Thursday, February 21, 2013

Italy, A Nation of Islands

By Patricia Winton

Italian weather forecasters divide their predictions into four parts: north, central, south, and the islands. Everybody knows that last doesn’t mean all the 450 islands scattered across Italy, but to Sicily and Sardinia, the two largest, and their neighbors.

Making up about one-sixth of Italy’s land mass, individual islands and 13 archipelagos ring the peninsula. There are about 40 islands in and around the Venetian lagoon. In addition, major lakes, and even a couple of rivers, boast islands as well. Three islands are privately owned. Many Italian islands, such as Capri or Elba, are well-known to tourists, but there are lots of fascinating islands not on the beaten track, including the world's best beach for 2013 from TripAdvisor.

Isola di San Michele: San Michele Island is Venice’s cemetery. Once described as a “cruise ship for the departed,” the island rises from the lagoon surrounded by a yellow wall. For funerals, the undertaker can arrange an aquatic hearse (or even a gondola) for a procession to the island. 

Vaporettos to San Michele on November 1

During All Soul’s commemoration on November 1, vaporettos (Venetian water busses) ply between Venice and the island throughout the week to allow mourners to visits family graves. And like cemeteries in most parts of Italy, interment here is temporary—12 years. After that, people with funds can have their bones transferred to an ossuary in a wall. (I wrote about this practice here.) The gate to San Michele opens at 7:30 AM, closing at 4 PM winter and 6 PM summer.

Isola di Stromboli: Stromboli Island (pronounced STROM bow lee) is a volcano that has been in active eruption for about 2,000 years. It usually erupts about three times an hour, but more vigorous than usual activity began last week, prompting coastguard boats to be deployed as a precaution. By February 19, the volcano had calmed again.

Located northeast of Sicily, Stromboli, an almost perfect triangle, has two villages with a year-round population of about 750. It’s one of the few volcanoes in the world where it’s possible to have a really close look at the eruptions. Dubbed the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” because the light show is visible from arriving ships, the island boasts a summer tourist trade with hikes to the volcano, scuba diving, and visits to other islands.

The only way to get to Stromboli is by boat, and because the villages are so small, there are no cars or busses. You get around by on small cycles, by apecars (small, three-wheeled trucks), or on foot. There are no large hotels on the island, but a number of B&Bs and small restaurants provide services to tourists.

Lampedusa: This island is the southernmost point of Italy, located just 70 miles (113 kilometers) from Tunisia and has a very African feel with its arid climate. The sea between Lampedusa and North Africa is only about 370 feet deep (113 meters), so the water remains warm enough for swimming about eight months a year. Part of the island is a nature preserve, so there are good opportunities for hiking. TripAdvisor named Rabbit Beach on Lampedusa the best beach in the world for 2013. While tourism, in addition to fishing and agriculture, is a major industry on the island, the beaches are usually not crowded except during July and August. The island has no fresh water source, except for rainfall.

Rabbit Beach in Lampedusa, called world's best beach by Tripadvisor

For the past ten years or so, Lampedusa has been a preferred destination for illegal immigrants from Africa, and during the Arab Spring about 200,000 people rowed across the sea to the island.

Isola Tiberina: Located in the Tiber River in the heart of Rome, this island is connected to one river bank by Rome’s oldest bridge, Ponte Fabricio (62 BC). Another bridge, Ponte Cestio with parts almost as old as Fabricio, connects Tiberina to the other.

Legend has it that the island emerged above an ancient ship, which its shape mirrors. Romans have perpetuated the legend by building a prow and stern at either end of the island and erecting an obelisk in the center to replicate a ship’s mast.

The ancient Romans built a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, on the site. The portico of the temple was used as an incubatio, a place where sick people were left out in the cold to purify them and restore them to health. In the Middle Ages, Tiberina hosted pilgrims to the Holy See, and priests cared for the poor and sick there. A hospital, erected on the island in 1584, still operates.

Weather forecasters are calling for very cold weather from north to south over the next seven days. Even the usually mild islands should have frigid temperatures. Strangely, Stromboli may see snow on that eruption.

Visit me on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues where I write about all things Italian.


  1. I love your posts, Patricia, but when I finish reading I always want to go back to Italy--anywhere in Italy. Maybe someday.

    1. Thank you, Polly. You're a loyal reader. Please let me know if you come this way!

  2. Stromboli sounds fascinating, Patricia. Have you visited any of these islands? It sounds like a field trip is in order!

    1. I've never been to Lampedusa although people have been suggesting it for years. Things will probably change this year with all this publicity, but it has been an affordable place to go in the past.

  3. I agree with Polly. Your posts are fascinating. Thanks for the advanced education course.