The Aeolian Islands, a quaint volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the northern coast of Sicily, have long been synonymous with rustic glamour.
In the 1960s, Gianni Agnelli, Aristotle Onassis, and Francis Bacon were among the first visitors to Panarea. Drawn to the island’s remoteness, clean air, and clear-blue surroundings, they helped make it the see-and-be-seen island it is now. (Last year, Uma Thurman, Mark Getty, and Princess Caroline were among its visitors.)
There are also the greener Salina, more of a fancy do-not-disturb; the artsier Filicudi, where Maurizio Cattelan has dinner at Hotel La Sirena most nights; and Stromboli, named after the active volcano that will periodically sputter lava into the sea. Stromboli is also home to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s sprawling summer estate.
But Alicudi sees none of the Aeolian traffic. It’s the last stop on the hydrofoil’s seven-island route, and more often than not, there isn’t a single traveler getting off there.
Part of it may be its relative discomforts. Alicudi lacks the bays and alcoves of its sisters, so residents have little shelter from high winds, and when the sea is rough, supplies don’t reach its shores. Then there are the rumors—of magic, hallucinations, and witchcraft.
Once a former volcano called Montagnola, the two-square-mile island plays host to cactus trees, jagged rocks, mountain goats, and not much else. The year-round population stands at 120 residents.
There are no streetlights after dark, and there are no cars or even Vespas. Donkeys are strapped with supplies—be it Amazon boxes or fridges—and led up hills by tired men.
The roads are unnamed, and houses are numbered based on how many steps it takes to reach them. The more expensive ones are equipped with geothermal air-conditioning tubes, which tap into cold air from underground air currents to cool the floors. There are a few hotels, but they are mostly vacant.
There is no A.T.M. or supermarket. Rather, old ladies sell locally grown capers and bananas from their terraces, with prices painted onto wooden plaques. “You have to keep your voice down here,” Bartolo Taranto, a homeowner on the island, explains. There is a sense of having to tread carefully and pay respect to fellow locals. “Say hi to people as they pass by,” he says.
The inhospitality toward tourists extends beyond the lack of infrastructure—Alicudians are wary of visitors to their island. “I called a local for a dinner reservation and said I was coming from Panarea,” a friend who visited tells me. “No one wanted to seat me after that.”
Alicudi’s most famous restaurant is not a restaurant at all—it’s the home of Silvio, a local fisherman. He cooks fresh fish on the grill and serves wine and water for consumption in a single cup. Price per person changes based on his opinion of you.
Other local chefs include Kino and Adriana, who cook for up to 60 people at their house, and Pino, who, in addition to serving up pasta and wine, sings drunken ballads for his guests.
Alicudians tend to speak garbled Italian, preferring their Aeolian dialect, which has roots in ancient Greek. Secrets, such as the fact that pasta on the island is made with seawater, tend to get buried in the dialect—and you get the sense that that is exactly how the locals like it.
There are no cars or even Vespas. Donkeys are strapped with supplies—be it Amazon boxes or fridges—and led up hills by tired men.
In antiquity, Alicudi was hounded by pirates, forcing locals to build their homes high up in the hills. At the start of the 20th century, villagers ventured downward, cultivating wine, olives, fruit, vegetables, and grain. But food was still scarce. And rumors that Alicudians were prone to hallucinations—harrowing visions, trances, even unconsciousness—swirled.
In the 1950s, it was reported that the people of Alicudi had been consuming fungi-laced grain for more than half a century. It turns out that the women were making bread and biscuits to feed their families out of grain which, improperly stored, had grown ergot—a fungus that happens to be LSD’s principal psychoactive ingredient.
The church eventually outlawed the grain’s consumption on the island, calling its product the “devil’s bread.” By the 1960s, Alicudi’s population had dropped from 700 to a mere 100. Some stayed and suffered through the effects of ergot poisoning—gangrene, seizures—while others went to Australia. (Bizarrely, most Aeolian residents have relatives Down Under.)
But, all these years later, the hallucinations haven’t totally gone away.
Roberto, an artist who has lived on Alicudi for 20 years, says magic is still very much a part of island life. “There’s a cloth bag that moves and talks to people at night,” he says. Pigs and donkeys are rumored to fly, and black snakes wait in dark corners for islanders who misbehave. Meanwhile, “if women dip their toes in the water, legend has it they can fly to Palermo [on Sicily’s mainland] and abandon their husbands until morning,” Roberto says.
Alleged witches and sorcerers on the island tell fearsome stories. “Stay away from August 20 to 24,” an older local warns. “They moved our Madonna away from the San Bartolo church a few years ago, and since, [Saint] Bartolo’s anniversary means bad luck.” Last year, the Alicudian priest broke his leg on August 24, and locals claim tourists and divers have drowned and fallen to their death in those late-August days.
Incantations are also taught to residents to cast off magic spells that might afflict them. “We learn incantations on Christmas Eve,” the older local says.
Roberto, who is Neapolitan, has found solace on the island—many Alicudians paint or do crafts—and he revels in its silence and simplicity. Roberto believes the stories. “I don’t know if it’s due to the bread,” he says. “It’s more about the island’s atmosphere. I believe in something greater. I often feel like I’m not alone in the house.”
“I usually only stay for a night or two,” echoes Marcello Russo, a traveler from Messina, in northeast Sicily. “You feel watched, like you have to leave.”
For now, Christof Bosch, of the Bosch German conglomerate, is one of the only foreigners who has purchased property on the island. Word has it he has won the islanders’ affection by carrying around a German-Italian dictionary.
Lorcan O’Neill, owner of the Rome-based art gallery, has also braved his way in. He bought a house there 15 years ago, after discovering the island with the artist Martin Creed. “I think [the Alicudians] gently tolerate me,” O’Neill says. “One winter, part of my house was burned to ashes. It was perplexing—I think fantastically it was a contorted act of acceptance rather than rejection,” he continues. “But I’ll never really know.”
Alicudi’s stark terrain, hot days, and violent weather have historically attracted and deterred, and loving or hating the island is a visceral experience. While those looking for mundanity and holiday comforts may leave, never to return, others have been attracted by its rugged authenticity.
Take it or leave it, the spirits whisper.
Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for Air Mail