From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes

The Aeolian Islands

Islands of the winds - and volcanoes

by Paul Franson

The smoking peak of Vulcano marked the fabled Aeolian Islands as our hydrofoil left Milazzo on Sicily's northern coast for the isolated archipelago 30 miles away. I wanted to see Vulcano, but my initial destination was Lipari (LEE par ee), the most populous island in the chain named for Aeolus, God of the Winds.

We docked at Marina Corta on Lipari, a picturesque harbor dominated by an ancient castle on an acropolis high above.

Arriving without a reservation, I walked up the first street I saw, where I got a nice room with private bathroom for $20 per night at a modest hotel, Enzo il Negro Pensione. I stayed three nights, and would have remained longer if I could.

The hotel was near both fancy and modest shops, but the area wasn't overrun with cheap tourist shops or bad restaurants. It was early in the season (April) and the fancy hotels and some restaurants weren't open, but there were plenty of facilities used by the islanders, which was hardly a handicap. The few tourists were day visitors from German cruise ships, but the shopkeepers pleasantly assumed I was Italian until I spoke to them in English or my bad Italian.

Like most of Italy, Lipari is walking territory. After exploring downtown, I took a long walk to the Carasco, the fanciest hotel on the island, but it was closed.

Walking back along the coast, I discovered two nice seaside hotels, the Rocce Azzurre and Giardino sur Mare, plus formal Villa Meligunis, where the staff looked askance at my (expensive) jeans and leather jacket when I tried to get a glass of wine in the empty bar.

Dinner that night was at La Pirata, a seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor. The inexpensive and excellent meal consisted of steamed mussels followed by a spicy tomato-based seafood pasta and local white wine.

I searched for night life that Friday, but was really too tired to care that I couldn't find any. In the next few days, I did discover live music at a local club.

The next morning was Saturday, and I explored more of the town, including the collection of magnificent museums on the acropolis overlooking the town. Various cultures have built on the rock, so archeologists have uncovered layers of artifacts from prehistoric times through the fabled eras of Odysseus, Carthage, Greece, Rome, and later Norman and Spanish rulers.

Free museums on the rock highlight different civilizations, while one focuses on the volcanic activity that created and shaped the island chain. Ruins outside lie so mixed together you need color-coded diagrams to separate the periods.

Leaving the acropolis, I ate a slice of pizza and a Peroni beer that reminded me to drink wine instead, then took the 10-minute hydrofoil ride to Vulcano. Only 400 people live on this rugged island, and I think they were all gone that day.

The island has some nice-looking hotels, none then open, but the big attraction is the volcano. Fossa di Vulcano is a 1200-ft. peak that can be scaled in an hour or so. It's not erupting, but it's definitely not dead. Steam and smoke hiss from fissures on its slopes, and the smell at the top would discourage anyone from descending into the crater.

The less athletic can climb 400-ft. Vulcanello, a small volcano that rose next to Vulcano and is now connected to the main island by an isthmus that created the two ports and the only flat land on the island. It's easy to ascend - if you can find the poorly marked path near the top (It's in someone's back yard, guarded by aggressive chained Alsatians). The climb provides a great view of both the big volcano and nearby Lipari as well as some dramatic rock spears thrusting out of the water in the surrounding waters.

Along with climbing volcanoes, the big diversion on Vulcano is its mud baths. One by the port was filled with hearty souls in the nasty-looking and worse-smelling brown glop. "Bathers" have to be careful, however, for the mud in some places approaches the boiling point! It's customary to wash off in the sea, which definitely wasn't hot.

After exploring the island, I was grateful to find the hotel on the wharf serving wine and beer for travelers waiting for hydrofoils back to Lipari.

Back at the hotel, I took a nap before dinner, then had a $10 dinner at a restaurant where I was the only diner other than the family who ran it. The local malvasia dry table wine is a bit heavy and bitter for my tastes, though the same grape makes a superb dessert wine.

The next day was Palm Sunday, and virtually everyone on the island headed for Mass carrying woven palm fronds. I walked to Cannetto, a fishing village 3 miles up the coast, where a procession passed with teen-age boys carrying large fronds preceding a statue of Jesus while everyone else in town followed.

That evening, Lipari held a performance of the Nine Stations of the Cross. It was 45 minutes late in starting and the poor actor playing Jesus must have frozen in his skimpy briefs, for the weather had turned quite cold.

Unfortunately, that was my last night. My time ran out and I didn't get to the other islands in the chain. The best known is Stromboli (STROM boh lee), site of the bad movie that became infamous when Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossalini decided to play house while they were filming it but were married to other people. Other islands are Salina, the only one with an underground water source, Panarea, Filicudi and Alicudi, the last two without electricity or running water. I know I'll travel back to the Aeolians to visit the other islands, too.

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(c) Copyright 1997 by Paul Franson

From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes