We’re so excited to be able to share a guest post from Jules Brown this week. Jules is a travel writer and long-time Rough Guide author. With a writing career stretching back over 30 years, he has lost count of the number of features he has written for publishers, newspapers, magazines and websites, not to mention the number of guidebooks that he has written! Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides series, describes Jules’ writing as ‘funny, inspiring, quirky and always engaging‘ and we have to agree. Here, Jules tells us all about his trip to the Sicilian island of Alicudi.
The island of Alicudi – an extinct volcano off Sicily’s north coast – rises out of the Mediterranean, forming an almost perfect cone. Fifty years ago, there was no electricity here and the young left for better, easier lives on the mainland. Today, there are still no real roads, only a couple of hundred inhabitants and a few dozen houses. Meat and provisions come in by boat. So does anything else you might fancy, including fresh water. You can climb up a donkey track to the top of Alicudi, which is a very hot and very steep thing to do. At other times, you can hang around the harbour and watch the fishermen mend their nets. And that’s about it as far as entertainment goes.
You might wonder why anyone would come? In part, I had to – I was writing the Rough Guide to Sicily and a travel writer’s got to go where a travel writer’s got to go. But to be honest, once I’d discovered it existed and had seen it on the map, I wanted to go there anyway. There’s something about islands that speaks to me, and this one – a tiny speck, stuck out in the middle of the ocean, at the very end of an already remote ferry route – was positively shouting. It’s probably as far off the beaten track as you can get in the Mediterranean – if you can beat a track by boat – and that was good enough for me.
* * *
The one hotel is closed, they say, as I disembark. No, there isn’t a restaurant, or even a bar, they chortle, as the hydrofoil speeds off. It’s nine-thirty in the morning and I’ve basically just done all my research on Alicudi. So when’s the next hydrofoil out of here? Nine-thirty tomorrow. Ah. OK then.
I’m told that the signora in the ticket agency can help me with a room. The sign in the window gives the daily opening hours, after which is written the single word – forse (perhaps, maybe, possibly). I catch her as she’s locking up. She only sells tickets for ten minutes before departure, and if the office isn’t open when it should be – well, it hardly matters. You could pretty much just shout from here that the boat was leaving, and everyone in the village would hear you.
A room? Sure, follow her.
She makes conversation. Am I foreign? Well, yes. Which part of Italy, she says? (Italy being completely foreign, as far as most Sicilians are concerned). Now I speak terrible Italian, so either the signora is deaf or we are now officially talking Very Remote Island – as in ‘The Wicker Man’ remote. As in ‘Deliverance’. None of this is reassuring.
I’m deposited in a private room in the signora’s house, and then I sit on the terrace for a bit, admiring the view. It’s now eleven o’clock. Time to tackle her again, this time about food. She says there’s a restaurant in the hotel. Oh wait, she’s just remembered, the hotel is closed. Of course it is. But have I tried asking the signora Giuseppina? She lives in the white house over there – there’s a vague wave of the hand. Admittedly, there are only about sixty houses over there. It’s just that they are all white.
So, I simply knock on this woman’s door and ask her to cook dinner for me, do I? Apparently I do.
Signora Giuseppina has a large knife in her hand and is doing something unpleasant to a squid. It seems safest to agree to anything that she says. I am to come back at eight this evening for spaghetti, squid, salad and wine. I have no idea what I am to pay for this. Am I supposed to pay? Is there someone I may have to marry instead? There is no way of knowing, because the conversation gets as far as – are you foreign? from which part of Italy? – and no further.
Anyway, it will be time for dinner in – ooh, let’s see – seven hours. Time to entertain myself. So I climb up the central cone of Alicudi, picking my way along a stony track, watching the waves ripple on the black rocks below. There’s a distant splash – dolphins? Forse. Maybe. The sun beats down on a glistening ocean, and I am overtaken regularly by donkeys, but I finally sit by a little white-stone shrine a few hundred feet up, looking down at the tiny harbour below. Or, more precisely, looking down at a passenger ferry pulling into and then out of the tiny harbour below.
If we’re being strictly fair, I suppose I did ask when the next ‘hydrofoil’ was, so I decide on reflection not to get cross with anyone. In any case my Italian is far too erratic and I may inadvertently accept a kind offer of marriage from the squid mangler. So instead I scramble back down the mountain, snooze the afternoon away, spruce myself up in a pristine white room with a serene view of the bay, and then totter around to Giuseppina’s house after dark.
I’m shown to a carefully laid table on a flower-filled terrace, overhanging with vines. The food is exquisite – spaghetti stirred through with fresh crab and wild oregano, sweet grilled squid with capers picked from the hillside, homemade wine, fruit from the trees. I slice a peach, drink a shot of grappa and sip bitter espresso from a stove-top coffee-maker while listening to the breeze and the night calls. Back in the room, my bed is soft, the breeze warm through the shutters, the lap of the waves gentle and soothing.
When I wake up late the next morning and throw open the windows, there’s the hydrofoil coming into the harbour, as promised. I could make it, just, if I left now. Only, it seems, I’m not quite so keen to leave any more. This isn’t like anywhere else in Italy – it’s not even like anywhere else I’ve been in Sicily. It’s exactly what the speck on the map promised – isolation – the first time I clapped eyes on it.
Maybe just one more night alone on Alicudi.
If you’d like to read more about Jules’ adventures, his travel books are available worldwide on Amazon – Don’t Eat the Puffin: Tales From a Travel Writer’s Life, and Never Pack an Ice-Axe: Tales From a Travel Writer’s Life