Is 11am too early for dessert wine? Not on the Aeolian Island of Salina when the heavens are about to open. And not when the tipple in question goes by the moniker "wine of the devil". We'd planned to climb a mountain, but the views over the vineyards of the Capo Faro estate up the slopes of Monte Fossa delle Felci, the highest of the island's twin peaks, brought bad news. The 962m-high extinct volcano was swathed in dark cloud. Across the Tyrrhenian Sea, the black cone of Stromboli, the "lighthouse of the Mediterranean", puffed smoke into an unsuspecting blue sky. The storm clouds crept towards it.
Capo Faro was transformed into a luxury resort by the Tasca d'Almerita wine family in 2004 on the site of an old holiday village by the lighthouse (faro), on the north-eastern cape (capo) of Salina. From a series of low-slung white buildings, now converted into luxurious colonnaded suites draped in bougainvillea, the vines grow in rows parallel to the shore. Every September the grapes are harvested to produce Tasca d'Almerita's Tenuta Capo Faro malvasia – two glasses of which the manager, Alberto Oliviero, was pouring us now. "You can really drink it any time of day," he confided. "Many of our guests have it as an aperitif." As rain broke the glassy surface of the swimming pool there was nothing for it but to remain under cover and sip this nectar-like wine with a faintly sulphurous aftertaste.
Imbued with volcanicity, we seized the next weather window to explore the island. Buses rumble along the road above Capo Faro every 40 minutes, but rather than wait we walked the 3km to the main port of Santa Marina, around roads hewn from the black and red striated cliffs. We picked up the pedestrianised Via Risorgimento, and perused the boutiques selling antiques, clothes, art and jewellery behind crumbling façades.
These 19th-century buildings were once the homes of wine merchants who made their fortunes selling malvasia to the British. Their livelihoods were ruined in 1890 when phylloxerae blighted Salina's vines, forcing an exodus to Australia, incidentally helping to start the wine industry there. Salina's viticulture has since been revitalised, but hundreds of abandoned homes remain derelict.
Catching a bus in front of Santa Marina's peach-coloured church, we headed south to Lingua, to the salt pan after which Salina was named. The salt was once used to preserve capers, the island's other main export. These days Lingua is lined with eateries, including a graniteria called Da Alfredo. Granita – a coarse, crystalline sorbet – is a Sicilian speciality. Da Alfredo's distinctly Aeolian flavours of jasmine, mulberry, fig and prickly pear have put this shop on the map.
That evening as we sipped more malvasia on the terrace back at Capo Faro, we could make out faint orange explosions from Stromboli. In reply, Capo Faro's lighthouse cast a mellow glow out to sea. Tomorrow, we promised, we would climb a volcano.
The unpredictable weather meant that boats to Stromboli were not running, so we set off by bus to scale something less feisty: the towering and extinct Monte Fossa delle Felci.
The last eruption on Salina was 13,000 years ago, from a crater which has since collapsed into the semi-circular bay of Pollara on the north-west of the island. Although Salina comprises six dead volcanoes, the ancient Greeks named it "Didyme", meaning twins, after the two cones which dominate the island. Monte Fossa delle Felci and its smaller sister, Monte dei Porri, are like camel humps. They are linked by a saddle of fertile land, the Val di Chiesa, named after a 17th-century church, the Santuario della Madonna del Terzito. Set back among the malvasia vines, this little yellow church marks the start of the Monte Fossa trail.
The grape harvest was in full swing when we arrived. Trucks piled high with fruit were crawling with drunken wasps. A race was on, the harvesters told us: too much rain now and the grapes would spoil.
Of all the Aeolian Islands, Salina is the greenest. The slopes of Monte Fossa are coated in thick vegetation and woodlands of pines, eucalyptus, chestnut and cypress trees. In the forests, we met a group of Neapolitans who had come to pick wild mushrooms. Rain clouds gathered once more, so they waved down a passing park ranger who offered to drive us all to the summit in his hardy 4x4.
The ranger, Elio Benenati, passed on some local secrets. He pointed out a plant called cipudazza which was once sold to the Calabrians to make soap, but is used here as mouse poison. The spiky ginestra plants were used for brooms, and the red bark of the pine trees produced a dye for fishing nets. "The theory is that fish don't see red," Elio explained.
The Aeolian Islands were named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, who assisted us at the summit. Magically, the clouds swirled away, laying bare the anatomy of the archipelago: a Y-shaped cluster of tectonic pimples protruding from the Tyrrhenian Sea. To the west over Monte dei Porri lay the tiny rocky outcrops of Filicudi and Alicudi. To the south, the triangular salt pan at Lingua pointed down to Lipari, the largest and most populated of the islands. Beyond it lay the smouldering, fractured hulk of Vulcano, where visitors take thermal mud baths and hold their noses to defy the sulphurous pong.
As we walked around the fern-filled caldera, the clouds parted to the east to reveal Panarea, a favourite retreat of A-list celebrities in the Nineties, and beyond it Stromboli, puffing faithfully away.
Scarred and sculpted by countless blasts over the millennia, these islands have always enchanted and terrified their inhabitants in equal measure. A bronze-age settlement and several Roman tombs have been excavated on Monte Fossa. One Roman legend had it that the Goth king Theodoric was seized by the devil and thrown into a fire-spewing crater. Later, Saint Willibald, on his way back from the Holy Land in AD729, tried to climb Stromboli to get a glimpse of Theodoric's hell, but was thwarted by pyroclastic ash.
Film-makers have been drawn by the elemental beauty of the Aeolian Islands since Roberto Rossellini filmed Stromboli here 61 years ago. In it, Ingrid Bergman falls for an Aeolian fisherman but struggles to adapt to life in the shadow of the volcano. The same year, the German director William Dieterle filmed Vulcano about a prostitution racket on that island, starring Rossellini's ex, Anna Magnani. Off camera, the drama was as tempestuous as on: Magnani is thought to have filmed Vulcano out of revenge, as Rossellini had left her to pursue a love affair with Bergman.
A gentler view of the islands came in 1994 with Michael Radford's portrayal of a friendship between the poet Pablo Neruda and a postman on Salina in Il Postino. One evening, we took the bus to Pollara where it was filmed, and walked down to the distinctive fishermen's boathouses carved out of the rock.
The sun was setting over Alicudi and Filicudi, casting a golden glow on the striped sandstone cliffs that loom above the black, pumice-strewn beach. Tearing ourselves away from the view was hard enough. Had we brought a bottle of malvasia with us, it is doubtful we'd have made the bus home at all.
Travel essentials: Salina
The Aeolian Islands are 10km off the north-east coast of Sicily. From the Sicilian port of Milazzo (two-and-a-half hours' drive from Palermo, or one hour and 40 minutes from Catania) take the Ustica Lines ( usticalines.it) or Siremar ( traghetti.com) hydrofoil to Santa Marina on Salina, stopping at Vulcano and Lipari en route.
Capofaro Malvasia and Resort (00 39 090 98 44 330; capofaro.it). B&B from €240.
Hotel Signum, Malfa (00 39 090 98 44 222; hotelsignum.it). B&B starts at €130.
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