I have wanted to visit the Aeolian Islands since as long as I have known they were there. I have no idea why it took me so long to actually get here! This stunning archipelago is made up of 7 inhabited islands – Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Filicudi, Alicudi, Stromboli and Panarea – and several islets and large rocks and is situated in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the north coast of Sicily and to the east of Italy’s Calabrian Coast (the toe of the boot!). These beautiful UNESCO-protected islands are volcanic in origin (two of them are still active volcanoes) and are breathtakingly beautiful. Rising out of clear azure waters, everywhere you look, you see another island and it becomes a kind of game to recognise which one it is you are looking at across the water.
Named after Aeolus – Greek God of the Winds – the islands are sometimes also known as Isole del Vento (Islands of the Wind). Administratively, they belong to Sicily and to Messina. The language is officially Italian although the (largely unintelligible) Sicilian dialect is spoken everywhere. Although around 600,000 visitors pass through the islands each year – both Italians and foreigners – I found many of the locals fairly determined not to speak anything other than a few words of any foreign tongue which, I must admit, I found quite refreshing! I found the people easy-going, humorous, friendly, helpful, welcoming, kind and hospitable – often a rarity in a place so popular with tourists. The islands produce obsidian, pumice and – allegedly – the best capers in the world! The fertile soil produces fabulous fruit and vegetables, fish and sea food are fresh and delicious and the local wine’s not bad either.
The population of the islands varies enormously from nearly 11,000 year-round inhabitants on Lipari to less than a hundred on Alicudi. Population numbers decreased drastically during the last century as poverty induced many people to leave for pastures new and many Aeolians can be found in South America, New Zealand and Australia (I remember going to a pizzeria in Melbourne called Stromboli with a big picture of the erupting volcano on the wall!) The emigration of the Aeolian people is a subject of great local and historical interest and there is a museum about it on Salina.
Mussolini apparently also used the islands to ‘house’ exiled political dissidents – the lack of telephone lines and the remoteness of the islands making it impossible to communicate with the outside world. As recently as the 1970s the Italian government are reputed to have sent a group of Mafiosi to one of the islands for similar exile purposes (to the extreme displeasure of the locals) although obviously communication is a lot better these days!
I love islands that are hard to get to. I always think that, for those prepared to make the journey, the rewards are more than worth the extra effort. I spent 10 days here in total and managed to visit all 7 islands. Unfortunately, I managed to injure my feet at a wedding before I arrived (long story!) so my efforts to see and do everything were sadly hampered by an inability to walk properly! So, although I managed to visit all of the islands, not being able to walk very far or very well seriously hampered my plans and meant certain ideas like climbing both of the active volcanoes had to be put aside! In spite of that, I had an amazing time here. I met lovely and interesting people, ate great food and saw some stunningly beautiful islands to add to my collection.
I travelled to the Aeolian Islands by bus, boat and train from Positano and left by train from Milazzo (on mainland Sicily) to Naples. The easiest way to get there from the UK is by flying to Catania on mainland Sicily and taking a train to Milazzo – about 2 hours. There is a seriously impressive hydrofoil service run by Liberty Lines from Milazzo and Messina to the islands and an equally fantastic inter-island service run by the same company. The hydrofoils are comfortable, punctual, reasonably-priced, efficient and great if you’re not a good sailor. (www.libertylines.it)
Travelling around each island is as varied as the scenery – some have narrow roads accessible only by golf carts, three wheeled vehicles and scooters. Others have nothing but steep and winding mule tracks only manageable on foot or by donkey. Sometimes the only way to visit the other side of the same island is by boat as there is a volcano in the way! My main memory of my visit is of the colours – the deep blue of the sea set against the lush green of the trees and plants, punctuated with the brightly-coloured, wild flowers that spring up everywhere from the fertile volcanic soil in spite of very little water. Everyone has their favourite island. I haven’t decided yet which one is mine.
If you love nature, walking, plants and flowers, birds, beaches, the sea and most of all volcanoes and islands – you will love it here! Go in May or June before it gets too crowded, travel light and pack your walking boots (and walking poles for serious walkers for walking down those mule tracks) and learn some Italian before you go! I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I enjoyed visiting them!