This tiny volcanic island, covering an area of 8,6 sqm, the summit of a large submerged volcano, is the oldest of the Sicilian outer archipelago, having emerged long before the Aeolian Islands. Both its origin and the blackness of its lava have determined the choice of a name derived from the Latin Ustum, meaning ‘burnt’. Its jagged coastline shelters a series of wonderful caves, bays and creek. Local residents mainly live on fishing and tourism; additional income is presently being generated by developing the range of crops grown (vines, vegetables and cereals, especially lentils). The island has a population of 1370 inhabitants.
It was inhabited continuously from the late Neolithic until the end of the Classical age, and left to serve as a refuge for pirates thereafter. A handful of settlers moved there from Lipari in the Bourbon era. Until the 1950s, it was used as a penal colony. Tourism developed when underwater diving enthusiasts came to explore the surrounding beautifully limpid waters and wonderfully scraggy coastline. In 1987 it was designated a marine national park.
Ustica – The small hamlet is shaped as an amphitheatre around a large bay partly occupied by the harbour. A single road and various flights of steps, flanked with fine hibiscus bushes, lead up to the main town. One the most peculiar features of the island’s houses is that their external walls are painted with artistic murals depicting landscape scenes, trompe-l’oeils, portraits, still life paintings and fanciful compositions. The town is overshadowed by the Torre di Santa Maria (Tower of St. Mary), now accommodating an Archaeological Museum displaying relics recovered from the prehistoric village at I Faraglioni and Hellenistic-Roman tombs at Capo Falconiera. The Odissey relates that these were hurled by Polyphemus against Ulysses who had blinded him by thrusting a flaming stake into his only eye; the hero then escaped with his companions by clinging to the bellies of rams belonging to the Cyclops. Note, in particular, the unusual circular fire basket in four sections (and thus transportable) and the lovely tall two-handed cups.
Capo Falconiera – At the end of the central piazza, where the Chiesa Madre rises, turn right past the Stations of the Cross. Here, a stepped path on the left climbs to the top, where are ruins of a Bourbon fortress and a cave-settlement dating from the 3rd century BC, its strategical position affording a better defense and dominating the only harbour on the island, Cala S. Maria (still the port today). Naturally restricted by space and inaccessibility, the area was extended by cutting terraces into the rock: as a result, three tiers of housing are stacked one above the other. Cisterns for collecting rain-water are clearly visible as is a staircase carved into the rock (right at the top). At the foot of the fortress, remnants of a contemporary hypogeum necropolis have been discovered together with a second necropolis with burial sites (and hypogea) dating from Paleo-Christian times (5th-6th century BC). From here, a view stretches from the harbour to the centre of the island, marked with the distinctive profiles of Monte Costa del Fallo and Monte Guardia dei Turchi.
Prehistoric Village – A settlement from the Bronze age was discovered in the vicinity of I Faraglioni site, at the Colombaia. This comprises a collection of foundations for circular huts that have been re-used later for square-based constructions of a type similar to a kind of prehistoric house found on the island of Panarea. The residential area is bisected by a single “high street”; this would indicate that the settlement was developed according to a town plan (albeit fairly basic) with a consideration for public areas, something unusual for the time (usually, the huts were randomly arranged). The village was protected by a strong set of enclosure walls (the surviving section suggests it was elliptical in shape) formed by two sections of curtain walls 6m thick at the base, fortified bu semicircular towers. The missing sections of curtain walling and the presence of huts founded on base rock have been read as the rock having been joined at that time to the mainland, and that the collapse (probably caused by an earthquake) provoked the village to be abandoned.
The coast – The jagged coastline is interrupted by a number of caves which can be explored either by boat (fishermen in the harbour volunteer their services to visitors using boats that are small enough to enter the narrowest caves) or by land. Small beaches (Cala Sidoti, Punta dello Spalmatore, al Faro ) succeed lovely rocky bays – including one enclosing the piscina naturale (a natural pool popular with bathers) along the west coast of the island. Conversely, the east coast shelters the magnificent caves like Grotta Azzurra, Grotta Verde, and Grotta delle Barche, which are best-explored with mask and snorkel; the Grotta delle Barche can also be reached on foot by a lovely path that threads its way through pines and past tall hedges of prickly pears from Torre di Santa Maria, along the side of the hill providing marvellous views of the sea and the coast.
MARINE NATIONAL PARK
Designated in 1987 to preserve and protect the huge natural diversity of flora and fauna present in their submarine habitats off Ustica’s coastline, the Reserve was brought into being in 1987. It is divided into three zones: the A zone classified as riserva integrale, extends along the west flank of the island from Cala Sidoti to Caletta and as far as 350m offshore (marked with special yellow buoys): while swimming is permitted, fishing and boating are prohibited. The B zone, classified as riserva generale, extends beyond zone A from Punta Cavazzi to Punta Omo Morto (thereby including the entire length of the southwest to the northeast coastline, to a distance of 3 nautical miles offshore); here swimming is permitted as is underwater photography (but not fishing with a speargun), hook-and-line fishing and commercial fishing (on acquisition of a permit from the Commune). C Zone, classified as a riserva parziale, applies to the rest of the coast; here national fishing regulations apply and spear-gun fishing is permitted.
The submerged world – The sea around Ustica is especially clean and pollution-free (lying in the middle of an inward current from the Atlantica Ocean). It therefore provides ideal conditions for multitudes of different species of aquatic flora and fauna to live and proliferate. One striking sight is the vast meadow of poseidonia oceanica, a truly effective seaweed, nicknamed the “lungs of the Mediterranean” (because it oxygenates the water) to be found up to a depth of 40m. Just below the surface, the water oftern shimmers with passing shoals of white bream, two-banded bream, the dark ray’s bream which emerge from their eggs as piercingly blue fry, voracious-looking grey mullet (at the worst they only tickle), saddled bream, salpas, and the brilliantly coloured rainbow wrass. The patches shaded by some overhanging rock attract groups of cardinal fish; the rock face itself shelters sections of a time with colourful sponges (and, for those who are unfamiliar with these, sponges come in shades of black, white, yellow and orange, in shapes compact, long, thin and string-like). Little gardens also cower in the shadow of the rocks, but emerge, peeked by curiosity, as anything or anyone approaches. At greater depths lurk the larger fish – notably grey mullet. Here the underwater landscape harbours shy moray eels, lobsters, mantis prawns and shrimps (in the caves), sea urchins, sea bream, enormous white bream, splendid red gorgonias and black corals (a pale yellow “living skin” covers the ossified darker interior). With a bit of luck, tune, ocean sun-fish, turtles and barracuda might also make a brief appearance on the scene.
What’s on offer – There are various possibilities both for scuba divers and snorkellers. Those who do not want to get wet can still participate in the underwater world by taking a trip on the motorised glass-bottomed boat (by day or by night) called the Aquario, that carries up to 20 passengers. There are two other reserve centres located at Torre dello Spalmatore (the twin of Torre Santa Maria) – where cenferences and other special delegations are hosted, and at Caletta – from where guided tours to the Grotta Segreta start; the aquarium there reconstitutes 13 different environments corresponding to the various habitats found at different depths.
Guided tours – The west coast, the area designated riserva integrale (most highly restricted), harbours the Secret and the Pink-jued grottoes: Grotta Segreta and the Grotta Rosata, the entrance to which is hidden by rocks whether approaching by land or by sea; its descriptive name effectively sums up the pink marbling of the palest tone to shades of “antique pink” imparted by a distinctive kind of algae. Those who prefer to enjoy the sea from above or from just below the surface, the reserve authorities lay-on commentated sea-watching trips in the riserva integrale: these involve a guide pointing out the specific organisms and fish as they appear (accustomed as they have become to the presence of man, they appear almost tame).became accustomed to the presence of manto get accostumed to everyday routine/fish became accustomed to the presence of man
Scubadiving – Highlights that should be listed on any scuba-diving enthusiast include the Grotta dei Gamberi, near Punta Gavazzi, where incredibly delicate fan-like red gorgonias thrive (at a depth of approx 42m), and the sub-aqua archaeological trail off the lighthouse-topped headland Punta Gavazzi (depths of 9 to 17 meters, marked by an orange buoy), where many artefacts – anchors and Roman amphorae – can be admired (photography, nature). Another popular haunt is the Scoglio del Medico; this consists of an outcrop of basalt riddled with caves and gorges that plunge to great depths, and so provides a spectacular underwater seascape. Secca di Colombara (40m below) is spectacular in a different way, as it is by rainbow-coloured arrays of sponges and gorgonias.
A FEW SUGGESTIONS
Access – Direct services operate out of Palermo: crossings by ferry (2hr 30 min) and hydrofoil (1hr 10min) are provided by Siremar, tel. 091-582403. During the summer season, a hydrofoil service calling at Trapani-Favignana-Ustica-Naples (and back), with the Ustica-Naples leg taking approx 4hr, is operated by Ustica Lines tel 081-7612515.
Round the island – The standard means of transport available include hired mopeds and a regular minibus service around the island in both directions: extremely good value bus-passes valid for a week, two weeks or a month are available from the Town Hall.
Tourist information – The headquarters of the Marine National Park, located in the main square of the town, provides exhaustive information on what is on offer on the island. tel. 091 8449456.
A special initiative – Every year, a special week-long sub-aqua course is organized including theoretical and practical diving lessons (marine archaeology, marine biology, modern recovery techniques for lifting artefacts from the sea-bed) and guided tours. For further information, contact the Riserva Marina or Archeologia Viva, tel. 055-6679303.
Rassegna internazionale delle attività subacquee – An International Review of Underwater Activities is held annually during the summer months (usually May, June or September) including a range of different events (exhibitions and other activities). For detailed information, contact the Azienda di Promozione Turistica di Palermo, tel. 091/6058413
Vital equipment – Those who love the sea and feel fairly confident in the water should not forget to bring a mask, snorkel and fins; this will facilitate the exciting discovery of another Ustica, in all its most natural, spectacular glory.