On Italian island, the past isn't gone yet

Email|Print| Text size + By David Smith and Janna Malamud Smith
Globe Correspondents / September 25, 2005

LIPARI, Italy -- Islands have a way of distilling experience. A little more remote, a little harder to get to, they offer travelers not only a sense of adventure but also the taste of a culture less likely to have been homogenized to mainland standards.

If islands distill, islands off islands distill again. A visit to Sicily in March 2004 had provided so much rough-edged gusto that March 2005 found us heading for the Aeolian archipelago off the Sicilian north coast.

The main departure point for the Aeolians is Milazzo, a four-hour train ride from Palermo's Central Station. The tracks hug the coastline, with snow-capped mountains and ubiquitous citrus groves, palm trees, and cacti on the right and the intense blue-green water of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the left. An hour or so before the end of the trip, the nearer islands thrust their sharp, volcanic silhouettes into view.

In Milazzo, we boarded an early hydrofoil for the short run to Lipari, the largest island in the chain.

The Aeolians, seven in all, emerged after a great tectonic shift on the sea floor a million years ago. Inhabited since ancient times, they are named for Aeolus, the wind king who gave Odysseus a tightly stoppered bag of his best gales. When the hero's curious men, with their own home in sight, pulled the plug and were driven helter-skelter back to his shores, Aeolus angrily turned them away.

The morning we arrived was sunny and calm. On the horizon, a dramatic plume of smoke from Stromboli, the outermost island and most active volcano, rose straight into the sky. (It was to Stromboli that Roberto Rosselini brought Ingrid Bergman when he wanted to give persistent paparazzi the slip.)

The proprietress of Le Terrazze, the small guesthouse we had found online, met the ferry, grinned broadly, and, with the muscular independence that seems a hallmark of island women everywhere, hefted our bags into her too-small trunk and drove us the two minutes to our pretty beach-front lodging as she steered with one hand and dialed her cell phone with the other.

After settling us, Signora mostly left us to our own devices. She greeted us daily, and on one occasion -- pointing enthusiastically to a picture in her brochure -- encouraged us to rent one of her go-carts to tour the island. The 100 euros a day was a deal breaker, but we delighted in the exchange. Her main selling point was that the tiny vehicles required no helmets (''Caschi, no," she proclaimed, motioning with both arms), so we could have flouted death by weaving, bare-headed and free, among trucks, cars, and Vespas.

Such offers, and the warm, gregarious sensibilities that make them, are the essence of Sicily and the best reason to go. Forget your helmets, your seat belts, your resolutions about the single glass of wine, your carbohydrate- or fat-free diets, your multiple uptight disavowals of hedonism for the sake of good sense. Life is short; take your pleasures as you can.

Lipari off-season is the island central casting dreams about. Tranquil, unspoiled, hills sprinkled with wildflowers, wharves lined with brightly painted wooden fishing boats, its 10-kilometer coast offers lovely beaches and splendid views. Beachcomb and you will return home pockets heavy with obsidian, pumice, and other volcanic stones. One reason every ancient seafaring civilization conquered the Aeolians is that in the millennia before metal, obsidian was much sought after for spearheads.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, and Turks have left their mark not only in the archeological sites but also on the native faces, the food, the churches, and fortresses. A remarkable museum, Museo Archeologico Eoliano, records this varied past, displaying burial urns, kitchen utensils, wine jars, and anchors hauled up from innumerable shipwrecks in local waters.

Hike up to Quattrocchi and enjoy a view of Vulcano steaming quietly on the far side of a narrow strait. Sunbathe on the beach or sit in the little parks. Take a place in the Marina Corta (Old Port), eating gelato, panini, or pizza while little boys play soccer on its cobblestoned piazza. We watched one young lad, who sent an errant pass into the harbor, swipe an oar from a fishing boat to cajole the ball back out of the water. His grandfather, or someone's, scolded him a little, but it was good-natured. The little boys have the run of the place, and their freedom evokes the past as surely as any monument.

The main town, also called Lipari, offers the rambling traveler several streets filled with old churches, shops, bakeries, cafes, bars, small hotels, and tasty restaurants unpretentiously showcasing the local cuisine. Fishermen hawk the day's fresh catch from the backs of bicycles and mopeds, or from small ice-filled trucks.

Wanting a special meal one night, we walked up to the citadel, where the cheerful dining room of Ristorante Filippino is discreetly tucked away from the crowded main street. The few extra steps rewarded us with excellent food: eggplant caponata; smoked swordfish; a delicate, crunchy fritto misto of shrimp, sardines, and calamari, which we thought could have been nudged over the top by just a dab of tartar sauce from home; and, most memorably, a steaming black mound of unctuous squid-ink risotto.

The best wines of Sicily are the whites, and Filippino provided us with a good one. After we finished a ricotta semifreddo with wild berries, the waiter arrived with complimentary glasses of malvasia, the islands' floral and mildly sweet dessert wine, and small sesame cookies for dipping. The total tab came to about $90. For a quick lunch, delicious street food like arancini (large, deep-fried, bread-crumbed rice balls stuffed with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and other treats) can be had for a euro.

With so many extra calories to burn off, we had hoped to visit Stromboli and ascend to the famous crater. But the sparse off-season ferry schedules made it impossible to get there and back in a day, so we settled instead on nearby Vulcano.

Just 10 minutes by hydrofoil from Lipari, Vulcano's Porto di Levante was all but deserted on a Sunday morning. About half a mile outside town, the trail to the summit begins with a warning sign in four languages, reinforced with a skull and crossbones and advising that the fumes from the ''smoke holes" present ''extreme danger of intoxication."

Undeterred, we pressed on, walking alternately on firm red clay and unpleasantly slippery deposits of cinders. The climb brought us in an hour and a quarter to the rim of the enormous Cratere della Fossa, a gray lunar bowl that the smoke holes have streaked with bright yellow sulfur deposits. The Greeks believed Hephaestus operated his forge here.

A chilly wind blew at the top, welcome after the heat of the ascent. From the height of 1,282 feet we could look almost straight down at boats plying the Vulcano harbor, across at Lipari, and beyond at Salina, Filicudi, and Alicudi nestling in the haze. The thought that there were so many more Aeolians to explore was a happy one, but they would have to wait for another trip.

David Smith and Janna Malamud Smith are writers in Milton.

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