Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I didn’t plan to go to the Aeolian Islands. Then again, I didn’t plan to go to Sicily either. Then again, I’d more or less stopped making plans.
From Malta, I had made a last minute decision to head to Catania, Sicily’s second city on that island’s east coast. It turned out that Sabrina, a German friend I’d made over two years ago when I was traveling in Turkey, was also visiting Sicily and nearby. We met up, along with her friend Susanne, and went up Mt. Etna.
“Where are you going after this?” I asked.
“Lipari,” Sabrina said, the administrative center of the Aeolian Islands.
I hadn’t even considered going to Lipari. First I meant to stop at the famously lovely Taormina, site of the 2017 G7 meeting, where ice cream shops still sold an orange gelato named after Trump. After Taormina, though, I decided to follow Sabrina and Susanne’s path to Lipari.
Without a car, it turned out to be a pain getting there. From Taormina I caught a 10:30 bus to Messina in the northeastern corner of Sicily, a stone’s throw across a narrow strait from the toe of the boot of mainland Italy. I knew three things about this place: 1) Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology were supposed to be located on either side of the Strait of Messina. 2) Antonello da Messina, the influential Renaissance painter who helped to establish portraiture as an art form in Italian painting, was from there. 3) There was nothing to see there, according to the woman who ran my B&B in Catania. In Messina I immediately caught the next bus to Milazzo, the gateway to the Aeolian Islands. From here I caught a hydrofoil ferry to Lipari. By the time I got there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon.
But the charming sight of Lipari’s old citadel from a distance as the hydrofoil approached the port had made me eager to explore the town, small though the largest settlement in all the Aeolian Islands. I dropped off my things and immediately hiked up to the citadel, where the regional archaeological museum was also located. Much of the archaeology had to do with the Aeolian Islands’ fateful decision to ally with Carthage in the Punic Wars against Rome, which led to Roman destruction of the original Lipari over two thousand years ago. Obscure? Sure, but if you’re reading this, you should know by now that I take an interest in many obscure things. And I’d only recently visited Carthage in Tunisia.
Back in town I found Sabrina and Susanne. Had they gone to Stromboli yet? Stromboli, “the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” is one of the Aeolian Islands and a remarkably active volcano that undergoes a minor eruption once every ten to twenty minutes. It is the most famous sight in the Aeolians. Stromboli played a role in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and J. R. R. Tolkien found his inspiration here for Mordor. No, they hadn’t gone yet, said the Germans. They’d been taking it easy. Might they go the next day? I was planning to go the next day. In the end, though, we all waited until the day after. First we’d all hike the crater of Vulcano, another island volcano, this one adjacent to Lipari and with its redundant name.
There were two options for visiting Stromboli to see the eruptions. Both involved staying there past nightfall. One could hike up to the crater, an arduous undertaking only allowed in the company of professional guides, or one could get on a boat and sail just a little bit out and see the fires from a short distance. When the time for Stromboli came, however, Sabrina was feeling under the weather. Susanne, as though she were one of my former lawyer colleagues, had to work. And I was feeling lazy. So Sabrina and I chose the maritime option. At noon, we set sail with a couple dozen fellow travelers from Lipari, half committed to the hike, and the other half obviously not — it wasn’t hard to tell based on the way people were dressed. Initially, given that the Aeolian Islands were named after Aeolus, the god of wind, I had worried about choppy seas, but I needn’t have. After making a stop at another island, Panarea, we were on our way to Stromboli.
When we reached it, we found a perfect volcanic cone shooting straight up out of the sea without the usual preliminaries of flat coastal land. It had that directness about it, like a man who gets right to the point, or an orchestra that jumps straight into the allegro con fuoco without having to tune. A white veil of cloud and steam and smoke hung over the top, casting a shadow on exactly half the island while leaving the other half brilliantly lit in the Mediterranean sun, giving the mountain a Janus-like aspect: two faces, one sunny and one gloomy, one happy and one sad.
Not hiking to the top, however, didn’t mean not hiking. From the port of Stromboli, we wound our way through the village and followed the trail toward Osservatorio or Observatory, which was actually a restaurant at the side of the mountain but which name also described its location and view of the mountain. We climbed beyond Osservatorio to the Punto Panoramico for an even better view. Just as we were admiring the perfect cone of the volcano, it rumbled with a crashing sound like distant thunder, a phlegmatic deity clearing his throat.
We returned to the port shortly before sunset. The boat’s crew served up a pasta dinner with apparently homemade white wine as the engine started and took us a short distance out to sea. In the fresh darkness we sat back and peered out at the looming silhouette. The hikers, we knew, should have reached the crater right about the time we ate dinner. Did we make the right decision not to join the hike? Sabrina and I still debated the question. The veil from the afternoon still hung over the top. Suddenly a red light shone from within it and was diffused by it, like the fire inside a paper lantern. A couple of seconds later a soft rumble reached us. The veil endowed the fire with a sense of mystery, but we couldn’t help wondering whether it would ever lift. Just when we thought the answer was no, and only for a brief moment, the clouds parted. And precisely on cue Stromboli erupted again. Crimson fire shot up out of the hell mouth of it, a spring of flame instead of water, lighting up the blackness of the sky. Our fellow passengers gasped and cheered. Then like all magical moments, it went as quickly as it’d come, and clouds gathered once more.
But what did our hiker friends see? I asked them when we went back to the port to pick them up. Not much, they told me. The clouds obscured the mountaintop the entire time they were up there. By the time we witnessed from the boat the one clear eruption, they were half way down the mountain to rendezvous with us. Mostly they just felt the rumbles of eruptions beneath their feet, much as we had done at the Punto Panoramico.
At least that was what they said.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."