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Trip Report Chilling in the Aeolian Islands

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As part of a 7-week trip to Europe in May and June, my husband and I spent two weeks in the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily. Last year we had stayed for 5 nights on the main island, Lipari, during which time we did daytrips to most of the other islands, including Panarea and Salina. After we got home last year the Aeolis continued to call to us, so we decided to return this year to spend a week each on Panarea and Salina. It wasn't enough. I'm ready to go back again! As in much of Italy, May was a beautiful time to visit--before the huge crowds arrived, relaxed, less expensive. The Aeolis aren't easy to get to--they require a bit of effort. But they're worth it! My trip report follows.

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    1. Tuesday, May 11, 2010 – Newark
    We checked into our flight to Catania via Brussels (Continental) online the night before our scheduled departure, though things were dicey because of the volcanic dust swirling around Europe. When I checked the flight status the morning of the 11th it said the plane (from Zurich) was going to be at least 2.30 hours late on takeoff, which would make us miss our connection in Brussels to Air Brussels for their one flight of the day to Catania. I got on the phone with Continental, after checking the other options for getting to Catania, and was able to get the final 2 tickets on the Newark-Rome flight leaving at 5:25 pm, connecting to Alitalia at 10 am the next day. No extra charge by Continental because of the volcano situation, so everything was looking good to go. Only glitch was that we had no seat assignments—we were supposed to get them at the airport. Hmmm.
    We took the train to the airport, checked our bags, and went right to the gate to try to get seats. Turned out the flight was overbooked and there were no volunteers willing to give up their seats. We, and 10 other people, would be offered $500 vouchers, a free night in a hotel, dinner, and breakfast and would need to take the next afternoon’s flight instead. The offer was good, but who wants to start a vacation that way? We hung around until everybody boarded the plane, became friendly with several of the other unlucky ones, and hoped for the best. Voila! Two seats opened up, but we were #3 and #4 on the waiting list. But the nice young couple with whom we had been chatting (#1 and #2) decided to cancel their trip (they were going on a short break only), decline the seats and take the offer instead, leaving the seats for us. So there we were, the last ones on the plane, and even got two seats together! Our lucky day.
    1. May 12, Catania

    After an 8-hour flight we landed in Rome and transferred to the Alitalia flight to Catania. We flew over the Aeolian Islands and right past Mt. Etna, still majestically snowy. We hopped in an expensive taxi to our hotel in Catania (35 euros), Hotel Rubens, a small place on the third floor of a building on a major street, Via Etnea, right in the middle of the action. They didn’t have our reservation (was our luck turning?) but gave us a room anyway, at the “Internet special” price of 58 euros. It was clean and convenient to the major sights, and the continental breakfast was good. Our window opened to street noise and a dark alley, but we were only staying 1 night so it would do.

    We immediately headed out to explore the city, which turned out to be lively and interesting. Lots of impressive public buildings, people shopping and enjoying the passegiata along the pedestrian-friendly shopping streets, some not-so-well kept archaeological sites, and nice cafes. We bought tasty arancini from a tiny shop for lunch (ragu and spinach béchamel), and ended up in an outdoor café for white wine and a great view of the strolling Sicilians. For dinner we found Trattoria Pomodoro Rosso, a sweet little place frequented by locals, including one person who was treated like royalty—why????—and another group of men who were glued to the TV news report on the arrest of a Sicilian higher-up due to Mafia ties (or so it sounded to our non-Italian ears). The waiters were really nice, and we had fun watching the first half of a UEFA Cup game while we ate our delicious caprese salad, spaghetti norma, and penne arrabiata. Some of the best pasta we’d had in our 5 previous trips to Italy!

    2. May 13, Taormina
    After breakfast we strolled down to the Catania fish and produce market, which is not to be missed. A great scene of fish sellers, fantastic fish, and shoppers. Lots of fish being sold! Great photo ops, too. Then we headed back to pick up our bags and took the bus to the central bus station, eventually finding the area for long-distance buses, which isn’t obvious at first. We waited a while and the bus finally came at 11:15. It cost $4.60 euros each for the ride up the coast to Taormina.

    Our hotel in Taormina, Hotel Condor ($122/night) was just a bit out of the center and uphill from the bus station, so we took a taxi (10 euros), which was a good idea. The hotel was cute, with everything one could want in a hotel—especially our room, with a little balcony overlooking the sea and across to the mainland of Italy. We didn’t let the distant crane and the parking lot below us spoil the view. The hotel was full of friendly staff, and our room rate included an hour’s free Internet. Taormina is a beautifully situated tourist town—emphasis on tourist—and fun to walk around in. Gorgeous views of Etna and the coast, and full of flowers. And shops. We bought sandwiches at a market and strolled down to the public gardens, a well-taken-care-of oasis overlooking the sea. After wandering some more we decided it would be best to take some time back at the hotel while the day was at its hottest, so we headed back for some relaxation on our balcony. Very nice.

    Things I like about Taormina:

    --flowers and little alleys everywhere
    --public garden – beautiful views of Mt. Etna and the sea, green and flowery, quiet in a tourist beehive
    --Hotel Condor—nicely located off the beaten track; friendly staff; good views (though not the best) of Calabria across the straits; the roundabout; and the church(?) tower
    --Il Baccanale tavern—good food (pappardelle with pistachios and shrimp; risotto with shrimp and rucola), good white wine (Alcamo); nice ambience—on a street below the action, with lots of locals (old ladies, kids with soccer balls, families, really nice) along with a few other tourists
    --Bam Bar—best granita in Taormina, if not Sicily (freshly made by the owners with fresh fruit in season)—we had a combo of kiwi and lemon. Mmmmm good. The owners are so proud of their product.
    --After dark—the hordes of tourists are mostly out of sight, and the ambience is wonderful, especially below the main drag.

    Things I don’t like:

    --tourist hordes

    3. May 14, Taormina
    What a great day. The sunrise woke us up. We started with a nice light breakfast (with excellent cappuccino) on the covered terrace of the Condor, then were off to the Greek Theater, which opened at 9—we wanted to get there before the tourist throngs overwhelmed the place (6 euros each). Workers were putting up the stage for the summer performances beneath the columns—we are always too early for summer performances, it seems. That’s OK though—I like the tradeoff of fewer tourists out of season. The views from the Greek Theater of the Sicilian coast below Mt. Etna were stunning. Last time we were there, it was raining and Etna was behind the clouds, so it was great to see it lording over the coast this time.
    Then we walked over to the funicular (or funivia, as they call it in Taormina) and took it down to the beach below town (7 euros roundtrip, each). It was a quick ride down the steep hill, and from there we walked up the road just a little ways to the entrance to the nature preserve that includes Isola Bella, a lovely island on the end of a small cove with a pebble strand. I finally got a long-held wish fulfilled—we rented a couple of lounge chairs underneath an umbrella and settled in to read, get a little sunshine, paint a watercolor, and enjoy the scenery. We were there early—about 10 am—so we were some of the first people on the beach. Over the course of the next 6 hours we were joined by quite a few others, a real international crowd, doing what people seem to do at the beach in Italy (lounging). It was great! A young couple from Belfast, just married and on their honeymoon, occupied the lounge chairs next to ours. She was a former world champion Irish dancer (hasn’t danced competitively in four years—she just got tired of it) who, get this, brought 22 pairs of shoes with her on this trip!!!! Her husband just rolled his eyes. I think they had a lot of luggage. She was quite a talker! On the other side of us was a middle-aged couple from Melbourne, Australia, who had been traveling for several weeks and spent the entire time they were there on the phone with their children and friends in Australia. I think they were ready to go home.
    One downside of the beach at Taormina was the small army of Chinese massage girls who patrolled the beach. They wouldn’t take no for an answer—many, many no’s. Eventually we persuaded them that we did NOT want a foot massage, a back massage, any massage. After a while we took a little walk to the island but didn’t want to cross the watery divide because it was full of jellyfish. Others weren’t so reluctant, and nobody seemed to complain of being stung. Instead of forging across the water we decided to head back to the bar for a snack of bruschetta and arancini, and a birra nazionale. Refreshing!
    After we had had enough sunning/shading and relaxation, we took the cable car back up to town and headed straight for the Bam Bar for another granita—lemon/strawberry and lemon/raspberry this time. Oh—and a glass of sparkling prosecco each. Very lovely, very decadent—we would enjoy many outdoor cafes over the next 7 weeks, and this was one of the nicest.
    We strolled over to the soccer stadium to watch a bit of an international tournament of U-14 boys, then eventually went on to dinner at Taormina Vecchio, where we had excellent lasagna al forno and pizza margherita di buffalo. Too much! But tasty.
    4. May 15, Milazzo
    The title for today was not supposed to be Milazzo—it was supposed to be Panarea, where we were to take occupancy of the charming white and blue cottage, A Piccirrida, overlooking the sea and Stromboli island. But the wind gods had other ideas (they are not named the Aeolian, or Windy, Islands for nothing).
    Everything was going perfectly in the morning. We caught the 9 a.m. express bus to Messina (1 hour, and just 7 euros for the two of us) and made an instant connection to the waiting bus to Milazzo (1 hour, another 7 euros for the two of us), where we were scheduled to hop on the hydrofoil to Panarea in the Aeolis. When we got to the hydrofoil ticket office we had this conversation:

    "Hello, do you speak English?"
    "Yes."
    "Is this where we buy tickets to Panarea?"
    “Yes.”
    "Can we buy 2 tickets?"
    "No. No boats today."

    OK, first roadblock of the trip. The winds were too strong, and there was nothing we could do about it. We wandered around for a bit looking for someplace to spend the night in and found a trendy small hotel, La Chicca Palace Hotel, not far from the ferry. And they had a room, for 112 euros. We jumped on it, then called Carolina, the owner of the Panarea cottage we had rented on VRBO. She apologized and graciously offered to not charge us for the (expensive) cottage for that night--we would have to pay for six days only. There was no guarantee the winds would die down by the next day, but we were determined to hang out in Milazzo til they did. We had dreamed of our blue-and-white villa in Panarea for a year!
    We had a good lunch (octopus, squid, prawns) at Al Gambera not far from the port, then spent the afternoon walking the lengthy shoreline walkway and even climbed most of the way up to the impressive fortress on the hill overlooking Milazzo, stopped only by the incredible wind gusts. By the end of the day the winds were gale force; to be safe, we reserved a second night at La Chicca and hoped we would not have to use it.
    5. May 16, Milazzo

    Optimistically, we got up at the crack of dawn and headed with our luggage back to the port, hoping that the 6:15 boat to Panarea would be running. No such luck. Eventually one ferry did leave for Lipari, but since we already had a room for the night in Milazzo and had nothing in Lipari, we decided to stay put. We checked back with the boat offices off and on throughout the day; each time there was a different sign—“closed until 11:30,” “closed until 2:00,” “closed until 5:30,” . . . . The winds were diminishing but apparently the waves in the open sea were still quite strong.

    So once again we walked several miles along the lungomare, sat in the sunshine and read, lingered over lunch (a menu turistico for 13 euros—penne siciliana, beefsteak or veal, mixed salad—plus a half-liter of decent local red wine for a remarkable 2 euros), and relaxed, maintaining a positive attitude. Milazzo isn’t a bad place—but there’s not much to do. Talked to Carolina, who again apologized for the weather and said it almost never happens in May. We decided that if we couldn’t get directly to Panarea the next morning we would go to Lipari (if the ferry ran) and try to pick up transportation from there to Panarea. Crossed our fingers for a good outcome.

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    6. May 17, Panarea perfection

    Eureka! We again scrambled up at 5:30 am and headed over to the Siremar office to see if the 6:15 was running, even though there was still quite a breeze blowing. Good sign: a small crowd of locals and a few tourists lined up (well, gathered, anyway) in front of the office, waiting for it to open. Even when it opened a few minutes later it wasn’t clear that the boat would be running, but after a phone rang the ticket seller announced that the hydrofoil would indeed be going to Stromboli (and, therefore, we hoped, to Panarea as well).

    Italian’s don’t seem to have much respect for queuing, but I eventually did manage to make my way up to the counter and purchase two tickets to Panarea (17.80 euros each, tourist price). Then we dashed to the boat and boarded shortly before it set off on its bumpy, wind-blown ride across the sea to Stromboli and Panarea (assuming that it could land there—there’s not a protected harbor on the island, just a small port with a dock) . There was a lot of up-and-down on the waves, but neither of us got seasick (though one passenger did). After stopping first in Stromboli and picking up the large bunch of people who had been stuck on the island for 3 days, like we had been stuck in Milazza (they got the better deal), the boat turned back toward Panarea and, thankfully, we were able to land.

    Since it was so early when we boarded, we had not called the owner of our rental, Carolina, so we called her when we landed to let her know we had finally made it. She was quite surprised but before long was at the port to meet us and take us to A Piccirrida, the little white cottage with blue accents that we had spent the whole winter anxiously waiting to get to.

    It didn’t disappoint. Along a tiny lane (motorbikes and golf carts are the only vehicles that fit on the streets of Panarea) and down 80 steps, almost at the sea, the cottage sits in a prime position overlooking a huge rock that lies just off the coast. There’s a small kitchen, a nice-sized bedroom with windows overlooking the rock and the sea, a nice bathroom, and a small but beautiful terrace with a reed roof and built-in benches tiled in shades of blue, topped with royal blue pillow cushions. Just about perfect! Carolina showed us everything there was to know about the cottage, gave us some restaurant recommendations, and wished us well. We settled up the bill for what we owed after she knocked off the 2 days we had lost because we couldn’t get there through no fault of our own. That was a nice surprise.

    After settling in we did some grocery shopping at one of the two little groceries in town (and were deliberately short-changed at one, which we declared we would not return to) and explored the town a bit. There are several pricey boutiques, some nice-looking hotels in the style of the island, and gorgeous stucco houses, mostly white and trimmed with shades of blue, but a few ochre-colored places. All very well kept—not surprising, given the money that is reputed to be spent here in July and August when the glitterati come to spend their holidays. In May, especially given the weather and rough seas, tourists were few and far between.

    On another outing we bought some delicious prepared foods for takeout from Maria Pia at Le Delizie di Nonna Pasqualina just up the steps from the port—she does all her own cooking, using ingredients from her garden and from the sea, and proudly describes each dish. We would return to her shop several times over the course of the week, for eggplant cappanata, baked zucchini and cheese, baked eggplant, rice salad with tuna and shrimp, fried zucchini flowers (with and without sardines), lemon marmalade—all delicious, and fairly reasonably priced.

    In mid-afternoon we took a short nap in the sunshine on our terrace and then headed off to the right of town, walking along the well-kept lane that eventually headed up the hill past the heliport (one of two on the island—the glitterati do not like to take the hydrofoil, apparently) to the start of the trail around the island. Saw caper plants flowering, as well as little green lizards, flowering prickly pear cactus, broom in bloom with brilliant yellow flowers, artemesia, bougainvillea, and a bunch of other flowering plants growing wild in the hills. We returned to the cottage to read and relax before going out to dinner at Paolino’s homey restaurant around 8:00. We had stopped in earlier in the day to let them know we were coming, on Carolina’s recommendation—good thing, because it turned out we were the only people eating there that night, besides the family.

    Paolino’s was quite an experience. The family was finishing their dinner in the dining room, and Paolino and his waitress came out to greet us. Since it was quite cool after dark they asked us if we wanted to eat outside or in—we chose in and were led to a single table that had been formally set in the family’s living room, surrounded by family pictures, a couch and a well-worn easy chair, and the TV on in the corner! We were given menus but Paolino stood by and basically told us (mostly in Italian, with some English interspersed) that we would have spaghetti (I think he gave us a choice of several kinds, but we weren’t communicating very well); I asked about fish, assuming he would recommend one of the four or five dishes that was listed on the menu, but he went off to the kitchen and brought back a whole fish to show us—the local catch. We were wary of ordering that fish (priceless fish, been there, done that), but he was standing there with the pretty fish in his hand and it was a little awkward to turn it down, so we agreed to have it cooked whatever way they were going to cook it, and a green salad. Also a bottle of sparkling water and a white Leone, which we had had in Lipari last year and knew was good (18 euros).

    When the waitress brought the spaghetti it turned out to be two different kinds—one was millebachi, a light, white spaghetti cooked with local greens of some kind (delicious), and one was sardines and tomatoes, which John liked very much but was not my favorite since I don’t like sardines. About the time we were finishing the spaghetti the two little grandchildren of the family—both very cute little girls—came over to say hello and hung around for a bit until the fish came out. The fish was cooked in a delicate lemon and olive oil sauce, again quite wonderful, and Paolino himself filleted it for us at the table. Maybe the best fish I’ve ever had. After filleting the fish, Paolino sat down on the couch and watched TV—the end of a game show and then an Italian serial about the police and the Mafia, set in Monte Albino (?) in Sicily. Of course, we watched too, not wanting to disturb Paolino until the show was over. The kids were sent to bed, putting up a bit of resistance, and we finished our meal, watching TV with Paolino. We ended the meal with an espresso, and they brought us fennel liqeour. (I know that’s spelled wrong.) The whole evening was quite an experience! And the priceless fish was not as expensive as we had feared it would be—the whole meal, wine included, was 76 euros.

    Fortunately we had remembered to bring the flashlight with us, because the lane was pitch-black on the way home, lighted only by the myriad stars above. The end of a great day!

    7. May 18, Panarea

    Beautiful sunshine, though still breezy. We cooked a tasty breakfast that included eggs and toast with fresh ricotta from Vulcano, which we had bought from Maria Pia (mmm, good), then we headed off through town down the lane to the left, ending up at the little sandy beach a couple of miles away. More beautiful views of the sea and cliffs. We walked on to the 12th-century ruined village on the point and went down to a boulder-strewn beach just below it to spend some time there. Lunch was more delicious stuff from Maria Pia, followed by reading and watching the sailboats, ferries, and hydrofoils (now back to their normal schedule) making their way in and out of the port. The delights of being on vacation on an island! Every boat brought at least another handful of people. In the afternoon we made our rounds of the lanes again—enjoying the setting, the sea, the colors, and the landscape. Dinner was home cooked in the A Picciridda kitchen—pasta, wine, salad.

    8. May 19, Panarea

    The perfect weather day—sunny, 70s, a minimal breeze. Breakfast of tiramisu from Maria’s (decadent); morning walk to the stony beach to the right of the cottage; painting and reading by the sea; lunch at the cottage; afternoon of reading and relaxing; granita and espresso at the café by the port; shopping for a few provisions; dinner of grilled vegetables and Maria’s specialties of the day. Stromboli was clear and bright all day, but as darkness fell the clouds surrounded it, so no eruption-viewing that night. Many more boats stopped in port, at least 12, with lots of day-trippers wandering around the lanes—a couple even walked down the 80 steps and peered into our terrace. Felt good to be ensconced on the tiled bench with pillows and a book while they looked on. I know, that’s not nice. But it did feel good! More preparations wee being made daily for the onslaught of summer tourists—hammocks going up, deck chairs being set out, restaurants and hotels being spiffed up. We were so happy to be in Panarea before the waves of summer folk invaded.

    Hibiscus, geraniums, lilies, caper plants, honeysuckle, cactus, …

    9. May 20, Panarea

    Planned to go to Stromboli today, but the rain clouds persuaded us not to. Instead, we walked back to the spiaggi at the far end of the island and sat on an abandoned terrace overlooking the cobble beach and a couple of large boats sheltering from the wind. Lunch was more delicacies from Maria, including a zucchini flower calzone, very thin and light, arancini, and more tasty caponata. Had coffees at the Bar di Carola, our favorite hangout at the port (with the continuous friendly presence of waiter Giuseppe, aka Jack, who winters in Goa and summers working at the bar in Panarea). It actually rained a bit in the afternoon, so we went back to the house and read, then, when the sun came out, headed over to find the fumaroles at Calcara, on the other end of the island. Found a stunning spot overlooking the town to spend some time. I wandered the town looking for an interesting house to paint. For dinner we ate out, at Da Francesco—not as good as Paolino’s, but the spade (swordfish) was fresh and grilled just right in olive oil, accompanied by penne with zucchini flowers. Worst house wine of the trip—atrocious! Good thing only a quarter liter came with the menu turistico (20 euros each), and the meal ended with a decent, sweet malvasia, a little reminiscent of tawny port.

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    10. May 21, Stromboli

    OK, today was Stromboli day. We took the 9:30 a.m. hydrofoil and about ½ hour later were docking at Stromboli (20.80 euros roundtrip, each). The sun was shining and the temperature was perfect, in the 70s. We stopped by 3 of the mountain trekking companies (you need a guide if you want to climb Stromboli) and found that the guided trip costs 28 euros. Dress warmly, and don't wear high heels :-). We hoped to return to Stromboli for an overnight from Salina—the trek starts at about 5 pm., so we would have to stay overnight somewhere in Stromboli.

    The rest of our time on Stromboli we spent walking to the far end of the paved road (better termed a lane, as in Panarea), to the black sand beach and the striking black lava rocks that reach the blue sea. All the while the mountain looks down on you. Just a beautiful place. On our walk we picked rosemary sprigs from the huge rosemary bushes along the road, and snapped off some fennel as well, which would come in handy for some of the meals during the coming week. We passed the fish seller in his little 3-wheel truck, calling out “Pesce,” trying to drum up business for his fresh calamari and sardines that filled the back of the truck. That’s what we needed in Panarea!

    We ended our Stromboli journey with a delicious lunch of fried calamari and linguine with shrimps and zucchini, and a nice bottle of white wine, at a little trattoria on the road up from the port, followed by coffees at a little open-air coffee bar overlooking the sea below. The hydrofoil trip back to Panarea was bumpy but tolerable, nothing a lemon granita at Bar di Carola wouldn’t make right. I was definitely addicted. Dinner from leftovers. We would be sorry to leave Panarea but looked forward to the coming week on Salina.

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    Thanks! Here's the rest.

    11. May 22, Malfa, Salina

    Up early to lock up and say goodbye to Panarea perfection. Lugged the bags up the 80 steps to meet the taxi golf cart that Carolina had arranged to pick us up at 7:30 (8 euros) to take us to the port. We could easily have walked, but we were happy to support the island economy. We had time for one last cappuccino at Bar di Carola, said farewell to Giuseppe (maybe we’ll meet again in Goa someday), and boarded the 8:00 Siremar ferry for Santa Marina, Salina (17 euros for the two of us).

    The ride took only 20 minutes, and we were deposited at the dock where a taxi was waiting for us, also arranged on the phone by Carolina, with Sra. Nunzia, our apartment owner in Malfa. (Our Italian is too basic for comprehensible phone conversations!) Santa Marina was bright and beautiful, and the 8-km ride to Malfa was quick and pretty. Malfa town is the biggest on Salina, which isn’t really saying much, but it is nicely positioned between a big green mountain and the sea, and in the town itself there is a lovely peach-colored church, a nice central piazza, and all the essential stores—the “Carne Boutique,” the bakery, the small supermarket, a hardware store, etc.—a few restaurants, a couple of nice-looking hotels, and, at the bottom of the hill, just above a small working harbor that hosts a couple dozen small fishing boats, our home for the week, rented through Agenzia Eoliando, which is based in Lipari, via the Internet.

    On the outside it didn’t look all that good (standard Sicilian vaguely painted concrete), but the inside was spacious, clean, and decorated in Ikea. Perfect for a week! There was one bedroom, a large bathroom with shower, a nice living room with two huge built-in platform couches with tons of pillows, a dining table, and a small but mostly serviceable kitchen (no oven, two burners). And a washing machine, which we would certainly use sometime during the week to make our clothes clean. The best part, of course, was the terrace overlooking the harbor, with the typical Aeolian reed roof that gave beautiful filtered light when the morning sun wasn’t shining straight into it. Oh, and the price—just perfect at 390 euros for the week. Less than half the price of our Panarea accommodation!

    Our first order of business was to walk back up the hill, about 10 minutes on a combination of lanes and road, into the town to do some food shopping. We bought steak and chicken at the meat boutique (love that name), bread and pastries at the bakery, and wine and most of the other essentials for dinners at the supermarket. Carried them down the hill, rested up, and then were off again uphill to explore the remainder of the town. We noticed a sign that said the Champions League football final, with an Italian team, Inter Milan, against a German team was being played that night and would be shown in the piazza on a giant screen that was being set up for the event. What luck!

    We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and, for me, working on the book I’d been editing for a publisher I do freelance work for—what a nice thing to be able to take a little work with me and do it when I felt like it. When dinnertime rolled around, we cooked up a delicious steak, potatoes and onions, and eggplant slices, all on the little two-burner stove, followed by a fresh salad and of course accompanied by a lovely Sicilian wine. Can’t get much better than that. A little before 8 we headed up into town to the piazza, where people were starting to gather for the game. We had a glass of wine at a lively bar across the street, then settled onto a bench on the side of the piazza to watch the game. As darkness fell the screen became bright and the game started. It was fun to see the men, women, and children all gathered—the kids were kind of watching the game (and cheered when the goals were scored) but were most interested in running around with each other, playing with the glow-sticks they somehow got their hands on. Universal kid behavior. The game was good (Inter Milan won, 2-0), and though the evening cooled off considerably by the time the game was over, the whole event was great fun. And the walk home was nice, too—unlike in Panarea, Malfa has street lights that lit our way down the hill.

    12. May 23, Malfa and Pollara, Salina

    A visit to Pollara, where the film Il Postino was made, was on the agenda for the day. We decided to walk, since the road sign in Malfa said it was only 1 km to the turnoff to Pollara. When we got there another sign said 5 km to Pollara—whatever, we love exercise (gotta burn off that pasta), and it was a beautiful walk. Plenty of uphill, but the grade was steady (we walked on the road between the two towns), the views were spectacular, and the wildflowers were grand. Daisies, geraniums, capers, broom, just tons of flowers everywhere you looked.

    We reached the high point after a few km and started to descend into Pollara town, following the many switchbacks. At that point we decided that we would definitely be taking the bus back to Malfa! As we headed through the sparsely populated town toward the stone beach below the cliffs, we saw a cute little agriturismo just off the road, with a lovely terrace set up for lunch—just what the doctor ordered. Agriturismo “Al Cappero” looked like a great place to base if one wanted to spend a couple of nights in quiet Pollara, and the food was outstanding. Here’s what we had, one of the best meals we had on our whole 7-week trip:

    Bruschette con varie salsine (4 euros)
    Trenette al pesto di capperi di Pollara (pasta with caper pesto, mmm, delicious) (7 euros)
    Tagliatella di casa famularo (pasta in a creamy sauce, with ham and some other wonderful things), 8 euros
    Crochettone di pattate (mashed potatoes, deep fried and delicate), 7 euros
    Pesce alla griglia (2 smallish grilled fresh fish, perfect for sharing), 10 euros
    Vino bianco, ½ liter (6 euros)
    Aqua frizzante
    Malvasia of the islands (4 euros)

    We also bought a jar of caper pesto so we could make some of our own delicious caper pasta. Unfortunately, I think we left that behind when we returned to the States.

    After that wonderful interlude, we continued down the hill to the stony beach—turquoise blue waters, layered volcanic cliffs, a couple of sailboats hanging around for show, bright sunshine—beautiful, as usual. We only had a short time there, though, because we wanted to be sure to get back up the hill to the bus stop at the church, which we did, in plenty of time. We were sunned out and tired when we got back to our house, but it had been a wonderful day.

    13. May 24 (happy birthday to me), Lipari

    We felt the need to check the Internet and the only place in the islands that seemed to have working connections was going to be Lipari, where we had stayed for 5 days last year. We were happy to go back for a return visit, taking the 7:45 a.m. bus from Malfa to Santa Marina (3.40 euros for the two of us), and the 8:30 hydrofoil across the water to Lipari. The boat was packed! But everybody got on, and we landed in Lipari with most of the day ahead of us.

    It was nice to be back. Lipari is definitely the most developed of the Aeolian islands, with an active main street lined with all kinds of shops, lots of tourists, boats going here and there, and nice restaurants. And a working Internet shop. First we walked the short way to Marina Corta, the small harbor on the other side of town, where we had tasty cappuccinos while we gazed at the action. Wonderful place. Then we walked back into the center of town and spent an hour on the Internet, catching up with our email and other essential things. Bought a paper—the weekend edition of the Herald Tribune, which worked for us even though it was now Monday. We hadn’t heard any news for 7 days--so what if it was a couple of days old?

    It was lunchtime, so we went back to one of the good restaurants we had eaten in last year—La Cambusa. Really nice owner who loves his place and the food he serves. We had a delicious birthday meal of spaghetti with gamberetti, artichoke caponata, and really good grilled stuffed calamari—the best ever, I think. We ended up having a fun conversation with a youngish Australian couple who were incredibly well traveled—he had spent 3 years going around the world, among other things. Gave us some good ideas about travel in South America, and elsewhere. I love meeting other travelers and hearing their great stories.

    So, our must-do list grows:
    Goa
    Argentina
    Galapagos

    When we got back to Malfa we weren’t really up for dinner, but we had invited our downstairs neighbor up for a drink in the evening. I had corresponded with him on slowtrav.com, where it became apparent that we going to be staying in the same apartment compound. He works in the same profession as I do, so we had a bit in common. We sat on the terrace for several hours and watched darkness fall, talking about this and that. Very nice evening and a good way to spend my birthday.

    14. May 25, Lingua and Malfa

    We had arranged a trip to Filicudi on a small private boat for today, but the agent had told us that 10 people were needed so the trip might be a no-go. But we took the 9:35 bus to Santa Marina anyway, hoping that we would be in luck. Not so—only 6 people signed up (preseason, again). So instead we walked the 2 km from Santa Marina to Lingua, where we had bellissimo cappuccinos on a lovely piazza with great views of Santa Marina back up the coast, followed by super granita (lemon and strawberry). I needed to do some work on the book I was editing, so we bused back to Malfa and I put in some quality time wrapping up one of the two projects I had to complete on this trip. While I worked John decided to walk to the sixteenth-century sanctuary on the mountain between Malfa and Leni—it took him a couple of hours and was a good workout. For dinner we walked uphill to the pizza restaurant in Malfa, Al Lumeradda (?), with our neighbor, but they weren’t serving pizza (only on Thursday and the weekends) so we had excellent pasta instead. The waiter dropped at least two dishes full of food over the course of the evening, but nobody was counting. The walk back to our house about 10 p.m. was beautiful and quiet. Another lovely day!

    15. May 26, Wednesday, Pollara again

    We hadn’t done justice to Pollara on our previous visit, so after lunch at the house we took the bus over the hill and walked down from the church to the water again, first ferreting out the hidden house where Il Postino was filmed (we had bought a postcard of it in town, so we knew what color it was, and the general surroundings). The house is up a gravel path from a locked gate, which I climbed over to get a better view. Didn’t want to go too close in case there was actually someone living in the house, but I did get close enough to get a glimpse and a limited picture. Then it was the many steps down to the water and a scramble over the volcanic rocks to see the big arch that has been worn into the cliff—just beautiful, and easy to miss if you don’t make the effort to go over the rocks and see what’s around the corner.

    We stayed as long as we could, but there is no shade there in the afternoon and there are stinging jelly fish in the water so we definitely didn’t want to swim (though two people were in the water, and a woman was snorkeling off a boat nearby). So we climbed back up the hill to catch the bus back to Malfa, where we had yet another lemon granita (never enough) and then wandered back home. In the evening we walked with our neighbor back to the restaurant to have pizza, which turned out to be disappointing—definitely not up to Neopolitan standards. But the evening was enjoyable anyway.

    16. May 27, Thursday, Santa Marina and Rinella

    For our last full day in the islands (how sad), we took the bus into Santa Marina, did some shopping on the lovely mostly carless commercial street, then rented a Suzuki open-air jeep for a sojourn of a few hours around the island, including Rinella (isolated, but with a cute little village area with a sandy beach right at the port) and Lingua (lunch at Al Cannato, including a nice fish antipasto). The rental people gave us a ride back to Malfa, and we spent the evening watching the harbor from our terrace, walking up for a last drink/snack in the piazza, and packing up. Lovely.

    17. May 28, Friday, Palermo

    The taxi arrived at the appointed time (7:30 a.m.), as did Sra. Nunzia, who handed over our 100 euro key deposit and we were on our way. We had time for cappuccino and chocolate pastry at the Santa Marina bar overlooking the harbor, then got on the Siremar boat to Milazzo (34 euros for the two of us). The ride took 2 hours because the boat stopped at Rinella, Lipari, and Vulcano (our least favorite of the Aeolian Islands) before getting to Milazzo, which looks better from the sea than it does on land. We walked across the street to the bus stop and waited almost half an hour for the bus, which took us, for 1 euro each, to the train station a few km away (much better than the 25 euros we paid last year for a taxi). There were several trains going to Palermo, but we caught the first, a second-class, short train that stopped at a dozen or more stops along the way, taking about 2 ½ hours. But the ride was pleasant, right along the shore, and we arrived at Palermo station before 3:00. It was a short walk from there up Via Roma to our hotel, the Ambasciatori, which is on the 5th floor.
    Our room was small but serviceable, with a small balcony overlooking the noisy street, with good views across the city to Monreale and the mountains beyond. Best part—wireless access was free, so we were able to catch up on e-mails and learn that the volcanic activity in Iceland was winding down, so the flights to England, our next destination, would go off as scheduled.

    We took a late afternoon walk through central Palermo, dodging the traffic, with no particular destination in mind, had a glass of wine and a bread/cheese/ham thing at a wine bar, and got to the Palazzo Reale a little after it closed for the day—would have liked to see the mosaics there, which were being restored when we were there last year. We found a neat-looking restaurant for dinner, Trattoria ai Normanni, at Piazza della Vittoria, behind the public garden near the Palazzo, and decided to return there in the evening.

    Back at the hotel, we did this and that, missing the Aeolis, and then went up to the lovely terrace, with its spectacular view over Palermo, for a glass of prosecco and some before-dinner appetizers. Very fun. Then we took the walk back to the trattoria, where, aside from a local family eating early, we were the only diners, though it was 8:30 already. Nobody else came while we were there—wonder how they keep the place going. The food was very good, and a little different from what we had been having. Between us we had homemade ravioli stuffed with grouper, surrounding a fish ragu, and wild boar cooked with something else that I couldn’t figure out. We shared excellent grilled veggies and a tomato salad, with wine and sparkling water, plus coffees, for 57 euros.

    Palermo is raw—an interesting place, though. Compared to Palermo, Catania is mild. Especially different is the attitude of cars toward pedestrians. In Catania, if you step into the crosswalk the cars all stop for you. In Palermo, they speed up and head for you, trying to pick you off. Well, maybe an exaggeration, but they are definitely not willing to give an inch!

    Our 2-plus weeks in the Aeolis and mainland Sicily were over, and it had been a great trip. I know we’ll return again to those magical islands—they are such a delight. But my sadness at leaving was somewhat abated by what we had to look forward to—a week in England’s Lake District and almost a month in France.

    I’ve posted some pictures on my Shutterfly share site, http://aprillilacsphotos.shutterfly.com

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    What a marvelous trip! You should be commended for rolling with the punches when the ferry was not running!

    Questions:

    1. Link to Panarea cottage?

    2. Do you have any idea if the jellyfish are a seasonal influx, or can they appear at any time of the year?

    Many thanks! I would have visited the islands long ago but for the rather awkward connections from the US, which are daunting for those with only one week to travel! But I have put them on my list for the future. Which island would you recommend for a first timer? Is Lipari overrun to the point of tackiness?

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    WHAT A TERRIFIC REPORT! I was totally fascinated/engrossed by the detail of your travelogue! What a real treat to have posted it as a reference to future travellers. My compliments to you. You should also post it (or a version) on Slow Travel.

    As I'm sure you will want to return to the islands next year, here are a couple of thoughts:

    1. Try to take the traditional SIREMAR ferry, rather than the hydrofoils, between the islands (at least in one direction). It's an experience to itself. Much, much, much nicer than the hydrofoils.

    2. Get to Filicudi, preferably with a motor scooter (or rent one there after June 1st). Filicudi is a "wild" version of Salina Island, totally engrossing and worthwhile as a day trip (or stay a few nights as an alternative to Salina).

    3. Spend more time in Palermo to really "get to know" the city and its singular attractions. It's the most fascinating city south of Naples.

    4. Have you toured "mainland" Sicily?

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    I'm glad you enjoyed my report. The Aeolis were so wonderful, and I would like to share my enthusiasm. I should point out again, however, that we were there in May, which has both its drawbacks and its advantages.

    Drawbacks: (1) weather can be a problem--witness the wind we experienced trying to get to Panarea. And the daytime temps were on the cool side (60s-70s)--though that's the way we like it, and the sun was warm. (2) Some tourist-oriented things, like restaurants, aren't open until mid or late June. And, for example, some boat trip vendors run trips to less popular places, like Filicudi and Alicudi, only if there are enough people. In our case, on Salina, there were never enough to fill the Filicudi boat (they needed 10 takers). Oh well, we did something else instead.

    Advantages of May travel: Everything is so relaxed. Panarea, in particular, is on island downtime, in contrast to what it's reputed (by people who live there) to be like in July and August. Prices are cheaper, too--our rental on Panarea in May was 900 euros, as opposed to 1275 or more in July and August. Honestly, I myself would not visit the islands in July or August.

    To answer the specific questions:

    eks: Here's the link to the Panarea rental on VRBO--http://www.vrbo.com/33683. It was compact and lovely--perfect for two people who don't need a lot of extra room. The main living space, besides the nice bedroom, was the terrace. No complaints there!

    Sorry, I don't know about the jellyfish conditions other times, but there were definitely a lot of them in Taormina in mid-May, and even some at Pollara on Salina at the end of the month. I stay away from jellyfish!

    GAC: glad you liked the report--your own timely updates about transportation and other aspects of Sicilian travel have always been so helpful to us. We would have taken the Siremar ferry between Milazzo and the islands, and island to island, if the schedule had fit ours. In fact, the first boat to run to Lipari at the end of the second windy day (and the only one until the next day, I think) was a Siremar ferry. We didn't take it because we already had the emergency hotel in Milazzo and weren't convinced that getting to Lipari would get us, in the long run, to Panarea any faster.

    Filicudi has definitely been on our list, both last year and this, but daytrip boats to that island in May, as I mentioned, are hard to get, so both years our plans have fallen through. We would have been more successful if we had been willing to take one of the scheduled hydrofoils or ferries that require an overnight stay. Next time we'll build it into the plan.

    We did spend several nights in Palermo on a previous trip to Sicily (I did a trip report that is available by clicking on my name) and enjoyed it. We stayed in a lovely apartment with rooftop access and got to see many of the highlights of the city. I do think it's harder for tourists to love than other cities in Italy (my opinion only, of course), but that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend a visit of several days. Sicily as a whole remains one of my husband's favorite places.

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    Just reading your report now as I'm debating whether to include the Aeolian's in our itinerary of Corsica, Sardinia, & Sicily. I had read somewhere that the ferry trip took 4 hours (altho I hadn't checked it out yet) and that's a big negative. However, you mentioned the trip back took 2 hours, which doesn't sound bad.

    I'm seconding ekscrunchy's question about whether Lipari is worth seeing for a first- timer to the islands. Would that be a better base and then short trips to the other islands if we have less than a week there?

    Anyway, excellent report full of great info...you've changed my mind and I think we should cut Sicily shorter and add the Aeolians. From what I'm reading about Palermo, I'm not sure I'd like that city either for more than a couple of days.

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