Closer to Africa than Italy, Lampedusa is a unique and unforgettable island famed for its crystalline fish-rich seas. It is Italy's southernmost territory, and the island's most southerly point also has the honour of being the southernmost point in Europe. Lampedusa boasts a coastline of extraordinary beauty featuring turquoise sea, rocks, cliffs, small bays and pure white beaches. This long and narrow island is set on a tilted limestone shelf forming tall imposing cliffs on the north side with a jagged coastline in the south sheltering several sandy coves and beaches that alternate with rocky inlets and rugged headland. Albero del Sole is the highest part of the island and offers dramatic views down to the sea.
The bay of Cala Creta
Lampedusa's sea bed features a wealth of fish, coral, sea sponges, and oysters in a myriad of and shapes colours. In the east of the island there are wonderful rocky coves like Cala Creta where you can go swimming from the rocks and Mar Morto where you swim through a grotto and where the minerals are good to rub into your skin. In the south of the island there are a series of sandy beaches and coves, like Cala Croce and Cala Madonna. Guitgia beach is one of the largest and is the best equipped in terms of facilities with plenty of bars and cafés nearby.
The renowned Isola dei Conigli
The most magnificent beach on the island is undoubtedly the Spiaggia dei Conigli facing the Isola dei Conigli in the west of the island, around 8km from the centre of town. A vast area around this beach has been declared a nature reserve encompassing land and sea. There are hardly any buildings and fishermen are not allowed to fish nearby which means the snorkelling is excellent. This is a protected area because the beach is one of the last remaining places where the Caretta Caretta sea turtles regularly come to lay their eggs. There is a WWF rescue centre and hospital where the islanders care for the sea turtles, should they get accidentally injured by fishing equipment. When they are recovered and ready to be set free, the WWF leaves cards in various restaurants and bars on the island stating the time and place so that tourists can watch the spectacle of this incredible animal being returned to the sea.
Dolphins can sometimes be seen and at certain times of year fin whales have been sighted off the coast. Over the centuries though, Lampedusa's land fauna has gradually disappeared, even the wild rabbits that gave their name to the Isola dei Conigli. All that is left is a rare type of lizard and the islands friendly stray cats and dogs!
The landscape is for the most part North African with low-lying scrubland and is often barren in parts with dry stony soil. However, over the last century a lot of Lampedusa has suffered from deforestation where previously it was home to all manner of plants and trees. Several measures have been taken to improve the situation and although there is still very little agriculture, some parts of the island (especially people's gardens) are full of beautiful and exotic plants and flowers such as palms, figs, olives, prickly pear cactuses and yuccas.
The secluded Spiaggia dei Conigli
Part of the island's charm is that there really is very little to visit in terms of sightseeing so you can spend guilt-free time on the beach! This is not to say that the island does not have a very interesting history with several colourful anecdotes. Indeed an old Sicilian legend concerning the founding of the island tells that following a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa only two women from Palermo survived and they met two hermits on the island. The hermits gave up their lifestyle in order to marry the two women and their offspring was the start of a new population!
Archaeological remains provide ancient evidence of life on Lampedusa, which was used as a naval base for civilisations like the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, although it was later abandoned by its population after a series of pirate attacks. In 1630 Charles II of Spain gave the island to Giulio Tommasi whom he made prince. One of his descendents, Giuseppe Tommasi di Lampedusa was the author of the famous Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). The Tommasi family encouraged resettlement on the island but it was later used by King Ferdinand as a penal colony.
Another interesting anecdote in the island's history concerns a Jewish tailor from London's East End. Sidney Cohen was a pilot during World War Two who had to make a forced landing on Lampedusa in 1943 with his navigator and gunner. The 4,500 Italian garrison surrendered to him believing they had been invaded and because of this Cohen was nicknamed King of Lampedusa by his crew. This story became a legendary Yiddish play which opened in 1943 and ran for an unprecedented 200 performances. Recently an appreciation of the play including a film about the real incident made by Oscar winning filmmaker Arnold Schwartzman OBE was featured at the Royal Festival Hall Southbank Centre.
The traditional island architecture
Lampedusa's old port
The traditional style of architecture on the island is stone-built African-style dammusi but the only town in Lampedusa has fairly modern buildings since a lot was destroyed in bombings during the war. The main road is the Via Roma, which is lined with palm trees and offers cafés, bars, gelaterias and pastry shops full of traditional Sicilian treats as well as souvenir shops selling locally made products and sea sponges caught by the local fisherman. The old port is a hive of activity for fishermen and there are a few good restaurants to eat out in at night here. This is also where you catch ferries and hydrofoils to Porto Empedocle on the mainland of Sicily and for day excursions to the island of Linosa, an hour's journey away. Palms trees border the new port where you can hire boats and book boat trips. There are a few bars and restaurants along the port such as Caffé del Porto which is popular both for ice creams in the daytime and pre-dinner drinks in the evenings.
There are some truly excellent restaurants on this island and even the pizzas are made to perfection. Fish and seafood are the specialities however and even if you are not a big fish fan you cannot fail to be impressed by the exquisite way the Lampedusans cook their fresh catch-of-the-day, often in a sauce of tomatoes, capers, potatoes and olives.
Lampedusa's glittering coastline
This is an island for lovers of the sea where you can sunbathe, swim and snorkel to your hearts content. You can also indulge in fishing, diving and boating. On of the best ways to experience the island is by booking a boat trip around it. The locals know all the best places to stop and you get lunch on board. This way you will get to discover all the secret places such as hidden grottoes and beaches and you will be shown all the best swimming spots. A fun way to explore the island by land is by hiring scooters, a jeep or even bicycles if it's not too hot and these are all widely available on the island.
Lampedusa truly is a piece of Africa in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea far away from everywhere, yet with the added benefit of Sicilian hospitality, exquisite Italian cooking and crystal clear waters.