Travel /

Barefoot in Panarea: Experience Sicily as a Local

“Day and night until summer’s out, he forgoes the need for shoes…As the true islanders do.”

I leapt with glee from the ferry and touched ground. Prior to even looking up or breathing in the sweet-smelling scents of my new surroundings, it was in spotting my boyfriend Cesare’s bare and exceptionally bronzed feet kindly awaiting my arrival that first filled me with that wonderful sense of familiarity. I had arrived. I was back to my paradise: the Island of Panarea.

It was my fourth summer spent on the tiny Italian island. Cesare has been coming since birth. Covering a mere 1.3 square miles of land, Panarea is the smallest of the seven islands forming the Aeolian chain, which appear like glistening gems huddled together off the north coast of Sicily. 

Cesare’s grandfather and great-uncle made their summer homes on the island in the late 50s, a few years before its great social debut. Panarea was placed in the spotlight in 1960, starring in some of the treacherous, teary and wonderfully romanticised scenes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The decade when travel took off and hidden and forgotten lands became all the rage, curiosity arose and in came the buzz, the bustle, the glitz and the glam of the 60s elite. Yet over half a century later the paparazzi have never arrived. There are no cars, no streetlights, (no stilettos!) and no five-star hotels in Panarea. Just as the island appears to float amid waters, it remains seemingly suspended in time; held in an era that swung, danced and dazzled but without the bling, the flaunt or the flash.

 ‘What would you like to do?’ asked Cesare, once we had said our hellos, given our hugs and divided my luggage, largely laden with linen shirts, bikinis and a summer’s worth of books, between two. My family motto being ‘share and share’ does prove itself useful at times. ‘Ask a silly question!’ I replied with a grin. It was almost dusk. The sun’s fiery glare had dimmed, and the skies were infused with pastel shades of pink. The islands’ whitewashed houses, clad with bright blooms of Bougainvillea vines, were now in shade and the surrounding waters were as sleek as oil in their unruffled calm. Sunset could mean just one thing in Panarea and one thing only. Smiling at one another and without a further word said, we made our way to Raya’s bar, Cesare’s bare feet taking the lead. You see, Panarean at heart, Cesare does as the true islanders do. Day and night until summer’s out, he forgoes the need for shoes. 

A hotel, restaurant, disco, and bar, Raya is even more than all that. It is a landmark of the island, it’s hearth and hotspot. Again, emerging in the 60s, Raya is a prime and arguably pivotal factor behind Panerea’s popularity; the success story of artists Myriam Beltrami and Paolo Tilche. It came about when the enigmatic couple, a real jet setting pair, began to invite their friends to their newfound home on the island. Soon realising that too many wanted to come, they saw a need for further accommodation and began to build left, right, forwards and backwards. Thus, Raya Hotel and Resort was born. To this day, the summer scene flocks in like fleets of parakeets, feathered up in their colourful summer attire, their beaks parched for endless summer cocktails and their wings eagerly flapping to dance away the sultry nights. 

Sat on the top tier of Raya’s wedding cake of terraces, with a glass of ice-cold wine in one hand and various nibbles in the other, my first night in Panarea was off to a good start. The spectacular sea-view was enlivened by Cesare’s reminiscences of life on the island. As he recounted his tales, I watched out onto the horizon where every few minutes the active volcanic island of Stromboli spat out its flaming red spew like on-and-off fireworks in the nearing night sky. 

Cesare spoke of his great-uncle, whose distaste of fish might have made an island an odd choice to call home, but as a keen fisherman, voracious barterer and no.1 dinner host, he made sure it worked and in it, had his fun too. Trading off his best catch of the day with the butcher’s finest cuts of lamb and beef, the carnivorous feasts and parties he’d throw to follow were a grand success. Only his housekeeper thought to the contrary or at least worried about the goings-on at such get-togethers. In preparing the house the day before a gathering, she would turn around all images of the Madonna or saints. “Just in case…” she’d say.

While the uncle found his joy on the island in fishing, friends and good food, Cesare and his childhood buddies favoured the most definitely prohibited night-time game of playing pirate. Pinching the keys to their parents’ dinghy boats, they took to the moonlit seas as Captain Hook and his crooked crew. Whilst, alas, no treasure was ever found, no bones were broken, nor parental discovery made. Cesare laughing, myself only somewhat bemused, we gulped down our last sips of wine and headed home. Heaped bowls of Pasta alla Norma were warmly awaiting.

Days roll into one on the island. Mornings are spent down on the port breakfasting on pistachio granita and brioche, a winning match which they say has its origins in Sicily, but my bets are on heaven! It certainly sets one up for an afternoon at sea with books, snorkels and bags of figs, fresh from the tree. One has to have some sustenance for all those swims in and out of the island’s bays. Then in the evenings, strolling from one friend’s place to the other, the moon and stars act as guides to the food, frisson of conversation and Marsala wine.   

It is always sad to leave Panarea, but in some way I never really do. At winter’s worst or during wearisome days at work, my mind sets sail to the island: to its rocky coves and crystalline waters, to its soul-wrenching sunsets and lava lit skies, to its narrow-cobbled streets flanked by wild cacti and rosy shrubs of oleander and last but not least, to Cesare’s bare and bronzed feet. As although I have never fully forfeited my shoes for the summer, often opting instead to don my beloved island-made, custom-made leather strap sandals, I have wholeheartedly adopted the bare-foot spirit; the feeling it represents. That feeling, of course, is freedom.