Volcanic in origin, the Aeolian Islands are named after Aeolus, the Greek god who kept the winds he controlled shut tight in one of the islands’ many caves. According to Homer, Odysseus put into the Aeolians and was given a bag of wind to help him home, but his sailors opened it too soon and the ship was blown straight back to port. More verifiably, the islands were coveted for their mineral wealth, the mining of obsidian (hard, glass-like lava) providing the basis for early prosperity, because it was the sharpest material available until people learned the art of smelting metals. Later their strategic importance attracted the Greeks, who settled on Lipari in 580 BC, but they later became a haven for pirates and a place of exile, a state of affairs that continued right into the twentieth century with the Fascists exiling their political opponents to Lipari.
The twentieth century saw mass emigration, mostly to Australia, and even now islands such as Panarea and Alicudi have just a hundred or so year-round inhabitants. It’s only recently that the islanders stopped scratching a subsistence living and started welcoming tourists, and these days during the summer months the population of the islands can leap from 10,000 to 200,000. Every island is expensive, with prices in shops as well as restaurants reflecting the fact that most food is imported. But get out to the minor isles or come in blustery winter for a taste of what life was like on the islands twenty – or a hundred – years ago: unsophisticated, rough and beautiful.
There’s plenty of fun to be had in Aeolian waters. At Panarea you can snorkel over the submerged foundations of a Roman port, and columns of pulsing bubbles around the majestically sculpted islets, or take an easy dive (12–20m) to see what appears to be a submarine snow-storm – the water is full of blobs of a weird white bacteria that grows on sulphur and has the consistency of eggwhite. Also off Panarea are the remains of a British cargo ship deliberately sunk during the Depression as an insurance scam – for the past fifteen years it has been inhabited by a giant fish (about 80kg).
Alternatively, head to the Salinan village of Pollara, where a giant offshore crater offers easy diving with lots to see, or explore the wreck of a Roman ship off Filicudi; a rope guides you down to the archeological area – a true underwater museum. It is also a beautiful dive, with lots of fish and fascinating rock formations.
The islands’ most professional diving outfit is Amphibia, with bases at the ports of Panarea and Salina.
Top image: Landscape view of Lipari islands taken from Volcano island, Aeolian Islands, Sicily, Italy © Martin M303/Shutterstock