Stromboli: Under the Volcano

By Alessandra Quattrocchi, October 5, 2011

Stromboli's "sciara" from the sea - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Stromboli's "sciara" from the sea - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Despite being an active volcano, Stromboli, one of the Aeolian islands just north of Sicily, is a popular summer destination. "Iddu", as the locals call the smouldering volcano, is indeed the main attraction. Alessandra Quattrocchi attempts the night-time climb up to the top of the crater.

There are no cars in Stromboli: only electric golf carts that work as taxis, and lots of Ape, the old-fashioned tiny three-wheeled pickup made by Piaggio with a two-stroke engine and noxious exhausts. There couldn’t be any cars: the streets are too narrow, pedestrians have to clasp the walls or seek refuge in a doorway when taxis or Ape go by. Five hours from Naples by hydrofoil, Stromboli is the northernmost of the eight Aeolian islands, off the northeast coast of Sicily. The name comes from Aeolus, the god of the winds, who – they say – used to live on these islands. Aeolus fascinated the Greeks and the Romans in their peregrinations on the Mediterranean sea: Vulcano, another of the eight islands, is named after Vulcan, the blacksmith god, who hammered out his creations in the smouldering entrails of Mount Etna.

This is where it all began, the fascination of humankind with volcanoes: this is where the word came from. Mightier mountains menace men in other parts of the world: but for western civilization, Vulcano and Vesuvio are household names, Etna with its white snow-capped peak is one of the marvels of Sicily, while Stromboli is perhaps the most spectacular and one of the volcanoes most studied by geologists. The site of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia with its beautiful photos makes for fascinating reading.

The island of Vulcano is an active volcano, but the last eruption was in the 1880s. In Naples, Vesuvius is live, although dormant (and God have mercy on the locals when it blows and triggers another Pompeii). Technically, these are ‘stratovolcanoes’, created with strata of ashes and lava by subsequent eruptions. In Sicily, Etna is very much alive and spouting fire. Right across the sea, visible on clear days, the much smaller Stromboli answers like an echo, grumbling from the middle of the Mediterranean. It is simply “Iddu” to the locals, “Him” in Sicilian dialect.

Movies have been made about Stromboli – the most famous by Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman in 1950. Books have been written: indeed, Professor Lidenbrok and his companions are flung back out on to the surface through one of Stromboli’s side vents in Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. And that was in 1864… Nowadays it is a trendy place, not least because of its sheer beauty and incredible colours: the blue of the sky, the red and pink of luxuriant bougainvilleas, the white stucco of the villas. Dolce e Gabbana have a villa here and the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, comes every year, just as he did back when he was a senator. Huge luxury yachts throng the coast in high summer, rocky cliffs plunge into the sea, steep concrete staircases creep down to small pebble inlets that service the villas but which are also open to the public.

A typical Stromboli patio - photo by A Quattrocchi

A typical Stromboli patio - photo by A Quattrocchi

There are no lights in the streets at night: it’s either the moon, or your own portable torch, or you have to get used to walking in the darkness. People generally love this, and are reminded that until the seventies there was no electricity at all on the island. There is not much water either on Stromboli and growing vegetables is a challenge, but trees have long roots: figs abound, their sweet leaves scenting the air, their branches overhanging from private gardens, laden with figs so replete with sunlight that some of them mature even in July, more than a month ahead of time, ready for people strolling by to pick them and delight in them. Prickly pears are everywhere, with their green and orange and deep red fruit.

Stromboli is a small island, just 12 square kilometres, but the inhabited part is much smaller, comprising the village and the fashionable area of Piscità. There is also a smaller centre, Ginostra on the other side of the island, but you can only reach it by boat: true hermits like to vacation here. There are no inland roads, only a couple of trekking trails. Everything is done on foot and the best villas are for the most part a good twenty minutes walk away from Stromboli village; which is a scattering of houses on the two sides of a long steep street winding down to the harbour, flanked by shops where you can buy food, local specialties, the usual mass of t-shirts, postcards and flippers; silver, coral and also some clothes and jewellery which are both expensive and beautiful. The local bookshop, near the pink San Bartolo cathedral, has travel literature, cookery books and a smattering of novels; it hosts about fifteen cats and shows movies in the open air on summer nights (Rossellini’s “Stromboli” features, of course, every week).

You can easily spend a couple of weeks on the island ignoring the volcano: the craters are on the opposite side of the island to the village. Even when the volcano is active – which happens whenever it pleases Iddu or the workings of the Earth – you can close your ears to the booming explosions and ignore the way clouds tend to cluster around the peak. Or you can admit to its existence with a frisson of adventurous fear and keep the thought of it as a backdrop to your day.

Prickly pears and Strombolicchio - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Prickly pears and Strombolicchio - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Thus Stromboli the island has two souls. It is first of all a Mediterranean seaside resort. People here number a few hundred in winter, swelling to thousands in summer, and tourism is the only revenue for the local economy (shops, bars, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, boatmen, rentals…). June and September are supposed to be paradise on earth; in July tourists start to flock; August is the peak of the season, when islanders start muttering that the place is going to the dogs. The island is peaceful, the wind (notwithstanding Aeolus) is never wild in summer but the sun is hot, hot, hot. True, there are reminders of the volcano around even when the mountain is mostly silent: the few beaches, either sand or pebbles, are black with lava stone (and hotter because of the black lava stone), and notice boards announce that in the event of a tsunami one should run uphill (presumably to meet the magma coming down). Right in front of the village, Strombolicchio is the trademark of the place: a huge rock sticking out from the sea, as high as a high-rise building. Geologists say it was the plug of the original volcano, spat into the sea. It is marvellous to reach it by boat. Colourful fish swim with you, tropical-like with rainbow stripes, octopus and bass peer at you from underneath the rocks.

But Stromboli is also the name of the volcano: three active craters, with its last major eruption on April 2009, and it’s in constant activity during the year. And like any God he should not be named aloud: “Iddu” is enough. Indeed no definitions are needed, though he is in fact a local god, King Kong and the monster of the mountain all rolled into one. And this is what some people come for, and what most people are drawn to, slowly but surely.

Strolling about the village, the tourists are largely divided into two types: most of the Italians are here for the sea and the vicarious thrill of living dangerously, and most of the foreigners come with the idea of getting to the top, seeing they’ve come this far. The former come from Naples and Rome (Stromboli is very popular with Romans being the most easily reached of the islands). They wear swimsuits, t-shirts, flip flops and carry beach bags; they get up late, swim and sunbathe, return home tottering in the sun for lunch and a siesta, often choose one of the few bars for drinks – sitting for hours on the wall in front of the Taverna del Barbablu, which is a popular spot – before dinner in one of the (expensive) local restaurants. And I won’t expound on the food, usually one of my favoured topics, because the food in Stromboli is only medium/good but rarely excellent (this is not really what this story is about: but if you dine out in Stromboli, go for pizza, pasta of any kind and fish).

Foreigners are markedly different. Mostly Germans and French; they come out at sunset and tend to wear sensible clothes, trekking shoes with hi-tech t-shirts, rucksacks and mountaineering sticks. They are often young, often in couples, since the place is undoubtedly romantic, but some bring the kids and some are in their fifties. Possibly they also come to sunbathe and mingle on the beaches, but they are here with a serious, almost didactic purpose. They come for Iddu. They come to trek uphill and stare at the beast.

Italians, for the most part, have done it already. In fact, people who come to Stromboli either hate the place or tend to come back again and again. Thus every forty-something will tell you his or her tale of the time when they went up. Nowadays, you can only climb the mountain to the top with a guide: there are several agencies in the village organising trips and renting helmets, boots and wind jackets for a goodly sum. You go up at sunset, when the sun is lessening its hold; from the bottom of the hill the long line of human ants trekking up is visible every night. No mean feat: Stromboli stands 926 meters above sea level, and though the trail is not really difficult, the lack of light and the climate do not recommend it to the feeble-hearted. Around midnight you come down, weary but presumably happy.

Ah, but once upon a time, in a carefree universe when safety rules were not so rigidly applied (i.e. approximately up to the eighties from what I can gather), youngsters used to do what was officially forbidden: trek to the top in groups and in twos to spend the whole night near the craters, make love in the dark night, watch the sunrise (and I must say, dawns in Stromboli are remarkably beautiful, so much that I have got up specially to admire them) and then tumble all the way down the mountainside, running and rolling in the ashes and the sand, reaching the bottom black with soot to wash in the sea where, conveniently, enterprising boatmen used to wait with coffee and cornetti(sweet pastries).

Nursing these memories – and an ice cream, a granita or a drink, depending on the hour – not-so-young Italians tend to stay put on the terraces and check on Iddu from relative safety, while their contemporaries from countries far away flex their muscles to prepare for the ascent.

Unless you actually go “up”, it is approaching from the sea that you appreciate how dangerous Stromboli really is, and how puny the human creatures inhabiting it: the cone comes directly up from the water, clearly indicating that the biggest part of the volcano is underneath (1.700 meters of it, in fact), and the houses, the village, are precariously stuck on the side of the volcano. Locals and tourists reassure themselves remarking that a spouting volcano is less dangerous than, say, a volcano like Vesuvius, active but apparently silent. But this is no guarantee that the Earth will not burp mightily through its Stromboli mouth whenever it wants to. And there would be no way out if Stromboli were to explode. You can run into the sea to escape, but the sea is unforgiving. In 2002, a major eruption threw a piece of mountain in the sea and the water rebelled surging upwards. The resulting “tsunami” swept over what passes for beaches in Stromboli and ate up part of them. Nobody was hurt: it was December, the island almost deserted.

Stromboli's black pebble beach - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Stromboli's black pebble beach - photo by A. Quattrocchi

And from the sea, you can scan the volcano in all its menacing wonder. It is part of the popular “tour of the island” that every boatman offers. You can visit all the creeks and the small inlets of the coast by sea. You can admire Ginostra at the other side of the island. Then you stop under the Sciara del Fuoco. Sciara is Sicilian for “strada”, street.

The Sciara, flattened and excavated by 13,000 years of eruptions, is where lava flows come down to the sea. Effusive eruptions of this kind occur every few years in Stromboli. But the activity – the eruption of rocks and fire from the craters – is almost continuous, with volcanic fireballs coming out every few minutes or every few hours. Under the Sciara – a wide, dark-grey valley scarring the mountain – boatmen bring their clients at night, when darkness exalts the redness of incandescent rocks. When the volcano is active, you can see rocks bouncing down and splashing into the sea even by day. Boats cannot come closer than 400 meters to the side of the mountain: a red-and-white pole marks the distance. If the volcano is very active you can sit in the sea and stare upwards waiting for the booms of the explosions in the total silence (unless it is August and other rubber dinghies and motorboats are around, disco-dancing under the volcano). But the real marvel is the sea itself, so insanely blue that it might almost be black. Dark, but still luminous, it comes out as an unnatural colour in photos, and it is just as mysterious in real light. The black lava rocks underneath absorb the light, the water reflects the blue sky. It is almost scary to bathe under the Sciara; but ducking underwater you see how incredibly transparent this black water really is, watching the legs of your companions.

The crystal clear water - photo by A. Quattrocchi

The crystal clear water - photo by A. Quattrocchi

Ciro lives in a romantic house in red stucco halfway uphill, under the volcano. On the terrace, a huge silk parachute slung on the beams overhead acts as a tent; by August the wind and the sun have left it in shreds. Ciro manages the one bathing establishment in Stromboli, near the port. His young Sicilian wife, strikingly beautiful, has given him a child and she has another one on the way. He is from Naples and used to live in Stromboli in summer. Now they live here the year round: Daniela is from Milazzo, right across the sea, and likes it here. It is with her, and with a French girl who’s been coming to Stromboli for several years now, that I approach the volcano for the first time. I think on my third year on the island I am ready to face the monster.

We start around 7 pm from a shortcut near the San Basilio cathedral. Our aim had been the Observatory, a large flat area at 100 meters over sea level, situated downhill from the craters but on the same side of the mountain. They have a restaurant there and a shuttle service, and the view of the volcano is good. But then we decide to ascend to the 400-metre stop, right next to the Sciara del Fuoco. There is another route bringing you all the way to the top, but they had closed it the day before because of a small lava flow. This means our trail will be crowded with trekkers who would normally go all the way up. The evening is clear. I am wearing a T-shirt, light trekking shoes and carrying a light jacket in my rucksack; also a sandwich and water. I think I may last the distance at least as well as my five-month-pregnant companion, but I am wrong. We pass the Observatory and I’m still feeling fine: the trail is sand and rock, a dirt road where the shuttle can pass. But we are going at a fast pace. My pregnant friend is lithe and athletic; the French girl, in love with a guy working at the restaurant, comes up almost every night. The sun is diving into the sea in a red extravaganza. We have only one light between us, a fact that I’ll come to lament later as sheer bad planning on my part.

Daniela is very happy. “I really wanted to come up here again”, she repeats. “Feeling the energy from the volcano, this is what I missed. It really gives you a boost”. I am not so sure. But I remind myself of what people here say when asked if they are not afraid. “If it happens, it happens”. As I said, you can ignore Stromboli, get used to living near danger, or think of it as a grumbling old man if you choose. Another guy once asked me: “Who do you think is more at risk, me living here, or you driving your scooter in Rome?” Fair enough, but that’s not really the point, is it? Or is it?

The trail winds upwards far from the craters: the view one has from the Observatory disappears until we reach the 300-metre post. The last fifty meters we climbed rather than walked and I am soaked through and out of breath. I am suddenly afraid: what if I cannot make it, or cannot make it back, or twist an ankle? Later on, I come to think that the volcano sent tendrils of uncertainty into my civilized approach to the world, that this brush with mightiness was as much as I could take. The 300-metre post is right next to the Sciara. The craters are higher up but as we come up, a fireball explodes from the mouth into the night, perfectly clear to see. It is sensible to stop. I decide to stop. My companions try to persuade me, but they also want to get up there as quickly as possible before natural light disappears, and they go on.

Going up to the top of the volcano at night - photo by A Quattrocchi

Going up to the top of the volcano at night - photo by A Quattrocchi

I am not alone: a large party of visitors laughs and eats behind me, couples and families exclaim over the beauty of the night and whenever an eruption occurs. But darkness is advancing fast, it is past nine and the viewers disperse little by little. Some decide to go on up to the next stop at 400 metres. Some go down, chanting and waving their lights. Some more come down from uphill, laughing all the way, in twos and threes. Many are Italians but I hear Russian, French and German spoken. I think they laugh to bury their uneasiness. I’ve been walking in the dark for weeks at night but I had forgotten how black it is with no moon and not even the sparse lamps from the houses. I’m waiting: I am stuck on the side of the mountain and it would be madness to go down without a light on the steep rocky trail. In fact, I can hardly take the few steps from the wooden fence on the Sciara to the flat rock I had earlier elected as a seat. My cell phone, of course, has no service in the shadow of the giant (but at least provides a feeble ray of light). The air has considerably cooled, the boats down in the sea are just dots of white. I imagine people down there, faces upturned; their voices reach me, disembodied in the thick silence. Every twenty minutes or so the volcano spits a red ball of fire, but the roar arrives a few seconds later: catching it on camera is very tricky. I have rarely felt so utterly alone. I know there is nothing to fear, I know that I will manage to get down and that other people are around, but my instincts are kicking in and smelling danger.

Finally – by ten-thirty – I have had enough (my arms also have had enough with keeping up the digital camera to no avail, and my dripping t-shirt is cold and clammy under the jacket). When a long line of boy scouts from the Abruzzo come traipsing down – each one with his or her dutiful little light – I ask if I may join them. It’s a very long descent with my personal rescue party. The boys and girls are tired, faltering on the uneven dusty ground and the rocks sticking up. They are dreaming of dinner and their bed, although they admit the excursion was “interesting”. They are devastated when they realize that the lights and tables of the Observatory with its pizza aroma (to me, it is like coming home) are not their destination for tonight and they have at least another half-hour before civilization. Their leaders try to cheer them up by making them sing popular Italian songs. We miss the shortcut and take the long way down into the village.

But as soon as I know where I am, I leave them and start striding along, at first using the light from my cell phone, then surefooted on the paved streets. Weeks of walking in the velvety Stromboli night come useful now. I recognize a bench, a street corner, a crossroads, a door. Most of all, I recognize myself with a deep sense of relief. People are strolling around after dinner; they have dogs, full bellies, nice dresses. Nothing mystical on this side of the mountain. The volcano is still up there, still spitting, but I feel exhilarated, back to normality.

And when I meet my friends at home and they want to know how it was, I have no words. I have been to the other side. I am reminded of how Mrs Moore (in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India) visited the Marabar caves and was led to madness by the echo, for every sound and every word was reduced to the same thing: “If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same: ‘ou-boum’”. People on Stromboli flirt with the volcano, suck on the energy of the Earth, are exalted by the mightiness of Nature – or run from the place. Acknowledging the insignificance of Man can bring serenity or it can shatter your life; it can lead you to admire everything there is, or to tremble on the brink of nothingness. This is the fine line that humans tread on Stromboli.

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