Forces of the American tourist light infantry seeking to put ashore on the seacoast of Olympic Italy next summer stand, if unarmed with prior reservations, a good chance of being hurled back into the sea. Nor are the opportunities for establishing a successful beachhead for suntanning and swimming purposes any better on the glossy Italian islands of Capri, Ischia or even Elba.
Fortunately, however, Italy also owns clear title to a magnificent string of tiny islands which have been all but undiscovered by Americans. Indeed, had it not been for the yeasty advertising and the personal amori of Roberto Rossellini and his star Ingrid Bergman (THEY MADE LOVE ON THE SLOPES OF AN ERUPTING VOLCANO, said the ads in 1949), even the name of Stromboli would, like its neighboring islands, be all but unknown in the U.S.
The Little Known Islands, as I must call them collectively, are sprinkled all along the shinbone and the toe of the boot from Leghorn in the north to Sicily in the south. Some are lush gardens of Mediterranean flowers, and others are stark and treeless, bubbling with active volcanoes that warm the sea water and make of it an unusual ocean spa. Some are still studded with relics of Greeks and Romans who came to sojourn there 2,000 years ago. On all of them, however, modern tourism is just beginning. Nowhere are the rates higher than $7 a day, and in many places in the southern string $3.50 per person will carry the day, including room with shared bath, three meals and tips and taxes. The Little Known Islands are far and away the biggest buys in Europe.
The most unusual of the archipelagoes is that of the Aeolian Islands, far to the south. Here, many civilizations ago, came the Greeks with their cultural refinements and their mythology. Here, for them, was the home of Aeolus, the wind god; and while he rested here between zephyrs, Vulcan, the Roman fire god, at home on the fiery island of Vulcano, forged his weapons in the molten lava.
December 21, 1959
Treeless, barren, almost bleak, Vulcano today makes an improbable new home for the chic bohemia. It has two beaches, the Levante (sunrise) and Ponente (sunset). Levante is a hot-water beach—one of the world's few, if not its only one. Volcanic gases seeping through the black sand, and rocks heat the whole strand. Bathers are fond of taking hot-water health baths at the shore's very edge, resting their heads on protruding rocks. For a surrealist backdrop there is a sheltering cliff wall painted by the minerals in startling shades of rust, yellow and blue-green. On the heights just behind Levante across the alum flats, a slippery path leads to a pool for natural mud baths. The hot sulphurous water will take the tenseness from the supercharged, the kinks from knotted muscles and the color from the bathing suits. Indeed, in the irradiated air of Vulcano, fabrics change color with the whimsy of a vacillating chameleon, natural hair bleaches, bleaches darken, and stockings have been known simply to disintegrate without notice.
Vulcano's Ponente Beach is more docile. It is soft, curving and jet-black, and bathers loll there in the afternoon sun, building black castles in the sand. Trees may have a hard time finding roots in this volcanic cove, but hotels are finding the Ponente strip a fertile base. Handsomest of all is Les Sables Noirs, a 20-room inn which opened last summer. Brilliant Sicilian tiles have been inlaid in its floors, its yellow-door rooms all open to a courtyard surrounded by a reed-covered walkway. The Lazy Susan in the bar is an old decorated Sicilian cartwheel, and a broad terrace looks out to the setting sun and, in the blackness, to the pinpoint lights of the night fishermen. It is being run with cosmopolitan finesse by a cousin of the novelist Frances Win war, Santo Vinciguerra, who spends his spare hours skin-diving in the ruins of an old Roman ship sunk long ago near by. A handsome new room with a brilliantly tiled share bath and electricity at Les Sables Noirs comes to $5.70 a day, food included—a robust price by Aeolian standards.
Villaggio Eolie is an encampment of 24 cabins all made of canna, a Sicilian bamboo which grows on Vulcano. The interiors are artfully furnished, candle-lit, and each has its own magnificent Sicilian-tiled private bath. Cold water only. Villa Conceta, Commendatore Giovanni La Rosa, proprietor, has 34 Spartan rooms, two with their own private bath. At $3.50 a day, all included, it attracts so many Germans that it now keeps on hand a blond-haired German Meister of ceremonies who, in his open-to-the-navel white shirt, his white ducks and white shoes, looks as if he had run all the way from one of those displays of mass gymnastics that his homeland has always been so fond of.
Some 450 people live on Vulcano, most of them five miles up on the island top in a cluster of shelters which house the church, post office and doctor. Until recently, cables that had been flashed two hours before from Paris or New York were delivered by donkey, and you paid extra if you wanted delivery by night or in the rain. Cables marked urgentissimo, which require beating the donkey, cost 600 lire extra. The cable office now owns a Lambretta, but tourist baggage is still loaded in donkey carts and taken to the water's edge, where it is transferred to outboard runabouts to be lightered out to the boat.
Vulcano, of course, is where the Italian actress Anna Magnani, at the brink of eruption over Roberto Rossellini's attentions to Ingrid Bergman, made her own movie as an answer to the Rossellini-Bergman film Stromboli. While neither picture won a critic's award the two films were responsible for the awakening of the islands. Despite Bergman's box office—she is still pictured on the island's postcards—Stromboli's tourism is not quite as developed, nor has it as yet been knighted by offbeat society's touch. The self-crowned creator of tourism on Stromboli is the tall, majestic Reverendo Antonino di Mattina, who played in the Rossellini film. After the film's appearance and the tremendous notoriety it created, the good reverendo, who wears his black cassock with a straw pith helmet by day and changes to a beret at night, organized the Villaggio Stromboli, a hotel. It now has 22 rooms, many of them monastic and cell-like but eight of them are brand-new, overhanging the sea and the hotel's own pair of black beaches. Last year the Villaggio opened a bar and a new open-air dining terrace looking out to Strombolicchio, a shaft of rock jutting out in the sea one mile offshore, crowned with a lighthouse.
In the eeriness of Stromboli, you can sit at night sipping the sweet malvasia wine that tastes like Malaga and watch the sea turn red with the disappearing sun, then black and mauve. In some strange sunsets, Stromboli's white cubist houses turn green against the black beaches, and the sky behind becomes a deep Confederate gray.
Despite the ever-rumbling volcano and the lava soil, fig trees grow in great profusion by the sides of the paths—there are no roads. Papyrus blossoms, and the geraniums bloom electric pink. Great shocks of white lilies burst in front of roseate houses, and calla lilies nod at the end of lava-cobbled walks. Mimosa bubbles in great yellow sprays in spring, and the black sand is strewn with red seaweed like a wig abandoned by Gwen Verdon playing Ondine. And when a palm frond cascades over the whitewashed walls of the square's Moorish houses the vision of a mansion in Morocco is complete.
Life seemed less than beautiful to many of the owners of these houses who fled in the unquiet '30s, off to a new life in Canada, Australia, Brooklyn or San Francisco. Their long-abandoned homes are being turned into profit at long last and are being snapped up by enterprising Swiss and Scandinavians who make them into villas. The going price for a tiny two-story house with one room on each floor and the kitchen in a separate plaster shack across the court is now $1,000, an unheard-of amount of money in pre-film days.
Budgeteering Germans and Swiss tour groups frequent the pleasant-enough hotel and restaurant called La Sirenetta at the harbor's edge, but two inns of some elegance are also scheduled to be ready this coming year. The sea bathing from the dozen or more black beaches is acceptable, but Stromboli is primarily for excursions, especially by night. There are trips by motor launch around the side of the island called the Sciara del Fuoco, where the lava tumbling down for centuries has left a black carbon slide. The ambitious walk at night to the top of the crater, but a compromise excursion will take the hiker on a curving path to the observatory, an hour's trudge each way. The big show is Stromboli's volcano, which is supposed to disgorge red lava every hour, but as a performer the crater is Old Unfaithful. The skin-diving is good at Strombolicchio, the 180-foot natural pile offshore. A 152-step staircase has been cut into the rock and, for the breathless who climb it, there is a fine view of the Aeolian domain of Aeolus, and beyond to Sicily and the mainland of Calabria.
In the quiet pre-film days, a lumbering steamer puffed out from Sicily to these strange little dots beyond. Now with the renascence the Italians have introduced a strange vessel called the aliscafo, a motorboat that rides on skilike hydrofoils. From its nest in Messina, it makes daily forays at 40 miles an hour straight into the lairs of Aeolus and Vulcan, tearing into the harbors like a hot rod and blowing loudly on a klaxon that could be Triton's horn. The present hydrofoil carries 72 passengers and cruises up the Strait of Messina, a narrow neck of land that separates Sicily and the Italian mainland. The aliscafo also slaloms at high speed around the oddly shaped spada boats that fish the waters for swordfish. A sight from another age is the harpooner, standing far out on a bending bowsprit that is as long as the boat itself, waiting with two-pronged spear in hand for the call of the lookout in a teetering perch high in the rigging.
Nowhere is spada more tastefully served than broiled in olive oil in the harbor of the Filipino Restaurant on the island of Lipari where the aliscafo pauses three hours for lunch. Capers which grow wild and as big as plump raisins on these islands are a favorite garnish and are sprinkled on salads like blueberries on breakfast cereal.
Though Filipino's is packed for summer lunches, Lipari is not really a tourist island, being occupied with the less larksome business of mining pumice stone, for abrasives and dentifrices. While it has no beaches or resorts, Lipari harbors one of the best museums of the Mediterranean, offers some stupendous views and in deference to those who pause for those pleasures, the tiny shops squeezed into the crannies in the old-walled town display racks of tourist hats that must be a source of summer perplexity to the natives.
Excavations in the acropolis of Lipari have uncovered archaeological layers that go back to the Stone Age. There are stone handles from doors fashioned 3,000 years before Christ, a necropolis of the Ansonians from 1050 B.C., eggshells still in kitchen utensils fashioned in the 4th century B.C. Travelers today edge around stone Roman tombs in the garden while searching for vantage points from which to photograph the harbor far below.
The history and the beauty of these islands were lost on Mussolini, who used Lipari, as he did many of the other Little Known Islands, as a prison. Some 400 stubborn parliament members, Freemasons, lawyers and journalists, were incarcerated here on the hill, alongside the historical ruins. On Lipari they lived amid the burgeoning geraniums, the lush carpets of bougain villaea and the views through the chinks in the ramparts down to the tiny harbor with its fishing boats, its church at the water's edge, the nets strung out along its single quay.
Cafe society has conquered Capri, and the iconoclasts have long since fled to Ischia and made it famous. But who ever heard of Procida, half an hour from the nearest outstretched arm of the Bay of Naples? Like Lipari and the islands to the north, it, too, was used as a prison, but the jail occupies an isolated hilltop, and already there is one new hotel and more coming. When the boat comes in from Naples the islanders come swarming out of their rose and pale yellow and fierce-terra-cotta-colored houses that line the harbor. The carriage drivers come aclattering too, but nowadays they are likely to lose out to the buzzing new invention called the motorcarrozetta, a motor scooter that has been transformed into a minuscule carriage with barely room for two in the back seat.
In five ear-splitting, nerve-jangling minutes the motorcarrozetta will take you climbing up to the heights of Terra Murata for the look back into the maze of whitewashed roof tops plastered all over the ridge line gathered around the mothering dome of the church called the Madonna della Grazie. Down in the beachside part of town called Coricello live the anchovy fishermen. Beyond is the uninhabited island of Vivara, popular for rabbit hunting, and across from it the hulk of Ischia, the smart retreat of those who wouldn't be caught dead or alive on Capri.
Procida, known as Prochyta in ancient days, was used as a setting by the French writer, Alphonse de Lamartine for his novel, Graziella. Now the promotionally minded fathers call the place the Island of Graziella and stage a Grazielle festival the end of every August. The best inn is the new Hotel Pif, set on the heights above the sea in a garden of lemon trees and white geraniums and banana fronds. The outdoor bar curls around an old olive tree, there is a brown sandy beach far below, and the seaside rooms look across the water to the circus isle of Capri.
Grottoes galore greet the skin-diver who makes his way to Ponza, largest island of the Pontine archipelago, 20 miles offshore, halfway between Naples and Rome. A place of myths and legends (Aeneas is said to have stopped there), treeless Ponza in this space-conscious age is more apt to be compared to the landscape of the moon. Great rocks jut from the sea along its rock-hewn coast, and iridescent caverns glow there, luring the scuba set to cool caves, clear coves and a freighter sunk in World War II. One plain hotel ($3 a night double, $1.75 single), one good restaurant, one jukebox nightclub and one gravel beach are what Ponza has today, but more is in the offing. By the time a new hotel, more eateries and a few shops have been set up, Ponza's connection to the mainland will also probably be less tenuous (at present, the ferry goes thrice weekly in the season from Anzio and Formia, and Sundays from Naples) and with American visitors already arriving along with the Continental steadies, old-time "naturalists" are beginning to look for new horizons.
North of Rome, in the sea that rolls between Corsica and the Italian west coast, tiny islands are in orbit about the earth of Elba. Somnolent since that day in 1815 when Napoleon sailed for Cannes to end his exile and commence upon the Hundred Days, Elba roused itself suddenly after World War II. Forty hotels have sprouted in the last 10 years, at least half a dozen of them offering beachside luxury at $10 a day. Like Ischia it has grown too fast and become too well known to be a Little Known Island. But its satellites in the Tuscan Archipelago still qualify—Gorgona; Capraia, once a Genoese colony and still equipped with a 15th century castle; Pianosa; Montecristo, with its memories of Dumas; Giglio; and Giannutri, which I came to think of fondly as Gene Autry. The first three are still prison islands with ideas of future tourist grandeur. Montecristo was once the summer repose of the Italian royal family, who came there in the royal yacht. It has but two residents—the caretakers of the castle, is bereft of inns but is reachable by chartered speedboat from Elba. Giglio is the pick, the new little-known darling of the cognoscenti, with the best rooms facing the sea, private bath, three meals a day to let at less than $6 in the top of the summer, less than $5 a day early in June and late in September.
Train or car will carry you the hundred miles from Rome to Orbetello, just beyond the new fashionable resort at Ansedonia. Orbetello sits on a spur of land leading to a hill called the Monte Argentario. On either side of it are salt lakes where the Fascist Italian aviator, Italo Balboa, experimented with flying boats and took off on a historical flight to the U.S. in 1933. A turn to the left leads to Porto Ercole, which looks like a stage set for a picturesque fishing village. A turn to the right leads to Porto Santo Stefano, a village curved around a harbor dotted with fishing boats and gorgeous summer villas. From Porto Ercole the boat leaves for Gene Autry. From Porto Santo Stefano a big white yachtlike shuttle departs for Giglio 11 miles offshore, a land which Stendhal called the Mermaid's Isle.
I spied no mermaids in my days on Giglio, but the entire village called Giglio Porto tumbled out of its houses when our ship came in, and I can only suppose that they perform similarly each day and twice on Sundays, which is the summer schedule. The Porto people live in houses that huddle shoulder to shoulder, beige and pink and umber. Some have lacy balconies, and bright green shutters are uniform on all. An old Saracen tower guards the harbor entrance and two lighthouses show the way. Behind rises the mountain, its outcropping of rocks breaking through the fields of green broom like knees in threadbare pants. Cafés put out squares of geraniums to plant the flag of their domain on the harborside walk. And whatever real estate hasn't been spoken for is covered by day with endless strands of fish net hung to dry and be repaired. The village sports thunder up the back streets on their motorcycles and all of them wear blue jeans which sell in the stalls affixed with labels that depict a bucking bronco and say "Confection F-Bell. Sturdy. Well. For Weekend. For Worker. For Sport." At night sporting types and workers and village wives all gather in the cafés and sit on rows of benches to watch the television. The island favorite: Perry Como.
Anchoring one end of the harbor is a boxy bulk known altogether as Demo's Hotel la Nuova Pergola. Since there also is a Pergola that is not so nuova just next door owned by the same family, one must insist on the real goods. Though called a hotel, Demo's new Pergola is, in true fact, a pensione of first category. But its appointments are comfortable enough, its atmosphere amiable and its food extraordinary. Fish is the dish-triglia (red mullet), dentice (like a toothy striped bass), nasello (whiting) and, above all, lobsters. Since grilling lobster is about as outrageous an idea in Italy as serving cream with espresso, you might try lobster cold with olive oil and ground pepper. It is not only a tasty departure but it avoids mayonnaise, a recommended sidestep in European areas where the refrigeration is questionable. The bill here will come to $5.70 a day for room and meals from June 15 to September 15, $4.40 a day before and after. Demo's brochure, which quotes Stendhal, also describes Giglio as "All that a subaquatic fisher can desire." I was not quite as much taken with the Saraceno, built over the boulders on the opposite side of the harbor, even though each of the 20 rooms has a terrace and bath and there are steps that will lead the subaquatic fisherman right down to the sea.
Taxi or bus will take you back over the hulking mountain through the broom and the steeply terraced vineyards and the stone huts for grape-pressing on location. Campese is a sleepy village on the east side of the island flanked by a Medici tower and an iron mine. In between is a fine sand beach that glistens in the sun with particles of pyrite, glows with ampolas that grow in the sand, and in summer echoes to the polyglot babble of the French, the German, the Swiss and the English who all but burst the little 18-room Albergo Campese. The hotel has only one accommodation with private bath, but the broad windows of its lesser suites all face the beach, and the price, all meals and taxes and tips included, is about $3.50 a day. The one with private bath costs 35¢ a day more. Make your bid early.
The pastimes of those who seclude themselves at Campese are to bathe all day, to take excursions to a tree-shaded glen in the hills called Franco on treks to Allume, a small beach a kilometer away, and to contemplate the tower which dominates town, beach and local conversation. Built by Ferdinand I, of the Medici, it is now the weekend villa of the Conte Rodolfo della Piane, a Milanese cotton merchant. The della Piane décor varies from 2,000-year-old Etruscan vases and Greek busts in the gardens to television, tiled baths and a ping-pong table in the tower. The walls are 10 feet thick, there is one room on each floor, and the whole place came complete with a legend that an underwater passage leads clear to the mainland.
The most curious, incomprehensible settlement on the island is Giglio Castello, a scrubby town of dark stone houses all huddled inside the old protecting walls on the very top of the highest point on the island. The alleys are too narrow for cars. The inhabitants, who live off the mines of Campese, live all their lives looking at gray rock only now and then relieved by a stray growth of green broom burgeoning out of the stone. The fields around Castello are a popular Italian place for fall shooting, and a popular dish of the mountaintop is hare cacciatora.
A place of modern refuge is Giglio's charming hideaway called Pardini's Hermitage Hotel, an inn reachable by a 20-minute boat ride from Giglio Porto. Perched high on a hilltop in view of nothing but the sea, the place is run in great taste by Frediano Pardini and his wife, who also have a hotel at Viareggio. There are just eight double rooms and two singles, and not much to do but play boccie, skin-dive and sunbathe, usually in the altogether, on sun decks thoughtfully scattered a few yards from each other around the fringe of the mountain. There is a private spring for drinking water, and Pardini likes to say, "I am autonomous for eggs and chickens." Everything else has to be imported from Giglio Porto, including the customers. The price per person with meals is less than $5 a day in April, May, June, September and October and less than $6 a day in July and August.
A new hotel is abuilding on the half-moon-shaped island of Giannutri, which seems to be suffused with a sort of mystical air. Religious orders hid here when the barbarian hordes swung out of the north, and pirates from the south hid here while preying on shipping. But long before, it was known to the Romans, and there are still tangible traces of a huge Roman reservoir, an old Roman harbor and a magnificent Roman villa, pavements and baths of multicolored marble and onyx brought from Morocco. After 2,000 years of turbulence, villas are again being built on Giglio and Giannutri, and The Islands of Silence, like the rest of Italy's Little Known Islands, so long so somnolent, are springing to summer life, soon to be Little Known no more.
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