Just as Indonesia has its fabled seven small islands, one of which is an active volcano, making up the Spice Islands of Banda in Maluku, Italy also has its own little archipelago of seven volcanic islands, the Aeolian Islands, to the north of Sicily.
What they may lack in the way of oriental spices they make up for with their smouldering cauldrons of fire, bubbling mud baths and steaming hot springs. Added to this, their stunning cobalt seas, rugged mountains and a charming 1949 film with Ingrid Bergman called Stromboli, Terra di Dio, about a postman; all go to make the Aeolians one of the top destinations for European island-lovers.
The seven islands — Lipari, Vulcano and Salina in the center, Panarea and then Stromboli to the east, and Alicudi and Filicudi to the west — are part of a massive 200 kilometers-long volcanic ridge that stretches from the towering smoking peak of Mount Etna on Sicily all the way north
to the dormant but menacing mass of Vesuvius, the backdrop to Naples and the slayer of Roman Pompeii.
Astonishingly beautiful and also very varied, with striking volcanic cliffs and rock formations, plus idyllic sandy inlets, they collectively earned a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2000.
Attracting hordes of visitors every summer who come to bathe, dive and relax in the sun, it is well worth trying to visit the islands before or after peak season, in the months of May, June, September and October.
Island-hopping is relatively easy and allows visitors to discover the islands’ individual charms over the course of a few days, from sparse Alicudi to the west, where donkeys are still the main form of transport, to Panarea catering for the international jet-set to the east, and Stromboli furthest east, with its distinctive volcano-shaped outline and smoking stack.
The archipelago was named after Aeolus, God of the winds, by Greek settlers, reminding summer visitors that, after the equinox when the seasons change, the winds can make the islands feel quite isolated. Indeed, shipping services sometimes grind to a halt for several days due to the heavy seas and high winds.
The islands first emerged from the sea around 600,000 years ago and today both Stromboli and Vulcano have active volcanoes, while all the other islands have volcanic activity of some kind.
Today, the islands have a residual population of some 10,000, which swells to an incredible 200,000 at its peak during the summer, when the ports and inlets fill with luxury yachts and the bars and beaches overflow with the rich and beautiful.
I was fortunate enough to have a chance to visit the islands out of season in mid-May on a recent trip to Sicily and chose to make Panarea, the smallest but also the most chic of the seven islands, my Aeolian base.
Only 3 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide, with an abundance of white-washed houses, Panarea feels a little like a Greek island. It used to be a rather larger volcanic island, as evidenced by the remnants of its older circumference in the form of jagged islets of cliffs lying off the eastern shore.
The original volcano on old Panarea must have blown its top in a similar fashion to the nineteenth century Indonesian island of Krakatau in the Sunda Straits off western Java.
I stayed at a white-washed resort called Quartara Hotel located a few minutes walk up the hill behind Panarea’s harbor, called San Pietro.
To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by the familiar comforts of a sumptuous Javanese home, the hotel and rooms stylishly furnished and decorated in handmade Javanese teak furniture that the owner brought back following a holiday to Indonesia.
It was a curious feeling to sleep in a Javanese four-poster teak bed on the other side of the world.
The restaurant and the solarium on the rooftop have superb views of the sea looking towards some of Panarea’s rocky islets to the east, with Stromboli in the distance. It you ever find yourself here, take the time to lie back in the Jacuzzi on the rooftop as the sun sets and the candles flicker around you, while sipping a cold margarita.
Despite the fact that Panarea is the most fashionable of the Aeolians and the haunt of the rich and famous followers of fashion from Rome and Milan, in the middle of May it is still surprisingly quiet and relaxing, with most hotels close to empty — and also much better value than in the peak summer months.
I was able to explore most of the island on foot, hardly meeting a soul. One of the sights included the remains of a Bronze Age village on the dramatic rocky outcrop of Punta Milazzese, about half an hour’s walk from the port and the main town. Probably the most popular island to visit thanks to its iconic shape and smoking crater, Stromboli has been the object of observation by travellers for more than two millennia. When Ingrid Bergman first came to shoot the film in 1949, there wasn’t a single hotel on the island. That started to change following the film’s release and today there is a plethora of places to stay.
While Stromboli is known for its craggy coastline and deep clear waters, the main draw for visitors here is its famous volcano. The best time to make the two-hour ascent is in the evening, as the eruptions are most spectacular when seen in the dark.
However, at times the peak is closed due to the ferocity of the lava discharges, and when open it is necessary to make the climb with a qualified guide. Strong hiking boots, warm clothing ( even in the summer ) and plenty of water are indispensible.
The island of Lipari is the largest of the Aeolians and also the central transport hub for ferries and hydrofoils traveling to and from Sicily. It also has something of an industry in the form of pumice quarries, although these have been under pressure to close down due the island’s UNESCO status.
Lipari was settled by Sicily’s first known inhabitants, the Stentillenians, in the fourth century BC, who developed a flourishing economy based on tools made from obsidian, a hard glass-like volcanic rock.
The main town is dominated by a 16th century citadel surrounded by fortress walls. The fortifications were built by the Spanish who then controlled Sicily, in response to a devilish attack by the infamous Barbary pirate Barbarossa ( Red Beard ).
Barbarossa murdered most of the male inhabitants, hauled away the womenfolk and destroyed the relics of Saint Bartholomew along with most of the original Norman church, which dated from the 12th century when the Normans ruled over the Kingdom of Sicily.
Today, Lipari provides plenty of options for comfortable accommodation, together with a couple of beaches, Spiaggia Bianca and Spiaggia della Papesca, to the north of the main town.
Other than the option of signing up for one of the many organised tours of the island, the best way to get around is to rent a scooter or a small Fiat car.
The only other island I had time to visit during my brief stay was Vulcano, dedicated to the Roman God of fire, Vulcan. Vulcano is an unforgettable experience, if only for the obnoxious rotten-egg smell of sulphurous gases that pervades the island.
The highlight of a visit to Vulcano, once you escape from the drab main town of Porto di Levante, is the one-hour walk up to the most recent of Vulcano’s three craters, that of Vulcanello, formed less than 2,000 years ago by an eruption. The scenery along the walk makes up for the smell, with its rural simplicity and small garden plots.
Despite the bad odours, Italians flock to the island for its therapeutic mud baths and hot springs. While it makes for a great day visit, staying on the island for the night probably wouldn’t be much fun given the stench.
Unfortunately, given only four full days I didn’t have time to visit the other three islands of Salina, close to Lipari and Filicudi and Alicudi further to the west. But having already had a taste of the Aeolians, those three will be top of my list on my next visit.
— Photos by Peter Milne