Remote, car-free, steep and serene, Sicily’s Alicudi isle is perfect for a no-frills, unplugged retreat, but its mind-bending past gives a different meaning to the phrase “day-trippers.”
There are no roads, no boutiques, no cigarette vendors nor ATMs. Only thousands of stone steps lit by the stars, a dozen tireless donkeys to carry bags and a few residents who keep to themselves.
They hide a secret.
“See that pink villa over there, overlooking the pebble beach?” says local Giulia Russo, owner of Golden Noir café, as she nods towards a building with white columns and a sea-view terrace surrounded by huge ancient millstones.
“That used to be the old village gristmill where hallucinogenic bread was made every morning by local housewives. Clouds of psychedelic drug grain dust survived for decades in there.”
The mill, now turned into a cozy resort called Casa Mulino, lures tourists to the most isolated and mystical of the volcanic Aeolian islands, off Sicily’s northern coast.
The ‘crazy rye’
Nowadays, visitors are addicted to Alicudi’s primitive vibe, crystal-clear water, bright dwellings and the picturesque harbor lined with tiny fishermen boats.
But for centuries, ever since the first settlers landed in the 1600s, oblivious island dwellers got their kicks from their daily bread.
Until as recently as the 1950s, locals ate bread contaminated by a mind-blowing rye fungus called “ergot,” fostered by sultry weather.
Ergot is the base element of LSD.
Before Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann chemically synthesized the drug in 1938, Alicudi was a “natural” lab where the narcotic fungus wreaked havoc on the population.
Generations of villagers were fed on so-called “crazy rye” or “horned rye,” named after the pointed black ends similar to devil horns the fungus produces on rye ears.
Village women would prepare the hallucinogenic bread each morning, serving kids and husbands their daily dose of LSD. All islanders got high without even knowing it.
Long-term ergot poisoning can cause ergotism, which induces gangrene and convulsive symptoms including mania and psychosis.
“It was a diet mistake, a bad eating habit triggered by poverty, isolation and ignorance of hygiene,” says local historian Pino La Greca.
“The first harvests were scarce and food was precious so nothing was thrown away, even rotten bread and pasta covered in mold were eaten.
“Scarcity of other alternative food sources and humidity produced this nasty fungus that when ingested caused mass hallucinations, hysteria, hypnosis and autosuggestion.”
Flying women, donkey-men and ghosts
Feeding on crazy bread made people fall into trances, losing consciousness. Visions and mental trips were daily adventures.
Legends flourished of flying women, dubbed “maiara,” meaning “sorceress” in Aeolian dialect.
At night, these witches would stare at the mirror, cover their bodies with a special ointment and fly together across the sea on shopping sprees to Sicily’s Palermo and to mainland Calabria.
Almost starving to death at home, they’d come back with bags stuffed with food and treats they could only dream of.
Cruel sorceresses would straddle the bows of fishing boats to make them sink and cast “evil-eye” spells on enemies. But they also had the power to heal babies of stomach worms, say the stories.
Tales of talking hemp sacks, ghosts defecating behind shrubs, and of men turned into donkeys, cows and pigs are also popular.
“These people were on a LSD-induced trip 24/7, they spoke to each other and shared their visions, making real what was only in their minds,” says La Greca.