“Has this hydrofoil broken down?” asks the German tourist sitting next to me as the ferry stops. We are floating free off the minuscule village of Ginostra on the volcanic island of Stromboli, right in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, and the tourist can’t figure out why we’ve stopped here.
Stromboli belongs to the Aeolian Islands, a group of volcanic islands located between Sicily and about 30 miles (50 km) from the southern part of the Italian mainland. It is the northernmost of the Aeolian Islands, and the continuously active stratovolcano, whose summit is at 3,031 feet (924 m) above sea level, rises in its center. Stromboli’s base, however, is between 4,921 and 6,561 feet (1500 and 2000 m) below the sea. About 400 people live on this tiny island with a surface area of only 4.8 square miles (12.6 km²).
“Little Ginostra has no port big enough for a hydrofoil or ferryboat to land,” I explain to the tourist, pointing out several locals who are jumping with their luggage into a small boat that will eventually take them to their homes, while other people lower baskets of bread and groceries down into the small craft. There’s no electricity here, either, though there are plans to build a small port, particularly after the last major eruption on December 28, 2002.
It was Stromboli’s first effusive eruption in 17 years, and two days later, colossal blocks of magma and volcanic rocks around 141 million cubic feet (or 4 million cubic meters) in volume slid into the sea. This triggered a tsunami wave, which damaged buildings close to the sea and temporarily closed the island for tourists.
After a few minutes the hydrofoil starts its journey again and drops us off on the northeastern side of the island, where a slightly larger port called Scari is ready to welcome us.
The local people invite us to stay at their hotel or in one of the small flats they rent to tourists. An authorized guide asks us if we want to take an excursion to the Sciara del Fuoco in the northwest of the island, where the magma flows into the sea from an active volcanic vent.
Climbing to the top of Stromboli is by law only allowed if you join a guided tour. Weather permitting, tours are offered on most days during the season. You can choose to depart in the afternoon, stay on the summit until darkness and descend late at night. Or, to avoid the scorching summer heat, you may prefer to start in the evening and descend in the early morning hours.
My friends and I opt for the evening excursion (13 Euro or about US$ 16 per person), and the guide says he’ll pick us up at our hostel at 10 p.m.
“Make sure you each have strong walking shoes, a torch and an extra t-shirt,” he adds. Though the torch and shoes are quite an obvious requirement, the extra t-shirt leaves us a little surprised and curious.
For now, we slowly make our way along the sea to the hostel we had already booked before arriving on the island. On our right, the volcanic beach and rocks are pitch black. On our left, high above, the top of the volcano looms over us, with a small wisp of smoke appearing when the wind blows in our direction.
In between, the tiny villages of S. Vincenzo, Ficogrande and Piscità, are perched on a hill with their typical small white houses, with some of the buildings still in ruins after the 2002 tsunami. I remember the images on the evening news, showing most of the inhabitants abandoning the island on ferryboats or helicopters, while a small minority refused to leave their houses.
After a little rest, a quick pizza and a last minute quest for a torch, we’re ready for the nighttime excursion to Stromboli. Going at night will also give us a better view of the lava flow. Before 2002, it was possible to climb right to its top. Nowadays you can only get to the observatory at 1,312 feet (400 m).
The guide arrives at our hostel early at 9.30 p.m. with helmets for us all. A few tourists have been seriously wounded or have died while on top of Stromboli, being hit by volcanic bombs — small masses of lava shot out of the volcano, which cool and solidify in midair before landing on the ground. But the observatory is rather safe, our guide reassures us, and the reason why we are not allowed to reach the top of the volcano is that a new and more secure path to get there with shelters near the summit is still being built.
In line, each one with his torch, we start to walk out of the village of Piscità and up the very rough path that follows the coast and gradually ascends. The dusty track squeezes between canes and plants, which we can hardly see.
The peaceful silence is only interrupted by an occasional sea breeze blowing eerily through the canes, and a strange sound that resembles the gnawing of huge rats. Meanwhile, the pungent aroma of wild capers and the salty sea hits my nostrils, making me wonder why I am here instead of eating a lovely fish fillet cooked with cherry tomatoes and a handful of those very same capers back at the village restaurant below.
Every now and then, a warm wind comes from a different direction than the usual sea breeze, from the point towards which we are walking, and we get a whiff of the volcanic vent.
The climb is much harder than I would have expected, and perhaps because the path is so dusty, breathing is rather difficult. Our guide doesn’t speak too much. He seems to portion his conversation with the wisdom of someone who leads such excursions a few times every day, during high season, while making sure, every now and then, that no one is left behind. We only make a couple of stops to rest for a few minutes. Then we’re back on track, until, after over two hours, we arrive at last at the observatory. It is not some kind of building as we had expected, but merely a larger, flatter, and, most importantly, panoramic portion of the same path we’re walking up.
We switch off our torches and sit on the stones in bewilderment as the lava, only 656 feet (200 m) from us, flows slowly and dives into the sea generating a thick cloud of vapor. Rocks, sometimes as big as 10 feet (3 m) in diameter, burst out of the vent with a thundering sound and roll down, often crumbling into smaller rocks.
We’re all speechless, though I must admit this could also be due to the climbing itself, or to becoming chilled in our damp T-shirts and the night breeze. We have reached the highest point we can, and so there is only the way back down. So we change into fresh shirts in the lava flow’s demurely atmospheric light.
The stars above are not visible, as they are covered by a thin cloud of smoke coming from the volcano. At sea level, however, a little constellation is observable.
A few cruise ships anchored not too far from Stromboli remind me of the nick-name this island has been given over the past centuries because of its constant volcanic activity—“the lighthouse of the Mediterranean Sea.”
If You Go
Volcanoes of the World
Volcanological Guides in Stromboli and Ginostra
Tourist Information Stromboli