I fell for Pantelleria in just the way I expected to. It wasn’t love-at first sight. It was more slow-burning. A feeling that grew, quietly and intensely, until I was completely infatuated. Rough and raw, shaped from ancient volcanic rock, it has a magnetism rather than a classic Mediterranean beauty.
Intrigued by its moody performance in Luca Gudagnino’s A Bigger Splash, I’d had my eye on Pantelleria for a number of years. Deep, clear blue water clashes with steep hillsides terraced with vines and dotted with dammuso, the island’s traditional dome-roofed houses. Closer to Tunisia than its parent Sicily, it’s known as the ‘Black Pearl of the Mediterranean’ and attracts and repels in equal measure.
During the second London lockdown, a chance exchange over Instagram with Margot and Massimiliano, who run Parco Dei Sesi on the island, reignited my desire to visit. Messages, voice notes and emails convinced me it was time to go. A person or a place can be the key to unlocking a new destination and I knew this couple and their guest house would be mine to Pantelleria.
We landed on the island in mid-September. The August rush was over, the fashion set had dispersed and the island was thinning out. Fresh off a small plane from golden, gritty Palermo, where we’d spent a couple of days soaking up its souk-style markets, crumbling Baroque architecture and Norman churches. It was heady and hot, boisterous and brilliant — the perfect foil to Pantelleria’s calm. Here, there is an overwhelming feeling of space and quiet. It has a stillness that’s only ruffled by the wind — its original name in Arabic means ‘Daughter of the Wind’— and the swaying of palms, as each frond tickles its neighbour.
After picking up the keys to our Fanta-orange mehari, an old buggy-style Citroen you’ll see all over the island, we wound our way down spectacularly narrow roads to Parco dei Sesi where we were greeted by Margot, Massimiliano and an army of cats. After meeting and falling in love on Pantelleria several years ago, the couple packed in their city jobs — she in Paris and he in Milan — to set about transforming Massimilano’s parents’ old dammuso on the western coast of the rugged island. Set within its archeological Sesi park, their guest house is also part artist residency and growing organic farm, complete with its own goats and chickens. Here, its eleven bedrooms rub shoulders with prickly pear cacti and Neolithic ruins dating back 5000 years. You feel antiquity all around and it humbles you.
Parco dei Sesi is a place where life slows down deliciously and pleasures are simple. A plate for pasta with pecorino, courgette and grapes made by their divine cook Angelo for lunch. Aperitivo shared with fellow guests and new friends.Watching the sunset over the sea from the roof of the grand dammuso. Languorous mornings, reading by the pool. Luxuriating in the warm breeze, practising the Italian art of dolce far niente.
Each morning, during a family-style breakfast of toast and eggs, fruit and yoghurt, fresh ricotta and cakes, we’d ask Margot what the best thing to do that day was. Her answer would always be dictated by the wind. One day, we floated on our backs in the rock pools Laghetto del Ondine while the north wind sent waves crashing all around us, before covering ourselves in the rejuvenating muds of the Lago di Venere and allowing it to bake in the afternoon sun. On the next, a light breeze created the perfect conditions for a boat trip with our fellow guests. Having stocked up on caper-strewn pizzas and giant arancine at the best bakery in Pantelleria, we spent a perfect day circumventing the island in a beautiful old wooden boat with its charismatic captain. We stopped every now and then in secluded inlets and bays, jumping into its lapis lazuli waters, weaving through grottos and swimming into hot springs inside caves.
Some days, we transformed our mehari into a safari jeep. We’d head for the Grande Montagna in the centre of the island, following Margot’s advice to turn off our Google Maps and simply get lost. We’d find ourselves descending into a cloudy plateau, covered in vineyards and olive groves. Impossibly green after the desert-like landscape around our homely base. On another, after an afternoon’s jumping off the old harbour at Cala Tramontana on the eastern coast, we followed another of the couple’s tips to Abazzia San Giorgio, a natural winery run by father and son who host generous weekly tastings that are spontaneous and unadvertised — and soaked up by hearty portions of aperitivo. Buoyed up by locally made orange wines, we drove through vineyards and over the top of the mountain to their final suggestion:
As Pantelleria slips into off-season, the restaurants begin to close or shorten their hours, so it’s easy to get caught out. We loved lunch at Il Principe e il Pirata (Giorgio Armani’s local) near Cala Gadir and dinner in an old dammuso at Il Giardini del Rodo near Scauri, where we got to know zbibibo, local unfiltered white wines and the traditional flavours of Pantelleria — pistachios, almonds and capers — intimately.
As the months wear on, I imagine life on Pantelleria only slows down further, with time stretching out languorously in front of its few inhabitants and handfuls of visitors. How sublime.
Photography by Sara Lorusso