From a distance Lampedusa as if someone had left a tile of marble floating on the sea. This is the last outpost of Europe before you reach North Africa. Indeed, it’s far closer to Africa than it is to Europe, a scrubby, dusty, stony place, with no soil to grow anything on, with dips but no elevated spots, with scarcely a tree worthy of the name. It has one town and no villages. But for many dispossessed, desperate people, Lampedusa is The Promised Land.
It’s position made it a useful naval base for the usual succession of Mediterranean ancient super powers, the Phoenicans, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans. The British thought of using it for the same purpose, but Malta got the nod because it had deep water ports. And it gave title to one of the greatest of all Italian writers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of the immortal The Leopard, although I’m not sure he ever set foot on the island. Aside from that Lampedusa, doesn’t have a lot of history. Even though its waters are rich in fish, the survival of any community has always been fragile.
But survive it does, these days on a mixture of fishing and tourism. The port was full of fishing boats and there were still a good many people soaking up the sun on a number of beaches of exquisite golden-blond sand and sporting in the clear waters, families and many young couples taking advantage of post-August, off-peak prices. Of an evening they sauntered up and down the via Roma, Lampedusa town’s Champs Elysee, not dressed in billowing finery, but smarter versions of their day wear, middle Italy on hols. It seemed to me to have no airs or pretensions. People were decent and kindly and worked hard. They were friendly, not as a means to separate you from your money, but as an expression of nature, the man in the laundry shop, the young woman in the gelateria, the chap serving me at the Trattoria Pescheria d’Azzuro, even the Deputy Mayor. It might have been closer to Africa than Europe, but it felt more Italian than Lampedusa or Trapani. It’s not Capri or even Ponza, more Bognor-on-the-Med, and none the worse for that.