Aeolian Islands (24 to 28 June 2024)

From Kyoto we took the train to Tokyo and straight onto a flight to Palermo, Italy.  We’ve been before and done the sights.  New since our last visit is a fantastic walking tour run by Addio Pizzo, a not for profit dedicated to anti-mafia activism.  If you’d like to read about it, we’ve updated our earlier Palermo post, so check it out there.

And then on to the Aeolian Islands.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Aeolus was king of the floating island of Aeolia, appointed by Zeus as “keeper of the winds, both to still and to rouse”.  Odysseus landed on Aeolia after escaping the Cyclops.  To help him get back to Troy, Aeolus gifted him a bag imprisoning the blustering winds, and released the gentle west wind to guide his boat home.

But Odysseus’ crew thought the bag contained treasure.  They were almost to Troy when greed got the better of them.  They opened the bag and the blustering winds escaped, blowing the boat all the way back to Aeolia.  Aeolus wasn’t impressed.  Believing Odysseus to be cursed by the gods, he refused to give any further help.  You’re on your own now, sunshine.

And that is the romantic explanation for why strong winds blow through the Aeolian Islands for about three months every year.

About 60km off the coast of north east Sicily, the archipelago consists of seven small inhabited islands affectionately referred to as the ‘seven sisters’ together with a few other lumps of rock jutting up out of the sea.  The islands are part of a volcanic arc stretching from Mt Etna on Sicily to Mt Vesuvius on mainland Italy, created over millenia by the African continental shelf ever so slowly crunching into the Eurasian plate.

Two of the islands, Vulcano and Stromboli, are active volcanoes.  Collectively, the island group is UNESCO listed as “an outstanding record of volcanic island building and destruction, and ongoing volcanic phenomena”.  They’re sparsely populated, with only about 15,000 permanent citizens in total.  But in summer the population swells, mainly with domestic tourists on their annual beach break.

Lipari

The gateway to the islands is Lipari.  It’s town of the same name is the municipal capital and it’s where we based ourselves.

Ferries from the mainland arrive to Marina Lunga.

A quick walk or taxi brings you to the old harbour, Marina Corte.

We had a basic but comfortable apartment in a small property down a narrow lane that ended at the sea.  Quiet, no traffic, glimpses of the sea from our terrace, and a one minute walk to a pebbly beach perfect for cooling off.

Around Marina Corte are a clutch of really nice restaurants.  Catering to tourists for sure, but excellent quality food at reasonable prices.  Not ‘tourist trap’ territory at all.

During the day, a man sells fruit from a small truck and local fishermen sell their daily catch from the back of their boats.  Small cruisers take holiday makers out for fishing, diving and sightseeing.

At night, local kids kick soccer balls around the plaza while mothers sit chatting by the sea wall.

Late one night we saw the fruit vendor’s truck parked in a street a few blocks away.  Open sided, fruit openly displayed, yet apparently he knew he didn’t need to worry about his produce being stolen.  Amazing.

Above the harbour is a promontory which has been inhabited since Neolithic times, through Greek and Roman rule, the Normans and the Spanish.  The current structures date to the Spanish occupation during the 1500s.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered tombs and the foundations of buildings dating to the Greek and Roman periods.

There’s a major archeology museum here with, among other things, the world’s largest collection of miniature Greek theatrical masks.  John could hardly contain his excitement.  Not.

A couple of shopping streets snake up from the harbour to the citadel through slowly gentrifying residential properties.

Steps lead to St Bartholomew’s Cathedral on the citadel grounds,  consecrated in the 12th century.

It owes its status as a cathedral to a lead sarcophagus allegedly containing the remains of St Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, ‘miraculously’ washing up on the shores of Lipari in 546CE.  The relics have long since been transferred elsewhere but the cathedral has a groovy silver statue of him, complete with what looks like a carving knife in hand.

And nestled into the cliff, an unbeatable location for a seafood lunch.  Better than miniature masks.  We settled in for a long one.

Vulcano

Just ten minutes by ferry from Lipari is the tiny island of Vulcano.

Remember Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, whose bare bottomed statue is in our post on Birmingham, USA?  Yes, him.  The Romans believed he had his smithing workshop here, beneath this smoking, fire-spitting mountain which they therefore called Vulcano.   They went on to call other such mountains ‘volcanoes’, so Vulcano is the volcano from which all others take their name.

As soon as you land, the unmistakeable stench of sulphur assails your nose.  There are only about 800 residents on the island.  800 people crazy enough to live with that smell as a constant.

There’s a large mud pool right on the beach with a year round temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.  Until early 2020, visitors would come to wallow in the pool, believing the mud to be beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions and other ailments.   The mud turns jewellery black, is highly irritating to the eyes and will ruin hair.  Visitors were warned to wear a swimming costume they were prepared to throw away afterwards because no amount of washing would get rid of the smell.  Yet still it was very popular.

But the volume of sulphur fumes rising from the pool has been increasing over time and in 2020 the authorities permanently closed the pool on the basis that the fumes are hazardous to health.

Beyond the pool, there’s a black sand/pebble beach where underwater vents release stinky bubbles which warm the water.  So if basking in a tepid spa which smells of rotten eggs is your idea of a good day out, this is the place for you.

The better reason to come here is to climb to the volcanic rim for a peek into Vulcan’s underworld.  It’s a straightforward one hour each way hike, not particularly steep, mostly on soft volcanic gravel.

There’s a traffic light system.  Green you can climb, red you cannot.  Through most of the year, it’s red from 10.30am to 2.30pm.  There’s no shade and it gets fiercely hot.  We made it just in time, arriving at the start point at 10.15am.  On our way down, we saw plenty of people coming up in breach of the red light.  There’s no hard barrier, but there is a 500 euro fine.

Although the volcano has not erupted since the 1880s, it emits constant, highly sulphurous plumes which can, literally, be overwhelming.  The conditions are quite dynamic and if considered too hazardous, the track will be closed.

As you get closer to the top, the unmistakeable rotten egg stink of sulphur gets stronger and stronger.  Luckily, the track was upwind when we climbed.  When the breeze swings around, the stench is apparently pretty bad.

At the top, you can walk about two thirds of the perimeter, but not past the section where the gases are venting.

On a clear day, there’s also a spectacular view over the caldera with all six other Aeolian Islands lined up beyond.

It’s an interesting island to visit but the fumes would make it challenging to stay longer term.

Panarea

About 40 minutes by ferry from Lipari, Panarea has only 400 permanent residents and is the smallest of the inhabited Aeolian Islands, just 3.3 square kms.  We stopped off here on our way to Stromboli and an hour or so is enough to see the town.

It has a reputation as being a bit glitzy, with some luxury villas and hotels hidden away in the hills.  Allegedly it’s ’beloved by celebrities’ with famous regular visitors including Giorgio Armani, Jeff Bezos, Katy Perry and Bradley Cooper.

In reality it’s quite low key although we understand it becomes a bit of a party island in August when several seasonal discos and clubs open.

There’s a bunch of upscale fashion, swimwear and jewellery boutiques, at least one yoga studio, lots of cafes and restaurants.

This cat didn’t seem to give a …..

The main village is indeed pretty.  Traditional houses consist of modular cubes of local stone and volcanic rock, often with large covered patios.  Strict development controls now require existing houses to be renovated sympathetically and new builds must reflect the traditional style.

It reminded us a lot of some of the Greek islands.  Blinding white houses, vibrant bougainvillea, stone paved lanes, but with some distinctive Italian styling.

And a sneaky view over to Stromboli quietly puffing away in the distance.

Stromboli 

From Panarea we sailed across to Stromboli.  The cone was clearly visible, together with the blackened Sciara dell Fuoco, “Stream of Fire”, a huge horseshoe shaped depression created by collapses of the northern side of the cone over the last 3,000 years.

Stromboli is one of Italy’s four active volcanos, along with Vulcano, Mt Etna and Mt Vesuvius.  Stromboli island, 12.6 square kms, represents the upper third of the volcano.  The rest is beneath the sea.  It’s constantly active, earning it the nickname ‘the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’.

On the shores are two small settlements.  Once home to a few thousand people, in the 1950s the island’s population dwindled to a few hundred.  Now it’s about 500, essentially fishermen and those working in the tourism industry centred around the volcano and the island’s black sand beaches.


Eruptions are almost exclusively short bursts of incandescent rocks thrown into the sky rather than lava flows.  It’s considered to be one of the world’s most consistently firing volcanoes, so there’s a high chance of seeing some pyrotechnics if the weather is good.

That’s not to suggest its behaviour is predictable.   In 2019, a hiker near the summit died, and six others were injured when they were struck by flying debris.  Stromboli town residents described a “rain of fire coming from the sky”.  The explosion was heard on Panarea, 27km away.  Six weeks later, a large lava flow occurred.   Climbing to the top has been banned ever since.

As of today, how far you can climb depends on the alert status.  It’s currently orange, the second highest.  Unguided walkers can hike only to 290 metres elevation.  With an official guide, climbers can go to a higher view point at 400 metres.  Neither comes close to the crater rim which is at 960 metres.

Viewing the volcano at night from boats is extremely popular, and we opted for that instead.  After an early dinner in Stromboli town, our boat headed out for a circumnavigation of the island.

Just offshore is Stromboliccio, or Little Stromboli, the remnant of an ancient volcanic chimney.  In daylight, it’s an impressive rock jutting straight out of the ocean with a lighthouse on top.

From a different angle, with the sun setting behind, it really did look like a dragon sitting outside his lair with wings folded contemplating the volcano just out of shot on the left.

Disappointingly, as the light faded, thick cloud accumulated around Stromboli’s cone.  Photo-worthy but not so good for seeing the pyrotechnics.

We waited for darkness to fall.  On an almost complete circling of the volcano lasting around an hour, we saw a few impressive bursts of red, but they were fleeting and hard to capture.  Here’s the best Julie could manage.

Interesting, but not quite the ‘wow’ it might have been on a cloudless night.

Some people hop around, staying on different islands but we were pleased to just stay on Lipari and see the others on day trips.   We loved the quiet calm of Lipari before the summer crowds of July and August.  We enjoyed our little apartment with a shady terrace and water glimpses, a minute’s walk to the tiny beach.  Excellent seafood and pasta restaurants.  When we’re back in Sicily, we’d definitely come here again.

And we have the perfect excuse – we’ve only seen four of the seven islands.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris Cameron
    July 5, 2024 / 11:22 am

    We often find it great to base ourselves somewhere and do day trips/ walks from there. Looks like a good choice to me !
    We are leaving Europe 🥲 as you arrive. Enjoy 😊

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