The lumpy, crinkle-cut isles of pumice grey stone are erupted protrusions of underwater volcanoes
Tamara Thiessen takes a whirlwind tour of the picturesque archipelago off the shores of Sicily
“The sea is in my veins – all my family have worked in boating and fishing. It’s a very special relationship, which all the Aeolians have with the sea … You have to live with its moods and our survival depends on it – particularly in winter, when sometimes we can’t come and go.” Silvia Carbone is the owner of a small art-filled hotel on the island of Lipari. It is very marine in decor, with its azzurro-coloured tiles and inner courtyard billowing with sail-like curtains. This is our homely bolthole in the little harbour of Canneto – our first port of call in the Aeolians.
Like all islands, getting there takes some mental gymnastics. In the case of the Aeolians – an archipelago of seven islands off Sicily’s north coast – the workout becomes even more vigorous as you try to decide which islands you should visit– in what order – and how to get between them. Though their lyrical string of names – Lipari, Panarea, Vulcano, Stromboli, Salina, Alicudi and Filicudi – would have you believe it is as easy as tiptoeing through the tulips – boat travel always means seasonal precariousness. We get an immediate taste of that, coming in October – just when the transport switches to its low-season schedule and the waters get choppier. Being an islander myself (from Tasmania, in Australia) – islands are ever-present in my imagination – and the prospect of holing myself up on these breakaway pieces of land is as tempting as their wild, UNESCO-listed nature and deep blue myth-laden seas.
It’s here in the Tyrrhenian Sea, that Aeolus – god of the winds, supposedly dwelt – giving the island group its name. The lumpy, crinkle-cut isles of pumice grey stone are erupted protrusions of underwater volcanoes – still active in the case of Stromboli and the eponymous Vulcano. Making Lipari our base, we hop around half of the Aeolians during a three-night stay. Starting with a stroll into the port of Lipari itself the following morning.
The capital of the biggest, most populated island is painted in faded pastel facades, with 360-degree ocean views from its upper town citadel. The ‘acropolis’ perches high on a volcanic outcrop on the site of a former Greek temple. The steep walk is pockmarked with porthole peeks through the crumbling castle walls to a seemingly endless cobalt expanse. Easy to believe another island myth – that in this seductive setting, sirens tried to woo the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) with song.
We wind up down in the incredibly picturesque harbour area of Marina Corta. In the narrow jasmine and bougainvillea hung streets of the old fishing village, I fall irrevocably in love with the arancini di riso. The elasticky rice balls – filled with mozzarella and peas – are one of the typical Sicilian foods in the Aeolians along with fried potato patatine fritte, cassata ice-cream, ricotta-stuffed cannoli pastries and cooling lemon granita.
The passegiata along the main Via Corso Vittorio Emanuele II – and all the little vico off it (Vico Stromboli, Vico Salina, Vico Eolo … here it seems all alleys lead to an island) – is one hemmed in by more island flavours and crafts.I push through the hanging wild oregano, sun drying red peppers and stacks of bright coloured ceramic plates at the doors, to shelves bulging with olive oil, capers and Malvasia delle Lipari white wine.
In the afternoon, we hop aboard the Urso buses which leave from the port and circumnavigate the island – nothing is further than a 30-minute ride away. Within a couple of hours of rather haphazard bussing and high-country hiking, we have set our eyes on some incredible crater-scapes and taken in one of the best panoramas of the whole archipelago, from the belvedere of Quattrocchi. Even ‘four eyes’ as its name implies, are not enough to take in the horizonless seas, snaking promontories, and spray of rocky outcrops.
We also get a clear view of the isola di Vulcano, tomorrow’s destination. There’s an almost irresistible attraction to a simmering volcano, which grows the closer you get. We leave on the earliest hydrofoil to allow time for the two hour, 11 kilometre return trek to the Fossa di Vulcano, starting out from the Porto di Levante. The 391m crater is the only of three volcanoes on the island which is still active – spouting out its sulphurous gases. “The urge to look down into a volcano appears to be ageless,” wrote Sicilian-living American writer Mary Taylor Simeti in 2002. “St. Willibald, on his way home from the Holy Land in 729, climbed up the volcano of Lipari in the hope of getting a glimpse of hell.”
The walk to Gran Cratere was sandy but fairly easy going. And while the sulphurous egg smell wasn’t far from your nostrils, the view at the top was more than worth it. On the slopes you also get great close-ups of the wispy plumes of smoke rising up from the steamy fumaroles of the mustard yellow crystal encrusted void. While from its southern rim, just 10 minutes walk further on, the views extend over the gaping hollow to a lineup of the other Aeolian islands on the horizon.
Unfortunately we do not have time on this trip to take in Stromboli. The “syncopated explosions of gas, ash and lava” – to again quote Simeti – has earned Europe’s most active and frequently erupting volcano the name ‘’Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’. The lava-blackened northernmost of the Aeolians starred in Roberto Rossellini’s 1950s film, alongside Ingrid Bergman. We trade the strenuous six-hour nocturnal hike for a splurge stay on Panarea. The smallest of the Aeolians is gloriously car (and street lamp) free – and at this time of the year sans the jet setting crowds. In fact, at my next five-star hotel I have the geothermal, naturally heated pool all to myself.
An afternoon walk around the isle is pure Mediterranean bliss of white stucco walled lane ways (actually old mule paths) shaded in myrtle bushes and olive trees suspended over the coast. Between our dip in a small sheltered bay and return to our lofty whitewashed suite, there is a dramatic change in weather.
All set for an early boat out, we are warned this might make it impossible for us to leave. Sure enough down in the little harbour at dawn, the oceans are whipping up – and the trip is called off. Clearly our life has been placed in the hands of the gods – and we’ve caught Aeolus on a benevolent day. Thanks to his handiwork, as the keeper of the winds – we get another night in the lap of Aeolian luxury.