It's Italian, but it's definitely not Italy: Stephen Wood visits Lampedusa, an island beyond the map's edge, where North Africa meets Rome and even the sharks are poets

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The Independent Travel
THE FIRST face we saw on the island was familiar, although we had never seen it before. Peering around the door of Lampedusa airport at us was a fat man in his mid-thirties with a pockmarked complexion, longish curly blond hair and a heavy gold chain about his neck. We were very pleased to see him, but when he spoke to us we politely asked him to get stuffed.

Aesthetically, this experience lacked something by comparison with, say, one's first sight of Venice across the lagoon. But we felt the same thrill, of arrival in a place which immediately lived up to expectation - in this case that the island would turn out to be a sort Italian throwback to Gerald Durrell's Corfu in My Family and Other Animals. We were game for a laugh, and Lampedusa promised a few. Take the two most recent episodes in its military history, for example: in the Second World War, the entire population tried to surrender to an RAF pilot who had to land there when he ran out of fuel; and, after the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, the Libyans retaliated by firing two rockets at the island - and missed it.

We had read, too, about the local sharks, who prey on tourists. 'In particular,' said a guidebook, 'look out for a fat man in his mid-thirties, with pock-marked complexion, longish curly blond hair and a heavy gold chain about his neck.' The holiday season was still three months away and the book was four years old; yet here he was, as promised. We hit Lampedusa laughing, excited by the possibility that everything we had heard about it was true, right down to the salt water in the hotel taps.

Outside the airport was the shark's sidekick, a man with a van, offering to take us to our hotel. We politely asked him to get stuffed. The town of Lampedusa is only one minute's walk from the airport, said the guidebook. And indeed it was.

MAPS of Italy usually stop at Sicily, because it would take so much paper and blue ink to include the islands farther to the south. When Pantelleria, Linosa and Lampedusa do appear, they are tucked into the margin, obscuring a quiet bit of the Mediterranean - which means that you can't tell how far out to sea they are. Nine hours out is the answer, if you take the ferry from Sicily all the way to Lampedusa, the southernmost point of Italy. So we caught the 45-minute flight from Palermo.

Although only one plane a day lands on Lampedusa, it is not as you might expect, a small, rattly thing carrying a government official, two goats and a plate of boiled sweets. It is an 175-seat Alitalia jet, deserted enough in early March to have tumbleweed rolling down the aisle. It would have been even emptier still had an old friend from university and I not found ourselves with a week to kill. We had decided to have a holiday together. Simon wanted to go somewhere sunny, I wanted to go to Italy. We compromised, and neither of us got what we wanted.

Lampedusa is Italian, but it isn't Italy. A minute from the plane and you know that you are in North Africa: sleeping dogs don't lie, and the wide, dusty streets are full of them. The surrounding landscape, too, is as dry and scrubby as Tunisia, which lies only 80 miles to the west. However, a tile embedded in the pavement just past the piazza Garibaldi on the via Roma carried an important message: alongside a map of the island were the words 'La mia Africa'. This is Italian Africa. So in the bars off the via Roma, you could be in Rome itself: the same beautifully laid marble interiors, the same delicate pastries, the same obscure and expensive Scotch whiskies.

It isn't tourism that enables Lampedusa to live in the manner to which Italy is accustomed. What keeps them in smart clothes and Range Rovers, and in the bars drinking single-malt whiskies, is fish. About 70 per cent of the workforce is in the fishing industry, only 15 per cent in tourism, and in March you can see why. We counted the tourists on the island, and never got past two - including ourselves. You do have to be game for a laugh to put up with the weather on Lampedusa at that time of year. Planning a wardrobe is a problem: lying in bed looking up at the clear blue sky, it's shorts, obviously; a shower and a shave later, it's two pullovers and a raincoat. Powered by the winds blowing off the Mediterranean, the weather moves like lightning (we had some of that, too) from hot, lazy sunshine to fierce storms strong enough, on one occasion, to destroy a fishing boat against the sea wall.

The sea was so rough that the daily ferry from Sicily only made it to Lampedusa once in a week, and 70 per cent of the island's workforce was temporarily employed hanging around in bars. The weather settled a little after a few days and we were able to establish a similar routine, interrupted by a few hours' sunbathing in the middle of the day. A light breakfast was taken with Little Tony at the Bar Medusa, right underneath our hotel bedroom. We never discovered his name - in fact, although he usually sat down at our table for a chat, we hardly understood a word he said, except that the crooner whose tapes he wanted us to hear was called Little Tony. Like everyone on the island he spoke a local dialect that didn't seem to have any consonants; and although he switched to Italian for our benefit, there were still no consonants. He baked rather good rolls and pastries, and made terrible cappuccino.

Late mornings at the Bar Impera were better: Roberto made excellent coffee, and spoke English. Since we found nobody else on the island who did, it was good to talk to him, even if his side of the conversation didn't extend much beyond 'Hello. Queen. U2. Eric Clapton. Bye-bye'. Aperitifs were taken at Cafe Pilar, a strange mixture of Portobello Road and North Africa, where the long-haired owner indulged in mime conversations through the glass door with an utterly charming dog who seemed to be banned from the bar.

Sometimes, after dinner, we would spot an old friend in the Bar Roma. By now we had read a bit more about 'Lampedusa's one-man welcoming committee' in a book that took a kindlier view of him. Oreste, it suggested, was a good person to know if you wanted to go skin-diving. 'He'll even give you a bumper sticker and read you his poetry,' we read, with alarm.

LAMPEDUSA is as richly endowed with bars as Italy itself. Where it suffers in comparison with the mainland is in tourist attractions. History? Well, there's a bit. The usual crowd of Mediterraneans passed this way - Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Spaniards and pirates - before a Sicilian family took over the island in the 17th century. The last Baron di Lampedusa became famous, after his death in 1957, as the author of The Leopard; and David Gilmour's biography describes the 'spectacular' bit of business the family did when they sold their island. 'This useless property had belonged to the family for over 250 years and, in spite of various attempts at colonisation, possessed only 24 Maltese inhabitants. In about 1840 Princess Carolina tried to sell the land to Queen Victoria, a move that so alarmed the Neapolitan king, Ferdinand II, that he insisted on buying it himself for the considerable sum of 12,000 ducats.'

But every trace of the island's history has been blown away along with most of the topsoil. Places of interest? There are two, both Madonnas, one of them under the sea. The little sanctuary of the Madonna just outside the town is a delightful spot; the water was too cold to visit the other, which watches over the fishermen from below. The island boasts only one place of natural beauty, but it's a spectacular one. You turn down to the sea from the main road, which leads to the US Coast Guard station at the end of the island (presumably the target at which the Libyan rockets were aimed in 1986). Just off the coast is the Isola dei Conigli, Rabbit Island, and facing it is an exquisite beach with the clearest blue water you could find in the Mediterranean. Although we didn't see any of them, the island is supposed to be overrun with rabbits. The circling hawk had presumably heard of its reputation. In high summer, turtles come to the island to lay their eggs. I'd do the same.

The rest of the 20 square kilometres is a flat, rocky scrub, and the Lampedusans have not added to its visual appeal. Apart from its church, with its tall, slim arches, the town - where most of the 5,300 inhabitants live - is dominated by an architectural style one might call Modern Mediterranean. Even in town most of the rendered breeze-block buildings look like temporary structures; elsewhere, it is difficult to tell whether they are still under construction, or crumbling away.

In an exquisitely Lampedusan way, the Cala Creta tourist development is doing both at the same time. The idea was to build a holiday village with chalets built in the style of the traditional dammusi, thick-walled huts with slightly domed roofs, a few of which still survive on the island; unfortunately, the developer was Michele Sindona, one of Italy's greatest swindlers, who brought down one bank and several bankers, and was himself brought down by a poisoned espresso served to him in prison. The chalets were completed, hundreds of them; and one can tell from the padlocks and washing lines that they are sometimes used, probably by Italian politicians. But the other buildings were uncompleted, and they are gradually returning into the ground.

As dusk falls on the island, North Africa disappears, the wind gets up, and Lampedusa becomes Italian again. From our room in the pleasantly shambolic Hotel Medusa - where, yes, salty water did emerge from the taps - we could see the neon lights across the harbour come on as we wrapped up for the evening stroll. We walked along the quay past the vast fishing fleet (250-odd boats, some small but others more than 60ft long), checked that the Ristorante Belvedere was getting ready to cook our supper, bought the newspaper which we had seen Alitalia deliver at 12.20, and headed to Cafe Pilar for a couple of warming drinks. We were not alone. All young Italians like a little passeggiata in the early evening: a promenade along the main drag (the girls walk, in groups; the boys do wheelies on their Vespas), a video game, a flirt and an ice cream. It would take more than a Force 8 gale to put them off.

It would have taken a lot more than that to keep us out of the Belvedere. A pasta course, fish, a salad and wine; that transcendent simplicity which makes you realise that you don't even really know how to cook spaghetti properly. Every night in the Belvedere we thanked God that we hadn't gone to the Canary Islands. The people were charming, too, and they must have come from Rome because they used consonants.

The Belvedere expressed rather well Lampedusa's curious appeal - that you could find something so fine in such an obscure, derelict place. Our last meal there also included a priceless Lampedusan moment: unfortunately, we couldn't have a mixed salad that night because the sea had been so rough. In Lampedusa, they fish, and they do it well; they let the Sicilians grow vegetables. Here we were, deep in the Mediterranean. But no ferry, no fresh tomatoes. We had a green salad.

SINCE the island gets 20,000 visitors in a good year, I know the beach at Rabbit Island will be more crowded when I go back in the summer. It will probably be a good idea to book a table at the Belvedere for the week. And I've got a number I can ring to fix up cheap accommodation.

When we were waiting for the plane to come in, I couldn't resist hearing one of Oreste's poems. But he wasn't Oreste, he was Emanuele. Oreste, it turned out, is the class act: he lives in Rome off-season, writes a bit of poetry, and only comes to Lampedusa when the pickings are rich. Poor old Emanuele just hasn't got that style. His eyes darted from side to side as he gave us his card; he mumbled that he could help any of our friends who might need somewhere to stay, and it felt as if he was offering us something that was not only illegal but also morally repugnant to right-thinking people. I felt rather sorry for him. It's nice know that he will be there to meet me when I go back.

Stephen Wood flew on an Itlay Sky Shuttle charter from Luton to Palermo to Lampedusa (156 pounds return) and on Alitalia's scheduled ATI service from Palermo to Lampedusa (97 pounds return). Hotel Belvedere (01039922970188) costs approx. 30 pounds per night for a double room in the high season; Hotel Medusa (01039922970126) costs 25 pounds per night for double room.

(Photograph omitted)