Lampedusa: Italy’s loneliest off-season island

Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost island. Geologically part of Africa, it sits about 70 miles from the Tunisian mainland and a good 125 miles from Sicily. If the island sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because it’s been in the news quite a bit recently.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, tens of thousands of migrants from Africa (first from Tunisia and Libya; later in the year from points south) set out for Lampedusa, many on rickety boats not designed to cross rough open waters. Many would-be migrants died en route, and Lampedusa has come to be associated with these tragedies in the ensuing months.

The migrant flow has had an undeniable effect on tourism on the island. Earlier this month in La Stampa, Federico Geremicca cited a 60 percent drop in tourism in 2011. Tourism on Lampedusa is confined to one very concentrated high season, the end of July through the end of August. During this period, scores of northern Italians descend upon Lampedusa to spend their school holidays in the serious heat.

Despite the concentration of high season into a single month, tourism is the major economic driver on Lampedusa. Aside from tourism, only fishing and a small crafts industry motor the economy.

Outside of its brief high season, the island is quiet. In January it’s almost silent. The concierge at my hotel, the very comfortable and inexpensive Hotel Martello (with rooms starting at €45 in low season) told me that I was the only tourist on Lampedusa.Since 1996, a significant portion of the island has been protected as a nature reserve. The preserved part of the island, which takes up most of the southern coast of the island’s eastern half, is visually very striking–rocky, with some wooded areas and recessed sandy coves. Though the summer heat dries the island out, during the winter the island is quite lush and good for hiking.

Visitors interested in spending time in the nature reserve should make a beeline to the Riserva Naturale Orientata office at Via Emanuele 25. The hiking maps on offer are detailed and staff members are helpful.

There’s bus transportation (€.60 or 78 cents) to the more or less completely unpopulated eastern end of the island, as well. Two walks in particular are pretty great. One of these starts and finishes at Casa Teresa, a traditional farmhouse, circling along a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. The other of these starts nearby and descends through a wooded ravine to Pulcino Cove (Cala Pulcino). The trail to Cala Pulcino passes through lush woods, over rocky scrub, and finally along a rocky beach. After the exciting hike down to the cove, the beach itself is a little underwhelming; nonetheless, the walk is absolutely worthwhile.

The island’s trump card, however, is held by the well and truly breathtaking Rabbit’s Beach (Spiaggia dei conigli, above), a recessed cove of clear, bright blues. The beach is probably the best-known spot on Lampedusa. High season images show a beach swarmed with bathers, but even on a chilly January afternoon beset by thin light, the water looks downright appealing. Next to the beach is Rabbit’s Island, a loggerhead sea turtle nesting area.

Winter is a strange time to come to Lampedusa. There are just three restaurants open around the tourist side of the port, and another two pizzerias in town. Two of the year-round restaurants are quite good. L’Angolo del Mare (Via Alessandro Volta) does very good pasta and fish, while La Rotonda sul Mare (Via della Grotte) is great for pizza. Aside from that, there’s a fantastic delicatessen (Salumeria Enoteca Portu ‘Ntoni, Via Roma) and a smattering of cafes for pastries and espresso. There are a few larger supermarkets as well for other picnic staples, and individual vendors sell fruits and vegetables.

Not an obvious choice for a January break, Lampedusa’s physical beauty and pleasing solitude make it an appealing destination, perhaps especially so when the tourist tally is in the single digits.

Photo of the Day – Sicilian man

This elegant gentleman was captured in Sicily by Flickr user TravelSeminar. The weathered creases that line his face, the pulled back curtains and shy grin all suggest a moment of welcome and openness. It’s the perfect visual accompaniment to a brand new year – take it as an invitation to get your own travel plans off to a great start. Here’s wishing you all the best in 2012!

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The world’s most disputed antiquities: a top 5 list

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it would return 19 Egyptian antiquities that have lived at the museum for most of the last century. These artifacts, excavated from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut), include a sphinx bracelet, a small bronze dog, and a broad collar with beads, among other bits and pieces. Zahi Hawass, the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, argued for the artifacts’ return in November 2010, claiming that the artifacts had been removed from the tomb illegally in the 1920s. But, the instability in Egypt during and following that country’s revolution this year has delayed the repatriation of King Tut’s belongings.

One of the biggest arguments in the art world is the repatriation of objects, particularly antiquities. On one side of the debate are art scholars who feel that ancient objects should remain in the care of their current (usually Western) museums or locations. The other side argues that antiquities should be returned to the countries from which they were removed because they were taken during times of war and colonization or were stolen and sold through the highly lucrative art black market.

It’s true that a great many antiquities and works of art we enjoy at museums today may have been acquired through looting or other unsavory practices. Here are five of the most famous works of art that have been repatriated or are the focus of an ongoing battle for ownership.1) Elgin Marbles
Where are they now? The British Museum, London
Where were they? The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
The Elgin Marbles, pictured in the featured image above, are synonymous with the repatriation debate. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, these remarkable marble carvings once fronted the Parthenon and other buildings on Athens‘ ancient Acropolis. They were removed – some say vandalized – by Lord Elgin, former Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the late 18th century and sold in 1816 to London‘s British Museum, where they have lived ever since. Authorities in Greece have been trying for decades to have the marbles returned to Athens where they can be reunited with other Greek antiquities in the Acropolis Museum.

2) Obelisk of Aksum
Where is it now? Aksum, Ethiopia
Where was it? Rome, Italy
One of the first, high-profile repatriations of an antiquity was the return by Italy of the Obelisk of Aksum (or Axum) to Ethiopia. Pillaged by Mussolini’s troops in 1937, the 1,700-year old obelisk stood for years in the center of a traffic circle in Rome until 2005 when the government of Italy agreed to its return. The Obelisk of Aksum now resides with objects of a similar era at the Aksum World Heritage site in northern Ethiopia.

3) Objects from King Tut’s Tomb
Where are they now? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where are they headed? Giza, Egypt
As described in the intro, these priceless objects from King Tut’s tomb are set to be returned to Egypt next week. Egypt plans to install these objects at the new Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction and slated to open in 2012

4) Dea Morgantina (Aphrodite)
Where is it now? Aidone, Sicily
Where was it? Getty Museum, Los Angeles
The investigative reporting of two L.A. Times journalists was responsible for the recent repatriation of the Dea Morgantina, an ancient Aphrodite sculpture that had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which takes a look at the repatriation debate and the flourishing arts black market, led the Getty Museum to return the stolen statue to its rightful home. The Aphrodite was inaugurated at the Archeological Museum of Morgantina in Sicily in early May 2011.

5) Hattuşa Sphinx
Where is it now? Istanbul, Turkey
Where was it? Berlin, Germany
Just last week, an ancient sphinx returned home to Turkey after years spent in Berlin‘s Pergamon Museum. One of a pair of sphinxes that stood in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattuşa, the sphinx will be restored at the Istanbul Archeological Museum before being returned to its ancient home approximately 150 miles northeast of Ankara.

[Flickr image via telemax]

VIDEO: Astronaut’s view of the world

Need a few moments of Zen? This video from NASA‘s Johnson Space Center has seven of them, traveling over the Earth from the coast of Namibia to the Amazon Basin to capture an astronaut’s view of the world. The incredible images are narrated by Dr. Justin Wilkinson, a soothing astronaut who points out the many rivers, mountains, deserts, and other features shown on NASA’s camera from far above. You can see Utah‘s Salt Lake, Sicily‘s cloud-covered Mt. Etna; there’s even footage of Hurricane Florence, forming a perfect spiral over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sit back, put the video in full-screen mode, and start dreaming of your next travel destination. What an astronaut’s camera sees.

Photo of the Day (12.19.10)

You might say that today’s photo pick, taken by Flickr user WitChi Wotcha in Sicily, has a bit of an “edge.” The first visual element your eyes fall on is that giant freakin’ knife in the sharpener’s hands. What do you cut with that thing?? Soon your eyes move away from the knife and you notice the wonderful mix of other small details in the scene, like the curious expression of the man on the right, his gaze caught in a mixture of surprise and puzzlement. Add in that great collection of cutlery on the back wall along with the various tones of red and green, and we’ve got quite an interesting image here, don’t you think?

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