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.
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.