Meet the locals on the Aeolian isle of Salina, a Sicilian land so idyllic it could bring out the poet in anyone
Words CHARLOTTE HOBSON
Photographs ADRIENNE PITTS
Near the summit of Monte Fossa delle Felci, we step out of cool woods into dazzling light. It is a windless, scorching day on Salina. The Aeolian Islands bask peacefully in the heat haze: behind us, the isles of Lipari, Filicudi and Alicudi; in front, Panarea and the magnificent pyramid of Stromboli with its cap of volcanic gases. Sicily, to the south, is a shadow; Italy doesn’t exist at all. Bosomy Salina, with its twin volcanoes, floats in a little world of its own, in a blinding-blue pool of sky and sea.
“People say Salina’s a little place. I don’t know what they’re talking about,” jokes Elio, the ebullient chief ranger of the island’s nature reserve. “From where I stand, it’s pretty big. It’s everything else that’s tiny.”
Salinieris are fiercely proud of their home, which, in their view, is not only by far the best island in the archipelago, but probably in the world. In the hugely popular film Il Postino, about the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s friendship with a young postman, Salina is portrayed as a place whose beauty could make a poet of anyone. “Walk slowly along the shore, look around and the metaphors will surely come to you,” advises Neruda. A few days on the island, exploring its fishing villages and watching the sun set over its rocky beaches, and I’m sure he’s right. Even islanders born and bred here seem amazed by Salina’s loveliness. “Look at that,” they say several times a day, shrugging their shoulders with half-embarrassment, half-glee. “We live in a paradise!”
What’s more, in many ways, Salina appears to have been designed by benign Mediterranean gods specifically to make life pleasant for its inhabitants. As we make our way through the chestnut and the arbutus trees, accompanied by an inquisitive hoopoe bird that furls and unfurls its crest before us, Elio reveals the mystery of Salina’s colour. Fresh water is in such short supply that it has to be delivered by boat from the Italian mainland twice a week, yet the island is the only one of the Aeolians to be a juicy emerald green all year. The shape of the island causes humid clouds from Africa to condense on its slopes, thus solving the problem of irrigation. The generosity of the gods also stretches to the highly fertile volcanic soil. One of the island’s main exports, the caper, is even self-seeded with the help of local lizards, and requires no greater care than a little hoeing. The other, Malvasia (the Malmsey wine famed across Europe since the Middle Ages), tastes more like nectar than can be expected of any human production.
“These are the gates of heaven, I tell you,” Elio says, as we gaze down at the terraces far beneath us, crammed with vegetables, olives and vines; at the white houses tumbled together around the little harbours and fishing boats bobbing on their moorings.
As the shadows lengthen, we wind our way down from the mountain towards the terraces and the Fenech vineyard, a multi-award-winning producer of Malvasia and other wines. The warm, hospitable Francesco is the latest in a long line of wine-making Fenechs that stretches back to the early 19th century. Along with several German connoisseurs, we sit on his terrace nibbling antipasti and sipping first one, then another chilled little glass of Malvasia, while he explains the process with great gesticulation. Occasionally, still talking, he drapes a large white handkerchief over his bald head and polishes it until it gleams. The yard in front of us is filled with trays of the small, golden grapes, filling the air with their honeyed smell as they dry in the sun – the traditional practice before the complex process of fermentation begins – yet inside the barn are gleaming stainless steel vats, the latest equipment. It is a combination I notice everywhere on Salina: centuries of tradition jostling for position with modernity, one after the other taking precedence.
“Some Roman amphorae were found out there,” Francesco waves at the sea in front of us, “and archaeologists discovered traces of Corinto Nero wine inside them. So when they heard I was making it, they got excited, suggested I keep it in amphorae under the sea. I said, are you people crazy?” He laughs. “I’m running a business…”
Travel to Salina to experience a little world of its own and the locals’ generosity; check out LPMI’s September 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.