Thursday, April 29, 2010

Panarea island

We’ve just had a lovely two days on Panarea island. One of the best things about living here is having the Aeolian islands on our doorstep.Awkward enough to reach from abroad – the flight to Catania, the hire car or bus t Milazzo, then coordinating arrival times with the departure of the boats to the islands etc .. but we just drift down to the port and hop on the hydrofoil and we’re there in a matter of hours. I have left Panarea until last, because it is notorious for being extortionately pricey and full of rich posers, usually from Milan. Naomi Campbell shops in the boutiques here. Georgio Armani anchors his boat off shore. But at this time of year the island is deserted. There are only a few locals – aided by the Polish, Romanian and North African staff – fixing up their hotels, restaurants and bars for the onset of the season. Lots of whitewashing and painting going on. We are probably only about ten tourists stayingon the island in total. Since there has been plenty of rainfall in spring, the rugged slopes are quite green, revealing the reddish rock beneath. The windy streets are fragranced with gardenia and the first sprigs of jasmine. Sprays of bougainvillea are just beginning to bloom. Small trees are laden with nespole, or loquats – small yellow fruits similar to plums, which we have for breakfast. Lemon trees are everywhere, showing off their bright yellow fruits to nearby silvery olive trees.

Panarea is so tiny everywhere is within walking distance, so we head for Cala Junca, its most famous bay. We pass Cala Zimmari, a nice beach, but there are too many jellyfish freshly washed up on the shore to be tempted to paddle. Not warm enough to swim. Up along a stony path through the rock face to a ridge along the top of the cliff to find remains of a 15th century settlement overlooking two bays on either side of the ridge. Turquoise waters below. We go down the steps to Cala Juna and enjoy having the whole place to ourselves all afternoon, apart from the odd tourist boat which veers into the bay from behind the rocks, catching us by surprise (me with the bikini loosened trying to cream myself, mio marito indulging in a spot of naturista sunbathing since there is no one around – we certainly were not expecting to be assailed from the sea with these binocular-bearing tourists). The same megaphone nasal voice on each one describes Panarea and Cala Junca and its history while the German tourists scan all into their digital cameras, ourselves included.

Our hotel is stunning, but we have trouble finding decent places to eat. The first night we end up in the only place open, along with a t able of 6 Germans, an Australian family and 4 Spanish girls. We’re first to be served, and are quite dismayed with the miniature tartar di gamberi at a hefty price, and my heavily salted grilled vegetables. When you know aubergines and courgettes are grown in the back garden it’s hard to accept wild prices. At our restaurant they cost €3. here €10. My pasta, at €14 (none of our pasta dishes cost more than €9) is tasteless – linguine con gamberi di Nassa e zucchini. He hasn’t made enough of a sauce with the courgettes – some baby tomatoes were needed – and who knows if they really are prawns from Nassa – usually so tasty? We watch the Germans’ reaction to the starters. They have been heartily tucking into their wine and keep asking the harried (but rich) owner for more bread. But when the first dish arrives, a ripple of laughter goes over the table, and continues as the other dishes come along. I say to mio marito – I wonder if anyone will have asked for the tartar to gamberi, and sure enough the last person to be served – a robust man with a belly that needs looking after – is presented with this minute delicacy. His neighbour at table takes one looks at explodes into laughter. Too funny. They tuck in with, no doubt, the same comments we were making just minutes before. These examples of nouvelle cuisine might work in a fancy restaurant, but we are in a trattoria with old wooden tables and little décor or attention to detail. €3 for the coperto – but we don’t even have table cloths! Last week on Lipari island we ate in a chic restaurant with elegant minimal décor and exquisite table service from pristine-uniformed waiters – have three courses each and still paid a lot less. A couple of weeks ago a customer complained that his salad was small – at €7 our salads are usually abundant in the essential ingredients, on a bed of lattuga romana or rocket or whatever. Perhaps something happened to his; I didn’t see it go out, but of course, he got the discount he wanted. But here in this halfbaked trattoria did anyone complain? I don’t think so, not what you do on Panarea. But the following night we are eating at the pizzeria next door, whose owner turns out to be an old friend of my husband’s. I ask him what he thinks of his neighbour and he starts laughing, though he doesn’t want to say anything against him, he says. We tell him of our experience, and he laughs even more; yes, he says, he closed early on Saturday, Sunday and tonight he isn’t open – the locals don’t go there because they know his prices – and standards. He probably makes enough in one night to keep him going for the rest of the week. Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of four suspicious-looking men – tow older with the pancia (protruding belly), and two in their thirties, with plenty of time to acquire one. From our host’s alacrity to look after them personally, we realise they are the carbinieri. In for their digestivo – a wholesome drop of grappa. Which they won’t have to pay for, of course. They were mincing round our lovely hotel owner too earlier in the day; when they left she rolled her eyes and told me one thing she couldn’t stand was being constantly touched when being spoken too – big belly had been particularly touchy feely. The carbinieri’s pad is a lovely chalet set in a shady grove right near the hotel. Their squad car is an electric-run golf mobile, like the few other cars on the island. Perfect for creeping up on any potential criminals, but offering little defence. With zero crime on the islands they have little else to do than slouch around visiting the locals. With all the free meals and drinks going round, they’ll have little cause to check up on taxes receipts (the scontrino) or fiscal matters at all.

We love Panarea though, and want to go back – especially to do a boat tour of the islands and swim in its crystal clear waters. Hopefully we’ll eat better though – I’m still digesting the pasta alla norma from the second night – with aubergines, tomato and oven-baked ricotta – but those aubergines were saturated in a deep frier.

But where, other than Sicily, could you be sitting at the end of April, sunbathing with your feet dipped in an open air jacuzzi and views over the sparkling Aeolian waters to Basiluzzo and Dattilo turning pink in the sunset, with majestic Stromboli smoking behind ...

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