Alicudi – Island #18

The last of the Aeolian islands but by no means least, visiting Alicudi is an experience like no other.  This stunningly beautiful island was formed over 150,000 years ago by the volcano Montagnola which happily hasn’t erupted for the last 27,000 years! It rises at a very steep gradient out of the sea, there are no roads, the main form of transport is the donkey and most of the houses and settlements have been built on the side of a very steep hill – the majority of which are very high up indeed! BUT it is incredibly beautiful! The photos speak for themselves.

I booked a room on airbnb a few days before arriving and was instantly contacted by Alina, the host, to see whether I had meant to make the booking.  They had apparently not expected anyone to want to visit at the beginning of May and the house I had booked was not ready.  She kindly offered an alternative.  I enquired about the distance from the port as I was still having trouble walking.  Alina told me that, if I had problems with my feet, I should really not be visiting Alicudi at all!  Although I appreciated her honesty, I didn’t want to come all the way here and go home without having seen all of the islands so I decided to chance it and book it anyway.  How bad could it be?

Alicudi is a small and roughly circular island about 5.2 kms². It is the westernmost island of the Aeolian group. Its highest point is 675 ms. The official population in 2001 was 105 people, Italian Wikipedia says it’s 20 and Alina told me it was more like 50 – not very many people! Only the south side of the island is occupied and Alicudi Porto is the island’s only ‘town’, basically a wide street which runs from the dock for about 300 ms with a narrow pebbly beach on one side covered in fishing boats and fishing nets and other paraphernalia and, on the other side, a space – which could not be called anything as grand a a square – where boats and cars and donkeys and a mobile shop are parked. The donkeys are fascinating. Apparently the going rate for a donkey load up (or down) is €15 – one way!  Everything that arrives by ship or hydrofoil must be taken up the hillside by donkey – building materials, luggage, everything.  So building a house or doing any sort of building work can cost a lot more money due to the extra cost of getting the materials to their destination.

Alicudi Porto boasts one small and surprisingly well-stocked general store with a few bar tables outside at one end of the quayside, a little lorry selling household goods parked apparently in the middle of the road (it can’t go anywhere else!) and one bar/restaurant with a lovely terrace above the fishmonger’s house looking directly over the dock.  The harbour is currently being re-built and re-inforced to make docking in winter an easier business. Apparently in high winter seas, docking is impossible leaving islanders cut off and without supplies.

Behind the main harbour, there is also a little post office and the Liberty Lines ticket office, which opens half an hour before departures to sell tickets, nestles next to the fishmonger’s.  That is it! There are no banking facilities here and no chemist – for that you must get on a boat.  A bit higher up and looking down on the port is one of the island’s two churches – the other one, San Bartolo, is 400 ms and a thousand steps up the hillside!  There is a short tourist season here in July and August when more accommodation becomes available (there is even a small hotel) but otherwise it is a very quiet place. The locals make the most of the island’s very fertile soil to grow olives, grapes and capers. Small pens of sheep and chickens can be seen on the hillside. Whilst fishing is carried out today, historically the industry was never developed due to the dangers associated with pirates and other visitors from the sea. It was safer up on the top.

I arrived on the afternoon hydrofoil from Lipari (there are only a couple a day to Alicudi) and Alina met me on the quayside.  She pointed out the general direction of the house – about 800 ms away from where we stood in an almost vertical direction! She suggested I buy any supplies from the (only) shop before going up as it was too far and difficult to come back down again!  I bought a bottle of wine (thought I would need it!) and some supplies for dinner from the very friendly shopkeepers whilst Alina found Pietro the donkey man and asked him whether he had space on one of his donkeys for my bags. Luckily, he did and strapped my backpack as well as my shopping to one of his two donkeys. I found them later hanging from a gatepost near my home for the night.

We visited the fishmonger in one of the houses by the port (a room with a couple of fridge freezers in it and some scales) to buy fish for dinner before we set off on the extremely long and steep trek up the flag-stoned mule track to the house.

My host was very kind and very patient, stopping for rest breaks on the way up so I could rest my feet.  Originally from Romania, she spoke very good Italian and we chatted all the way up.  It took over half an hour up a very steep path and I was more than glad to get to the house.  The house was simple but fine.  The holiday home of a family from Turin who only visit in August, it was rented out during the rest of the season.  It had an enormous terrace the same size as the house that ran the length of the building with absolutely breathtaking views across the sea to all of the other islands (except Panarea – hidden behind the others) and a fairly steep drop down to terraced gardens, a pebbly beach and beautifully clear sea below.

Alina lived in a smaller house immediately below the large one I was staying in. She introduced me to her partner Valentino and their dogs and invited me to have dinner with them that evening.  I offered to make part of the dinner so we agreed to pool our resources and meet later on.

Due to the Aeolian islands’ history of being raided by pirates and other unwelcome visitors, it became the norm to build houses high up the hillside to give added security and so that islanders would have advance warning of who was coming across the water. Alina explained to me that the island was divided into 4 different communities, one of which was even higher up the hillside than us! Slightly higher than our house was the path that circumnavigated the crater and leads up the summit.  Little blue triangles painted onto the rocks by the side of the path mark the way up to the top.  I started to walk up but when I spotted a second church the same distance again up the hillside, I realised it was way too ambitious and came home to have a glass of wine and admire the breathtaking views from my terrace instead.

I made a dish of tuna spaghetti and took it along with (the rest of) my bottle of wine downstairs.  Alina told me the fascinating story of how she and her partner, both now in their early 40s, came to Alicudi 11 years previously and fell in love with island.  After only a 3 days on the island, they decided to stay there and make a life for themselves! She said she felt as though they were meant to live there.  I was full of admiration for them both, how hard they had worked and the life they had carved out for themselves in such a tiny and potentially inhospitable place.  Over dinner of my tuna pasta, the fish we had bought earlier with vegetables from their vegetable garden and a delicious home-made cake, Alina told me the story of their 11 years on the island and the difficulties they had encountered settling in and dealing with the islanders’ reactions to their successful business ventures. They were brave, kind, very hospitable and positive people. I enjoyed spending time with them and was really heartened and impressed by their efforts, their staying power and their successful results.

Alina told me that you didn’t really need much money to live in Alicudi.  There was nowhere to go so no need for nice clothes.  They had a vegetable garden and chickens and the house went with the job. Alina had created work managing various holiday properties and dealt with renting them out. Valentino did building work and maintenance on the various houses. The islanders apparently spend a lot of time in each others’ houses having meals and coffee as there is nothing else to do in the way of entertainment – especially in winter. Although internet was available, few of the locals were very interested in it apparently and many of them rarely left the island – even to go to other islands or over to mainland Sicily. I tasted some nice home-made wine and various different home-made liqueurs that they had been given by neighbours. They were very generous hosts and Valentino showed me some pictures of the sunrise he’d taken on his phone and suggested I got up early (6 am) the following morning to see it for myself.  I did – it was well worth it.

After taking some amazing photos of the sunrise the following morning, I took myself further up the hillside in the opposite direction to see what was happening up there. I came across some of the donkeys in their home – lovely creatures!   There are stunning views from wherever you happen to be on Alicudi, the donkeys are wonderful and there are beautiful wild flowers everywhere.  It’s a lovely island and the water down at the shore is amazingly clear. The pictures speak for themselves.

My feet were sore by now and I was getting increasingly worried about how I was going to get myself and my backpack back down the steep path to the port as I could still not walk very well.  Fortunately, Valentino was going down to meet an incoming ship and pick up some supplies he’d ordered so offered to take my bag down for me. I was delighted to pay him to do it. At least I only had to worry about getting myself down. I left early so I could take my time and some photos on the way down and enjoy the walk and the views.  On the way, Pietro and his 2 donkeys passed me on the path – moving much faster than I was. When I got down to sea level, I found my backpack perched on a wall as agreed.  I found the bar/restaurant and settled in for the wait for the hydrofoil.

There was no menu here as what is available is due to the fisherman’s catch and whatever supplies have come in on a ship.  Some British day trippers were struggling to understand what the waiter was proposing to them so I helped out with translation and earned myself a free coffee.  The waiter was perplexed that the Brits didn’t consider squid to be fish and that they thought squid ink a strange ingredient! These guests didn’t like the sound of his fish stew or any of his pasta with fish sauce suggestions. (They had plain grilled fish and a salad.)

Everyone there was waiting for the ferry and different people idly chatted to me and the waiters – it was fun, friendly and relaxed and some customers laid down on the benches for a sleep to pass the time – nobody minded! For lunch I had an enormous plate of spaghetti with a fish stew sauce.  It was delicious and enough for about 4 people! Tomasso the waiter was from Agrigento, his friend Davide from Palermo – both big cities. They had come to work for the season and weren’t very impressed at being in such a quiet place. I wrote them out some English menu translations and taught them a few words to help them out for the summer. (Grazie Tomasso e Davide – il ragù di pesce era fantastico – é stato un piacere conoscervi.) I spotted Valentino down on the street and waved.  He shouted up to make sure I’d found my bag where he’d left it.

Before leaving, I bought my ticket and took a last look around the port – the locals were all languishing on a wall by the household goods lorry, their donkeys tethered next to mopeds – everyone waiting for the hydrofoil to arrive – the highlight of Alicudi’s afternoon! Departing passengers, their friends, two dogs and a donkey clustered around the dock as the hydrofoil approached.  Tommaso came down to see me off and ask me for the name of this blog – I hope he’s reading it! When it arrived, there appeared to be a problem and one of the crew was diving down to see whether something was stuck to the motors.  He went down several times and the thought of having to spend another night here and climbing back up that hill flashed through my mind. Luckily, he couldn’t find anything so they let us on and off we went!

Arrivederci Alicudi! I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in such a place with so few people and such limited contact with the outside world. An inhospitable and difficult to explore island but charming, unique and beautiful – this was definitely one of my favourites. I wish I could have walked more and seen more of Alicudi as I don’t feel I did this lovely island justice.

I must say I was quite sad to finally leave the Aeolian Islands.  They exceeded all expectations in terms of natural beauty and friendliness of their people but also in terms of diversity – they are all so incredibly different.  Having finished writing about them all, I think my favourite ones would have to be Stromboli, Alicudi and possibly Salina but it’s a very difficult decision to make as they are all beautiful in their own way and each one has charms all its own.  I very much hope to be back here one day.

NEXT ISLAND:

From the Aeolian islands I travelled back up to Naples to meet up with some friends for a whistle-stop tour of the islands of Capri, Procida and Ischia

One thought on “Alicudi – Island #18

  1. HI ! hILARY, this is the best yet. The steep hill would probably deter me from visiting, but your blog is very enticing. Dad

    Like

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