In the Still of the Light

It's no easy feat to reach the Ae­o­lian Is­lands, a tran­quil, un­spoiled ar­chi­pel­ago north of Si­cily beloved by trav­el­ers since Homeric times. But once you've ar­rived and set­tled into the gen­tle rhythms of the place, Howie Kahn finds, leav­ing is no easy feat

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - By Howie Kahn. Pho­tographed by Si­mon Wat­son

North of Si­cily, the un­spoiled Ae­o­lian Is­lands have been beloved by trav­el­ers since Homeric times. Once you've set­tled into the gen­tle rhythms, it is tough to leave.

“Should I bring an­other bot­tle of wine?” asked Enzo Anas­tasi.

The two of us had been sit­ting in si­lence on the spa­cious ter­race of Ho­tel La Canna, Anas­tasi’s 14-room refuge on the is­land of Filicudi. The wa­ter of the Tyrrhe­nian Sea, a cou­ple of hun­dred me­ters be­low us, looked like gray-green glass. Filicudi is the sec­ond-far­thest west of the Ae­o­lian Is­lands, a vol­canic ar­chi­pel­ago that stretches for 80 kilo­me­ters north of Si­cily. Sev­eral of the other Ae­o­lians were vis­i­ble on the hori­zon, and as Anas­tasi un­corked our sec­ond bot­tle, I watched pink pop­corn-shaped clouds puff up among them, like a lu­mi­nous is­land chain of their own.

“Peo­ple here love si­lence,” Anas­tasi told me. He is 55, with se­ri­ous eyes and a shaved head. “We’re not here to know our neigh­bors.” Of course, there aren’t many neigh­bors to know. Filicudi, which has an area of less than six square kilo­me­ters, is home to some 200 peo­ple. When I ar­rived that af­ter­noon, to thun­der and lash­ing rain, I felt like I could have been the only one on the is­land. Anas­tasi gave me the key to my room and the run of the place. De­spite the weather, he planned to drive down the moun­tain for his daily swim at one of the nar­row, rocky beaches. “En­joy the view,” he said, sweep­ing his arm to­ward the cliff and leav­ing me to study the is­lands in the dis­tance.

So I sat on the cov­ered ter­race and got to know them. Salina, the twin-peaked is­land where I’d be head­ing the next day, was clos­est at 25 kilo­me­ters away. I could see Li­pari, too, long in the wa­ter like an al­li­ga­tor, and Panarea, which Anas­tasi would tell me later re­sem­bles a float­ing preg­nant woman. But most cap­ti­vat­ing was Strom­boli, a trun­cated cone 63 kilo­me­ters away. It’s a pro­to­typ­i­cal vol­cano, and still a very ac­tive one. It has served as a ge­o­log­i­cal muse for cen­turies. The ex­plor­ers in Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth end their ad­ven­ture on Strom­boli af­ter their raft is im­prob­a­bly blown out of one of its fiery vents. J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s been said, used Strom­boli as the in­spi­ra­tion for Mount Doom, the per­pet­u­ally erupt­ing vol­cano of Mid­dle Earth, to which Frodo is sent to de­stroy the ring. As the storm passed over Strom­boli, the vol­cano sent trails of white steam up to meet it. I felt a lit­tle Frodo-like my­self, as if the moun­tain were pulling me in­ex­orably to­ward it.

In the sum­mer, Li­pari is flooded with tourists, and Panarea is no­to­ri­ously chic, with fam­i­lies named Borgh­ese and Bul­gari rul­ing an im­pen­e­tra­ble so­cial scene. But in the rest of the Ae­o­lians, you’ll find a life­style that holds qui­etude in high re­gard. Filicudi, Salina and Strom­boli are all largely of pro­tected park­land, and since 2000, the en­tire ar­chi­pel­ago has been listed as a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site, so much of the land can­not be al­tered and new de­vel­op­ment is heav­ily re­stricted. Still, the is­lands I vis­ited ex­celled at hos­pi­tal­ity, in no small part be­cause their res­i­dents have a nat­u­ral and gen­er­ous propen­sity for know­ing when to feed peo­ple, when to talk to them, and when to give them space. Homer wrote about this in Book 10 of The Odyssey, in which Ae­o­lus, the mythic ruler of the Ae­o­lian

Is­lands and god of the wind, in­vites Odysseus to live with his fam­ily, so he could rest and—more im­por­tantly—feast for an en­tire month.

De­spite their fond­ness for si­lence, the Filicu­d­ari are also known for wel­com­ing trav­el­ers. Over our sec­ond bot­tle of wine, Anas­tasi told me that in 1971, the Ital­ian govern­ment tried to turn Filicudi into a prison with­out walls, send­ing 15 no­to­ri­ous mafia lead­ers to live there as free men in ex­ile. The Filicu­d­ari rose up in protest, seek­ing to pro­tect their rep­u­ta­tion as friendly hosts to the gen­er­ally up­stand­ing cit­i­zens who liked to visit their shores. In an act of re­sis­tance, they all shut­tered their shops and left. The govern­ment gave in, re­lo­cated the pris­on­ers, and the Filicu­d­ari re­turned home to re­sume their quiet way of em­brac­ing out­siders like me.

On Filicudi, the pace of change is slow (ap­pro­priately, the is­land looks like a tur­tle from above, ac­cord­ing to Anas­tasi), and the tourism in­fra­struc­ture is mod­est. Anas­tasi’s par­ents bought La Canna as their home in 1969 and started rent­ing its rooms in the mid 70s. When Anas­tasi took it over in 2000, it was a sim­ple ho­tel and tav­ern. A self-taught ar­chi­tect, he de­signed the ter­race where we were sit­ting, in­clud­ing the built-in benches cov­ered with bright, hand-painted tiles that lined the perime­ter. “It’s now a three-star ho­tel,” he told me proudly. “The is­land isn’t ready for any more stars than that. We don’t even have a bou­tique in the vil­lage.”

What Filicudi lacks in shop­ping, it makes up for in food. With the pink clouds now ar­rang­ing them­selves around Strom­boli’s peak like a flower crown, Anas­tasi and I nib­bled on pepi rip­i­ene, the spicy pep­pers his fam­ily grows, roasts, and stuffs with pecorino, pars­ley and bread crumbs. The smaller the chiles got, the hot­ter they were. As I dug around for the olive-size ones—hot!—Anas­tasi lit up while talk­ing about his fa­vorite Ae­o­lian dishes: spaghetti allo scoglio with mus­sels, clams, white­bait and wild fen­nel; ci­cer­chie, a prized lo­cal pea, cooked with rose­mary; eg­g­plant with car­rot, gar­lic and more wild fen­nel. He said he’d never bought an onion, since he’s al­ways grown his own. Around the time the sun set, Anas­tasi’s 82-year-old fa­ther, a fish­er­man and for­mer postal di­rec­tor, walked silently past us, hold­ing a freshly har­vested pump­kin. Soon, Anas­tasi told me, the pump­kin would be roasted, mashed, com­bined with eggs, flour, sugar and sweet wine, then rolled into balls and fried to cre­ate sfinci—a lo­cal style of dough­nut.

Then Anas­tasi sent me off to din­ner. At Villa La Rosa, a hun­dred me­ters up a cob­ble­stoned path from La Canna, I sat to eat among stat­ues of saints. Ade­laide Rando, the chef-owner, told me she’d been cook­ing for me all day. She served sole grilled be­tween lemon leaves, then lasagna made with fen­nel, pre­served tuna, tomato and ca­cio­cav­allo cheese. There was also black rice topped with tiny, sweet shrimp. When the meal ended, Rando ap­peared at the ta­ble and took a small, dig­ni­fied bow. There were a few lo­cal men eat­ing at the ta­ble next to mine, the only other peo­ple I’d seen all day be­sides Anas­tasi. They looked at me pity­ingly. “When you’re from this place,” one said, “you never want to go.”

I WOKE AT DAWN, feel­ing as full as Odysseus af­ter his month­long feast. Af­ter watch­ing for a few min­utes as the ris­ing sun burned off the fog that had en­veloped Strom­boli, I headed down to the port to catch the Lib­erty Lines hy­dro­foil. Cheery golden sea­horses were stamped across the boat’s worn car­pet­ing. The ride to Salina took an hour. Com­pared with the last-man-on-earth vibes I’d felt upon reach­ing Filicudi, Salina, which has a pop­u­la­tion of around 2,000, felt more high-en­ergy. Not a party in any sense, but more like a med­i­ta­tion re­treat where you’re sur­rounded by oth­ers who have also shown up to con­cen­trate on their breath­ing.

Salina wastes no time in an­nounc­ing its de­li­cious­ness. Un­like Filicudi, where the ter­raced farm­ing op­er­a­tions are largely aban­doned, Salina has 11 work­ing vine­yards, which grow the Mal­va­sia grapes that pro­duce the wine of the same name. Ten

‘When you’re from this place,’ said a lo­cal man eat­ing at the ta­ble next to mine, ‘you never want to go’

min­utes off the ferry and I was al­ready wind­ing my way through one such vine­yard at Capo­faro Lo­canda & Mal­va­sia, a 27-room re­sort with a sen­sa­tional on-site restau­rant. It is owned by the Tasca fam­ily of Palermo, which has been mak­ing wine in cen­tral Si­cily since 1830 and on Salina for al­most two decades. The Tas­cas opened the ho­tel, sit­u­ated in a for­mer fish­ing vil­lage on a bluff, in 2003. This sum­mer, they’ll de­but six new rooms in the 19th-cen­tury light­house that sits amid their Mal­va­sia vines. They also plan to un­veil a mu­seum about the his­tory of the Ae­o­lians in­side the light­house next year.

Capo­faro’s ar­chi­tec­ture is clas­si­cal, with arches and columns that curve out­ward slightly, like bar­rels. Its walls are washed in a stark Mediter­ranean white. Bougainvil­lea veiled my room’s out­door sit­ting area, which had a couch and two love seats. Set into a re­cessed arch­way of its own, my bed felt like a shrine. Sleep­ing out at the end of the prop­erty, all I could hear was the wind. My view of Strom­boli was, again, un­ob­structed, but now the vol­cano was closer and, there­fore, larger and even more mag­netic.

I was grate­ful to Margherita Vi­tale, Capo­faro’s worldly gen­eral man­ager, for se­lect­ing a place for us to have a drink where we could both gaze at Strom­boli. She un­der­stood the at­trac­tion. Rais­ing a glass of Didyme, a dry Mal­va­sia made with grapes grown in Capo­faro’s vine­yard, Vi­tale toasted the vol­cano. “You will see Strom­boli erupt­ing at night,” she said. “You’ll think you don’t need any­thing else in the world.”

Salina’s best-known ex­port be­sides Mal­va­sia is the ca­per. Italy’s Slow Food Foun­da­tion for Bio­di­ver­sity, which is ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing tra­di­tional forms of agri­cul­ture, con­sid­ers the edi­ble, cured bud in­te­gral to the lo­cal econ­omy, so it tries to pro­tect the farm­ing prac­tices that have been handed down through the cen­turies. Ac­cord­ing to Daniela Virg­ona, a 47-year-old third­gen­er­a­tion farmer in Salina, the prod­uct is so dif­fi­cult to grow that only the most ded­i­cated stew­ards are will­ing to do it.

The 2,000 thorny ca­per plants she man­ages must all be har­vested by hand, a task that she and her fam­ily pur­sue from April through Oc­to­ber. “I started work­ing here when I was four,” Virg­ona told me. Her bushes yield both ca­pers (cap­peri) and ca­per berries (cu­cunci). The for­mer are salt-cured for 50 to 60 days, the lat­ter for 90 days. Both are then vac­uum-packed and sold in Virg­ona’s hum­ble show­room, where she also of­fers her own in­dus­tri­ously brewed ca­per-en­hanced pil­sner along with ca­per pesto, ca­per jam, can­died ca­pers, and ca­per pow­der.

Trans­lat­ing Salina’s agri­cul­tural her­itage into a culi­nary move­ment for the is­land is what drives Capo­faro’s 36-year-old chef, Lu­dovico De Vivo. A na­tive of Salerno, in south­west­ern Italy, De Vivo cred­its work­ing at Noma in Copen­hagen with open­ing his eyes to the sig­nif­i­cance of over­looked in­gre­di­ents. His ex­pe­ri­ence there made him won­der if ca­per leaves could be made de­li­cious, too. So he be­gan fer­ment­ing leaves from the Virg­ona orchard to use in his cook­ing. Over the course of a year, he de­vel­oped a dish for which he places a sin­gle leaf (fer­mented for six months) onto a plate, then spoons on diced raw mack­erel and fer­mented fen­nel. Fi­nally, he tops it with a sec­ond leaf in what he de­scribes as a “style of open ravi­olo.”

I’d no­ticed the way his sous-chefs and line cooks all watch him, with the same rapt at­ten­tion the Noma kitchen pays to its leader, René Redzepi. When I took a bite of the dish, I could tell why. The bal­ance be­tween the acidic zing of the fer­ment and the fatty funk of the fish con­firmed I was in the pres­ence of great­ness. It an­nounced the cu­rios­ity, cre­ativ­ity and tech­nique of its maker. “I’m just try­ing to show ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the is­land,” De Vivo told me. “It’s in­com­pa­ra­ble. It could be one of the best food des­ti­na­tions in all of Italy.”

Fol­low­ing the path back to my room, I dipped down a slope and then as­cended. The stars were out. The waves whis­pered, then crashed. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a beam of light from the Capo­faro light­house shot past me, like some­thing ex­trater­res­trial. Strom­boli was lost to the black­ness of night.

Hav­ing not no­ticed any vol­canic ac­tiv­ity be­fore bed, I kept wak­ing in hopes of see­ing some.

At mid­night, I checked.

At 2, I woke and checked again.

At 4, still noth­ing. By 6, I was start­ing to take it per­son­ally. Did I not de­serve this splen­dor? Sheathed in my robe, I headed out to the porch and looked to­ward the vol­cano once more. No glow, no lava, no ac­tion.

TWELVE HOURS LATER, I was high on Strom­boli’s north­ern flank, look­ing down on the Sciara del Fuoco, or “stream of fire.” Lava has flowed from Strom­boli for much of the past two mil­len­nia, black­en­ing the land and carv­ing up the earth. Near my feet, chunks of rock pulsed shades of glow­ing or­ange. The steam that had looked from a dis­tance like a cloud of chic Ital­ian cig­a­rette smoke now seemed more men­ac­ing. The deep, vi­o­lent rum­bling em­a­nat­ing from the vol­cano was es­pe­cially un­set­tling af­ter the gen­eral ab­sence of sound the pre­vi­ous few days. Filicudi had been a place to be alone

and Salina a place to bliss out on the beloved tropes of va­ca­tion—sea, wind, food, wine—but Strom­boli, I re­al­ized, was some­thing more com­pli­cated, a place to grap­ple with what it means to be alive. I couldn’t es­cape the sen­sa­tion of be­ing small and tem­po­rary in the face of the vol­cano—but I also felt tri­umphant, for hav­ing climbed it, and lucky, just to be there.

Be­fore my climb, I’d had lunch at Trat­to­ria Ai Gechi. I found it at the end of a nar­row, curv­ing street in the vil­lage of Strom­boli, which sits at the foot of the vol­cano. The restau­rant was el­e­vated, ter­raced and sur­rounded by leaves in a way that made me feel like I was in a tree house. An­tonino Zac­cone, its 41-year-old owner, sat with me at my ta­ble be­fore go­ing to pick up his son from school. He told me the dish I’d be eat­ing, pasta a la Nino, got its fla­vor from the tuna he’d smoked for 36 hours be­fore fold­ing it into the dish along with cherry to­ma­toes and ri­cotta al forno. On Strom­boli, fire is present even in the food.

He sug­gested I limit my­self to just this one dish be­fore my hike. “Tonight,” he said, “you come to eat.” He ad­vised that the trek would make me hun­gry for more than just food. “You con­tem­plate,” he said, in his Ital­ian-in­flected English. “You stay only with you.” I knew what he meant—that Strom­boli, for those who climb it, is a mir­ror as much as it is a moun­tain.

Af­ter lunch, on the path up Strom­boli, I stopped in on Karen, a friend of a friend. Her house sat be­hind a gate in Pisc­ità, a clus­ter of homes perched above the sea. She once worked for Tom Ford in Europe, but now taught med­i­ta­tion on Strom­boli. We sat drink­ing cof­fee and watch­ing the wa­ter turn golden in the af­ter­noon light. We’d never met, but we talked openly about our par­ents and our fears and our hu­man­ity, about liv­ing and dy­ing, as if en­gaged in a sud­den psy­chother­apy ses­sion. It felt ap­pro­pri­ate—cleans­ing, ac­tu­ally—be­cause we were on Strom­boli, and that was, it seemed, just how peo­ple on Strom­boli talked. When we fin­ished, she gave me a hug and sent me off on my climb with a half-dozen heart-shaped, al­mond-fla­vored cook­ies from the near­est bak­ery. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours of hik­ing, when I reached the high­est point I could reach, I sat down to eat them. Just as I bit into the first one, the ground be­neath me be­gan to trem­ble.

That night, I re­turned to Ai Gechi, fam­ished, just as Zac­cone had said I would. He was stand­ing near the en­trance to the restau­rant. He saw that I was smil­ing. “I love this is­land,” he told me, cov­er­ing his heart with his hand. “You take the is­land in your soul. You go to the vol­cano and you feel it. In Strom­boli, you come look­ing for your­self. And you find it.”

The view of the Tyrrhe­nian Sea from Salina, with Filicudi and Alicudi on the hori­zon. TOP LEFT: The Im­mac­u­late Church on Salina.

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