The prison sentence that turned out to be paradise.
There’s a pristine, secret paradise beach on Italy’s island of Vulcano that harbors a scandalous past. Its turquoise waters, black-reddish warm sand, and aphrodisiac vibe staged one of the most flabbergasting liaisons of all time.
This is where Mussolini’s daughter Edda Ciano was lucky enough to while away her prison months cuddling and making love to a local hot communist fighter.
Her father certainly turned in his grave but it’s the irony of history.
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The story of such a scandalous affair is now reviving tourism as people flock to discover the romance’s kinky spots. The gorgeous beach where the two lovers passionately killed time is the top highlight.
In 1945 after the fall of fascism and her father’s execution, Edda was exiled to Lipari, a sister-isle of Vulcano and part of Sicily’s Aeolian archipelago. She was a skinny, pale widow (her dad had sentenced her husband to death), depressed, sad, and now a prisoner. Yet despite her circumstances, she was still young, only 35, and good looking. Her arrival shocked locals especially one, in particular, Leonida Bongiorno, a communist chief who, attracted by the lady’s looks and personal drama, started taking care of her. Leonida was handsome, blue-eyed, and brave—the typical Sicilian macho. Edda just couldn’t help falling in love with him. The two started having an affair and soon what was meant to be a 10-month jail sentence turned into a period of bliss for Mussolini’s daughter.
Leonida was her medicine, her drug. She recovered, indulged in Sicilian cakes, and learned to swim in translucent waters. Passion brought her back to life.
Not much of a prison, huh?
After their affair was unearthed a few years ago by an Italian writer, tourists are curious to visit the places where the love story took place. The hottest is the lovebirds’ secret beach.
Leonida used to take Edda on a tiny fisherman boat from Lipari to Vulcano’s most hidden shore stretching from the isle’s lighthouse to what is called today Asino Beach, aka the Donkey Beach as mules were used in the past to transport huge rocks carved from the cliffside. It’s a secluded slice of heaven.
The first time I visit is by boat, just like the lovers did. It’s the best way to reach the place even if there’s a steep path that runs down the cliff, but you need to first travel to Vulcano. At a first glance, it looks like the shore of a tropical atoll in the Pacific, but black.
The fisherman anchors the boat and tells me to dive and swim to reach Edda’s beach. The water’s color is emerald-turquoise and the Martian landscape is as stunning as it is exotic. Ragged jet-black cliffs with streaks of sulfur yellow, red, and orange are covered in lush vegetation of dwarf palms and cactus trees. The beach is made up of tiny sand pebbles made of solidified lava dust. There’s one beach bar that rents lounge chairs, serves pizza for lunch, and turns into a cocktail disco pub at night. As I stroll along the beach I can picture Edda and Leonida chilling out.
Edda, wearing a tight bikini showing-off her fit legs, would suntan and doze-off, occasionally taking a dip in the clear waters with Leonida. This is where he taught her how to swim. In the evening he’d sketch a portrait of happy Edda, lying on her towel or naked on the sand, as sensual as a sea goddess. Then, well, then…you can imagine what likely came next.
At the far end of Asino Beach there is a little cove, enclosed by rocks almost forming a cave and just a few meters wide with a stone in the middle to sit down, where nobody could spy on them if they skinny-dipped or got caught up in a sudden passion frenzy on the soft dark sand.
Vulcano is a sleeping volcano with nasty geysers and vapors rising from brick walls where tourists wait for ferries. It’s like sitting on a boiling pot. Tiny clouds of gas can be seen at street corners and coming out of cobblestones. Asino Beach is one of Vulcano’s few corners where there are no intoxicating sulfur smells, making it a popular but niche tourist hotspot.
Visitors who know about the forbidden love story run to see the “scandal beach” while couples use it as a secret love lair, enticed by its romantic past. Many hotels organize pick-ups for guests with a shuttle and boat ride, and you can even sleep in picturesque sea-view dwellings overlooking the spot.
As I sunbathe admiring the tropical-like scenery it hits me: I am re-living a chapter of history, floating in the same waters where Edda had the time of her life.
But it’s no fairy-tale.
As many love stories go, the one between Edda and Leonida was star-crossed. They never ended up together and when Edda’s exile was over she left the isle and resumed her title of fallen countess while he married a village girl. But it wasn’t over and they started a long, steamy correspondence.
The echo of that outrageous love story lingers throughout Lipari. Edda liked to stroll over to the newspaper stand each morning down at the harbor and indulge in delicious pastries. She had a soft spot for granita, an iconic Sicilian treat which is a hybrid between an ice-cream and a slushy usually of coffee and lemon flavors.
My grand tour of the romantic locations unwinds through the maze of Lipari village’s vibrant alleys at the feet of an overhanging fortress, the Arab-style architecture, and lavish courtyards with lemon groves where the two lovers leisurely strolled.
Then I reach a stylish white dwelling with wrought iron balconies where Edda lived, owned by Leonida. This is where they spent their first night of passion.
At the entrance, a ceramic wall sign says “Petite Malmaison,” meaning the “tiny shabby-cozy house,” which was how Edda dubbed the abode that her lover had generously offered her to live in. He couldn’t stand that she slept any longer in the cold and damp jailhouse provided by the authorities. Truth is, that way Leonida could sneak in to visit her any time he wanted, both day and night. But given the entrance lies on a main street and Leonida wanting to keep a low profile despite everyone in town knowing about the liaison, he preferred to enter unseen through a little side door in a narrow alley. The secret passage is still there, unnoticeable, and in poor condition.
It wasn’t just sex. They also had intellectual exchanges, reciting parts of The Odyssey and discussing island myths while taking sunset walks across Lipari’s lively piazzas, buzzing with vendors, and lined with elegant frescoed palazzos of rich sea merchants.
The most curious spot is Leonida’s former family house, now turned into a picturesque white and red hotel called Oriente. The reception hall features a small museum with old artisan and fishermen objects.
The tour ends on Lipari’s panoramic piazza at the foot of the castle, with a superb view of the Aeolian Isles. Here stands a monument with sculpted verses in ancient Greek of Homer’s Odyssey commissioned at a later stage by the communist chief in memory of his fascist beauty, comparing himself to the wandering Odysseus, fallen prey to the seductive power of the sorceress Circe.