That afternoon had been left free for shopping in Taormina, but we requested instead the walk we had missed on our first day, in the Pantalica. This was eight miles into another river gorge, with an abandoned train track running along it. We followed the railbed through wild meadows and eerie black tunnels bored into the hillsides. Then we climbed among lavender cyclamen and bright yellow crocuses to a prehistoric grave site. The necropolis was unimpressive—small, ruined limestone caves—but the view was spectacular. Climbing in a place makes you feel that you somehow own it, and we gazed out on Sicily's rugged landscape with proprietary exhilaration.
Taormina is a famously charming town, sprawled across a hillside overlooking the sea. Its scale is medieval: low stone buildings and narrow cobbled streets. The main thoroughfare is reserved for pedestrians, and it opens into broad piazzas overlooking the glittering sea. Because it's so famously charming there are always tourists there—us, for example—even off-season, but they spoil nothing. The town absorbs them, imperturbably.
We spent two nights at the elegant Grand Hotel Timeo. My roommate here was Kathy—we had different roommates at each place, and we were to sit between different people at each meal. This was the second rule. I was impressed by this careful attention to group dynamics; I wondered if the guys on the golf trip would have considered it.
At dinner, at the small, chic Maffei's, we were given a dismal table indoors. (Because we were women alone?) We resisted absolutely, and after much muttering they seated us in the pretty walled garden, lit with candles. It turned out that we did all dress up for dinner: a little makeup, a little jewelry. After dinner, Susan tried to teach us a soft-shoe routine, but only Judy One managed to learn it.
In the morning, we took an early walk around the Greek amphitheater, one of the best in ancient Greece. From the high seats we looked down at the stage where Sophocles' plays were once performed, and at the breathtaking cerulean bay beyond. That day we hiked Mount Etna, though we couldn't reach the summit because the volcano was inconveniently erupting. Etna does this often, emitting clouds of smoke and streams of sullen black lava, which is inexorable but slow. Etna's slopes are broad and gentle, and we followed a dirt road past open meadows, dappled beech groves, and bleak lava jumbles. Lunch was at a stone rifugio (shelter), with an outdoor stone table and seats, like the seven dwarves'. Alex magically produced a white lacy tablecloth and we spread out our best meal yet: tomatoes, figs, bread, olives, pecorino, salami, Parma ham, basil, peaches, and pears. Everything was ripe, sweet, and local, including, of course, generous Kathy's esses.
The next morning we set off for the hydrofoil to the Aeolian Islands. Our last three days would be spent on these beautiful and romantic volcanic islets, named for the god of wind. This is where Aeolus lived in Homer's Odyssey, and, approached from the water, the islands do look mythic and unreal; they're so steep and solid, so majestic, and rise so suddenly from this misty blue sea.
We disembarked at Vulcano, named for the Roman god of fire. Here there is an active volcano, which constantly emits plumes of pale sulfurous mist. No lava, however: unlike Etna, Vulcano is "stopped"—pressure will build up in its caldera until it explodes. The most recent eruption, in the 1880's, spewed red-hot boulders high into the air. The mountain rises forbiddingly above the port, from which we set out. In half an hour we were on the volcano's bare flank: dark scree and red clay. We staggered up the steep side, beneath shifting waves of noxious fumes. Gaining the rim, we walked along its narrow shoulder, the long slide of red clay on the outside, the flat-bottomed caldera far below, on the inside. Huge clouds streamed from one pale yellow stretch of rim, but before we reached it we stopped at the summit, two-thirds of the way around. Generous Kathy produced our reward: the world's best macaroons. Would guys have brought pastries to the top of a volcano?
Continuing past the summit meant braving the thickest curtains of sulfurous smoke, and already our lungs were burning. Paul warned that if we stopped on the stones our rubber soles would melt. Some of us turned back, but this was too weird for me to resist. I picked my way slowly down the steep slope toward the dead yellow fields. As I approached, the clouds turned denser, billowing toward me, closing me off from the others and from the world. It was like hell: sulfur permeated my lungs, smoke blinded me. I inched my way across this strange pale crust, hot and sere. Steam poured out copiously from its cracks, hissing beneath my feet. On this heated, unnatural earth, ominously fragile, I stepped gingerly. At some moment Vulcano will erupt. Probably not because of a clumsy footstep, but because of something, and who can say what the consequences of our acts will be?
Later we took the ferry to Lipari. The largest of the islands, it is lush and green, with a gently mountainous silhouette. The town looks like a Mediterranean village from the twenties: a small fishing port with cobblestoned streets, low whitewashed buildings, few cars. Everywhere there are stone archways and carved doorways, pots of blue-flowering plumbago, bougainvillea, and great clouds of jasmine throwing itself in shawls across the walls.
Our hotel was the Villa Meligunis, simple and pleasant, though modern. Leila was my new roommate, and our room was clean and airy. Before dinner, Susan and I explored the archaeological museum. It was exactly as a museum should be: small and intimate, full of exquisite objects quietly displayed. We ambled through the whitewashed rooms, past the great banks of amphorae and the small funeral figurines, feeling a strong sense of an ancient, vanished place, vivid lives.
next morning, it was pouring rain. country Walkers go out wet or fine, so we set off on our hike along the western coast. The Aeolians are less populated than Sicily, and the landscape is more lighthearted here, even in a downpour. We passed wild fennel, broom, and caper bushes. We stopped at a tiny stone complex, the oldest thermal bath in the Mediterranean, where Alex smeared a dollop of the pale mud on his cheeks. The rain lessened. We crossed grassy windswept bluffs, past stone walls pierced by white-leafed artemisia, pungent pink-blossomed mint, and tiny wild orchids. The rain increased. Two and a half hours later, sodden and freezing, we reached the village of Quattropani, where we had lunch in a warm, steamy restaurant, slowly thawing. No one walked back.
Dinner was at the Kasbah Café. The weather had cleared, and we sat in a narrow garden under lime trees and lighted flares. The Kasbah specializes in fresh pizzas and a rum drink that sounds like "Me, too." We drank rum and talked about whether your birth order determines your place in the hiking line: Susan, an oldest child, is always first up the mountains. After dinner we walked back through the quiet, darkened streets, our footsteps loud against the old stone.
On our last day, we took an early ferry to the island of Salina, to climb an extinct volcano, the densely wooded Mount Fossa delle Felci. We landed on the east coast at Santa Marina Salina. The town is small and beautiful, the light radiant, the houses low and whitewashed. We walked out into the fields and up the lower slopes of Mount Fossa.