Surrounded by the colbalt blue sea. Pools of bubbling hot springs. Names of Greek gods, and volcanoes still spewing fiery lava. This could be a setting for a Greek story. However, it's an actual place, the Aeolian Islands, named after the wind god Aeolus. These seven volcanic islands, north of Sicily, referred to as the "sette sorelle" (seven sisters) are sprinkled like glitter along the Mediterranean. I spent a weekend there with all the natural elements (earth, wind, fire, and water) and learned a little something about squid.
We stayed on the island of Lipari, the biggest island and most tourist-friendly. Stromboli is the island with an active volcano. Every few minutes the volcano spurts and smokes. Vulcano gets its name from the god of fire. Mythology tells that the volcano on this island was the chimney to his underground workshop. Below the smoldering ashes, Vulcano wielded weapons for Mars. In reality, the island has black-sand beaches, smells like rotten eggs from its sulphurous emissions, and is well-known for its thermal and mud baths. Panarea is the island for the well-heeled, celebrities, and other Italian VIPs. It's white-washed cabanas line the island's harbor. Nightlife on Panarea is the most lively of the islands, and its evening views of Stromboli's fiery tip is magical. Salina with its twin peaks of extinct volcanoes, is the greenest of the islands. It is covered with vines that produce the sweet Malvasia wine, caper-producing bushes, and fragrant olive trees. The smallest and most remote islands of Filicudi and Alicudi are less frequented and almost deserted in the off-season.
We spent one day on a boat excursion that took us around Vulcano, with a short stop in Panarea and then off to Stromboli, so we could spend some time walking its black-pebbled beach and wait to see the evening fireworks show from Stromboli's volcano. The boat dropped us at the port of the town, Ginostra. I thought it funny that the captain bragged about taking us to this town that's only reachable by boat. How else do you reach an island? Visitors to Stromboli seem the most adventurous. There is plenty of scuba diving and one can even hike up to the oozing crater of the volcano. I wasn't one of them, instead I sat and ate a gelato while watching the enthusiastic crazy helmut-clad hikers get safety instructions from their guides. In the evening Stromboli gave us a short showing of fireworks, and we headed back to Lipari. On the night ride back on the dark black sea, I saw the little dipper and la stella venere (Venus "star"). This was a first live-sighting for this urban girl.
Our second night, we stumbled upon a huge line of locals, lined up (yes, Italians lined up) for food, and leaving with mounds on their plates, along with bread and a glass of wine. A local told me it was the totani festival, and the fare was free. They eagerly waved me into the line, and I didn't argue. Totano is a type of squid. "Absolutely, not calamari. It is, of course, much tastier." It's bigger, has red flesh, and a little tougher in texture than calamari. It's also a little sweeter. We had totani (the plural of totano) four different ways: fried, in couscous, in a cold salad, and braised. Quite tasty, and I even managed to get a second helping, also free of charge.
My heart is somehow attached to the sea (maybe I have an ancestor that was a mermaid, but it's more likely they were pirates). I'm always searching for the most beautiful blue ocean, and the Aeolian Islands didn't disappoint.
Getting there is very easy. There are hydrofoils that leave from Palermo (a breathtaking 4- hour trip), Milazzo (1-hour trip) and Naples (12-hour overnight trip). The companies that offer hydrofoil service are Siremar (www.siremar.it), SNAV (www.snav.it), and Ustica (www.usticalines.it). There are numerous excursions to all the islands from Lipari, and several fishing excursions where you catch the totani and cook it aboard the boat. You can also rent mopeds, bikes, go carts to travel around Lipari.