Kate Friend journeys by boat to the island of Salina.
We are marooned. After 10 days of cultural exploration on the Sicilian mainland in glorious sunshine, the Gods' displeasure has spilled over, whipping the seas into a foaming, white tipped no-man's land. We've taken the last boat before the storm, and it seems we'll be stranded on the Aeolian Islands. These Tyrrhenian outcrops will be our home until the wrath of Neptune is appeased.
The boat crossing over is empty, bar one silent passenger in dark glasses. Oblivious to the queasy rock-n-rolling of the boat, she disembarks with a strong stride and is immediately whisked off in a matching dark-windowed car. Where are we? What is this place?
The first rule of survival is, don't panic A deep breath, count to ten and follow the man with the laminated sign that's printed with my name.
When stranded in unfamiliar territory, it's important to get the lay of the land. As we're chauffeured from boat jetty to hotel, we're told that of the seven Aeolian islands, Salina is thought of as the shy sister. Fittingly, Hotel Signum - our home for three nights - hides down a warren of narrow honeysuckled streets in the pretty fishing village of Malfa. The hotel is a secret garden; you'd never know it was there. We're met with warmth and smiles. We quickly feel less like holidaymakers and more like treasured guests.
Out of the corner of my eye I realise we're being watched. Seated amongst the classic Italian literature and framed botanical drawings in the lobby, it's the woman from the boat! Matriarch personified, she is of course the hotel owner, Clara, a woman who also holds the title of Mayor of Salina. She tells us to go find the caper growers, down by the cliffs. And to have a negroni, pronto.
Clinking glass in hand, a stroll through the gardens reveals a varied patchwork of scented citrus trees, tumbling bougainvillea, palms and cloistered terazzos, sewn together by pathways lined with sweet smelling jasmine. A laid-back labyrinth of ochre stone buildings, punctuated by the silhouettes of neighbouring volcanic sisters. A perfect outline of Stromboli sits centre stage, gently puffing a little smoke.
Resisting the urge for a post-negroni snooze, and making the most of a break in the storm, we stride out through the village and down the hill toward the sea. In tempestuous weather, island skies can shift and change at baffling speed. A seemingly never-ending soupy greyness can be prized apart by God's fingers', to reveal flashes of Titian-blue skies. But the sea is slower to react. Once whipped into a frenzy, it rages on. It's too rough, even for the fishermen. They line the harbour walls, sucking teeth and shaking heads at the phenomenal waves thundering down on the jetty, tossing their boats about.
A short walk around the headland and we find a secluded beach veiled in a salty mist. No doubt in the height of summer this pebbly cove would be a favourite with holidaymakers. But today the dark violet volcanic cliff walls are charged with a foreboding, land-before-time quality, making us feel as though we're the only ones here.
There's a few hours before sunset to find these famous capers. The road winds round sharp headlands. A weathered sign, a rocky track this must be it. Did you know capers grow on bushes? I didn't. Scrubby, unremarkable bushes in dry soil; apt conditions for a salty, briny, intense little berry. Some think Salina has the best capers in the world. Roberto, the owner of this farm, with his photograph proudly displayed in the pickling and storage rooms, certainly thinks so. The island hosts an entire festival in their honour each June. Capers in salt, capers in brine, caper tapenade, caper dip we take leave, laden with offerings for lucky friends in London.
We may almost have the island entirely to ourselves, but when it comes to food, we seem to be in the land of plenty. The raved-about Signum restaurant is our pick, and on arrival we are informed that ours had been the last boat to attempt the crossing from Lipari and that 20 anticipated guests are still stranded there. Our inadvertent intrepidness means that we are the soul diners and beneficiaries of a truly memorable dinner. We're in the extremely capable hands of sommelier Josephine. Quickly we build a rapport. We're treated to 6 different spectacular island wines. Somehow Josephine and her team conjure up a full house atmosphere despite the empty seats.
Chef Martina Caruso is the bright young thing in Sicilian cookery. Her menu is an ode to the ingredients she has available locally. Those capers, plus courgettes, ricotta, rabbit, fish, olives ... in fact the only thing not available to us this evening is anything containing mozzarella, because it, too, is stranded in Lipari. We don't miss it. The food was so good I would have braved the island crossing in a rubber ring.
Myth and legend were born out of these islands, and from these legends came great works of epic poetry. If I were to cast myself as a wandering hero of the epics then Salina, my shelter from the storm with its comfort, kindness and generosity, would be a fitting chapter. We have not just survived on Salina we have thrived, thanks to the faultless hospitality of the Salina locals. We left promising, in true epic tradition, that we would return.
Words and images by Kate Friend
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