Persistent images from the island of Lampedusa …

31 July, 2011

They are brilliant, sun-bright, images – there whenever I close my eyes. I feel full of them:  sun-bleached, rocky landscapes;  fine white beaches;  clear, still seas shading from light, bright turquoise to deepest blue; splashes of vivid pink bougainvillea;  faded pink and cream buildings; sharply angled shadows.  I have just returned from another visit to Lampedusa, and these images remain as clear and persistent as ever.  But this time there is an extra one – and it’s one I can’t get out of my mind:  the remains of abandoned and broken refugee boats piled neatly on a tiny beach at the head of a steep, rocky, inlet.   It’s not an image that negates the others, not at all;   it adds to them, creating a new perspective on the island, and opening a window, however small, into the experience of those who are risking everything to reach it.     

For at least thirty or forty years now, Lampedusa has been a paradise for holiday makers – mostly Italian.  In recent times, it has also become a place of hope, a gateway to Europe, for the desperate and disenfranchised, who are forced to flee their homelands in North Africa.    


So negative has the Italian press been about the situation in Lampedusa over the last few months, that just before summer began, quite a high percentage of Italians were reported as saying that, even if it were free, they wouldn’t  choose to spend their vacation on the island this year.  And not surprisingly, tourist numbers have been greatly reduced –  bad for those who rely on tourism as their main source of income, good for those who have chosen to go.  For them, Lampedusa has been better this year than ever before.        

Its appeal is very different from that of other Sicilian islands.  Lampedusa is dry, flat and barren, with large tracts of flat rocky landscape broken only by low, bushy clumps of green here and there – possibly some sort of thyme.  Driving through this somewhat bizarre landscape towards clear blue sea and sky always gives me the feeling  of being at the edge of the world.  It’s a simpler island than others,  not so chic, not so smart – here, there’s absolutely nothing to live up to.  You simply slide into another dimension.

The village surrounding the port, is small – everything happens in Via Roma, the main street, which is lined with bars, restaurants and small shops.  At night, it comes to life with live music being played outside bars at each end of the street –  the type of music that can be, and is, enjoyed by people of all ages as they sit over a drink at the tables crowding the street.  And one night, in a small square just off the main street, there was dancing – again, enjoyed by people of all ages, from quite young children right through to grandparents.  Striking was the fact that this wasn’t the free form dancing you would be likely to see in other places – here, everyone was dancing, in couples, formal steps like fox trots, waltzes and tangos.  All seemed to know exactly what they were doing – and to be having the greatest fun doing it!      

What brings most people to Lampedusa, though, are the beaches and the sea, among the best in the Mediterranean.  There are several sandy beaches – the most famous, and deservedly so, being Rabbit Beach, a beach of the finest white sand and the clearest, turquoise waters, usually so still and warm it’s possible to remain in for as long as you like – without any thought of ever getting too cold.  The area is protected – which means that no boats are permitted to enter the bay – and even when walking in the shallows you’ll see small fish darting everywhere, followed by their shadows on the sand below.  I’m told that when snorkelling a little further out, the fish you see are both bigger and more varied than those to be found in any of the other bays around the island.  

Everywhere around the island, though, the swimming is excellent, from the rocks and rocky ledges at Cala Creta, to the wider expanse of Cala Pisana,  once used as a small harbour.  Here,  the water is clear, deep and still – like a very large, warm sea-water swimming pool.  And here, with my newly acquired mask and snorkel, I was probably at my happiest – free to  examine the depths and practise my swimming strokes almost in isolation.   

Along the south coast of the island there are a number of steep sided inlets, some accessible only by boat, some accessible by land as well.  This year, we tried to explore them all including Cala Pulcina, a bay just beyond Rabbit Beach.  It is most readily accessible from the sea, but there is a well defined stone path that winds its way down the steep walls of the inlet.  As we began to make our way down this path, we could see what looked like four or five piles of broken, wooden planks on the small beach below.   

When we got to the bottom and made our way across the beach, it was obvious that these were not just piles of wood: they were the remains of one or more boats, some parts still intact and clearly recognisable, their sky blue paint still bright in the sunshine, others no more than fractured, rotting, wooden remnants. 

That afternoon, the drama represented by those neat piles of wood seemed present in the narrow cala as we swam.  And it was there again on our return, as we drove around the port beside a ‘graveyard’ of forgotten boats.    

In two weeks, the only other visible evidence of the drama that is taking place daily, was an  increased military presence on the island.  But the images of those piles of wood and abandoned boats have stayed with me.  I may not have any greater understanding of the problem, but I feel I have in some way been touched by the plight of those seeking refuge on Lampedusa. And that’s a start.

5 Responses to “Persistent images from the island of Lampedusa …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    A moving and irresistible image – so far from the loud political rhetoric one is bombarded with about economic and political refugees …

  2. richmondrambles Says:

    We all look for Paradise – those of us fortunate to be able to choose and those who are just looking for a ‘chance at life’. What a wonderful Post. Where did you stay – a gorgeous beach cottage? Jan

    • kateludlow Says:

      It’s strange in a way that this little island is playing that role! Didn’t have a cottage on the beach, but the sea was in sight – in fact, stayed in two this year, one on the south coast and one on the east, just to get another perspective. Both good. Thank you!

  3. Cate Says:

    I agree, a wonderful post. Having had an amazing beach holiday on Lampedusa myself last year it was moving to consider those arriving on the island for vastly different reasons. Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am.

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