Pantelleria: Walled Up

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Pantelleria: Walled Up

Posted from Sicily, Italy.

There’s something unmistakably African, or Arabic, rather, about Pantelleria. There are the names, for a start – Kuddia, Khaggiar, Rekhale, Khamma. There are the houses, dammusi, box-like, with a distinctive dome at the centre, painted white, to deflect the sun. Above all there’s the agriculture. Any flat space, such as the Piana Ghirlanda, and many of the hillsides, anywhere where there enough soil, is cultivated.

There are many theories about why Pantelleria is called Pantelleria, but one of them is that it’s the Italianization of the Arabic, Bint al-Riyah, which means the Daughter of Winds. Pantelleria is defined by wind. It was no more than a breeze when I arrived, but it isn’t aways as gentle. Who knows who started the tradition of building walls to protect crops growing in the island’s rich volcanic soil? The original Iberians? The Carthaginians? Romans? Most probably the Arabs, who occupied the island from 700 to 1123. They were supreme agriculturists. They created sophisticated and flourishing agricultural systems throughout Sicily, in Southern Italy and Spain, wherever they established control, on Pantelleria even building topless towers and grew fruit trees within their sheltering embrace.

The whole island seemed to be divided up into odd shaped growing areas – fields didn’t seem the right word – by dark, forbidding walls and terracing made from the black, black/grey, grey/brown, brown/black stones unearthed when the fields were cleared. Even the terraces were structured in such a way as to diminish the effect of the wind.These were just part of the ingenious solutions to the problems of wind. The olive trees were deliberately grown with very short trunks, a metre at most, or even as bushes, so their tufty tops didn’t catch the wind. Vines were allowed to trail rather than trained against wires. The plants of Pantelleria’s other notable crop, capers, were naturally ground-hugging.

The islands that I’ve visited seem to be divided into those whose underlying culture is based on fishing (Ponza, Marettimo, Procida), those based on agriculture (Salina, Elba, Ustica) and those based on tourism (Favignana, Capri, Stromboli). Pantelleria was definitely in the agricultural group.

Of course there’s the odd Byzantine tombs and vestigial Punic-Roman village.The coast is a long, black volcanic crust, that, conveniently, at various points slopes down to exquisite, crystalline and blissfully jellyfish-free waters. There are even a number of tallish peaks (836m, 715m, 591m) clad in pine and cork trees. But it’s the craft and graft of growing, the continuation of traditions dating back a thousand years that produce the oil, capers and, above all, the wine, that’s the real mark of the island.

NB. This a worthy but dull post. Sorry.