DM and MM's Italy Trip Diary

Day 18 - Positano to Lipari

Wednesday, 16 May, 2001

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Today was a long day of travel.

We were prompted to get up by the 05:15 alarm call on our room's phone, and we quickly jumped out of bed, dressed, and packed our bags. This actually took a bit of time, since we hadn't done any packing last night, but we were ready to go by about 05:40. We walked up the three flights of stairs to the hotel reception to find the door to the reception room and the door to the outside world locked. We looked around desperately, knowing our bus would be leaving at 06:00, and found a button which looked like it might operate a call signal. A single press indicated we had guessed correctly, as a door-chime went off, audible through the door marked privato which must have been where the staff and family lived.

After waiting a minute or two, we tried the chime again. This time there was action in the form of some noise from beyond the private door. A minute later one of the staff came out sleepily and let us out, taking the key and wishing us arrivederci.

We walked slowly but surely up the steps towards the "main" road through Positano, arriving at the bus stop at about 05:50, in plenty of time for the bus. We were still waiting at 06:05 when an old woman walked up and sat down nearby, obviously also waiting for the bus. The fact it had been scheduled to leave five minutes earlier didn't seem to worry her, and in fact she didn't even stand up in anticipation until another ten minutes had gone. The bus finally arrived at 06:18. We figured this was acceptable, since it was the first stop on the route and there was no chance of delays getting up to that point. Silly us for thinking that a 06:00 bus would actually leave at 06:00 in Italy.

So began the long drive back to Salerno. A few people got on and off at various points along the way to Amalfi, but there were never more than three other passengers on there with us. We wondered how the bus company makes a profit, charging only around LIT4,000 for tickets on a bus trip which can take well over two hours. Then we hit Amalfi and the bus loaded up with teenagers, presumably heading to school in Salerno. They chatted noisily the whole way, adding another dimension to the hairy trip along the road which clung to the side of the cliff.

At Salerno, the bus driver alerted us and the few other tourists on the bus when we reached the stop near the railway station, thankfully since we wouldn't have recognised it otherwise (since it was not right in front of the station where we had caught the bus from Salerno) and the bus would have continued on. We walked the two short blocks to the station and plonked our bags down inside the station bar.

We perused the breakfast offerings and Michelle settled on a jam croissant while I had a hot sandwich - unfortunately the only word I recognised when the man asked what sort of sandwich I wanted was "mortadella" so I settled for that. It was okay, but I probably could have done better. Michelle decided to buy another croissant for later and I bought a large bottle of water to keep us going through the day of travelling.

We still had about half an hour to wait for our train, which we did so lazily, simply standing around on the platform. The train pulled in several minutes early, giving us plenty of time to climb aboard and organise ourselves before it left. We had seats together, fortuitously facing in the forward direction, and the two seats facing us were empty so we could stretch our legs out.

The trip down the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy towards the "toe" was mostly eventless, passing through one dreary grey seaside town after another, with fairly dull scenery all around. I read up on Lipari from our Lonely Planet and mentioned to Michelle that on the island they mine pumice, the stone used to rub your feet. She mis-heard me and eventually confessed to thinking I'd said that on Lipari they like to rub people's feet. Our ensuing laughter brought curious glances from the priest sitting across the aisle from us.

Eventually we arrived at Villa San Giovanni, a town on the coast only a few kilometres across the strait from Sicily. We could see Sicily clearly across the water, down to individual buildings in the city of Messina. We had two and a half hours to catch our next train, leaving from Messina station - we just had to get across there.

The Ferrovie dello Stato runs regular ferries across the Strait of Messina and the port is right next to the station in Villa San Giovanni, so we didn't have far to walk. The next ferry leaving was at 13:30, but it was not yet docked and a wharf number had not been assigned. We waited with a small number of other people who seemed to be waiting for the same thing. We watched as a large ferry pulled into the terminal and it seemed that we could board by climbing a set of stairs to a walkway which led to a gangway - most of the people waiting started off in this direction and we followed. We were mostly up the stairs when the people leading the way were turned back and everyone started coming back along the walkway. So we turned around and headed back down the stairs again.

Then someone else led the way across the road and across some train tracks to the area where several train cars were being pulled off the ferry. The engine pulled about six cars out of the ferry, then backed up half way again, then pulled out again, this time with another half dozen or so cars - presumably which had been carried on a second parallel set of tracks inside the ship. When all this was over and the way looked clear for us to board, a worker on the ship waved us away and apparently said something about us not being able to board this ship!

By this time another ferry had pulled in at another wharf adjacent, and cars and trucks were queued up and driving on. Someone from our group led the way over there, dragging our rag-tag collection of fellow travellers with them. Finally we managed to board a ferry, simply holding up the cars and trucks while everyone walked into the loading area and on to the ship. Ah, Italian transport!

The ferry got underway very soon after we boarded, apparently because another ship was trying to come into the port and it needed to use our berthing space. The trip across to Messina was fairly short and very smooth, the sound of the engines not getting above a gentle purring from where we sat. The view from outside of the mainland on one side and Sicily on the other, separated by such a narrow stretch of water, was fascinating.

We docked at Messina where, like Villa San Giovanni, the railway station was right next to the ferry terminal. We still had an hour or so to wait for our train, so we took the opportunity to have some lunch at the station bar. Michelle perused the food on offer and decided on a biscotto napoli, described on a sign as having chocolate as an ingredient. I chose an arancino, a sort of ball of rice filled with meat, vegetables, and a tomato-ey sauce, and ordered at the cashier. The man took the money and then went to get the biscotto, looking at the display and declaring they were out. Michelle came over to choose another and settled on a biscuit with a filling described by the man as "frutta", though I couldn't work out what sort of fruit he said.

My arancino was hot inside, and very tasty and filling. Michelle's biscotto turned out to have a lime filling, with soft peel in it, also quite good. Hunger satisfied, we proceeded to find that our train would be leaving from platform 2, and walked towards the platforms, which could all be accessed from the terminal end at which we were located.

When we got to them, there were no platform numbers whatsoever in evidence. I asked a passing station worker which was binario due and he pointed at the one we were standing on. I also saw a sign there pointing up that platform and saying "per i treni", so I concluded we needed to walk straight up the platform we were on. When we got about a third of the way down, a good 50 metres or more, we saw the platform numbers indicating we were on platform 1, while the one across the tracks was platform 2, and on platform 2 was an indicator board labelled with our train. So we trudged back to the end of the platform again, moved across the platform 2, and trudged all the way back down that one. By the time we did all this, our train had been pulled in and we climbed aboard right away.

The train ride was fairly nondescript. After an hour or so of passing through depressingly industrial and grey looking towns we approached an even more industrial and grey town, with huge processing plants with chimneys belching out smoke littered around the landscape. Milazzo station was within sight of these mechanical monstrosities.

Now we just needed to get to the port from where the ships for Lipari and the other Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands) departed. Milazzo station is a few kilometres away - far too much to walk with heavy backpacks in the heat which was immediately noticeably hotter than anywhere else we'd been in Italy so far. A local bus made the run to the port, and I bought us two tickets. Looking at the timetable in the tabacchi that sold the tickets indicated a bus would be along at 16:40, within 10 minutes. When we walked to the bus stop in front of the station, the timetable there showed the 16:40 bus deleted, with the next one due at 17:10.

I walked back inside the station to explore a little and found a tourist information office. The two woman behind the desk were chatting in Italian with two men standing at the counter and when I walked in they stopped and looked amazed that a tourist had actually entered. They proffered Isole Eolie ship timetables at me, which I accepted gratefully, since they would be useful. I tried to ask if the next bus to the port was really a 40 minute wait from now, and they confirmed this, after some confusion in which they tried to tell me I needed tickets and I told them I already had them. This whole conversation was in Italian on their part and fractured Italian on mine, since it didn't seem that anyone had thought to staff the tourist office with anyone who knew any English. We presumed they didn't expect any tourists at this time of year anyway.

Back out at the bus stop we had a halting conversation with a woman who was also waiting for the bus to the port. She knew as much English as I knew Italian, but we managed to learn that she was spending a night in Milazzo before heading on to the islands, and preferred travelling alone to in a tour group.

Eventually our bus arrived and several people got on. We expected to find a machine on board to stamp and validate our tickets, as did everyone else who got on as they all looked around holding their tickets and looking confused. With much shrugging and smiling, we all just gave up and sat down. The woman who had spoken with us said something to the driver and gave him her ticket, which he simply glanced at and handed back. The mystery remained unsolved.

The bus driver informed us when we had reached the port bus stop, and several of us got off and wandered about aimlessly until we spotted a ferry booking office across the road. We walked over and bought tickets to Lipari on the 18:00 fast boat, which would arrive at Lipari at 19:00. Then we wandered aimlessly again until we found some port workers to ask where our boat left from. The man pointed and let fly with a stream of Italian, of which I understood about one word, but the pointed finger let us know what we wanted so we headed over to the indicated wharf.

When we got there, a large tour group of French middle-aged people were setting up in the waiting area. I found some Americans whom I asked in English if they were going to Lipari too. They were headed to Samina, but the man had the same timetable as us and indicated the boat we wanted to catch, which headed to Salina after Lipari. So we were probably okay.

Vulcano harbour
The island of Vulcano, showing the volcanic cone

Our ship, a large catamaran, pulled in and we climbed aboard, finding comfortable aeroplane-style seating with wide aisles, more than ample for the relatively small number of passengers. The trip north to the island of Vulcano was mostly smooth, with one small patch of fairly minor pitching and rolling. The sea was amazingly calm, flatter than I'd ever seen open ocean before.

Vulcano was an interesting little island at which we stopped briefly to let of and take on passengers. The volcanic cone of Gran Cratere was quite impressive, standing over the tiny port, with its upper slopes bare of plants. There were also yellow sulphur deposits visible on areas of land across the harbour from the volcano. But before long we were leaving Vulcano and on our way to Lipari. The two islands are not far apart and the trip only took 15 minutes or so.

Leaving Vulcano
Leaving Vulcano for Lipari

When we arrived and left the boat we were approached noisily by several people offering accommodation. I took a couple of leaflets and we ended up with an old woman talking to us, offering us a double room for LIT60,000 a night. Michelle hadn't been expecting such a reception, but I had, having read the Lonely Planet's advice that these approaches are often worth taking up, since they often have decent rooms available. After determining in shaky Italian that we could inspect the room the woman was offering, we followed her across a small square where she indicated that we should climb into a small van. I questioned her carefully to find out exactly how far she was planning to take us, the result being about a kilometre, which wasn't too far so we agreed to go. The woman drove like the typical Italian drivers we'd seen everywhere, along shaky cobbled narrow streets, through the centre of the town and out the other side. Just as I was getting worried as to how far we might be going, she pulled into a yard with a pretty little white stucco two-story house.

Unloading our bags we followed the woman around the back of the house were there were several rooms, and several other people apparently already staying in them and lounging around on patios. The room she showed us was pleasant and very clean. After explaining carefully that we wanted the room for one night, then another night after we'd spent a night on Stromboli, we agreed to take it, thus solving our problem of finding accomodation on Lipari. Further exhausting explanations in Italian followed as we asked if we could leave our large backpacks here during our trip to Stromboli, and if she could give us a lift in her van again back to the port when we left on the final day here. These all worked out fine.

By now we were ready for dinner, so we walked back the few hundred metres to the centre of Lipari town in the twilight and located a restaurant which looked nice. The walk was wonderful, and our impression of the island from such a brief look is magical, as we walked along the shoreline, hearing the gentle waves break on the sand, seeing the lights of the houses on the hills on both sides of the cove, and the pink colours of sunset in the sky.

Our dinner was good also. Michelle had spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce, while I tried the fritto misto. What I got was a plate of fried prawns and calamari rings. The prawns were lightly battered and fried whole, in the shell, head and all. Sitting wondering if one was expected to peel all those prawns I remembered that prawn shells are actually edible and tried one, cutting off the head and tail and legs first. The shell was quite soft and not unpleasant, and it was certainly easier eating them that way than peeling them all, so I proceeded to do so. A woman at the next table had the same thing, but she proceeded to peel her prawns after I'd already eaten half of mine, and asked the waiter for a hand-towel. He brought her one, and then dropped one off at our table next to me, leaving us unsure whether it was expected, or if he thought I might also peel mine being a tourist.

After dinner we walked back along the main street, stopping at a gelateria for a strawberry and lemon gelato for me. It was passable, but not as nice as any of the Lonely Planet recommended places. Finally settling in to our room after being on the road for 16 hours, we showered and collapsed into bed, knowing we have to be up earlyish at 07:00 tomorrow to catch the ferry to Stromboli.

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