There are very few places across the globe that have managed to escape the COVID-19 pandemic; even Antarctica has reported cases.
But while the virus has struck far and wide, a lucky few remote locations remain coronavirus-free a year after the virus halted much of the world.
Italy, which is in a state of emergency until April 30, was ravaged by the virus last year and currently has one of the highest death tolls in Europe. The destination is now divided into zones, depending on infection levels.
However, a handful of its most isolated islands are among the spots that have keep COVID-19 at bay for now.
An Italian proverb popular with sailors declares “the sea can be treacherous but it can also be your greatest ally.” This seems particularly fitting now, as the water acts as a natural barrier protecting many of those living on far-flung pieces of land.
But although living in a secluded location has proven to be a blessing for those residing in spots that COVID-19 is yet to reach, coronavirus-related fears have still reached many of them.
So what it’s like to have the pandemic unfold beyond the horizon while living on Italy’s most isolated and idyllic islands?
Here a number of islanders tell CNN Travel how the situation has impacted their lives and whether they’ve managed to remain as calm and serene as the destinations they inhabit.
Positioned halfway between Sicily and Tunisia in the Mediterranean, this tiny volcanic atoll is off most travellers’ radar.
Reaching Linosa involves either flying to sister isle Lampedusa’s airport and taking the ferry, or hopping on the ferry at Porto Empedocle on mainland Sicily and embarking on a 12-hour sea journey. But a trip here is definitely worth the effort.
While some cases have been reported in Lampedusa, there have been no confirmed cases in Linosa.
From La Pozzolana beach, which looks like a corner of Mars with its black sand and sulfur-yellow and red layers, to the extinct crater of Monte Vulcano, the island is filled with majestic sights.
Linosa is circled by one main road, lined with prickly pears and low brick walls adorned with capers. The locals are protective of their solitude and accustomed to quiet winters.
Fabio Tuccio, one of the 200 residents who live here year-round, says things have remained pretty much the same since the pandemic outbreak.
“A lockdown-style scenario is regular here this time of year,” Tuccio tells CNN. “There’s not much to do. Everything is shut except for a supermarket, two bars, a pharmacy, post office. Take away pizza only on Saturdays.
“It’s winter and people kill time at home, tending their plots in the countryside or fishing on their small boats for a daily catch to eat with their families. Things haven’t really changed.”
While locals wear masks when meeting family and friends at the bar in front of the quiet harbour or outside the island’s pink, purple and green dwellings adorned with bright bougainvilleas, the absence of a main piazza prevents crowding.
There’s no doubt Linosa’s remoteness has helped to keep the island safe from COVID so far, but its residents remain fearful that the virus may find its way to this safe haven.
“Islanders are very suspicious of outsiders and protective of their safety, ” Mayor Totò Martello tells CNN Travel.
“Since Linosa has succeeded in staying COVID free, each time a ferry lands they gather at the harbour to examine who disembarks and see if there are any new unknown faces of people who could smuggle in the virus.”
All visitors or non-residents are required to take a COVID test at the ferry port before they set foot on the island.
“The sea shelters from the risk of contagion and people feel safe as long as they are indeed safe, with no positive cases around. Fear keeps us alert,” Tuccio adds.
Although the Tremiti archipelago off Puglia’s coast gets crowded during summer when scuba divers and sunbathers flock in, in winter only 200 people live here.
Featuring emerald-green waters, granite rocks and ragged cliffs, it’s easy to see why the five islands of this archipelago are known as the “Pearls of the Adriatic.”
The residents of Tremiti are scattered on the two main isles of San Nicola, with its overhanging monastery, and San Domino. Tremiti’s other three islands are uninhabited.
According to Greek mythology, Diomedes, a former suitor of Helen of Troy, created the archipelago after he threw a handful of stones from the ancient city into the sea.
At mainland harbour Termoli, which is one hour away by ferry boat, controls are strict. The body temperatures of any incoming or outgoing travellers are recorded and their ID cards are scrutinized.
The people here rely on tourism and recovering this lost source of income, along with staying in good health, has been their main concern in recent months.
Other than fishing and growing vegetables, locals are focusing on getting in shape for the upcoming summer season, which they hope will be better than the last one.
And that doesn’t just mean flexing muscles up the island’s steep killer path, nicknamed “Death’s Climb.”
Those with a business or tourist activity are currently sprucing up their shops, hotels and restaurants, as well as the boats and studio apartments they usually rent to tourists.
Winter is the ideal time for undertaking maintenance works, as well as restyling the very few roads here.
“Our diving shop is always open, we’re organizing our guided boat trips for the spring and look forward to having tourists again when this nightmare will be hopefully over,” says Samantha Dionisi of Blu Tremiti diving centre.
In his free time, mayor Antonio Fentini enjoys growing salads, cabbages and Puglia’s traditional cime di rapa turnip greens.
“We’re not lucky, we’ve just been careful in adopting correct anti-COVID rules and now we’re following what’s happening in the world with great attention and hope,” Fentini says.
“We’re eager to restart again, to go back to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ and prepare the Tremiti for next summer. We can’t wait to welcome tourists.”
With pristine beaches, translucent waters and stunning scenery, these idyllic islands that form part of Sicily’s stunning Aeolian archipelago usually have no problem luring in tourists, so the pandemic has dealt them a heavy blow.
While Italy briefly reopened to travellers in June, the second wave that rocked the European country in October chased away most tourists and the beautiful Aeolian island of Vulcano was left almost empty.
Since then, locals complain that no travellers have come to visit this fascinating isle known as the “Mouth of Hell.”
Vulcano is reported to have had one confirmed COVID-19 case last year, but has remained free of the virus otherwise.
Italy has extended its ban on travel between regions, so it’s likely it will continue to be pretty quiet for the foreseeable future.
“It’s been rather dead and extremely silent lately. Tourism is our life; most of us work just during the summer months but we can’t complain,” says Marco Spisso, who co-runs Vulcano’s popular mud bath.
“Winters are usually quiet, so on that front the pandemic hasn’t revolutionized our lives.”
According to legend, Greek God of fire Hephaestus vented his anger over wife Aphrodite’s betrayals in Vulcano, so it seems fitting that the island is full of bubbling mud baths with healing hot springs and underwater sea fumaroles.
It’s a place where sulfur gases ooze out of black, red and yellow stone walls and pavements where tourists typically gather to catch the ferry. Tiny heat clouds can be seen rising from the rocks here.
The 300 or so people who live in Vulcano all year are continuing as normal. They spend their time fishing, walking, fixing their houses, meeting each other for quick chats (wearing masks) at the local bar and relaxing at home.
Shuttered shops aren’t unusual for this time of year, says Spisso, who often goes for a swim down at the volcanic beach in front of his old lookout tower home.
Vulcano has reasonably warm temperatures all year, and the constant volcanic activity helps to keep the sea water pleasantly mild.
“We lead a peaceful life, relatively serene, and we feel safe compared to many other people living elsewhere,” adds Spisso.
“There are regular COVID checks at Milazzo harbour from where the ferries depart.”
While the island is very close to mainland Sicily, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, it’s still managed to remain free of the virus.
Marco Giorgianni, who is mayor of the entire Aeolian archipelago except for the island of Salina, enforced stricter COVID rules back in October by limiting island-hopping between the seven isles, and this move appears to have been successful.
The island of Filicudi, one of the wildest and farthest out among the Aeolian islands, has also done well at keeping COVID at bay.
Ferries often find it difficult to dock here due to the rough sea conditions. While this was a frustration for locals in the past, the missing connection is now mostly viewed as a good thing.
Islanders feel lucky to live in such seclusion, far from the chaos and confusion brought about by coronavirus.
“It’s an ugly moment for humanity but I am happy to live here, it’s like being in another world,” says Peppino Taranto, a resident of Filicudi.
“We’re privileged. Social distancing is guaranteed. Thanks to our warm winter climate my wife and I often enjoy having dinner outside under starry skies.”
Locals can while away the hours relaxing on typical Aeolian-style panoramic terraces made of columns covered with bright bougainvilleas and majolica benches with stunning sea views.
Filicudi has just one fishing village, Pecorini a Mare, connected to the harbour by one dusty road.
The island’s steep donkey trails and stone paths lead to bright cottages and its black, green and red cliffs contain labyrinths of grottoes.
Pietro Anastasi, owner of panoramic La Canna restaurant and hotel, has lived in Filicudi for decades.
The 85-year-old retired postman lives alone at La Canna, which is now closed.
“Each day I look after my little tomatoes and tasty perette, a minuscule variety of pears that grow only here,” says Anastasi.
“When the sea is calm I walk down to the beach and fish my daily catch, little yummy fishes that I fry for lunch.
“I’m happy. This is my world. I always have little things to do and my days are full; I like being alone.”
Anastasi’s family tell him to avoid watching the news, and he enjoys having the freedom to move around his large garden of fig trees and prickly pears without having to wear a “mask muzzle,” although he puts on a face covering to attend Mass.
Alicudi, Filicudi’s sister isle, is the most secluded of the Aeolian isles, imbued with a primitive vibe. In this tiny island, Covid is perceived as a very, very distant threat.
During the summer, Taranto runs a hotel and restaurant named Ericusa on the island. But like most local establishments, it’s currently shut.
Silence rules in Alicudi. Forget cars, scooters and even bikes. There are no roads, only dusty mule paths that unwind for 25 kilometres. More than 10,000 stone steps connect the dwellings of this picturesque hamlet.
Donkeys are the sole means of transport on the island. Alicudi has no ATMs, boutiques, clubs or cigarette vendors. There’s no street lighting, just the stars as natural flashlights at night.
The island’s pebble beach is dotted with natural arches and bizarre colorful houses that are built inside mushroom-shaped rocks.
Alicudi’s older residents enjoy spinning spooky tales of flying witches and ghost donkeys.
Aldo Di Nora, who moved to Alicudi years ago from northern Italy and now runs Casa Ibiscus resort, is very aware of how fortunate he is to live in such a secluded and protected place.
“Social distancing is not an issue. The only moment when little crowds can form is when people meet at Alicudi’s harbour to jump on the ferry boats,” Di Nora says.
“I follow the news of the tragic events happening in Italy and across the world and I am grateful to be living in such a wonderful place, surrounded by peace and zero risk of contagion.”