Six and a half years ago I decided that my burnt-out sister needed a break from life that was more of an antidote than a holiday. This was not such an easy thing to deliver. A former foreign correspondent, she craved remote, wild, sparsely inhabited terrain to offset her weariness with the modern world. Italy was not the obvious choice. In no small part thanks to E.M. Forster, the land of Leonardo and Michelangelo is perceived as a tame destination for a cultured traveller, a kind of extended gallery tour that can be done, Baedeker in one hand, Panama hat in the other. But we had a tip-off. An Afghan princess had built a house on an isolated tip of a far-flung island off Sicily. The house worked on solar panels and rainfall, took half an hour to reach on foot from the road, and looked out over the sea from high up an extinct volcano. This was a different kind of room with a view.
There is only one way to reach Filicudi: slowly. The Aeolian Islands form a spray on the map as if someone had been skimming stones off the northern coast of Sicily. Filicudi is the second farthest flung. The hydrofoils and ferries that connect it to the mainland stop at most of the other islands in the archipelago on the way: Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Stromboli – the last a still-active volcano that shoots fire out visibly from its mouth every 20 minutes. By the time you reach Filicudi Port – which I have done half a dozen times since that first trip – the chances are that most of the other passengers will have disembarked at the more popular islands on the way. Only Alicudi, the last and smallest, a pimple on the map – with nothing but donkeys for transport – is less visited.
But when you arrive on Filicudi, it seems quite forgotten enough. The little bay that forms the main port is lined with a string of whitewashed houses, which include one bank, one food market and one chemist. The only road takes you winding up through the hills, terraced for cultivating crops many years ago and now covered by cacti and yellow broom growing between packed red earth and black volcanic rock. Caper bushes, wild mint and thyme scent the salty air. The road continues, carving through the substantial wilderness of national parkland, overhanging rocks held up by bulging wire meshes, past a couple of hamlets and down the other side of the island to Pecorini Mare, the second biggest village and sometime second port of the island.
Part of the reason that Filicudi remains so unspoiled is that there is only a handful of very modest hotels in these two coastal villages and fewer still inland. Even in July and August most people visiting the island will do so by boat or yacht: wealthy Italians who graze its spectacular coastline in search of navy blue waters. Others might go snorkelling in the caves or diving with Nino Terrano, a local boatman, who will take you for a tour of the island, showing you the shapes that leap out from the craggy cliff-face if you peer closely enough – here an elephant, there an old man’s profile or a perfect depiction of Madonna cradling her baby. At one tip of the island is La Canna: a giant column of basalt rock that rears up from the sea like a sooty finger pointing at the heavens.
Some – lucky, or in the know – will drop anchor in the bay of Pecorini Mare. In the midst of this pretty fishing village with its string of pastel-coloured houses set back from a little promenade, a small, sloping piazza is home to La Sirena, Filicudi’s most celebrated restaurant – an open terrace strung with ceramic lightshades, wooden tables and chairs, a blue-and-white tiled floor and, upstairs, some simple rooms in which to stay. Owned by an art dealer from Milan, the restaurant is famous for its crudi –exquisite cuts of raw local fish which the Italians claim are the forebears of sashimi; caponata – a sweet stew of aubergines and tomatoes; spaghetti alle mandorle – spaghetti in a tomato sauce thickened with local almonds ground down into a flour. For pudding there is granita in various flavours including cassis and the prickly pear that grows in clusters on the cacti round the island. At the beginning and end of the four-month season, no one apart from a handful of locals eat there, chewing over local gossip and the urgent question of whether the wave height – now checked on a phone app – means the hydrofoils will or won’t arrive. In the height of summer, yacht owners elbow each other out of the way for a place on the terrace; there are two sittings at lunch and dinner.
But inland is still a secret. Only the curious traveller will penetrate the acres of unspoiled national park, dense with wild flowers, that make up most of the island. The most intrepid – walkers who arrive armed with maps and hiking boots – will venture into the uninhabited areas, such as Zucco Grande, an abandoned village once home to hundreds which is now a clutch of ghostly ruins where long grass grows between crumbling walls. The first time I went there one of the ruins was inhabited by Giovanni, a daring local who had set up a tiny restaurant, La Pirata, to try to lure in walkers for a lunch of rabbit he’d caught. The last time I visited he, too, had abandoned the ruins to the ghosts. Only the Afghan princess’s house – perched above the village, overlooking the archipelago – was inhabited.
Years ago Filicudi was the antidote my sister needed. Since then it has been my secret muse, a pocket of wilderness in an unclaimed part of Italy.