal of ornate Spanish baroque architecture from the 18th century that has been fused with earlier Moorish architecture. The reddish-orange buildings are surrounded by cobblestoned streets and home to numerous quaint shops and cafes. Our hotel was close to a beautiful Cattedrale erected in the 12th century and dedicated to San Lorenzo (picture below is a relief engraved in the Cattedrale).
June 14, 2007: A MISSING RENTAL CAR
After breakfast, we walked to the street next to the sea where we had parked our car the night before. We immediately noticed that all of the cars on the right side of the street (where our car was parked) had disappeared. We approached 2 policemen and used a combination of hand gestures and Italian phrases in our phrasebook to inquire about our car. We later learned that our car had been towed because it was in a no-parking area.
The polizia asked us to sit in the back of their police car and helped us relocate our car in a towing lot*. We paid the tow truck men 40 Euro and drove to Trapani airport just in time to catch our flight to Pantelleria. All's well that ends well.
*The tow trucks in Trapani had a very interesting method for towing. The tow trucks have large ribbon-like belts that automatically wrap around the car and hoist the car onto the truck. The towing process is far quicker and efficient than its American counterpart.
Pantelleria is a beautiful island that is composed entirely of volcanic rock, 40 km closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. The climate is dry and fairly temperate in June although it gets fairly hot in the middle of the day, prompting most of the inhabitants to retreat to their homes for a long siesta.
We were met at the Pantelleria airport by Francesco Spaggiari, one of the owners of the Papuscia resort. Francesco is charismatic, with a swimmer's build (he was a scuba diver in a former life) and a passion for introducing his guests to the island's natural beauty and its incredibly refined cuisine. As one of the island's few English speakers (he speaks in the sing-song Italian accent I never thought existed outside of Hollywood films), Francesco guided us throughout our trip, telling us what to look out for and explore. The Papuscia resort is still on property owned by a Tuscan family; three years ago Francesco and his partners took it over. Spaggiari lives in his hometown Parma for a few months a year, reading up on the latest culinary extractions. He and Battista, Papuscia's chef, try to infuse new recipes into their otherwise Pantellerian-style dishes (Italian alla pantesca).
Although the island has many areas that are ideal for hiking or walking, a car or scooter is are most efficient in navigating a complex labyrinth of hilly roads that connect the small towns across the island. Since neither Pia nor I know how to drive manual (the rental car company laughed when Francesco translated my request for an automatic car) and were advised against learning on the island's hills, we were left no option but to scooter.
I quickly learned the basics of scootering or "motoring" - how to accelerate, brake, avoid rough terrain, park, mount, dismount. After learning rudimentary elements, I progressed to more advanced techniques such as how to avoid being sandwiched between large trucks that came up in my blind spot (yikes), allowing honking drivers to pass, and narrowly avoiding falling off the road's corners into the sea thousands of feet below. (The most scenic parts of the road lining the island's perimeter, called Perimetrale, have no barriers separating the highway shoulder from cliffs or the sea).
Driving on Pantelleria's roads (and much of Italy in general) is not for the faint of heart.
The roads on the island are incredibly steep (sloping 45 degrees often), rocky, full of sharp turns, and used as two way streets though barely wide enough for an American SUV. However, somehow trucks, land rovers, scooters, vegetable carts, and tractor trailers (some driven by old Italian women) all manage to negotiate the terrain. Pia and have come to accept this as part and parcel of the island's fascinating culture.
I also learned that riding scooter solo on tough terrain is FAR easier than riding with two people - there is a different center of balance and the vehicle has a delayed response to any movement you make).
The Papuscia resort is atop a hill overlooking the sea. Its lodges are built out of whitewashed volcanic rock in the island's indigenous architectural style called dammusi (this was an innovation that the Arabs brought to the island many centuries ago and really preserves the natural beauty of the island by melding into the environment). The rooms have high arched ceilings and the rocks provide a natural insulation that prevents heat exchange like a thermos (though the mid-afternoon sun would sometimes be blistering, we rarely had to turn on air-conditioning).
As you proceed south, you find yourself in a tiny neighborhood called Tracino which has its own baker, olive oil farmer, zucchini farmer, fromagier, etc. Every meal we had at Papuscia included most of the natural ingredients produced by the local farmers. The bakery is only open from early morning to 1 pm and NOTHING is stored or sold that is more than a day old. This principle of fresh food applies to everything else one eats on the island: cheese, fruit (you buy it when the fruit is ready to be consumed that day unlike american supermarkets), fish.
June 18, 2007: THE WINDS
Today, marks our our fifth day on the island of Pantelleria. Over the last few days, we have become much more familiar with the island's geography and also more confident in maneuvering our scooter on the mountainous terrain.
One of our guidebooks noted that the island of Pantelleria is "not to be seen but experienced." I did not initially understand what this meant but having seen it, the advice makes perfect sense. Pantelleria is not only a sight to behold but a feast for all the senses.
The breeze sometimes feels like someone blowing fresh air on your face and back (the name Pantelleria is thought to be derived from the Arabic Bint-el-Rhia, that roughly translates to mean "Daugher of the Winds").
The birds chirp throughout the day as as you get close to the sea, you can hear the sounds of the breeze, the waves of the Mediterranean gently climbing over the rocky short in Martingana, or in the southern town of Nika see them crash violently against the steep cliffs. The only sounds reminding you there are people around are the occasional scooter or trucks that pass through the road.
Over the next few days, we explored the beach and bar at Cala Levante, the mountainous hills of Giarlanda, the rocky shores of numerous other towns and numerous local dishes served by our very own Papuscia staff.
BREAKFAST AT PAPUSCIA
We had our daily breakfast today -
-freshly baked croissants and brioches from the local baker in Tracino
-freshly squeezed "red orange" juice
-swiss-type local cheese made from local cow's milk
-prosciutto de Parma (a lot thinner than American variety and somewhat saltier)
-Eggs scrambled by Angelo, Papuscia's co-owner
-Delicious coffee latte, drunk in a large bowl
All prepared and presented on the resort's beautiful outdoors with Angelo's favorite classical mix counting over the speakers in the cucina (Vivaldi's four seasons, operatic excerpts from Verdi, piano sonatas by Chopin).
June 18, 2007: EXPLORING LIFE OUTSIDE Papuscia
A few days into our trip, Francesco encouraged us to be more daring noting that "there is more to Pantelleria island than the beautiful resort at Papuscia" where we had been enjoying many of the restaurant's fabulous meals.
The truth was, we were too scared to drive the scooter after having a minor incident where we drove into some neatly manicured bushes owned by a wealthy Italian couple. But Franscesco reassured us, and we implored him to give us a few more tips.
So finally - we drove to Cala Levante - a restaurant by the sea, a quarter of a mile down from Papuscia restaurant. Upon return, we boasted of our accomplishment to Francesco who remarked "Today you see Cala Levante, tomorrow the world!"
Next day: MURSIA
After breakfast, we drove half the perimeter of the island, ultimately stopping for lunch at the ultra-chic hotel - Mursia - just a few km from the Pantelleria town center.
With a Miami-type resort feel to it, the hotel is more in the spirit of other islands off Italy such as Sardinia as opposed to Pantelleria where most hotels focus on blending into the rocky cliffs by the sea. Pia and I enjoyed reliving our days in San Juan's Water Club as we had wine and caprese salad in the hotel bar. The walls are white stucco, and the sea surrounds the complex. White stairs with aqua blue trim lead you down into the outdoor cafe/bar/sundeck with a two-tiered pool on the edge of the sea. The sundeck has a small thatched roof and overlooks the rocky bay. Water from the pools drips against the sound of crashing waves.
The guests of the resort were the part of the fabulous set that essentially take over the island in summer. Men wore speedos, and seemed to be very fitness conscious unlike some other tourists we saw at neighboring beaches whose somewhat less trim bellies betrayed their affection for their mothers' pasta. Women wore designer sunglasses with large logos. Though no one at the resort was speaking in English, Beatles songs played over the speakers. After a light meal of caprese salad, and proscuitto panini, we drove home. We hoped to stop to check email in Pantelleria city but the town had just started its afternoon siesta.
L'OASI DI VENERE and PUNTA KARACE
We then headed to the Lake of Venere (Venus), a beautiful natural thermal lake heated by volcanoes. The weather was far too hot for and Pia was badly sunburned from a few days in the intense Mediterranean sun so we went home for a nap instead.
Per Francesco's suggestion, we went to Venare later on when the sun was less intense and swam briefly in the lake before driving to a beautiful restaurant on the sea at Punta Karace called Osteria - Il Principe e il Pirata (which I believe translates to the Prince and the Pirate)
OSTERIA - An evening by the sea
Osteria was recently opened this month and its chef and waitstaff appear the take fine dining as seriously as the staff at Papuscia. We arrived at the restaurant at 9:30 PM - prime time for dinner in Sicily (most people have breakfast from 8-9:30, lunch from 12-1, have their siesta until 4, and then work or hang out at the local beaches from 4-8 before dinner).
In our rudimentary Italian (learned from our phrasebook), we ordered a few delightful dishes: polpettini with ship (big shrimp "meatballs") served with lentils and tomatoes, lumaciello (sp?) - a shell-shaped pasta cooked al-dente within a mild spicy italian sauce, lettuce salad, and a tagliatelle with aubergine and jumbo shrimp.
Our waiter was remarkably attentive and after ordering our usual "due becchiare de vino rosso", he poured us glasses of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. The outdoor patio afforted us stunning views of the sea illuminated by the moon and stars in the sky.
I have never seen as many stars as I did last night. I noticed entire constellations, milky-way like clusters I have only seen in textbooks or at the planetarium. I imagined what the place must have felt like to its early seafaring explorers. As I peered into the distance I thought I could make out the faint outline of ferries crossing over from Trapani (a five hour cruise).
Apparently, the island's inhabitants have always farmed rather than fished, partly due perhaps to the incredibly challenging terrain of the island. There are no sandy beaches - rather the sea mostly hits volcanic rock, making mooring a ship difficult. For many centuries the seas were filled with pirates from North Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean, so the island's residents made the most of the naturally fertile soil above the rock instead.
BATTISTA - THE MASTER CHEF OF PAPUSCIA'S MALA CUCINA
As we left Osteria, we realized there were no street lights in this part of the island and it was far too dark to drive our scooter back.
Pia called up Francesco and asked if we could be driven back to our resort. Within 20 minutes, Papsucia's chef, Battista himself picked us up from the Osteria restaurant after a finishing up a busy evening of fabulous cooking ("ventitrè personas" he noted proudly).
In our broken Italian, we tried to answer the chef's questions about our dining experiences on the island so far. Battista is incredibly passionate about his food. Mustachioed and deeply tanned, Battista dons a large apron and a black chef hat that covers his long ponytail while cooking.
A poster advertises Papuscia ------->
"Malacucina" - the poster's title - roughly translates to "Bad Ass Kitchen." Click here to visit Papuscia's website - http://www.papuscia.it/