I started my recent Mediterranean wanderings in the almost 30 century’s old, now dusty, somewhat faded port of Palermo in Sicily. This once strategic and historically important land of Italy must have been a grand splendour; full of the luxurious delights, amassed from global trade routes forged by Greek, Arabs and Norman’s colonial masters.
As I wandered through the narrow streets of La Kalsa, I catch glimpses of this bygone lavishness passing market stalls brimming with pine nuts, sultanas, dates, cumin, saffron and sumac are common place in Sicilian kitchens. The Arabs also introduced citrus fruits that were cultivated on a wide scale in all parts of the island where orchards can be found in abundance today. However, Arab-Norman architecture with lattice style windows and domes once ubiquitous is a shy whisper today.
Vucciria market has been characterized as a hungry man’s dream for its colourful offer of great food. It was a poor, dirty, shelter for criminals and a mirror of the division between high and low-class that persisted from the Middle Ages up to the last century. Marketed these days as a picturesque and exciting place to stroll around for the thrill-seeking tourist, all very odd as when I strolled through the market not much was going on at all. But I did find ‘Palermitano’ the painting of La Vucciria market by Renato Guttuso which has an exuberant thrill of its own – don’t you feel?
After my brief encounter with Palermo, I decided to set off to the Aeolian Islands – all once active volcanoes and interestingly all once fine-tuned with nature to be self-sufficient and abundant. The islands achieved this utilising ancient methods (not dissimilar to the Incas) of terrace farming on extremely steep volcanic slopes, holding these in place by nurturing rhizome plants such as the fig tree and purifying the sea air by planting vast swathes of bamboo.
It’s curious to visit a place and hear of how things were and see how they are now. The pre-condition for civilisation washed these shores too; the apparatus for tourism is now a well-oiled machine imbedded all over the islands.
So, when my boat reached Stromboli all thoughts of exploring a lost island were cast aside there and then. However, I was visiting the island out of peak season, an experience which lent itself to a relaxed atmosphere and where by the locals did still outnumber the visitors, including myself.
Stromboli intrigued me; it was the only Aeolian island that was an active volcano – the excitement of just reaching its shores was electric. So much so that I signed up there and then for the guided 3-4 hour walk to the fiery craters at Stromboli’s peak the very same day of my arrival.
Renzo, our guide was a Strombolian and studying natural sciences at Rome university. Back at home in-between studies he was keen to put what he had learnt to action – encouraging the locals to once again adopt ecological farming methods; tuned into the local ecosystem that was Stromboli, rejuvenating bits of the glorious past for a cleaner sustainable future. But he needed money to kick-start processes and incentivize his brethren. When I asked him if he could apply for government funds – he said, in a tone that conveyed he had said this many times over “Now is not the right time”. So his visions, for now remain just that; buds waiting to bloom.
After a couple of hours walking our vantage point was quite impressive; we could see a lighthouse on Strombollicci; the once towering volcanic husband of Stromboli but now 99% submerged in the Thyrrean sea.
Dusk was falling and we all wanted was to get to the craters to see sunset. So a final push and we walked as fast as we could to the peak.
A cairn signalled we were there and I jumped with joy! There were the craters before us, steaming and rumbling. Stromboli was awake and alive tonight.
The unpredictability of the eruptions, the boom, and explosions of lava from the earth’s core was magnified by the darkening sky. Sun had set and the stars were beginning to twinkle above. And there we sat with our hard hats and masks looking on as one of nature’s show unravelled before us. What a privilege.
Having left Stromboli I set off for the westernmost archipelago, Alicudi – which according to the locals was further off the beaten track, a real hideaway. And it felt so when I arrived; a sleepy sun-drenched dock greeted me in fact.
I couldn’t wait to explore this island – the first thing that hit me was that there was no cars, well actually no traffic whatsoever. The only mode of travel round the island was using the humble donkey.
This once active volcano beckoned to be climbed so I trotted off the next day with the determination to reach the top! As I walked up the steps, I saw remnants of sustainable terraced farming.
It was such an enjoyable walk, filled with the musical natural sounds of spring, the azure Thyrrean sea and an unending expanse of clear blue sky.
I got to the top of Alicudi peak mid-afternoon with sun blazing but there was a strange mist surrounding Alicudi and the neighbouring isles. Felt wonderful to reach the pinnacle and behold the deep blue all-around, simply wonderful.