Rocks stars: An Eden of exotic vegetation on the Aeolian Islands
It had to be an island, but what we really wanted was Italy. The food, the heat, the Spirito di Punto. But Sicily and Sardinia were too big; Capri too crowded. And then I remembered the Aeolian Islands: eight specks of volcanic rock adrift in the Tyrrhenian Sea; often read about, but always just beyond reach.
There are no direct flights from Stansted, and you can't add a hotel room to your easyJet cart. In fact, there are no flights from anywhere, so getting here is a process of ratcheting down the pace. Not that that's a problem: a bus takes you from Palermo airport to the harbour, then it's a three-hour chug out to sea, the one boat calling at each island.
The plan was to see them all, of course. But first we needed a holiday: beach, book, ice-cold Peroni. Salina is right in the middle, and all the guidebooks said it was the greenest; there was also mention of its "slow pace". Well, the Aeolians were never going to be hectic, though Lipari attracts more tourists, and Panarea apparently does the glamour.
I say apparently because, once we docked at Salina, I'm afraid we didn't go anywhere else. Volcanic islands have a reputation for black austerity, but here we found an Eden of exotic vegetation. Salina is the only one of the eight to boast natural springs, and it was bursting with wild flowers, caper bushes, prickly pears and gorse.
From the air, it must look like Madonna's bullet bra, as the twin peaks of Monte Fossa delle Felci and Monte dei Porri rise up into the clouds. Salina takes its name from the salt-works, saline, at Lingua (or Tongue) in the south-east. Nowadays, the main attraction here is the café serving possibly the finest granitas in the world: peach, almond, cherry – you name it, crushed with ice and sugar.
On the other side of the island, our rented cottage halfway up a hill presented us with three choices every day. We could take the steps down to the rocky little beach at Punta Scario, and bob about in the bay like sea-otters. From here, you can watch Stromboli puffing away across the water – the perfect cartoon volcano with a wisp of cigarette smoke on top.
Or we could climb up, to the village of Malfa, with its three good restaurants and two wedding-cake churches. The parmigiana melanzane was as rich and gooey as any you'll find this side of Rome, and the spaghetti al sarde was a revelation: pine nuts, sultanas, sardines and fennel leaves, simply tossed about with a bit of oil (it's dead easy to make at home). As for the churches, I can't say: they were permanently chiuso, even on Sundays.
The third option was to go neither up nor down, but to slump beneath our bougainvillea trellis, gazing out at sea. Perhaps it was our mistake to come in June, when day after day, the thermometer would hover in the thirties, and it took all our energy to decide whether to eat out or in. But once you allow yourself the luxury of switching off, a gecko on a hot wall is really all the entertainment you need.
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We did once take the bus to Pollara, the fisherman's cove made famous by Il Postino. This is where, in Michael Radford's 1994 film, the poet Neruda holes up in a farmhouse in political exile, and strikes up a friendship with the simple fisherman's son who brings him his post. That film could have ruined Salina, given how many dewy-eyed romantics must have come away vowing to set up as exiled poets on outcrops. But Pollara remains perfectly intact, even if the stripey stratified cliffs are quietly eroding into the sea. Steep steps still lead to a tiny harbour where cage-fronted caves, where the fishermen lock their kit, are carved into the rock. Only here were we aware of other tourists, though none British.
In a cooler month, I would have liked to explore the ferny valley of the Fossa delle Felci, and to trek into the mountains. I'd have taken a boat round Alicudi and Filicudi, and had a mudbath on Lipari, and downed a cocktail on Panarea. I would even have climbed Stromboli at night, and seen the flowing lava, as everyone says you must. But when you can admire them all from the leafy comfort of paradise, it hardly seems worth the bother.
More Med secrets
1. Follow the Italians to Favignana, a teeny sun-baked outpost of Sicily complete with cacti, craggy coves and one whitewash town (thinksicily.com)
2. Explore the hilltop villages of Murter and rock-hop along the Pakleni archipelago on a walking tour of Croatia’s Dalmation Islands and coast (inntravel.co.uk)
3. Kerkennah, otherwise known as the dual Tunisian islands of Gharbi and Chergu, are joined by a bridge and have more date trees than hotels, plus a smattering of rental options (homeaway.co.uk)
4. The wild 12-island chain of Fourni in the eastern Aegean has pristine beaches, stark, barren mountains and little in the way of hotels beyond the main island, so hire a local fisherman as a guide (cachet-travel.co.uk)
5 . Go off the beaten track in Turkey’s Bozburun Peninsula to stay in the little-known village of Selimye, soon to be put on the map by new boutique hotel Badem Tatil Ev (exclusiveescapes.co.uk)
6. Take a horse-back conservation holiday in Spain’s Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park, an hour from Marbella. Learn about forest and mountain ecology, then break for the beach (tcv.org.uk)
7. Go to Comino, set in the translucent waters off the coast of Malta. The smallest of Malta’s inhabited isles, it has but a handful of hotels and two crystal-clear lagoons (maltadirect.com)
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