Lipari: Pagan Pagentry

by Silvestro on January 9, 2010

I’ve been on the island of Lipari for the last three days, resting up a bit, and passing Easter weekend in familiar surroundings. I rented a little room with a 4th-story terrace, and a kitchen, and I’ve been cooking again, with intermittent access (it’s the holy weekend) to markets and wine shops, many still peopled with the same folks I got to know when I passed four months here, almost 15 years ago.

There is nothing like it in the world, says Gilda, the owner of the place I’m staying. First the Madonna comes out. Then Baby Jesus. Then they are brought together and they kiss and then a million white doves are released and there are fireworks. Her eyes start to tear up. Nothing like it in the world.

Sounds pagan, I said. Why would Jesus and his mother kiss?

No, it’s Christian, she says, as if that explains it.

Still tender- and let’s just say ‘walking a lot like John Wayne’- from bicycling not only the height but also the width of Sicily, I headed for the marina corta Easter morning to see this festival, where hundreds of locals gathered to see the procession, quite literally all in their Sunday best. I couldn’t have been more right about the festivals pagan origins. And being right is such a rare feeling for me that I tried to milk it all morning long.

A life-sized Madonna was carried out of the duomo and shouldered down the island’s main street. A life-size statue of Jesus came down the corso as well (fully grown, although Jesus is often referred to as being a baby in Italian, even when fully adult). They met to sombre, marching band music and through some serious bowing and finagling, the carriers are able to get the two statues to ‘kiss’, just as fifty pigeons are released, and fireworks go off over the harbour. This of course scares the just-released birds, who then fly into open windows, light poles and just about everything else as they try to flee. I come to the realisation that, fireworks in the day time are really just expensive fire crackers in the air. I think the birds would agree. And regarding the festival, it’s difficult to believe that even the most fervent non-liparota catholic would see the festival for what is: the modern proof of the historical swapping of religious images without the swapping of new content. It’s a move from pagan fertility rites to the more modern Christianity, only with fireworks, the release of wildlife and simulated oedipal-necking, you know, that old chestnut.

I had reserved a table in the harbour right after the festival and had Easter lunch just meters away. I lingered over lunch, almost into dinner, nursing a bottle of Donna Fugata’s Tancredi until the waiters themselves sat down. It was nice not to ride a bike.  Really nice.

And anyway, I came to Lipari to relax as I’ve said, but I also came to get a handle on Malvasia delle Lipari, a yellow, thick, sickly sweet dessert wine that is very expensive. However, perhaps, unlike last time I spent any real time here, I could actually learn to appreciate it, as one of the great dessert wines of the world. I bought a bottle made by Salvatore, the old geezer that makes my morning coffee- came in a glass Fiuggi water bottle, a reused beer cap secured in place with scotch tape (1 litre, 15 Euro). I bought a bottle of Hauner from the grocery store here, a fancy-smancy-packaged bottle (375ml, 18 Euro) and a bottle of Florio’s Passito, just for kicks (375 ml, 28 Euro).  I tasted them all, side by side, from a Nutella jar/wine glass on my terrace, just before dinner last night. (It would certainly boggle the foreign mind to comprehend the quantity of wine consumed from old Nutella jars in Italy).

Here is what I learned. Dessert wines are mostly wasted on me, mostly because of all the sugar. The tasting was not unlike trying to drink pure honey and determine what sort of flower the bees ate. I could do it, but the overall effect put my jaw on edge. I felt a coating on my teeth. My saliva glands started to overproduce, perhaps trying to thin the think syrups. Asking around, and from my reading, I was supposed to find honey, flowers, jasmine, and orange blossoms. What I tasted was, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, honey, oak (in the Hauner and Florio), sugar and then maybe some orange blossoms, but only if I was really stretching. Further, for this kind of money, I could have had some damn fine wine, which I would have really appreciated, rather than drinking pure honey, looking for some hint of that orange syrup they use to make the sinister-sounding ‘orange drink’.

I packaged up the remainders of the bottles and gave them to my landlord, who tore into Salvatore’s right away, pronouncing it ‘buona’.  I had dinner on the terrace tonight, a simple meal that to me really celebrates Sicilian island life: Pasta with a caper and green-olive pesto, pan-seared lamb with fresh herbs I had gathered and fresh artichokes, just sautéed. I rammed a pack of black-out candles into spent wine bottles and felt like a graduate student again, living meagrely but impressed with myself for making the most with what I had. A lot like island people themselves, however pagan in origin.

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