Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea. Don’t worry if you can’t immediately pin down these names on a map. Until two months ago, I couldn’t either. Then I moved to Sicily. If I add the name of the seventh and best-known island – Stromboli -, that may at least ring a distant bell. These seven and a few more uninhabited islands together are the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily.
My endeavour to explore at least some of these islands began with a failure. In mid-November I wanted to travel to Salina, but due to rough seas (the day before 16 people had died in a storm in Sardinia), neither ferries nor the even more weather-prone hydrofoils left the port of Milazzo.
But two days later I could embark on the ferry to Lipari, the largest of the seven islands. On the large ferry I seem totally forlorn next to the only three other passengers. In the ferry’s belly, only one car and one van are being lashed. Such an almost empty belly won’t make the shipping company full, but luckily for them there will be the streams of tourists in summer, congesting islands and driving up prices. I prefer to travel counter-cyclically. Keynes would be happy.
Slowly, the ferry steams out of the port of Milazzo, past the long green cape which pushes north into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Behind the city, and imposing and (at this time of the year) green mountain ridge comes into view, and after sailing for a few miles the crown of Sicily becomes visible: Mount Etna. The sky is blue, the sea is even more blue and so calm that it’s hard to imagine how it had been roaring just two days ago. The ship’s bar doesn’t bother to open for the few passengers. With my stomach just as empty as that of the ferry, I doze off.
I only wake up when the rhythmic up and down of the ship abruptly slows down. To my left I see a green mountain pushing itself out of the sea, as we glide past. It is much greener than I would have expected a volcanic island to be. This is Vulcano, a short stopover on the way to Lipari. In a few days I will visit this island as well, and what I can see now already whets my appetite: smoke rises from the volcano’s active crater, the port is framed by saw-toothed rock formations higher than any building on the island, palm trees line the few lowlands. An image as I had last seen it in Australia. But we’re already continuing towards Lipari.
Having arrived in the port of Lipari, those whose livelihood is based on tourism assail the four newcomers: trips around the island, hiring a scooter, renting a room. In November the supply clearly outstrips the demand. Because I am not too fond of this obtrusiveness, I decline even the most alluring offers.
With a population of around 5,000, Lipari is the only place in all the Aeolian Islands to deserve to be called a city. There is a hospital, a school and all the shops that tourists or islanders (those living on the other islands come here if they need something which is not stocked on their island) might need. Yet the main shopping street is so empty that dogs are racing through the streets unhindered. The well-fed cats have become so accustomed to the dogs chasing each other, that they don’t move an inch, whether canine or humans walk past. Calm and quiet pervade the steep and narrow alleys. A newsagent offers newspapers, battered by the wind and five days old.
I walk into the cemetery, both for its location on a slope outside the city centre not far from the harbour from where one has a good view across the whole town, and out of a general interest in these gardens of final rest. But this one is not a real garden. It consists almost exclusively of stones and bricks. It is still interesting though: apparently due to the shortage of space, several graves are stacked on top of each other. They look like large bookshelves, the walls of brick and concrete into which the coffins are pushed. Up to six storeys high are these wall graves. There are ladders with wheels which one has to climb in order to deposit some flowers on a relative’s grave. Some of the compartments are still empty, for the time being only occupied by birds. Lizards scurry across the warm stone.
But now it’s time to get out into the nature, towards the Geophysical Observatory at the southern tip of the island. A mistake in my guidebook, just one “right” where it should have read “left”, leads me along ever steeper and narrower paths into the wilderness. My admiration for this suggested route is surpassed by the green nature and the wonderful view back towards the bay of Lipari and Lipari City with its dominating castle hill. The sea is of the dark blue that children use to paint the sea. My hike only comes to a temporary end when I face an insurmountable wall of rock covered with cacti and I finally have to admit that I got lost. Luckily, there is an abandoned house there which has fallen into disrepair, but which still has a beautiful terrace where I can devour the two arancini that I brought. These are fried rice balls filled with peas and minced meat and a filling Sicilian delicacy. I linger and enjoy the seclusion, but sooner or later I have to walk the whole way back. To be on the safe side, I then walk along the road to the observatory. Less beautiful, but at least it will take me to my destination.
The observatory lies only at an altitude of maybe 400 meters, but from sea level that’s still an ascent of 400 meters. When I finally reach the top, I am exhausted and thirsty. The road comes to an end at the observatory, but a path continues through the brushwood all the way to the coast. What a fantastic view! From high above I look down on the neighbouring island of Vulcano and its peninsula of Vulcanello, both shaped by clearly distinguishable craters. The great crater is emitting smoke, not only from the crater’s maw, but also from cracks in the mountain. Except for the great crater, Vulcano is however surprisingly green. With its cliffy coast, the rock formations thrown out by the volcano and solidified in the sea, the island looks like it has been made for adventure films.
I had only planned to stay here a little while, so that I could return to Lipari before darkness will set in. I estimate that it will take me two hours to walk back, so I should get going soon. But it is too beautiful. A paradisical place. Thus I remain and climb around the cliffs, stimulated and adrenalized by landscape and panorama. Only a stone tablet in one of the rocks which commemorates three climbers who died here in summer slows me down in my climbing.
The question of how to return to Lipari City resolves itself. Meanwhile, a car with three teenagers or young adults who apparently also want to enjoy the sunset (and possibly something else) has arrived at the observatory. Although they don’t really have enough space next to all their musical instruments, they take me with them and drop me off at the port in Lipari.
At one of the ports in Lipari, I should say, because although the town is not large, it has three of them. Marina Corta is the southernmost port and the prettiest of them all. It’s not equipped for large ferries, but for smaller tour boats, mothballed for the winter, and fishing boats. The picturesque harbour is adorned with a bridge, the statue of the island’s patron saint Bartolomeo, which several islanders proudly point out to me, and two churches, one of them in the middle of the harbour on one of the quay walls. You can go into the church almost directly from the boat, which is either practical for fishermen or romantic for couples getting married. Due to the light in the harbour and the small bridge, I feel reminded of Venice.
And we continue with Lipari – Day 2.
(Diesen Reisebericht gibt es auch auf Deutsch.)