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Originally published Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 7:03 PM

In Italy's Aeolian Islands, nature's starkness captivates

As I watched the sun set from my terrace on the west coast of Salina, one of Italy's Aeolian Islands, I marveled that the stone headrest...

Associated Press

If You Go

Italy's Aeolian Islands

When to go

The best season to go is May to October, although midsummer can be very hot (May and September are milder). Many establishments close in winter.

Getting there

Fly into Naples or Palermo and take ferries from their ports, or take a train to the port of Milazzo, on Sicily's north coast, from which there are many daily crossings to Salina (and other Aeolian islands) that take less than two hours on hydrofoils.

Ferry/hydrofoil companies include Siremar, kjwww.tirrenia.it/it/siremar; Ustica Lines, www.usticalines.it and SNAV, www.snav.it.

Where to stay

On the island of Salina, Azienda Agrituristica "Al Cappero" has simple mini-apartments in the tiny farming settlement of Pollara and a restaurant featuring caper dishes and fresh fish, www.alcappero.it.

There also are B&Bs, vacation-hotel rentals and small resort hotels on Salina and on the other Aeolian islands, including Panarea and Lipari (and limited accommodations on Stromboli).

Boating

Antonello Randazzo leads small-group boat tours from the small port town of Malfa on Salina to all islands, including a dinner excursion to Stromboli — www.stelladisalina.it. He also rents small vacation apartments on Salina.

Massimo Taranto, at Nautica Non Solo Mare in Malfa's port, rents easy-to-use dinghies and speedboats, 011-39-090-984-4009.

— Associated Press and The Seattle Times

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SALINA ISLAND, Italy — As I watched the sun set from my terrace on the west coast of Salina, one of Italy's Aeolian Islands, I marveled that the stone headrest I was lying against was so inexplicably comfortable.

Its effect is like so much else on this harsh volcanic island, located in the clearest Mediterranean waters: Salina's very starkness lulls you into contemplating its simple beauty.

Vacationers — including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell, and even the designer duo Dolce and Gabbana — flock to some of the seven main Aeolian Islands. Home to about 10,000 people, the rugged islands sit off the northeast shore of Sicily and are named after the Greek god of wind.

Salina also has its share of famous visitors, especially since scenes from the Oscar-winning film "Il Postino" were shot on one of its beaches, and you could spend an afternoon here cafe-hopping in one of its ports, or splurge on a stay at a smattering of luxury hotels.

But there are plenty of places to escape the crowds and take in its idyllic side, as a low-key haven of reddish volcanic rock speckled with palms, olive and lemon trees, and fuchsia clumps of bougainvillea.

I spent five days last summer at a caper farm in Pollara, a hamlet of less than 100 people in the half-sunken crater of a tall volcano that turns pink at dusk and pitch-black at night, unmarred by streetlights.

It made perfect sense here to pass an evening listening to a gecko's jaws methodically clamping on its moth snacks, in such utter stillness that the sudden sound of two teenagers laughing down the street lit up the windows of several sleepy households.

As farm owner Giuseppe Famularo took me around the caper fields, I was struck by how the resilient, labor-intensive plant is a stand-in for life on this island.

The sweet, compact caper is the early blossom of a bush that rises a foot off the ground before spreading its branches out like fountain splashes under the relentless sun — typically it doesn't rain a drop here from May through August.

Throughout that time, each minuscule caper must be picked by hand every eight days, avoiding the painful thorn that grows right underneath it. The capers then ferment under sea salt for at least two months before becoming the staple of the island's cuisine and a slow-food certified delicacy.

"This is work of the soil, and you need to love it," said Anna Alizzo, who started picking capers on Salina as a child and whose personal record is 77 pounds in one backbreaking morning on Famularo's farm.

"Nobody wants to work in this field, but it's still enough for local young people to stay," said Famularo, in his 30s and with a young daughter.

The only other major crop on the island is Malvasia grapes, which produce the eponymous dessert wine whose powerful, honeyed taste reflects its origin: Hand-picked from volcanic slopes, the grapes are sun-dried for nearly a month, said Gaetano Marchetta.

"It is our choice to produce it with very traditional methods," even though that means only getting some 660 gallons a year, Marchetta said. He inherited the winery, Azienda Agricola Marchetta, in the village of Malfa four miles from Pollara, from his uncle, who tended it for 50 years.

Day-trips by boat

The most ancient tradition of Salina is fishing, especially for tuna and swordfish, so I trusted a fisherman born and raised in Malfa, Antonello "il pescatore" Randazzo, to take me on day trips to three other islands with a dozen other vacationers.

One day we traveled west about an hour to Filicudi and tiny Alicudi, the wildest and least developed Aeolian islands, their bare cliffs showing all the violence of volcanic eruptions.

Cubic white houses, flat-roofed to gather rainwater and connected via steep stairways, plus a few stone walls dating from 1,800 B.C., dot the islands. If you stay in Alicudi, your valet is going to be Otto or one of his colleagues — sturdy donkeys that enjoy midday siestas in the little shade among the prickly pears and purple rocks.

Another day we headed east to Stromboli, a small conical island with an active volcano reliably spewing incandescent rocks. Several small villages cling to its shore.

On the boat, Randazzo served his signature pasta with fresh-caught tuna, tomatoes and, of course, capers. In typical island understatement, when a tourist asked him the name of the dish, which would not have been out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant, Randazzo looked puzzled and said, "pasta al sugo" — simply pasta with sauce. As the moon rose and the breeze carried the scent of sun-baked wild fennel out to sea, we spent a rapturous hour floating in front of Sciara del Fuoco, the slope where lava and black rocks can be seen bursting out of Stromboli and falling to the sea.

Sailing back, we passed just north of Panarea, the Aeolians' celebrity-packed party island, a reminder what a tranquil haven the tiny settlement of Pollara was for me.

On both days, I lost count of how many times I jumped off the boat into water so clear that swimming felt like flying, the sun streaking the sea floor green, cobalt and turquoise.

One late afternoon, I lounged on Randazzo's boat anchored in sight of Strombolicchio, a 150-foot basalt spire emerging from the sea that would make a perfect home for the most evil James Bond villain.

Randazzo and I chatted about the fishermen's life. It's a hard life, disdained by the younger generation, he said, but once it's in your blood you can never consider leaving the island. I asked why. The gruff fisherman paused.

"It's paradise," he finally said, shrugging. "You wake up, you see the sun rise, you see it set. You feel the wind, the sea. Paradise."

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