Why you should care
Because pleasure and pain are known drinking buddies.
Aperitivo is that magic predinner moment in the evening when Italians indulge in drinks seated at the outdoor tables of picturesque cafés on sunny piazzas, chilling out and relaxing in a pleasant and calm atmosphere. But substitute that with an unstable dinghy, an angry sea and a spooky background, and the experience can be a little more sinister.
A new fad is taking hold. Several paradise atolls have launched so-called “Sunset Aperitif”: fishermen boats take you out to sea to admire stunning sunsets while sipping local wine and bizarre cocktails, munching on fish foodies (including ugly but delicious raw sea urchins and fried moray-eel bits). While you stuff yourself, tourist guides spin mythological tales on the location. You come back to the harbor at 9 p.m., under the starry nighttime sky. Cool program — that is, if everything goes as planned.
When I did it, this boat trip to heaven was a nightmare from hell. The sea was rough, and my stomach started swaying in sync with it at my first bites of tripe and mozzarella bruschetta. Unsure if it was the sea or the seafood, I juggled glasses and finger foods, attempting with my handy third hand to also hold tight to the boat. “And there, right above your heads, is where criminals, anarchists and mafiosi were jailed up until 1965. It was Italy’s Alcatraz!” boomed the guide. “As torture, they were served boiling castor oil and forced to stand under the scorching sun for hours on end.” I started to choke on my “Assassin” cocktail — maybe it was the chili pepper.
I need to run to the loo, but I can’t. I’m in the middle of the sea.
I looked up and saw a massive, hellish jail fortress shaped like a horseshoe: the abandoned isle of Santo Stefano. Cue slasher-flick thunder. Three welcome signs greet visitors: “This is a place of pain.” “This is a place of penance.” “This is a place of redemption.” Why not just call a spade a spade and name it Dante’s Inferno? But no, now this jet-black volcanic atoll is a summer paradise. Tourists are taken here to have fun, scuba dive, skinny-dip in cobalt waters and work like crazy on their tans while gulping down huge quantities of alcohol.
I couldn’t help feeling guilty: As I sipped on my fourth glass of finocchietto fennel liqueur, watching the sky bleed, I thought of how unfair history can be. Prisoners were dumped here to suffer, and we were getting drunk on a dinghy, more or less oblivious to all this dark past. Then I heard weird bird cries: albatrosses. A literal literary bad sign. I lightened up a bit when the guide explained them away as the mermaids who enchanted Greek stud Odysseus on his way back home from burning Troy. He was so bewitched by their songs the poor hero had to tie himself to the ship’s mast and plug his ears.
But what do birds have to do with mermaids? “Greek myth says sirens were actually half-bird, half-women creatures,” the guide explained. Ewww … gross. The thought of Odysseus getting kinky with monster creatures does the trick. I need to run to the loo but can’t. I’m in the middle of the sea. So I concentrate on the looks of the sailor: handsome, dark curly hair, tanned and with a 12-pack. So at the end the sunset aperitif turns into a positive event: I have a date! My sea-adventure buddies, on the other hand, spend the evening locked up in their rooms, alone with their upset stomachs.
Other spots can be even more gloomy. Take the Stagnone Lagoon archipelago in Sicily, where sunset aperitivo is served on tiny rusty barges. The landscape is wonderful (old windmills, miles of salines and pinkish sand), but the sea looks dead. Dark and dense, the surrounding tiny islands are dotted with Phoenician wrecks and buried ancient villages. Fierce battles brought the local civilization to a halt, and the main isle is an open-air graveyard, a necropolis that sends shivers up the spine. Death aperitivo: quite a thrill.