Have you been to the Aeolian Islands? Have you even heard of the Aeolian Islands? I am going to let you in on an insider secret that more than 99.99% of travelers to Italy don’t know about. This island chain off the coast of Sicily is one of the most special and most spectacular places you will ever visit.
I have to confess I had never even heard of the Aeolian Islands until reading what has become one of my favorite books ever, (I have read it more times than I care to fess up to!) An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser. In the book Laura makes her way to the Aeolians and travels around them telling stories of the wonderful characters she meets and the incredible sights she sees.
Once I found the Aeolian Islands on the map I had to find a way to get there.
Where Are The Aeolian Islands?
The Aeolian Islands are a volcanic chain in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the north coast of Sicily. I find the compass points of Sicily too confusing, so imagine a line from Naples to Sicily. The island chain is off that coast, slightly above Messina, where the toe of Italy’s boot meets Sicily.
The seven islands, Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Alicudi and Filicudi explode up out of the bluest cobalt sea you have ever seen, with the kind of drama reserved for volcanos and Greek gods. In 2000 the Aeolians (named after the wind demigod Aeolus) and their history dating back to 4000 B.C. were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site Status.
One of the truly fantastic things about the Aeolian islands is that despite their beauty and their attraction as the perfect island getaway, there is not so much as a Hilton or a Marriot in sight. No condo complexes with a view, no major modern urbanization. These islands for millennia have been made up of fishing villages, beautiful, picturesque little fishing villages, all of which have been maintained architecturally but modernized with electrics and plumbing. You feel like you have arrived in heaven, and maybe you just have.
The Eastern Aeolian Islands
The first island in the chain, positioned close to the Sicilian beach town of Milazzo, is a live volcano aptly named Vulcano by the Romans who thought it was the chimney of Vulcan, the God of fire. Although not sending out lava, Vulcano shoots steam from its fumaroles, offers therapeutic mud baths and a mud beach. We watched people slathering themselves with the warm, volcanic mud, lie out in the sun to let it dry and harden, then swim in off in the bay. I didn’t do it myself although with all the therapeutic benefits perhaps I should have!
One of the big attractions of Vulcano (apart from the breathtaking views) is the black sand beach. This is a lovely beach for sunning and swimming and is one of the few sand beaches in the archipelago. The sunsets from here will bring you to tears, they are just so beautiful.
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The largest of the islands, Lipari, is next in the chain and is the island I always stay on. All beauty and history aside, the heady fragrance of lemons and jasmine and honeysuckle will haunt you forever. On so many levels Lipari is a place you experience more than just visit.
Lipari is historically important, with treasures from settlements long before the arrival of the Greeks. (Think 4000-1000B.C) The archaeological museum is a must see with its displays of cargoes from ancient shipwrecks (think really ancient!) and also the world’s largest collection of mini Greek theater masks.
The town center is full of wonderful little streets to wander through, fabulous bars and restaurants, lovely little shops, and history every which way you turn.
Further along the coast is the darling community of Canneto Beach, where I always stay. The beachfront town looks like the set from an old movie. No matter what time of day or night the light hits it with movie-like flair and majesty. It is completely visually stunning.
I found Canneto while looking for a place to stay with a terrace facing the island Stromboli, so that if it decided to show off with a fireworks display of erupting lava I would be in prime position to watch the show. Although Stromboli has erupted days after I have been in residence I have never been there to see it myself. Maybe next time?
Someone was told me Lipari is a more down to earth version of Capri, but I beg to differ. It has its own perfect magic. Along the waterfront in Canneto you can still see some old run-down fisherman’s homes that make you think of Il Postino…
If you rent scooters or a car on the island you can head around to Aquacalda for lunch. While there lunching and simultaneously trying to wrap our brains around the staggering views of the neighboring island of Salina while flirting with the ridiculously handsome restaurant owner, we found out that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair comes here when he needs to getaway. Who Knew?
Did you see the movie Il Postino? If not you need to see it! The story takes place on the island of Salina. This is the most verdant of the islands, its rich volcanic soil perfect for the more than 400 different types of plants that grow there. The mountain slopes are covered in ferns, chestnut trees and poplars, but Salina is most famous for having the best capers in the world and for its sweet, golden, Malvasia wine.
The smallest of the 7 islands Panarea is also the most chic and the most exclusive. Home owners include the Bulgari’s, the Borghese’s and the Visconti’s. Although this is the playground of the uber rich, uber jetset, you won’t find wild nightclubs here, that would be too crass. Princess Caroline of Monaco and Giorgio Armani bring their yachts to Panarea – did I mention it is madly chic?
If you are dropping in for a visit chances are you won’t stumble upon the island’s bronze age ruins, but you will see whitewashed buildings surrounded by an explosion of brightly colored flowers, offset by the bluest sea you can possibly imagine.
An absolute must when visiting Panarea is to swim from a boat off her coast. First you will notice it is hard to comprehend how blue the water is. Second you will find that this is the softest seawater you have ever experienced anywhere in the world. Or at least it is the softest seawater I have experienced anywhere in all of my travels.
Some of the views will seem oddly familiar. This is because of all the Dolce and Gabbana fragrance ad campaigns that have been shot here.
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The next island along the route is the delightfully menacing live volcano, Stromboli. From the smoke plumes rising up to the heavens to the lava stream rolling down the back side of the island you are always aware that you are on a volcano. It’s actually pretty fantastic.
Stromboli is unique in that it has been continuously or persistently active throughout recorded history, some 2000-3000 years! It has small, explosive “Strombolian” eruptions every 30 minutes or so, larger explosions 2 to 5 times per year. Hikers climb the mountain every day to watch the action from the edge of the crater, and then walk back down in the dark. Other people (like me) prefer to take a boat around to the back of the island after the sun has gone down and watch the lava roll down the side of the mountain, fast moving and vibrant in the dark. No matter how many times you see it, it is still just awe inspiring and miraculous.
Stromboli is a fabulous island to spend time on. Not as picturesque as neighboring Panarea and Lipari, it still has its own magic. Juxtaposed with the perfect buildings and endlessly chic people on Panarea, just a stone’s throw away, Stromboli is like another world. The buildings are a little shabby, the foliage a little more untamed, the locals a little more hippy-esque. Okay, a lot.
The residential neighborhoods have wide walking streets with wonderful old houses, including the house where Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini lived during the filming of the movie Stromboli.
The piazza in front of the church at the top of Stromboli town can be a hive of activity. One time we watched a fabulous young man teaching a tango lab to a gathering of old couples, young couples, gay couples, lesbian couples, kid couples, punk rock looking couples and friend couples who just wanted to join in. His old school tango music rang out across the bay, and the combination of the breathtaking views, the old buildings, the violence rumbling around underground, the music and the dancing made for a heady, surreal experience, one of the great travel memories I absolutely treasure.
Next to the piazza is Bar Ingrid, named after Bergman. This is the perfect place to end your day with a glass of local wine, and a basket of snacks from the restaurant, whiling away the time on their giant terrace looking out over the ocean, waiting for the sun to go down. The views will take your breath away.
The Western Aeolian Islands.
I haven’t yet been to the two western islands in the chain. They are a little more remote and depending on your starting point slightly more difficult to reach. Both islands are exquisitely beautiful, with Caribbean looking beaches, the bluest water, no cars, hardly any year round population, and the wildest, craziest stories ever.
Heading west 24 nautical miles from Lipari is the tiny and remote island of Filicudi. Settled at some point in the Neolithic age (3000 B.C). The village of Capo Graziano has the remains of a Bronze Age village (2000 B.C). After centuries of lying uninhabited Filicudi was then settled by the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines.
The island’s distance from the mainland and from the main shipping channels, as well as the migration flow (much of which went to Australia) has resulted in it being mostly unchanged in the last century. As with the other islands in the chain Filicudi is merely the rocky tip of an underwater volcano, this one only 774 meters above sea level at its highest point.
One interesting place to put on your itinerary is the Bue Marino (sea ox), a spectacular blue grotto style cave with shockingly crystalline depth and beauty that takes its name from the haunting noises similar to the bellows of an ox produced when the waves crash against the rocks.
There is a fantastic story about Filcudi, the Mafia and a bunch of Australians. In 1971 Italy banished its worst mafia members to the tiny island of Filicudi. In some weird concept of punishment instead of being locked up in prisons they were free to enjoy life in paradise. They wandered around in the sunshine, lay on the beaches, slept in king sized beds instead of jail cells. They ate for free at the local taverns where they dined on gourmet foods the locals could never afford to eat.
They even were allowed to take a lover, although the local girls would rather die than get involved with them.
These were Mafiosi such as Godfather-like John Bonventre, the FBI wanted man who controlled the South America – United States – Sicily cocaine chain and Tano Badalamenti, the “farmer boss” who was known for killing enemy gangs, infiltrating public offices and running drug trade.
The locals loathed them and didn’t want them on their island. Most of the locals had relatives who had migrated to Australia. Both the Aussie connection and the locals were scared the cash rich mafia would use their blood money to buy up the island, their homes and their donkeys, so they hatched a brilliant plan. A plan that became the country’s first anti-mafia war.
With the support of the other Aeolian Islands and the Aussie connection’s financing, the locals ran away from / abandoned Filicudi. They left the island empty while they hid out on the other islands, leaving the mafia with nowhere to shop or eat. For several days the island turned into a ghost town. All the windows were shuttered, the shops and taverns closed, the fields empty, the farmers and fishermen all gone. The only people left on the island were the mafia dons. Genius, no?
I don’t know how long it lasted but in the end the government had to move the Mafiosi to an uninhabited island near Sardinia, with only wild donkeys for company.
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The final and westernmost island in the Aeolian Archipelago is Alicudi. Home to a mere 120 people this little circular island occupies only 5.2 square kms or 2 square miles. The island is 150,000 years old but archeologists date its first inhabitants to 1700 B.C. Roman ceramics have also been found (500 B.C – 350 A.D). For centuries the defenseless little island was the target of pirates so for safety the people of Alicudi were forced to build little houses on high terraces. Agriculture and the cultivation of peaches funded the island’s small economy.
There are no roads on Alicudi, and only one restaurant. This is a place to be alone, so is popular with writers, artists, hikers and adventurers.
Alicudi also has a particularly fantastically crazy story. This one earned it the moniker “LSD Island”, and it centers around a cozy pink resort called Casa Mulina, formerly the island’s grain mill. The mill from which the view is and was of crystal clear blue water making a picturesque little harbor, fishermen and their boats, and brightly painted buildings, innocence and beauty.
The same mill that for centuries, since the settlers arrived in the 1600s and up until the 1950s, was the source of hallucinogenic bread, baked daily by the local housewives. The bread was contaminated with a brain-bending rye fungus called ergot, the base element of LSD.
The island’s sultry climate was the perfect “natural lab” for the fungus.
Generations of villagers consumed “crazy rye” or “horned rye” (named after the fungus produced black pointed ends that look like devil horns on the rye ears) every day of their lives! The psychedelic fungus wreaked havoc on the locals for centuries.
Every morning the local women would feed their husbands and children LSD bread. Everyone on the island was getting high and tripping every day without knowing it! Long term ergot poisoning can cause mania and psychosis.
Quoted from a CNN Traveler article about LSD Island: “The first harvests were scarce and food was precious so nothing was thrown away, even rotten bread and pasta covered in mold were eaten.
“Scarcity of other alternative food sources and humidity produced this nasty fungus that when ingested caused mass hallucinations, hysteria, hypnosis and autosuggestion.”
Part of their trippy, LSD induced visions included seeing flying women, or witches.
Legend has it that at night the local women would rub ointment on themselves and turn into witches, then fly to Palermo on shopping trips, coming back to the poverty ridden island with sacks full of delicious foods.
The legend also says that cruel witches would cast evil-eye spells on their enemies and sink boats, while other witches could heal babies of stomach worms.
The women of the island worked all day in the fields under the scorching sun, the island was so isolated that they felt caged, desperate and mentally imprisoned, and many had despotic husbands, all of which created another layer of madness, making the concept of flying at night a source of mental freedom. Some women fell off their balconies trying to fly.
Not all the current islanders believe in the LSD bread. Some believe the island really was magic. Stories of talking hemp sacks, defecating ghosts and men turning into donkeys and pigs and cows are also part of the folk lore.
It is all just too fantastic for words! I would go visit Alicudi just to see the paintings of the flying women and to walk in the footsteps of centuries of LSD crazed islanders but for the fact that time on Alicudi reportedly involves scaling 4444 rough steps from the marina to the houses.
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How To Get To The Aeolian Islands
You can get to the Aeolian Islands by hydrofoil and by ferry from Milazzo and by ferry from Palermo on Mainland Sicily. From June through September there are daily overnight ferries from Naples to the islands, and weekly ferries during the rest of the year.
** The overnight ferry to and from Naples is a tremendous way to travel. Naples is best approached and departed by sea. From the deck of a boat watching the sun set over Naples as you move out through the Bay of Naples is breathtakingly beautiful. Equally stunning is arriving into the Bay of Naples with the morning sun. The ferry from Naples arrives in the early morning with stops at Stromboli, Panarea, Lipari and Vulcano before making its way to Milazzo, doing the reverse on the way back at night.
If you want to take the ferry to Naples and there are none running through the Aeolian Islands, you can take the ferry in and out of Palermo and the train from Palermo to Milazzo.
If you are flying to Sicily the closest airport is Catania.