There it stands ahead, jutting out of the sea. A harsh, steep, extinct volcano, where, many years ago, people came to call home. The reason they chose such an inhospitable place is unbeknown to me, but I am sure they had their motives.
93 years ago my Nonno and his family chose to leave this island where their family had lived for many generations, in search of a better life. Now, Lana and I had the chance to explore this harsh paradise. We had organised to spend eight nights on this island as part of our “last hurrah” before heading back to Australia. We not only had relaxation in mind, but also, adventure, exploration and a desire to find any trace of family history left behind. For the next eight nights, Alicudi was to be our temporary home.
Alicudi is situated at the end of a string of small islands located off the northern coast of Sicily. It is the one of the smallest and the most remote of the Aeolian Islands, measuring only 1.6 kilometres in diameter. Unlike the other Aeolian Islands, Alicudi consists of a single volcanic peak rising out of the sea. Its steep nature made living there extremely difficult. However, at the turn of the 20th century, over 1000 people inhabited this harsh land.
Stepping off the hydrofoil onto the small dock, we immediately feel the sting of the hot summer sun. 10:15am seemed too early for this kind of heat! We made our way to the bar and sat down to have a drink, dumping backpacks and carry bags for a bit. By the time our B&B host made his way to get us is was 2pm, peak heat. This was not the best time for climbing 360 stairs, but we were keen to settle in to our new base for the next eight days.
Our house, La Casa Rossa (The Red House), was very nice. It had two terraces, an outdoor bathroom and a cosy little bedroom. We took it easy for the rest of that day and found ourselves in bed asleep by 8:30pm.
Waking up at first light and walking out onto the terrace gave me the first sense of where we actually were. It was extremely still, warm and silent. The dim morning light revealed the houses scattered on the hillside amongst the prickly pears. I felt detached from the world but connected to the island. I couldn’t help thinking of my Nonno, and those before him, waking up to this normal summer morning and not thinking twice, yet for me it felt magical and different to what I had become used to in the UK. The sunrise that morning was amazing. We watched in awe as the deep orange ball of fire slowly rose from behind the neighbouring island of Filicudi and instantly bathed you in warmth, its rays glistening off the calm water. It was at this point that I really felt like we had arrived at Alicudi.
As they say, the early bird captures the worm and that we did. As we arrived down at the port, we were able to snag some fresh prawns from a fisherman called Lucio who was just pulling in his boat. These beautifully fresh red prawns made for a delicious lunch!
Our next few days consisted of early morning walks, swims off the rocky shore, arancini and granite at the bar and a peaceful sieste through the hottest part of the day. The main bar, L’Airone, had the best arancini ever. At only three euro a pop, Lana and I conjured up many excuses for a snack whenever passing.
On our third day we were lucky enough to take a boat tour to Filicudi. It was run by one of the locals, Giuseppe, on his little, white boat. There were only six passengers, which made for quite an intimate experience. He brought us to caves and beaches where we could swim in the clearest water you can imagine, before dropping us at the port for lunch.
The day ended splendidly, with a huge catch that had the locals buzzing. Through the very fast moving grapevine, we discovered a couple of the fisherman had landed a 70kg beast of a tuna! Without second thought, we head over to the old shack by the port, where the two seasoned fishing brothers had already prepared the fish. Boxes of luscious, red tuna fillets lined the benches, ready for buyers. Lana and I happily walked away with three fillets of the freshest tuna we have ever seen for a measly seven euros! The evening got even better when our temporary neighbours, a chef from Milan called Niccolo and his partner Rebecca, invited us over for dinner. We shared our fishy bounty and feasted on an entrée of spaghetti with tuna, eggplant, cherry tomatoes and capers followed by tuna steaks grilled over an open fire and finished off with the freshest and most typical ‘dessert’ of prickly pears. I don’t think we could have asked for more! Eating prickly pears, or figalin, as my Nonno used to call them, on the island where he was born, was beyond special.
My Nonno left this island in 1922 at the age of five. We are not aware of any living relatives currently residing on the island, however my dad did provide me with the names of my Nonno’s Grandparents who died on the island in the early twentieth century. Lana and I visited the small but beautiful cemetery in search of the names my dad had written down for us. Many of the graves were very old and did not list names or dates, but, to our amazement, not long after searching we came across Angelo and Rosaria Taranto buried side by side with a single headstone. Near the top of the headstone were pictures of them. We couldn’t believe our eyes! Not only had we found them, but I was able to look upon them and gain a physical representation of who they were. A whole range of emotions swept over me. Part of my life started here on this tiny island with these two people. Although they were long gone, without them and the hard work they put in to live in this difficult place, I would not be here.
We went on to find Onofrio Russo, another of my Nonno’s grandparents, also with a photo. This was amazing. Onofrio’s wife left Alicudi for Australia after his death so I had found them all. My roots. My connection to this harsh foreign land with photos and all. I found myself casting my mind back to the turn of the twentieth century when my great great grandparents called this land their home. Although it would seem I had answered some of my questions, instead I had raised many more. How far back did my lineage go on Alicudi? Why did the first of my ancestors come to Alicudi? Why did some choose to leave and others chose to stay behind? I guess not all questions can be answered so easily. Which is why, I suppose, searching for such answers is an exciting endeavour that most often leaves you yearning for more. During our short stay here, I intended to explore as much of this island as possible to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors lived.
Alicudi is one giant peak, rising straight out of the ocean and one of my goals while here was to make it to the top. Climbing the steep rocky stairs to La Casa Rossa at Tonna was hard enough at 120 metres above sea level with the hot summer sun beating down on you. Reaching the summit at 666 metres was going to be an epic challenge. To avoid the heat of the day as much as possible, we set off at 5:45 whilst it was still dark. As we ascended, the track got rougher, the sun got higher and we got hotter. To our favour, there were a few clouds in the sky providing short periods of respite, but it wasn’t long before our clothes were soaking from sweat and our two litre bottle of water was looking rather small. No matter how high we climbed, there were countless terraces and ruins of old dwellings. The daily commute between where we were staying at La Casa Rossa and the seaside was hard enough which leads me to believe that the people that lived higher up into the mountainside must have generally stayed up there.
After one and a half hours of near vertical ascent, the ground all of a sudden levelled out to show an expanse of overgrown fields lined with rock fences and small rock huts. It was a surreal feeling walking over the flat ground without any sight of the sea. It was like we were instantly transported elsewhere. A stagnant fog filled the small valley we were in and it was cool, almost cold. After climbing the last piece of track at the end of the valley, we had reached the top. Although we could see the water below and Filicudi not too far in the distance, we were in cloud and the view was somewhat foggy. Now we wanted the clouds to lift and the sun to shine, when only minutes ago we were eagerly awaiting the next passing cloud to shield us from the hot sun. On our way down we took another track to the far side of the island before hitting the main stairway for our decent. It was just after 10:30 when we arrived back at La Casa Rossa. Five hours of stairs. What a hike!
Due to the geology of the island, you can only really see the sun setting from one location, La Casa Del Tramonto (The Sunset House). This was another must for us while we were on Alicudi. The trek to the sunset house had nothing on our previous trek to the summit but, like all walks on Alicudi, it was not for the faint hearted. The sunset house is an old abandoned house, far from all the others. Lana and I wondered who had built their house in such a place. Here we were, admiring the sunset on Alicudi for the first time, and there stood the old, partly dilapidated house, having watched thousands. Watching the sun go down over the sea while standing at a godly height on the most tranquil place on earth was an experience we will never forget.
Our trip to Alicudi had come to an end. After a highly unusual Mediterranean cyclone that almost marooned us on Alicudi for a few more days, we boarded the hydrofoil headed for Lipari. We pulled away from the port that had become familiar, headed out into the wild sea and watched the little island fade into the horizon.