They say smoking is bad for your health, but it doesn’t seem to do Stromboli any harm. The volcanic island off the coast of Italy never seems to give it a rest, constantly blowing ash clouds out of its crater. And while most tobacco-addicts are prone to the odd wheezy coughing fit, that’s nothing compared to the bangs and rumbles that emanate from Stromboli every fifteen minutes or so. Yet it has somehow managed to maintain this lifestyle for in or around 2,000 years now. The things some lucky ones get away with, eh?
One of the Aeolian Islands, Stromboli must be seen to be believed. The black sand of its beaches serves as a constant reminder of the island’s geological formation, its darkness contrasting delightfully with the crystal clear waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. With cars not featuring in the local traffic (the only large vehicles allowed onto the island are the delivery vans and trucks which briefly roll off and back onto a ferry late each evening), the narrow lanes see pedestrians scurry to avoid golf buggies and e-scooters. Some of these even have words like ‘Taxi’ or ‘Polizia’ written on them, belying many people’s idea that such titles are reserved for full-sized cars. Wacky, surreal, and everything in miniature.
It’s a volcano!
There’s a reason ‘The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ is such a crazy place: it is, in fact, a volcano. It doesn’t just have a volcano on it; every bit of ground you walk on is part of the mountain and its base. The two villages which collectively house about 500 residents – and many more during the tourist season – occupy land formed by one of Planet Earth’s most bizarre tendencies.
Remembering this as you stroll from the beach to the gelateria (ice-cream shop), or as you watch locals go about their daily business, is at once awe-inspiring and humbling. On one hand it speaks of humanity’s impressive resourcefulness, as people have found ways to lead a normal life on such a remote, secluded spot. At the same time, however, it makes one feel at the planet’s mercy, the tectonic activity which made this whole island a reminder that no matter how powerful and clever we think we are, nature will always be stronger.
Another thing: it erupts. A lot. Don’t let this worry you, though, they’re only small eruptions. We’re not talking about Vesuvius burying Pompeii here. What the regular roars amount to is more akin to a fireworks display, albeit a far more impressive fireworks display than any man-made exhibition.
So, how best to witness this wondrous feat of geology? The three main vantage points are from a boat, from the Observatory (which can involve quite a walk), and from next to the crater itself (which necessitates one hell of a walk!).
Boats of various shapes and sizes leave the main pier every evening to head towards Sciara del Fuoco, the sharp slope on one side of the island. We boarded one of the smaller vessels, which in itself added to the isolated, otherworldly nature of the whole escapade. Upon reaching the crater side of the mighty fire-breathing mountain, our guide cut the engine and distributed plastic cups of his own homemade limoncello. And we waited…
Our boat floated in eerie silence, the bated breath of its passengers audible. As we calmed our nerves on the refreshing digestif, smoke continued to billow out, but there was a certain feeling in the air that something more dramatic was imminent. Nobody dared avert their eyes in case they missed it. Flashes from cameras or glimmers from the descending sun reflecting on the water would provoke sharp intakes of breath, as any movement of light would initially be mistaken for the moment we were all waiting for. And then, lo and behold, it arrived.
‘Aaaahhhh!’ gasped the boat’s congregation, the range of nationalities on board united in a universal cry of awe. We collectively looked up as red-orange lava blew out of the crater, followed by a mushroom-shaped black ash cloud. ‘Did you get it, Ciarán?’, my fiancée whispered excitedly, referring to me having held my camera in the steadiest position possible for the preceding quarter of an hour in the hope of capturing an eruption. (I did get it, not once but twice, the products of which can be seen here and here on my YouTube channel.)
There we remained, floating in the shadow of Sciara del Fuoco, for about an hour, seeing several instances of this miracle. As we landed back on the pier at about 10pm, the feeling was one of triumph. We had seen a volcano erupt. At €20 per head, it was quite the bargain.
For those who feel like giving the legs a nice workout (there is also an opportunity for an extreme workout, but we’ll get to that later!), the volcano can also be seen in action from the land. From the main village (which shares its name with the overall island), one can follow signs to the Osservatorio and walk for about an hour to reach a gloriously-located restaurant-pizzeria. For the non-fitness freaks out there, it can also be reached by a shuttle service, although it’s debatable whether or not a buggy-ride up those winding, dusty, rocky roads would really be any more relaxing.
From the Observatory restaurant’s outdoor tables wine can be sipped, pasta can be chewed and pizza can be gobbled while the show goes on – with sound effects this time. The greater proximity to the magma chambers means that every boom can be heard loud and clear as yet more lava and ash are sent skyward.
Now, let’s get to the real deal. While various options exist when it comes to taking advantage of the novelty of being on a real-life volcano, one trumps the rest. Nothing could equal a post-sunset hike to the summit, where walkers can get up close to the very vents.
This isn’t for the faint-hearted, and can’t be spontaneously carried out on a whim. The upper portion of the volcanic cone is reserved for guided walking groups, all of whom must be correctly attired in jackets, hiking boots and headlamps. It’s no stroll in the park either, meaning fitness is a must rather than an advantage.
On our 4-day family venture to Stromboli, we couldn’t quite factor in a night-time climb. However, returning for such a trek has jumped right into the higher echelons of the bucket list. After all, where else will it be possible to watch a volcano erupt at eye level? And after such an arduous struggle, where better to reward one’s tired limbs over the following few days than on this idyllic island?
Should you get bored of the wow factor of exploring an active volcano (which, trust me, is unlikely), Stromboli also offers more standard forms of holiday relaxation. Italy being Italy, delicious food, coffee and ice cream abound, Bar Ingrid being an excellent spot for all three. The aforementioned clarity of the sea makes it a swimming and snorkelling paradise, but be sure to bring beach shoes for the coarse sand and large rocks. Daily boat trips go to Strombolicchio, the nearby remains of an extinct volcano, and to other Aeolian islands such as Lipari, Panarea and Salina.
How to get there
If you are now hooked on the idea of seeing this magical land for yourself, you may well be thinking ‘but how do we get to this island out in the middle of the sea somewhere?’ You could even be wondering ‘Where the bloody hell is it anyway?’ Rest assured, it’s not as hard to find as it might seem!
Located to the north of Sicily and to the east of the Italian mainland, the Aeolian Islands are politically part of the Sicilian Region. Predictably, Stromboli can only be reached by ferry, with an overnight service to Naples and a 2-4 hour (depending on the number of stops) crossing to Milazzo several times a day. The latter is in Sicily and is connected by train and bus to two airport cities, Palermo and Catania.