Seafood Dinner In Salina

My first afternoon and night on a sailboat had gone surprisingly well. After our little late night excursion into the town of Lipari I had slept like a stone, only to awake this morning at about 8 am to see in daylight what the island of Lipari actually looks like. So I peeked my head out of the sailboat and I saw it was an absolutely gorgeous day! Blue, sunny skies, not a cloud to be seen. Perfect for exploring Lipari, the capital of the Eolian island of the same name.

Our skipper was up already while my three other co-travellers were still resting. Francesco and I each grabbed a little snack from our plentiful stash below deck, sat down and enjoyed the gorgeous ambience. We were surrounded by dozens of boats, mostly sailboats, some power boats, and a few of them rather imposing yachts, while towards the land we saw a number of local fishing boats tied up and fishermen straighten out their nets.

I mentioned to Francesco that the experience on this sailboat and in Sicily in general is so different from our hurried, frenetic pace in our North American urban centres. I added that it was an extremely welcome change from my usual routine. The rhythm of life is definitely slower here, and people appear to have different, simpler priorities: they focus on their friends and family, and eating good food, drinking good wine, and enjoying life, every day. Our skipper himself, authentically Sicilian, also radiated a profound sense of calm and contentedness.

Around 10 am I was ready to start exploring and started my walk towards downtown Lipari. The half-hour walk along a busy road is very scenic, with mountains on one side and the sea on the other, and the hilltop fortification of the town of Lipari beckoning in the distance. On my way into town I saw a scooter rental place, and at 15 Euros per day I was very tempted to rent one for a couple of hours. Instead I decided to get a bit of exercise and continue my walk into town.

With about 11,000 residents, Lipari is the largest and most populous island in the 7-island Eolian archipelago. It is an extremely popular tourist destination: during the summer the population swells to over 200,000 people. It is a vibrant commercial centre and active ferry boat harbour. I strolled into town on one of the main streets which was full of retail stores, vegetable and fruit stands and a variety of restaurants.

A fairly steep cobble-stoned street pointed up toward a hill, so I followed it and arrived at the fortification of the town of Lipari which has a long and convoluted history. Inhabited from at least 5000 BC, the island has been ruled by successive waves of Greeks, Carthaginians, Etruscans, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Saracens, Normans, Hohenstaufen, Angevins and Aragonese. The imposing city walls were built by the Spanish on top of an ancient Greek acropolis in the mid 1500s. Within the walls of the fortification is an imposing cathedral, an old castle, excavations of an ancient Greek settlement as well as the Museo Archeologico Eoliano.

A long set of steps leads up from the lower level of town to the Cathedral and on a small patch of grass beside the steps an old local man had set up shop to sell a variety of handcrafted doilies as well as volcanic stones such as pumice and obsidian which both occur naturally on this island.

I came up to him to see what he had for sale and he introduced himself as “Nonno Dorino” (“Grandpa Dorino”) and told me that he crochets all the doilies himself. Quite charmingly he engaged me in a conversation and I ended up purchasing two of the crocheted masterpieces from him. Along the way he showed me a picture of his granddaughter and gave me free samples of each type of volcanic stone. I always love interactions with the locals, and Nonno Dorino was a real character. He definitely knows how to charm the tourists.

I descended the steps from the cathedral and took a left turn which took me into the second harbour of Lipari, Marina Corta, which features a large square with a view up to the fortress and a variety of outdoor cafes with beautiful patios. Today there was a large group of children on bicycles, accompanied by various local police people. It looked like a special bicycling event and drew spectators among the locals and the tourists.

A small chapel is located at the southern end of the piazza and narrow streets with various retail stores lead up to different parts of town. On my stroll on this sunny day I explored some of these side streets and found tight but neatly kept living quarters, children playing in the street, cats and dogs lazing in the sun, and many older ladies sweeping the pavement in front of their houses.

On my back to the ferry boat harbour I connected with Herbert, one of my travel mates, and we walked back to the ship together. Around 2 pm we were ready to leave Lipari and we started chugging out of the harbour and our captain set the sails once we were in the open water.

We travelled next to the coast of Lipari and arrived at the next bay which featured a town that hugged the coastline and sprawled up into the hills, and looking further north a huge section of the island consisted of white stone. Francesco, our captain, explained that this stone is pumice, a white porous stone of volcanic origin.

We anchored the boat in the bay in front of the pumice quarries, some of which had been shut down several decades ago and continued to exist as industrial ruins. Claudia, Francesco and Lorenzo took a dip in the still rather frigid Mediterranean waters. The temperature could not have been much higher than 18 degrees, and as a real wuss, my policy is to only go swimming if the water temperature is above 28 degrees. So for me it was a no go, but my shipmates enjoyed the brief, yet refreshing dip. We also saw a jellyfish, aptly called “medusa” in Italian. These animals are apparently more common when the water is cooler and are seen less during the summer months.

Towards 6 pm we reached the next island called Salina, an island that used to be called “didyme” (“twins”) by the ancient Greeks, due to its two major mountains, Fossa delle Felci (altitude 962 m) and Monte dei Porri (860 m). We arrived in the main village of Santa Marina, which features a large pleasure boat harbour. Two other main villages exist on this island: Malfa and Leni, and the total population is about a couple of thousand people.

My friend Herbert and I went on a little exploration of the town on foot. Santa Marina is essentially composed of two streets that run parallel to the coastline, the Via Lungomare Giuffré right next to the waterfront and parallel to that the Via Risorgimento, further inland. The town features a larger church on Via Risorgimento, and a smaller chapel on a square right next to the harbour. Activity around the main square is quite lively, with several restaurants, ice cream and street vendors.

Since we were going to meet for dinner at 8 pm, I headed back early to actually grab a shower – on land! The sailboat harbour of Santa Marina actually features a comfort station with modern shower and washroom facilities. And since I was still squeamish about using the tiny on-board toilet/shower combination room I couldn’t wait to actually jump into a real shower. When you occasionally take yourself out of your regular comfort zone, you realize how treasured simple things like a real warm shower can become. I thoroughly enjoyed my land-based cleansing ritual and got dressed up for dinner.

Francesco took us to a local restaurant on the main street called “Nni Lausta” (http://www.isolasalina.com/default_eng.htm – Sicilian dialect for “lobster”), a highly renowned local seafood restaurant which is even listed in the Michelin Guide. Our skipper had made arrangements with Fabio, the restaurant’s owner, to produce a real multi-course Sicilian meal for our group. Fabio himself had spent some time in the United States and also owns a restaurant in the north of Italy, obviously an accomplished restaurant entrepreneur.

We settled in and our meals started to arrive. Fabio’s sister, Sabina Giuffré, owner of a local bed and breakfast, also dropped by, and she recognized Lorenzo, who had visited the island about 12 years ago and met Sabina at that time. For Lorenzo, this was a real home-coming, a back-to-his-roots kind of experience, to return to the small island that his paternal grandparents had left in 1910. He had already walked through the whole town of Santa Marina, chatted and connected or reconnected with many of the locals, and despite his limited Italian skills, he was not shy to talk to anyone.

Sabina and Lorenzo commented on the fact that almost everyone in town seemed to be named “Giuffré”, indeed a popular name that seems to date back to Catalan settlers centuries ago. Indeed a website about Sicilian surnames indicates that “Giuffré” is the most popular last name in the town of Santa Marina. It was great to see this man from Boston, a Catholic priest no less, reconnect with his family’s roots and have such a great time.

The first course of our dinner was ready to arrive: each of us received five different types of morsels of fish on an oblong plate which included tuna, mackerel and anchovies. One of the dishes was called “tartan di tonno” which meant it was raw fish. The group loved the appetizer, me not so much because I am not a fish eater in general. Unfortunately the wonderful world of seafood in Sicily is totally lost on me.

But, I said to myself, you are going to try each of these dishes. At least I gave it a shot and I decided to open my mind. So I did try all five varieties of fish and there were two that seemed semi-pleasant to my palate. The rest of the group was rather shocked to find out that I don’t eat fish, but happily obliged and cleaned up the remainder of my appetizer. Nothing will go to waste here!

The meal continued with two different types of pasta: “battarga di tonno” (with tuna), and “pasta verdure di stagione” (vegetarian), which was a very pleasant dish. The main dish was a big whole fish for the entire group: “scorfano” which I believe translates as “hogfish”. It was a big, mean yet aesthetic looking fish and definitely sufficient to feed an entire group of four people. My main dish was a pasta dish with eggplant which was followed by a lemon ice cream dessert for everyone. A glass of local “malvasia” (malmsey) wine followed and a few of my shipmates also had a grappa for good digestion. A real Sicilian meal definitely consists of many courses, always features wine and fish, and probably a glass of liquor to cap it all off.

After this extensive culinary experience we headed back to the boat and sat up chatting until 2 am. Time to rest up for a new day of adventures….