Stromboli: the lighthouse of the Mediterranean
Stromboli lies at the end of the Aeolian volcanic island chain. To get there one must take a ferry, and there can be few finer sea journeys than the island-hopping service from Milazzo.
The elongated village of Stromboli (in fact several communities that have become joined in to one) is a Mediterranean jewel of beautiful white buildings, blue doors, cool yards with flower-bedecked sunshades and winding alleyways. There are no cars. The Carabinieri – good-looking, gun-toting and sunglass-wearing policemen in true Italian macho style – drive around in a ridiculous golf buggy with a big blue comedy light stuck on the top.
The ferry arrives at a place called Scari, and its loose English ‘meaning’ is, to me, rather appropriate. Stromboli village may be a lovely place, a perfect vision of island life – like Greece, but with Italian food – but, I nearly forgot to mention, it clings helplessly to the edge of a MASSIVE ANGRY VOLCANO.
A massive angry volcano that has spat fire every hour or so for the last 2,000 years (give or take a few days’ break once in a while). This activity is mostly benign and predictable, with lava being tipped down the wonderfully named Sciara del Fuoco (‘stream of fire’), a 1-in-1 scree slope/collapse zone that runs straight from the vents for a kilometre or so down to the sea. Every few years, though, the old girl decides to rain lava bombs, or worse, down on the village, just to remind everyone who is the guv’nor around here.
Even when there is little happening ‘up top’ it is difficult to forget what looms above you. A small change of wind direction and that white tablecloth upon which you are eating yet another plate of ridiculously tasty Pasta alla Siciliana (tomatoes, anchovies, eggplant, cheese) starts to acquire tiny black particles of ash.
A glance over your shoulder and there it is, steaming away, grinning at you. You can almost hear it whisper: “That’s it, you enjoy yourself. But just remember I can fry you like a chip whenever I feel like it, and no tsunami/earthquake/volcanic eruption warning notices are going to make the slightest difference.”
With its regular eruptions Stromboli has long drawn those fascinated with volcanoes, but apart from the constant steaming and occasional puffs of ash little can be seen of the volcanic activity from Stromboli village.
To see more of this natural wonder there are three options available. Firstly, you could take a helicopter flight over the summit from the playboy playground of nearby Panarea island, once you have fought your way ashore through all the ‘mega-yachts’ at anchor in the small harbour. If, like me, you’re trying to figure out just how far away from the airport you can fill up the hire car so that the gauge still shows ‘full’ when you return it, then the helicopter is probably not a realistic option.
For the young/fit/able-bodied (and stupid) there is the option of hiking to the top at night with a local guide. For the old/fat/infirm (and sensible) there are boat tours that sail to the bottom of the Sciara del Fuoco, from where you can watch the volcanic activity at your leisure, albeit from some distance, with a glass of wine in your hand.
Where trouble can creep in is when old/fat/infirm folks (like me) delude themselves into believing that they are still in the young/fit/able-bodied category. Somewhere along life’s journey I have gained several kilos of ‘beer residue’, while misplacing a cruciate ligament or two. I really missed the latter on Stromboli. ‘Lill-Viggen’, the guide and some ridiculously healthy family from an Austrian yoghurt commercial all laughed a lot at me as they bounded up the hill like amphetamine-fuelled chamois.
But was it worth it? Well, it was frustratingly cloudy for much of the time, but being able to look briefly down in complete darkness on an erupting vent and seeing glowing lava tumbling down the Sciara del Fuoco was truly magic. The lovely Strombolian folks have even placed a couple of shelters at the top to shield you from the hurricane that blows over the summit, no matter how calm it might be at sea level. A chairlift would be a lot better idea.