The lush beauty of Salina, a place where swaths of bougainvillea and jasmine come tumbling off rooftops and over walls, is so overwhelming that few visitors get around to investigating the island’s history. But it is well worth spending a day with a guide.
Friends in Rome had recommended Elena Basurto, a friendly young woman who speaks perfect English and has deep knowledge of Salina’s history, geology, architecture and flora and fauna. Having booked a full-day tour with a chauffeur — driving the narrow roads is not recommended — we began with a visit to the seaside village of Lingua, where the former salt pans that gave Salina its name are located. Some of the handmade tools once used in this trade are on display in the Museo Civico di Santa Marina Salina, which also features the locally made objects once employed to produce olive oil, catch fish, repair shoes and do a variety of other mundane tasks during the centuries when self-sufficiency was a necessity for the Salinari.
The island’s main town, lively Santa Marina Salina, which has some excellent art galleries and good shopping for pottery, clothing, capers and wine, was our next stop. Here, we ducked into the Church of Santa Marina, which has exuberant floors of colorful hand-painted majolica tiles. Afterward, we wandered the town’s black lava stone-paved lanes. Basurto explained that the houses with covered patios and built-in tiled benches facing the street were typical Aeolian architecture, because life once moved outside during the summer before the advent of air-conditioning. Many of the grander and more lavishly ornamented houses date to the 19th century, when some islanders became rich making and selling sweet Malvasia wine to the British.
This golden age of prosperity ended in 1890 with the arrival of phylloxera, which destroyed more than 90 percent of the island’s vineyards, leaving the population unemployed and impoverished. Economic disaster prompted massive immigration to the United States and Australia. This human tide is the subject of the very moving Museo Eoliana dell’Emigrazione in Malfa, about 15 minutes away. Here, old photographs, steamship tickets, luggage and other objects and documents detail the departure of the islanders to new lives in North America. There, many of them settled in Boston, New York City, the Hudson River Valley and Philadelphia.
After lunch in Malfa, we headed to the village of Leni and then the black-sand beach at Rinella. Our last stop was the charming village of Pollara, famous for its starring role in the 1994 hit movie “Il Postino,” which made much of the world dream of a visit to Salina.
For your own tour of Salina, contact Elena Basurto at [email protected]