Each of the seven aeolian islands scattered in the Mediterranean just north of Sicily holds a unique lure. But it’s the green hills, black- sand beaches and artistic community of salina that has captured Lee Marshall’s heart.
It was while staying at Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia, a boutique resort on the island of Salina, that I noticed something special about the caper flower. By day, in the glare of the sun, the flower has about as much perfume as the rocks it typically takes root in. But as my wife and I walked barefoot from dinner at the hotel, a heady scent filled the air. Illuminated at regular intervals by the old lighthouse or faro, the delicate white blooms with purple stamens like fireworks were calling out, aromatically, to the nocturnal bees and moths that pollinate them. And to us.
The island’s inhabitants tend to emerge along with the caper flowers. Walk through two of Salina’s coastal towns, Malfa and Santa Marina, in the early afternoon on a hot summer’s day and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the locals had been abducted by aliens, leaving big trays of quartered tomatoes drying in the sun outside their houses. But come sundown, everyone is on the streets – kids, grandparents, old fishermen, young lovers. The alfresco café and trattoria tables are alive with conversation and the gentle flirting that Italians deliciously call amoreggiamento.
Salina is my soulmate of the Aeolian Islands, those seven hunks of volcanic rock scattered in the Mediterranean north of Sicily, as if thrown by a pair of dice-playing giants. The ancients called Salina “Didyme”, a name derived from the Greek word for “twins” in reference to the volcanic peaks that divide the island into two mountainous halves.
I remember the first time I set eyes on the Aeolians, from the deck of the night ferry out of Naples. First, in the misty dawn, came Stromboli, a dark, mysterious cone of lava with a few impermanent-looking houses dotted along its shore and a permanent plume of smoke emanating from the Sciara del Fuoco lava flow. Then we docked in Panarea – rugged yet chic, the haunt of yachty Milanese businessmen and fashionistas. Finally, as we rounded Panarea’s Punta Torrione headland, two larger islands came into view: Lipari to the left and Salina to the right.
Something struck me about Salina immediately. Stromboli is ash-black, Panarea an arid khaki hue and Lipari the same except for some dabs of white along the coast that mark its famous pumice quarries. Yet Salina emerged from the sea green and inviting.
Part of that verdant picture is painted by the Malvasia vineyards, which produce an intense, raisiny dessert wine made from grapes that are laid out in the sun to dry for a couple of weeks before pressing. The vines once covered much of the island – until the devastating phylloxera blight arrived at the end of the 19th century. The island’s rural economy imploded, leading many Salinesi to emigrate (to Australia among other places). Aptly, it was an immigrant to Salina – northern Italian artist and designer Carlo Hauner – who revived Malvasia wine production in the 1970s.
Just as the Aeolian isles are unique, each of Salina’s three main towns has a different character. Santa Marina is the sunny, easygoing port town and distant Leni and its black-sand beach, Rinella, is the fascinating recluse, while Malfa is my idea of the model Mediterranean community: warm, artistic (a prestigious documentary-film festival takes place here each year), urbane in its sea-facing piazza and countrified in the villas and Malvasia wineries that survey the town from the green hills behind.
Composed of a nest of traditional houses that merge with the rest of the town, Hotel Signum captures Malfa’s mix of proud localism and cultured openness. The artisanal design hotel is spearheaded by two women – dynamic owner Clara Rametta, who the good citizens of Malfa elected as their mayor in 2017, and young chef Martina Caruso. As someone who usually prefers a good trattoria to a Michelin-starred restaurant, I make an exception for the Signum’s fine-diner. Dishes like linguine alle vongole cooked in almond milk or divine caper-flavoured gelato exemplify my idea of what a premier trattoria should do – work with local ingredients and traditions but find an edge.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Salina is that it feels like several islands in one. High up on Monte Fossa delle Felci, amid ferns that give the island’s highest peak its name and beneath spreading chestnut trees, you might be in the Tuscan Apennines if it weren’t for the sea glinting below. Lingua, on the other hand, a small fishing village in the south-eastern corner of the island, channels the spirit of Venice in its small lagoon, an old salt works that comes alive with migrating birds in the autumn and spring.
Then there’s Pollara – a world apart in this world apart. If you’ve ever seen the charming 1994 film Il Postino, well, that’s Pollara. The backdrop for the story of a poetic postman, the village occupies a half-collapsed volcanic crater on Salina’s seaward side. It’s a magical place, renowned for capers and the black-sand Balate beach, which is honeycombed with fishermen’s huts and storerooms dug into the soft tuff rock.
In Pollara – as so often on Salina – you feel like you’ve wandered into a dream you’re in no hurry to wake up from. And the only thing that lessens the pain of leaving is the certainty that, sooner or later, you’ll be back.