Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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TRAVEL


THE AEOLIAN ISLANDS

 

So, Odysseus is on his way home to Ithaca to catch up with his wife who he hasn’t seen in ages, because he’s been beating up Trojans. His fleet comes to rest upon an island just north of Sicily. Aeolus, the King of the Island, is a friendly chap. He lives with his six sons who, conveniently, are married to his six daughters. They are serious party animals and Odysseus decides it might be a laugh to shack up with them for a while. Aeolus and Odysseus get on like a Trojan horse on fire.

When the time finally comes to leave, the King presents the bronzed warrior with a leather bag ‘in which he had imprisoned the boisterous energies of all the winds’. It turns out Aeolus is a favourite of Zeus and has the power to control the winds. So he whistles up a breeze and next thing Odysseus is within sight of his beloved homeland, close enough ‘to see people tending their fires’. Exhausted, he passes out. However, sensing their journey is at an end, his inquisitive crew sneak a gawk into the leather bag Aeoleus gave him. It’s bound to be gold, they say. Hardly have they undone the bag when ‘all the winds rushed in’ and carried the fleet all the way back to the other end of the world.

That’s Greeks for you. They really know how to ham up a catastrophe.

The thing is that while you may chortle form a distance at such tales, up close they become rather more plausible. For one thing, the Aeolian Islands were certainly there in Odysseus’s day and of course he would have popped in on his way home from the wars. And righty so too. Few of our European islands are more handsome than the Aeolians. Rising out of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the eight islands were born quarter of a million years ago when the African and European continental shelves slammed into one another, firing huge lumps of volcanic magma into the air.

The island we settled upon was Salina, a lush green 27km2 beauty with 4,000 inhabitants spread across three towns and five villages. Its’ topography is not unlike a Wonderbra ad with two inactive volcanoes rising supply from its core. Solemn cliffs and salty beaches alternate around the coastline. Although they make no song or dance about it, this island was the location for ‘Il Postino’, the Oscar-winning Italian movie in which that impossibly sweet-voiced postman befriends the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Many of our nights were spent in wonderful ochre-hued splendour at the Hotel Signum in Malfa. Clara, the owner of the hotel, was born in the village but her mother was born in Boston. The inhabitants of the Aeolian Islands have long struggled to justify their existence. 5000 years ago, they prospered by exporting their own volcanic glassware all over the Mediterranean but when somebody invented metal, the economy slumped and it’s never really picked up since. Indeed, the majority of Salina’s population had emigrated by the 1950s, mostly to Australia, when the government laid on a Hydrofoil ferry service that saved the day for the bougainvillea-scented islands.

As such, Salina is the sort of island where the guy who collects you in the taxi also happens to be the fishmonger. And he’s the dude you talk to about hiring a moped. And when you go for your romantic meal up the coast that evening, he’s the one who takes your order, during which time you learn that he built the hotel you’re staying in and that he is also the local politician. It’s disconcerting at first but you soon catch on.

Our days were spent in idle bliss, our whims dictated by Aeolus’s winds. When the warm Sirocca blew, we drank Martini Rosso’s in the midday sun and rode off like Supergrans on our mopeds through the wildflowers of the winding volcano roads. Truly sandy beaches are few but if you hire a boat, there are plenty of snorkelable coves and squid-filled caves. If the colder Mistral dominated, we relished in guiltless inactivity, slumbering with books, feasting upon octopus and saddled bream, swatting mosquitoes to bide the time. By night, we lived on Sicillian wines and Grappa nightcaps and tango-danced with dirty old men in the cool white arches of Santa Isabel.

For a few days, we took Hotel Signum’s private cottage down by the port of Scala Galera. This would make an imperial get-away for honeymooners. The views behold a peaceful harbour, with fishing boats in the foreground, and the pyramid of Stromboli floating upon the horizon. Few vistas are more dramatic. When the sun sets, you can almost see the ocean spilling over the edge of the world. Stromboli is a live volcano and smokes more than the French. It is in a state of almost continuous eruption and has been since Odysseus’s day. Indeed, by night, if you stare long and hard enough, you will see the glowing embers, suddenly bright, like somebody smoking a cigarette in the darkness. Zeus only knows how many sun-struck sailors have been guided to safety by that volcanic light.

FIVE FABULOUS ISLANDS

Stromboli – The summit may be out of bounds but that shouldn’t prevent you visiting this geographical masterpiece. Ingrid Bergman lolled upon these shores when she played a World War II refugee who marries a local islander in the appropriately named 1950 film, ‘Stromboli’.

Salina – The pick of the crop, and the greenest, this is the island of violet-flowered capers, flourishing vines olives, pizzas and cliffs where ‘Il Postino’ was filmed.

Lipari – The largest of the islands had a rough when Saracen pirates controlled the seas but today its 11,000 strong population most only defend themselves against the thousands of Italian tourists or come here in summer.

Panarea – A popular hideaway for celebrities, this small inactive volcano island is famed for its thermal springs and mud-baths.

Vulcano – The Roman’s believed this smoking island was the chimney to the god Vulcan's workshop. In 1860, a canny Englishman established a Malvasian vineyard upon these dry, nutritious soils.


GETTING THERE

In summer, ferries and hydrofoils leave regularly from Milazzo and Messina in Sicily, and stop at every island. Peak season is from June to September with winter services much reduced and sometimes cancelled due to heavy seas.

ACCOMODATION

You can’t go wrong with www.hotelsignum.it

 

USEFUL WEBSITE

www.thinksicily.com


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