In Homer's "Odyssey," Lipari was the domain of Aeolus, king of the winds. Lipari, the capital of a seven-island archipelago north of Sicily called the Lipari Islands or the Aeolians, has a sporadically dramatic history: It was the source of shiny, black obsidian for the Mediterranean basin in the Neolithic Age, a Greek colony, the scene of naval battles between Rome and Carthage during the Punic Wars, plunder for North African pirates, a place of exile for opponents of Mussolini in the 1920s.
This seems the gist of what there is to say about Lipari: Just 13 square miles, with a population of 13,000, it isn't Tuscany or Rome.
And it isn't easy to get here. There's no airport, which means you must take a ferry or hydrofoil from Naples, Sicily or Reggio di Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot. My family and I — my brother, John, his wife, Susan, and their daughter, Sarah, from Malibu, and my sister, Martha, and her husband, Scott, who live in Brussels — left from Naples.
Fortunately, we were in good humor, having just spent a week in a villa on the Amalfi coast, a long-needed reunion for the dispersed remnants of my little clan. We were in VIP class on the hydrofoil, which meant we got packaged sandwiches. But the air conditioning wasn't working; passengers were allowed outside only on a tiny deck clogged with smokers; and there was just one bathroom. When we reached the Aeolians, all but comatose after five hours at sea, the hydrofoil stopped at four of the outer islands before landing at Lipari.
First, Stromboli — a perfect volcanic cone rising out of a flat, glassy sea; it occasionally erupts so violently that the entire island has to be evacuated. During filming of the 1949 movie "Stromboli," directed by Roberto Rossellini, there was an eruption of another sort: a love affair between the Italian director and Ingrid Bergman, his then-married leading lady. Fans were scandalized.
While serving in the Navy during World War II, my father passed the island, the northernmost in the Aeolian chain, during a storm at night. "I was the officer in charge of the ship," he wrote in his journal. "As much as I tried to head the vessel away, it was being driven inexorably toward the light on a small island. The next morning, I went into the chart room and realized that the light was on [one of] my father's islands."
My father would visit Lipari with my mother on vacation nearly 50 years later, in 1990, seeking evidence of his father, whom he'd hardly known. Giovanni Spano came to New York in the early 20th century, married my grandmother, had three children with her and then divorced. They remarried some years later, but by then, it was the '50s, and my father had started a family of his own in the Midwest. In that time and place, people wanted to blend in, not expose their ethnic roots. All we knew of our grandfather was where he came from and that he died in 1973.
But an imagined Lipari lived in my mind. As the boat rounded Lipari, I pointed out to my niece Quattropani, the village on the island's portless northwestern coast where my grandfather — her great-grandfather — was born. We made another stop on bleak, crater-pocked Vulcano, just south of Lipari, separated from the bigger island by a narrow strait.
I gazed out the window, trying to decide what set the barren, cliff-flanked Aeolians apart. "This is what Santorini and Rhodes must have been like 50 years ago," my brother said. The Aeolians look superficially like those fabled Greek paradises, except they've as yet avoided the kind of tourist development many people say has spoiled the Greek islands. Still, even from a distance, the Aeolians seemed to me quintessentially Italian, not Greek — a distinction similar to the one between capers and olives.
Exploring the island
We had reservations at the Hotel Carasco, with white stucco domes and arcades, ocean-facing balconies and a saltwater swimming pool, about a 10-minute taxi ride south of the port.
After checking in, we were advised to take a boat tour of the Aeolians with Marco, the captain of a small motor cruiser.
He picked us up on the rocks below the hotel, and I soon understood why boat-touring is the best way to see the Aeolians, which, like California's Channel Islands, are not a place of gentle meetings between earth and sea. The best spots — deserted coves and pebble beaches — lie beneath massive, eroded cliffs and can't be reached by land. For this reason, sailors favor the islands, which are the setting for Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 "L'Avventura," a stunningly beautiful film about a young woman who goes missing on a yachting holiday in the Aeolians. Marco showed us grottoes, rock arches and volcanic plugs, or towers, stranded off southwestern Lipari, then crossed the strait to Vulcano, where we anchored in a cove with yellow broom spilling down its sides. We swam there, blissfully, plunging from the side of the boat into clean, cool, buoyant saltwater.
The village of Gelso, on the southern side of Vulcano, has a family-style restaurant and a little harbor and pier. From Gelso, you can see Sicily on the southern horizon. You can also be pretty sure of getting fresh seafood in the restaurant. There, salt-scrubbed and sun-varnished, we sat down to lunch: first Vulcano cheese with hot red pepper, then heaping dishes of squid and eggplant spaghetti, followed by little goblets of sweet, sticky malmsey wine, made from sun-cured Aeolian grapes.
The next day, we toured Lipari by van with an English-speaking guide, Pasquale, a professorial-looking man whose manners were polished to a sheen. When we stopped at a viewpoint near the crater of Monte Pilato, he pointed out a rock with a glistening black streak of obsidian, which ancient man used as a cutting implement. Farther up the eastern coast, we saw hillsides of white pumice, like ski runs, bottoming out at quarries near the shore.
On the northwestern corner of the island, we stopped at a farm stand by the highway, looking across the strait to Salina, the setting for 1994's "Il Postino." Everyone found something to buy: bottled sardines, sun-dried tomatoes, cactus jelly, homemade biscotti, obsidian jewelry and capers, bagged and preserved in sea salt.
We told Pasquale that we were here because of our grandfather and that we especially wanted to see Quattropani. "Other families have come looking for their roots," he said. "They all find something."