Sicily’s Aeolian Islands ~ What You Need To Know

Sicily's Aeolian Islands

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.

stromboli

 

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

Vulcano

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!

vulcano sulfur mud baths

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.

vulcano black sand beach

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Lipari

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

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.

Lipari

Lipari

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.

Lipari

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.

lipari at night

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?

Lipari

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…

Lipari

Lipari

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?

Salina

salina italy

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.

 

Panarea

Panarea

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?

Panarea

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.

Panarea

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.

Panarea

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.

RELATED POST: CORINNA B’S WORLD GOES TO PANAREA

Stromboli

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

Stromboli smoking away in the background

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.

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.

stromboli wine

Red wine from Salina and a view from Stromboli

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.

aeolian islands map

Filicudi

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.

filicudi grotto del bue marino

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.

filicudi view

view from this vacation rental villa on Filicudi

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.

RELATED POST: SICILY TRAVEL TIPS WHY YOU MUST VISIT MARZAMEMI

Alicudi

alicudi vacation rental

View from vacation rental apartment on Alicudi

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.

Alicudi Casa Mulino

image of Casa Mulino by Silvia Marchetti for CNN Travel

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.


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My new book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy is now available worldwide here on Amazon.com. I hope you will buy your copy today!

 

 

Sicily's Aeolian Islands

Discovering Sicily ~ 5 Things You MUST Do In Modica

There is something quite perfect about a light strung across the main street…

For me discovering Modica was like that very first minute of discovering San Gimignano a lifetime ago.

That completely breath-taking, wonderous, can’t-quite-believe-what-you’re-seeing, God-is-this-even-real moment that on some level inexplicably changes your life.

Modica is in the Ragusa province of south eastern Sicily, flanked by the towns of Ragusa and Noto. All three towns were destroyed by the devastating earthquake of 1693, and as Sicily was ruled at the time by Spain, all three towns were rebuilt in the exuberant and flowering Baroque style that the Spanish were famous for.
Modica along with Noto and Ragusa are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

5 Things You MUST Do In Modica

 

1. Walk.

Get up early, knock back an espresso, and hit the streets before the world wakes up.

Modica-Sicily
Early morning in Modica

Wander aimlessly through the streets downtown, take in the architecture, photograph the gargoyles while no one is around to get in the way.

 

Modica-Sicily

RELATED POST: TRAVELING SICILY, THE BEAUTIFUL ISLAND OF PANAREA

Modica-Sicily

Breathe in the air and try to wrap your head around what you are seeing. This town absolutely must be walked to be truly experienced.

Modica-Streets

 

Modica-Sicily

 

Modica-Sicily

 

RELATED POST: THE MAGIC OF MARZAMEMI

2. Experience Bonajuto

 

 

Outside-Bonajuto-Modica

Antico Dolceria Bonajuto is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. Its has always been family run, their chocolate has always been handmade, in the kitchen at the back of the store.

The factory of Bonajuto

But this is not any ordinary chocolate. Bonajuto chocolate is made in the Aztec style. Cocoa, sugar and spices are the only ingredients. The cocoa still contains it’s cocoa butter and is heated just enough to make it fluid. The sugar is added but not allowed to melt, giving the chocolate a gritty texture.

Originally the Bonajuto chocolate was an energy food, not a dessert or treat, It came in little blocks, and is still made and served in the same fashion today.

Bonajuto-Chocolate-Modica

When you visit Antica Dolceria Bonajuto there are an array of flavors for you to sample, and once you’ve made your choices they will box them for you to take away or will ship them home for you.

3. Visit the Cathedral of San Giorgio

 

 

The walk up to the cathedral is just gorgeous. Art historian Andrew Graham Dixon has likened the cathedral to the Madonna standing watch over the town, sweeping open her cloak to encompass the people of Modica.

Modica-Cathedral

I had this description rolling around in my mind as I approached the cathedral, and the image seared into my brain. It was perfect.

Looking up at the cathedral will take your breath away. Turning around and looking down at the town of Modica will take your breath away. It is majestic.

4. Eat at Terrazze Campaille

 

This is easily one of the greatest dining experience of my life, anywhere in the world.
If you are anywhere near Modica, a meal at Terrazze Campaille is essential. To start with you will just die over the location. The restaurant in is an old palazzo, with multiple rooms and terraces to dine in and on. They can beautifully accommodate large parties, small parties, couples’ romantic evenings, groups of friends, and can separate everyone into different areas, so that your experience remains unique.

Modica-at-night

We were seated on a terrace with a gorgeous view, surrounded by flowers and foliage in an environment that could not have been more romantic, and were completely unaware that there was a large party on the other side of the palazzo.

Modica-at-night

You can read my TripAdvisor review here

The food at Terrazze Campaille is spectacular. The service is wonderful. After dinner our waiter took us on a tour of the palazzo, told us the stories of the palazzo, told us about growing up in Modica, pointed out his home and his family’s home across the hill. The entire experience was just magnificent.
But don’t take my word for it – go there yourself!

 RELATED POST: VILLA ROMANA CASALE – THE BIKINI GIRLS OF SICILY

5. Enjoy Modica by night.

Evenings in Modica are lovely. Everyone is out strolling and socializing. Saturday night in Modica is wonderful. The cafes and restaurants downtown are spilling onto the streets. Children and grandparents, teens and parents – the entire town is out having fun and you get absorbed into it. There is a very strong sense of community and you feel incredibly safe.

 Modica is a super artsy little place. On the Saturday night that we were there street musicians were playing sensational jazz, art galleries were hosting events, an orchestra was playing at another event – it was just magic.

The palazzi and churches are all lit up at night. It is just beautiful.

Church-of-San-Pietro-Modica

Terazze Campaille is up these steps behind the church of San Pietro.

San-Pietro-Modica

There are statues of saints lining the steps. St Peter’s halo glowing in the evening light.

If you are planning a trip to Sicily, Modica is not far from Siracusa. Your closest airport is Catania, and you are in close driving distance to Noto, Ragusa and Marzamemi, 3 hours drive from Taormina. There are also plenty of beaches within a 20 minute (ish) drive, as well as ferries to Malta if you are in the mood for a day trip.


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The Magic Of Marzamemi

Baroque-Sicily-Marzamemi

Sicily is my favorite place on earth.

Endlessly fascinating, she is an island that offers so much, from incredible wines, sensational food, history, art, architecture, and then there are those views. Views to die for. The oceans, the beaches, the volcano. There is just so much!

Last year my Glam Italia Tour spent time in Baroque Sicily.

One place that we went to that was supposed to be a couple of hours visit, but that turned into almost daily trips back was a teeny tiny speck of a fishing town called Marzamemi.

southeast-sicily

 

Marzamemi is divine. It is so ridiculously picturesque, you almost feel like you have accidentally stepped onto a movie set.

 

Harkening back to the island’s Arab rule in the 9th century, Marzamemi is thought to possibly mean bay of the turtle doves (Marsa al hamen) or from Memi, which means small port.

RELATED POST: 5 THINGS YOU MUST DO IN MODICA

Marzamemi has the palace of the prince, who in his time ran the place from its terrace,

a now closed tuna factory, (which was built during the Arab rule of Sicily, and was one of the most important on the island) 2 baroque churches, and the houses of the fishermen.

sicily-marzamemi

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Marzamemi-Sicily

It’s harbor is full of small boats.

Marzamemi-harbor

 

We took a day trip in a boat, exploring the coastline from the point where the Mediterranean meets the Ionian and the rip tides will churn you up and take you away, down past the nature preserve of the Vendicari, stopping and swimming in the bluest sea you can possibly imagine, and floating off the coastline just lying around enjoying the sun.

sicilian-food

One of the reasons we kept going back to Marzamemi was to visit the restaurants. They are phenomenal.

marzamemi-sicily

RELATED POST: TRAVELING SICILY, THE AEOLIAN ISLAND OF PANAREA

 

 

You can sit around for hours, eating the incredible Sicilian cuisine of fresh fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, local breads, and washing it down with glasses of the local Nero d’Avola.

RELATED POST: THINGS TO SEE IN SICILY – VILLA ROMANA DEL CASALE, THE BIKINI GIRLS OF SICILY

Sicilians are so friendly, they will talk to you forever.

When you are finally ready to move on you need a couple of espressos to give you the strength to wander down to the beach either at Marzamemi or at nearby San Lorenzo.

southeast-sicily-beaches

I can’t imagine living a life that didn’t let me go back to Marzamemi.

 

I wouldn’t necessarily stay there – we stayed in nearby Avola as well as in Modica, and I would love to stay a few nights in Noto next time, but I know that whenever I am in the southeast of Sicily my days will be peppered with visits to this ancient fishing village.

 

Marzamemi is in the province of Siracusa, easily accessible by car from Catania, Siracusa, the baroque towns of Ragusa, Modica and Noto.


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