The tiny island of Lampedusa is an Italian territory lost in the middle of the Mediterranean, just 113 short kilometers from Tunisia.
It’s the main island in the Pelagic group and is governmentally attached to Sicily—though the island’s 4,500 residents will tell you they see themselves as Lampedusan first and feel little to no affinity for the rest.
I have a longstanding fascination with the world’s remaining colonies and dependent territories. Partly because they’re anomalies. Most people don’t even know such places still exist. We tend to assume colonies died out 50 years ago, along with colonialism. But that isn’t the case. These places still exist today, and one of my lifetime travel goals is to visit all of them.
The thing is, they’re usually pretty difficult to get to. Getting to an island like Lampedusa typically involves an indirect flight to the country of ownership, followed by a long boat ride.
As luck would have it, my friend owns a 4-seater aircraft, and he also has a taste for adventure. When you take the direct route — as the very fast crow flies… — Lampedusa is only 45 minutes away.
It was a pleasant flight above the clouds. The early morning thunderstorms so typical of late September in Malta had all passed over. They hovered in the distance behind us as vague blips on the plane’s stormscope, but they were moving the other way.
Lampedusa was historically used as a maritime base for Phoenicians, Greeks and Arabs. And the Romans set up camp to produce a fish sauce called garum. The island was later abandoned due to pirate attacks, and resettled several centuries later, when it eventually became a part of Italy.
Those few people who have heard of the place know it as a transit point for African immigrants gatecrashing into the European Union. But there didn’t seem to be any boat people when we visited. No refugee camps were visible from the air—and we could see the entire island when we came in to land.
There isn’t much to this little hunk of rock in a distant corner of the Mediterranean. You can drive across it in about 10 minutes. The roads are good—much better than Malta’s. And the landscape is barren, mostly garigue, with a coastline of sheer cliffs and gorges.
There’s just one town, nothing much else, and I really liked the place. The streets are tidy. The houses are well kept. It has a laid back feeling of nothing to do. There was only one takeout place that served lunch, just off the main square. I mean, jeez, what more does a place like that need?
The sea is the main source of food on the island. According to the receptionist at our little hotel, “If you want to eat meat, you have to call and tell them a few days in advance.” Everything else is brought in by boat. And when the seas are rough, the boat doesn’t come.
We ate dinner that night at a family run place that specialized in Tunisian food. When the owner couldn’t explain a particular dish to us in English, she just went to a nearby table and grabbed the plate from in front of a customer to show us. Lampedusa is that kinda place…
The weekend of our visit coincided with the festival for the island’s patron saint. My friend and I sat out late on the busy pedestrian Via Roma, where couples danced in the plaza and line dancers shuffled through a dazed routine, dancing together but completely alone. The cafe radio played an oddly compelling mix of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Europe’s Final Countdown. Was the waitress even old enough to remember the Cold War?
The next day we dozed on the island’s best beach, beside one of the last remaining egg-laying sites of the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle. The sand was icing sugar white, and the shallows were that perfect picture postcard Mediterranean blue.
There wasn’t much more to see or do on Lampedusa. It’s a quiet place. A friendly place. A good place to get lost in.
We fired up the plane late Sunday afternoon and cut across the open seas to circle Lampedusa’s sister island, Linosa on the way out. Home to approximately 450 people, the hilly volcanic island is divided into fertile fields, and it’s landscape is broken by several distinct craters. The other island in the Pelagic group, Lampione, lay in the opposite direction, towards Tunisia, and is a small uninhabited hunk of rock.
We set a course for Malta as the sun dipped low in the sky, and small puffs of cloud passed far below our wings. I thought about how wonderful it would be to own a small plane. The freedom it would give me. And the adventures waiting there, just beyond my island doorstep.