That’s it, I thought, emptying a plastic bag of capers, the last of the little hoard I’d brought home last summer from the Italian island of Lipari. I’ve eaten capers many times without really knowing what they are: the immature buds of a shrub that loves heat and bright sun and grows in rocky crevices around the Mediterranean. I put one in my mouth and rolled it around. Its flavor was earthier and more intense than an olive, and its essence took me back to the island flung into the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the parched, volcanic soil yields little but capers and where my Italian grandfather was born.
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 islandWe 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.”
In search of familyMy grandfather’s town was just down the road, with houses pinioned to the hills and views so beautiful it was hard to imagine how anyone could leave. Quattropani has just one grocery store and restaurant, one old and one new church, and a cemetery strung with lights that make it look a little like a fairground after the circus. There were pictures of deceased loved ones on crypt fronts and tombs, among them many Spanos — Giovannis, Giuseppes, Antoninos — but none we knew.
The old church nearby is the destination of an annual Liparian pilgrimage, honoring Sicily’s Santa Maria della Catena on Sept. 8. It’s fronted by a blank piazza, with benches looking across the strait to Salina, and has green doors and a Byzantine dome. I was unnerved when I saw it, because the church and piazza reminded me of the setting for the profoundly troubling last scene in “L’Avventura,” in which a man and woman — friends of the boating accident victim, now lovers — gaze, resignedly, into Mediterranean nothingness. And then we met an old woman right out of the Antonioni movie, the church custodian, sitting on a bench, with the gravitas of a Pietà and dyed, thinning hair. She said there was a Spano who ran a florist shop in Lipari town and told us stories of our Quattropani kin, including a cousin several times removed named Francesca, whose love letters from a swain in America were confiscated by her maiden aunt, almost scuttling their budding romance.
I don’t know what people who go looking for their roots expect to find. We didn’t get to know Grandpa Spano despite the time we spent on his island. But for me, there was the joy of being in a place that somehow felt right, with my family. We wandered the cobblestone alleys of Lipari town, decorated with drying laundry, shopped for custom-made sandals and old prints, then climbed to the Aeolian Museum atop the acropolis, a Gibraltar-like rock that has been inhabited since the 4th century BC. Its tombs and pottery testify to wave after wave of immigration from Sicily, Greece, the Italian mainland, Normandy and Spain. From the Greek era, there is an extraordinary cache of theatrical masks and figurines, some of which have told scholars all they know about plays lost in text form by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander.
That night, we went to Da Filippino, which guidebooks said was the best restaurant in town. We ordered a bottle of Sicilian Chardonnay, then looked at the catch of the day, displayed on a nearby table — sea urchin, swordfish, squid, tuna. I started with antipasto Liparota, a kind of Italian sushi wrapped in pecorino cheese, chose a dish of Hades black squid ink risotto as a main course and then had homemade chocolate tartufo as a dolce. The dinner lasted forever, or until little glasses of malmsey wine came around. Everyone in my little family band was happy.
Spanòs meet SpanosThe family reunion ended, as Susan, Sarah, Martha and Scott headed back to Naples, leaving just my brother and me. We have traveled together often and like the same things. So after the heat of the day had broken late one afternoon, we walked around the southern point of the island to the Geophysical Observatory, where scientists observe seismic activity in the Mediterranean. John did some amateur geology on the edge of a cliff nearby, while I sat on a rock with my eyes closed.
Another day, while wandering along Lipari’s main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we happened upon a florist shop and stopped in. A small, sturdy, dark-haired woman behind the counter was wrapping flowers for a customer. When she finished, I asked in broken Italian if her name was Spano. She looked blank for a moment, then said she was Francesca di Spanò, with the accent on the last syllable. We told her we were Spanos, with the accent on the first syllable, from the U.S. At that, she called her teenage daughter, Moira, who spoke some English, from the back of the shop. When she heard we were the grandchildren of Giovanni Spano, who left Lipari for America in 1906, she had no doubt we were related through our common great-grandfather, Antonino di Spanò. I’d have been skeptical, because when my parents went to Lipari in 1990, they also met Spanos of uncertain relation, who took them around the island in an antiquated Willys jeep. Could there be, I wondered, a small cottage industry on Lipari in Spano roots tours?
But Moira drew up a family tree, and there was no mistaking the resemblance between Francesca and my father’s sister. When Francesca’s son, Marco, appeared, there was no mistaking his hairline. It was my dad’s.
The Spanòs took the Spanos to lunch at L’Orchidea, a family place in the village of Pianoconte, west of the port. The young wife of the owner, a second-generation Italian American immigrant to Lipari from Brooklyn, served as our translator while also presenting us with plates of delicious homemade pasta and fresh fish. After lunch, we went to Francesca’s house in Quattropani, surrounded by gardens and vineyards, and then back to the local cemetery to find out what we’d missed on a previous visit.
Francesca stopped at the tomb of her father, Antonino Giuseppe Spanò, my Grandpa Spano’s nephew, and kissed his picture. Then she led us to our great-grandfather’s crypt, bearing a picture of the Spanò scion, who wore a waxed handlebar mustache.
What all this means to me is still hard to say, except that it’s good to know who my great-grandfather was and the right way to pronounce my name; that part of me comes from an enchanted island in the Tyrrhenian Sea; and that, of course, I know how to cook with capers.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Island particulars
From LAX,Air France, Lufthansa, United and Air New Zealand have connecting flights (change of plane) to Naples, Italy. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $475.USTICA Lines, https://www.usticalines.it , has hydrofoil service to Lipari from Naples from June 26 to Sept. 30. The trip takes five to six hours and costs about $90 one way.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (country code for Italy), 090 (area code for Lipari) and the local number.WHERE TO STAY:
The Hotel Carasco, Porto delle Genti, 98055 Lipari, 981-1605, https://www.carasco.it , is a handsome 89-room hotel built into the cliffs about a 10-minute walk south of Lipari port. It has ocean access and a saltwater swimming pool. Open April-October. Doubles $116-$182, including breakfast.
Villa Meligunis Hotel, 7 Via Marte, 98055 Lipari, 981-2426, https://www.villameligunis.it , is a quiet and stylish place in Lipari town overlooking the Marina Corta. It has a small rooftop pool. Doubles $260-$350, including breakfast.
Hotel Giardino sul Mare, 65 Via Maddalena, 98055 Lipari, 981-1004, https://www.netnet.it/conti , has simple rooms, a pool and a nice location above the port. Doubles $78-$372, including breakfast.
Hotel Poseidon, 7 Via Ausonia, 98055 Lipari, 981-2876, https://www.hotelposeidonlipari.com , is a well-kept pension with a pretty internal courtyard on Lipari town’s busy main shopping street. Near the Marina Lunga. Doubles $97-$195, including breakfast.WHERE TO EAT:
Da Filippino, Piazza Mazzini, 981-1002, has been a culinary landmark in Lipari town since 1910. Fresh fish and pasta are the specialties. Dinner for two with wine about $100-$120.
E Pulera, Via Isabella Conti Vainicher, 981-1158, is Da Filippino’s excellent but less-expensive sister restaurant on the western side of town. It has a very pleasant courtyard. Dinner for two with wine about $100.
La Nassa, 36 Via G. Franza, 981-1319, is on a busy street corner near downtown, with alfresco dining on terraces. The menu is more contemporary than the others’. Dinner for two with wine about $70.
L’Orchidea, Via Stradale, Pianoconte, 982-2089, is a family-style restaurant in a hamlet west of Lipari town. The pasta, pizza and seafood are all delicious and reasonably priced. Dinner for two with wine about $75.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Italian Government Tourism Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310) 820-1898 or (310) 820-4498, https://www.italian tourism.com.
— Susan Spano