Although this is officially Italy, you won’t find Renaissance art galleries here; Pantelleria has a museum dedicated to capers. And instead of the fabulous beaches elsewhere in the country, this is an island of rocky coves that are difficult to access.
“There’s no middle ground with her,” says Peppe d’Aietti, author and travel guide. “She’s fierce, tough, and made to be loved by few.” Pepe is one of them. He once moved to Sicily for work, but “the island was always on my mind,” he says. Now he takes travelers on hiking tours away from the spectacular coastline – one of sheer cliffs and jagged lava flows, with stunning sea views – and into the island’s surprisingly green interior.
Pantelleria is a volcanic island, but according to Peppe, it’s not just a volcano: there are dozens of cones on land, others underwater. What I thought were hills are actually volcanoes, and the plains that grow Pantelleria’s famously tasty vegetables are collapsed calderas.
We drive up to the Montagna Grande, the highest cone at 2,743 feet. Peppe says that on a clear day you can see Tunisia, but today the clouds below are swirling around Mount Gibele’s neighboring cone. Up here is an Eden of holm oaks and strawberry trees, while further down Peppe spots a rare orchid and grabs a pod of wild peas.
Pantelleria is not only known for its dramatic coastline, but also for its thermal waters. Above the ancient settlement of Sibà, I walk along dry stone terraces and past wildflower meadows to a cliff where steam ripples from a slit in the rock. It’s the Grotta di Benikulà, where fumes from the mountain rise into the small cave, creating something of a volcano-heated hammam. I toast inside and emerge drenched in sweat to views of wildflowers, the plains of collapsed calderas beyond, and the blue Mediterranean Sea in the distance. Again, you can see North Africa when it’s clear, but I don’t have to – Pantelleria’s multicultural history is embedded in the rocks.