After having seen the Egadi Islands from Erice and understanding a little better Palermo’s transport system, we decided to do a side trip to Ustica, a volcanic island known for its underwater grottoes and scuba diving areas but also with an interesting history. It is the island closest to Palermo, 54km away, and the oldest, geologically of all the islands surrounding Sicily. The black color of the lava, Ustum, gave it its name. Legend also says that Ustica was the home of the sorceress Circé, who changed Ulysses’s men into pigs in the Odyssey. (In fact, most Greek legends, including Hercules’s tasks, seeme to have taken place on Sicily).
The ferry ride (from Siremar) takes about three hours. The weather is clear as we leave the harbor and we see very clearly the mountain at Bagheria on one side, and Monte Pellegrino (which we partly climbed) on the other side, then Mondello Beach.
The sky clouds over as we approach Ustica and we decide not to go for a boat ride around the island to see the grottoes; their main attraction is the contrast of volcanic rock against turquoise water, which appears only under sunny conditions.
Ustica is the name of the island but also of the town. Like many other towns, it is cradled on a plateau between two mountains. The majority of buildings gripping the mountain sides are obviously hotels, now closed since the end of the season in September.
Our goal: the XI Century fort at the top of one of the mountains, although with four hours, we’re not in a hurry.
We have to climb to the center of town from the harbor, but there are stairs cutting across the hills, allowing us to avoid zigzagging on the roads. We arrive at a surprisingly wide piazza, lined with souvenir shops and a bar. At the end of it, the local church with the modern facade has carved representations of saints and the Holy Family that remind us more of Picasso than Serpotta.
About 1300 people live on Ustica year-round and, since most tourists are already gone, the island is very quiet. Fishermen in the harbor work on their boats and a group of older men sip beer at the bar on the piazza band chat. They peruse us as we pass, but seem fairly friendly.
Since the island isn’t that big (8,7 sq. km) and the number of streets limited, we wander around without rushing, vaguely looking for the Municipio, the seat of the municipal government, which is our starting point up the mountain, the fort, and the Hellenic-roman tombs of the Capo Falconiera. Ustica was also used as a prison island (the Sicilian Alcatraz of the 1950s) and 6,000 Carthaginians were left to die of hunger and thirst by the Greek. In summer, the island becomes almost like a desert, and we still can see Bourbon times cisterns around the fort.
The streets we walk through are charming, showing the evolution of the village from its official establishment in 1759 by Ferdinand IV (the church bears his name), as well as the building of the fort, our destination, to defend the villagers from pirates and invaders.
The modern houses are vibrant with touches of color, or ever bright themselves with stronger Mediterranean hues here. Many of them are adorned with murals that give the town a very special cachet. Older portions remind us more of a medieval town like Erice, and it’s obvious they used the volcanic rock available to build not only their enclosures but their houses and their roads.
The road is very quiet and full of grand properties, one of them belonging to the Consul of South Africa, and hide between high wrought iron fences, immense cacti and fruit trees. The path rises slowly but it rough going on those uneven rocks. Through the trees we glimpse our ferry, still moored. There’s only one crossing a day and we’ll take the same boat going back.
We pass by the necropolis and a small fort to finally reach the summit and the fort, with beyond the Falconeria. There are many wells and cisterns here, stressing the need for water, so high above sea level.
We sit against one of the fort’s walls, warmed by the sun that wants to peek out, and eat the pannini we bought at the village panifico (a bread shop that also provides othe staples such as vegetables, fruit, cold meats and cheese).
A lone falcon flies overhead but otherwise everything is calm, and we are alone in the world. Even the wind has fallen and it is so quiet we can hear each other breathe. After three weeks of unceasing noise, the quiet is a blessing.
After lunch Daniel walks to the end of the trail, the highest point of the island. My vertigo prevents me from following. The view is, apparently, even more stunning.
We slowly go back and stop at the bar for a gelato and coffee then sit on a bench in the harbor to watch the fishermen still unraveling their nets. They seem to have kilometers of them. Then a half-hour later we board the ferry. We barely made it home before a soft rain began falling, muting the sounds below.
The next day, the sky is again the same brilliant, blinding blue and life goes on in Palermo.