Whilst I was staying in Sicily last month, I spent a day touring some of the Aeolian Islands in the Tyrrhenian sea off the North Sicilian coast.
A small boat called Mistral was home-base for a leisurely trip round these volcanic islands made rich in ancient times when obsidian, a black glassy stone was mined there providing ancient necks with some very pretty necklaces…..
…but, possibly more importantly, it was also an ideal material for making sharp blades and is even today used in the manufacture of some surgical scalpels.
The Aeolian Islands are geologically quite a recent event and two of the islands are still active volcanos,
The most famous one is Stromboli but I didn’t get there, my trip took me to the other volcano, called rather unoriginally considering its ancient history, Vulcano. First stop was though the rather more gentle island of Lipari – one time home of Bronze Age, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman civilizations before it declined into a secretive hide-out for pirates and a place of exile for people who fell out with Mussolini or, ssshh, the Mafia. Now it is a picturesque and laid-back tourist destination ideal as a central point for touring the islands.
It was a mightily hot day when I arrived in its little harbour so I headed straight for the nearest espresso coffee outlet and watched the goings-on…well there wasn’t much happening actually and that was just fine. Was that though, I wondered, a pirate ship out there in the bay?
It was and before long I was being bundled onto the ship by a band of rowdy men with peg legs, eye patches and parrots on their shoulders…. oh yes, Jack Sparrow was there too.
Well, if the truth be known, that might have been the effect of the strong coffee on a pale-skinned Englishman exposed to too much sun. Actually the ship was manned by a rather well-behaved crew of young people, teenaged boys and girls, in identical freshly ironed rugby shirts – I think they were Scandinavian. After coffee, I took to the streets, small narrow affairs with wholesome-looking washing hanging from balconies and orderly cactus plants in terracotta pots.
Lipari was hot and quiet that morning – not a bad place, I thought, if one had to be exiled here.
I popped into a small and rather dismal church down a side street and was more intrigued by a sneaky look into the vestry than by the rather silly paintings of St. Joseph in a series of drama queen poses. The priest, by the look of the vestry with its abandoned towel, bottle of water and Adidas carrier bag, had just been out for a run – brave man. Maybe though, he was lying in a state of collapse through that door with the shower-room glass.
Climbing to the highest point, I discovered that, inevitably, those Normans had got there first and built a ferociously impregnable-looking castle……
……with a nice view of the sea.
There are Ancient Greek and Roman remains up here too but, heck, it was a hot day and one set of ruins can look very much like another in these parts. It was, I thought, amazing to find so much ancient civilization on such a small island, so remote now, it felt, from mainstream Europe. In ancient times, of course, waterways were the motorways or flight paths of the old World.
Up there on the hill top, along with the other symbols of Sicily’s past conquerors, was, well, naturally, a grand Baroque basilica in the Spanish-Sicilian style. No village church this one.
Even if you have no interest in the melodramatic extremes of the Baroque, this wonderfully airy building was a cool oasis from the heat outside.
…and looking up at its theatrical ceiling decorations, I saw one of the stories that used to terrify me as a child when I was at a let’s-stick-the Bible-up-your nose kind of English boarding school. Whatever you may think of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, you can’t deny that it is full of good and often gory adventure stories. None, to my mind, is scarier than the “blessed” Jael who entered the enemy camp and did something unspeakable to the commander, Sisera, that still comes back to me in dreams and, sometimes, on camping holidays.
“Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground he was lying fast asleep from weariness and he died”. (Book of Judges, The Bible) It is up there on the ceiling in Lipari, nothing is left to the imagination.
That ceiling must have haunted the contemplative meditations of the Lipari monks as they strolled through these elegantly tranquil cloisters. Walking here, briefly with no fellow tourist insight, I put Jael from my mind for one of the most serene moments of my holiday.
I may have a low tolerance for old ruins but I am a real stickler for cloisters and this one, here on its remote island, was as beautiful as any that I have seen.
…I felt every bit as relaxed as this charming little cat who, outside, had found an equally cool spot on a thousand year old wall that had obviously been built, all those years ago, with just him in mind.
Then it was time to board the Mistral again for an island hop to the nearest volcano at Vulcano.
It is not as big an event as Stromboli and I had already had my volcanic experience when I had climbed Mount Etna a few days earlier so I was just here for the ride and to admire the weird shapes that permeate a volcanic landscape.
I thought I might take a mud bath too as here volcanic action creates bubbling and gooey pools where you can immerse yourself in the hope of getting a cure for various conditions none of which, luckily, I happened to suffer from. Watching from the side, trying to ignore the wretch-making stink of the sulphur, I thought this just might not be for me. Apparently you smell of this mud for days afterwards – nice.
I had a couple of hours on the island, I had done volcanos, the sun was too harsh now in the full heat of the day to tempt me onto the beach so I did what I had to do. I found the nearest shade – it just happened to be a bar – and whiled away the time people-watching with suitably vulgar refreshments…..
Back at sea, the mistral took us around the island to get a close-hand look at the famous and, yes truly, legendary rock formations.
At times, i joined a veritable battery of photographers as the boat obligingly went right in close.
Here we were in the land of Greek legends with rocks described by Homer in the Odyssey.
These parts were visited by Greek gods and even Zeus himself had been known to drop in to slum it as a human being for a it of fun.
We just can’t help, of so it seems, to make up stories about funny shaped rocks – especially the phallic shaped ones or those ones with unexpected holes in them.
Here, in an amazing inlet, the rocks divides the sea water to make a pool dividing the colours from aquamarine outside to a vivid green in what looks just like the perfect bathing pool. Sicilian legend has it that the goddess of love, Venus herself, came her to bathe far from the prying eyes of tourists with cameras. It is not a difficult picture to imagine.
Venus Bathing by Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée (1725–1805)
Much better than those mud baths I suspect – Lagrenée’s painting would take on a totally different meaning if these ethereal ladies were caked in muddy slime.
Nearby is this cave where the sea is turned bright blue. Here, if you believe in such things, Zeus, the king of the gods, gave Aeolus, the god of winds, a home. In this very cave, Aeolus kept the winds, North, South, East and West, letting them out on appropriate occasions.
Here too Homer, some time around the year 800 BC, imagined Odysseus receiving some leather bags of wind from Aeolus to help his sails take him quickly home to Ithaca. Sadly for Odysseus, some of his bungling sailors let the wind out of the bags too soon prolonging the journey and thus enabling Homer to write a very long poem.
It was now time to leave the Aeolian Islands and return to mainland Sicily….there was plenty more to see, as you will find out if you read tomorrow’s blog.
Meanwhile, I’m getting into gear for the imminent publication (in October) of my novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
You can already pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:
…or from Book Depository:
…or from Amazon: