I awoke early on Sunday to the crisp Sicilian air in Messina to board a ferry to my next destination. Before I go any further, a huge thanks to my Italy touring tip man, the cycling phenom himself aka the manhunt champion, Master Stefan Wirth, MALD. When I dropped the “I’m working in Rome this summer, got any must-see Italian sites for me?” bomb on him, kid stepped up to the plate like a seasoned pro. One word: Stromboli.
The ferry lasted just under two-hours in a Catamaran, and I disembarked on the small Aeolian Island of Stromboli. This island is literally just a volcano, and a very consistently active one at that. So much so that now the entire population of the island (around 400) pretty much survives off of a thriving tourism industry. These folk were once farmers harvesting grapes from the volcano’s slopes, but my how the times have changed.
The first sight you see when you get off the boat is obviously the towering mountain in front of you. But then you notice the black sand beaches. And then your eyes scan the white structures with almost too perfectly cliché yet beautiful blue doors. And finally, you notice the gritty people living in the shadow of Stromboli’s ever-present eruptions. Then you realize that this is what love is.
I hit the road to find my B&B, named il Giardino Segreto (the secret garden), which is set apart from the rest of the town on the path I would later hike to the volcano’s summit. A gorgeous little place with a friendly staff who speak no English, and a perfect spot to rest the head for the evening. After settling in, I marched back ‘downtown’ (basically just a church, corresponding piazza, a bar, and some trekking company offices) to catch up with my guide and rent me some hiking boots. Magmatrek welcomed me with open arms, and Totem supplied me with some decent (yet later I would realize too small) hiking boots and a headlamp. I made sure to buy some fresh fruit, a hiker’s best friend, and snagged some brioche for breakfast. I then made my way back up to the secret garden to get out of the sun for a bit and rest up for the evening trek.
Fast-forward to that afternoon, around 1630, when I returned to the Magmatrek office to prepare for my evening hike up the volcano. Now I know what you are thinking: “why the hell is Emerson paying for a trekking guide? The kid is a back-country hiking genius, if such a thing even exists!” I know, I know, and I’m flattered that you think such a thing, but guides are required to reach the summit. I believe that came into effect after the last major eruption of the volcano in the early 2000s. The major risk may not be what you think – for hikers, yes there is a risk of getting tagged by some pyroclastic projectiles (my newest favorite band name for when I form one), but the major risk for the townsfolk are tsunamis. When the lava flows down to the ocean, it can create fissures in the earth, which through fluid dynamics can be the inciting cause of massive waves (up to 4m high or so) descending on the beachfront villages.
No real concern in terms of dangerous eruptions today, but nonetheless I picked up my required helmet from Magmatrek and met my guide, Poldo. He is an awesome dude with a sweet gecko tattoo on his neck, and exactly the type of person you’d expect, and hope, to be your guide on such an excursion. Turns out that I was very lucky to have Poldo as a guide, which I’ll get to later…
We were an international group of 20 trekkers – Germans, Spaniards, Dutch, Aussies, Brits, and a few Americans. The only downside to the group was our painfully slow pace, yet it turned out to be a saving grace later on. The trek is fairly demanding, especially in the intense heat of the afternoon, but I was well prepared after my daily walks to the FAO. To pass the time, I chatted at length with a great new friend, and Australian-Italian chap by the name of Vincent.
By the time we hit 500m (our final destination being the summit at 918m), the vegetation was no longer and the clouds started to roll in. Eventually, as we got closer to the top, it began to feel like a steep, eerie, veiled moonscape. Visibility was minimal, the switchbacks were monotonous, and the temperature started to dip. Our slow paced marched onwards and upwards, and we eventually reached the top.
Now when we got to the viewing site for the first of three craters, visibility was nil. Zip. Nada. We could sometimes see the clouds blowing by light up a faint red when an eruption occurred, but nothing more than a hint of color accompanied by the loud explosions caused by the earth’s mantle surging upwards to the surface. We had some time to wait, so we waited. But the first viewing site did not clear up…
We moved on to the summit, and the waiting game began anew. Other groups, who had already reached the summit and were waiting for quite some time, eventually hit the road. But Poldo told us that we would wait for as long as we could. He wanted us to see the real Stromboli. After praying for the clouds to clear up, they finally started to. And the show could now begin!
Unfortunately, though the clouds cleared up, the craters were causing a dense vent of steam to form (due to how humid the air was up top that evening), obscuring our view for the most part. But we got what we came for: a few SOLID eruptions tossing magma upwards of 200m in the air. What is cool, and unique, about Stromboli, is that the summit lies 200m or so above the craters that shoot out magma. We were informed that it is the only active volcano on the planet where you can view the craters from above in this way. The most active and largest of the three craters – Ginostra – was putting on a show. And thanks to Poldo’s pace (which was set to accommodate a few shall we say ‘inexperienced’ hikers in our group) and determination to keep us up there until we saw some vivid eruptions, the trek was an incredible success.
It was a dusty, ashy, and quicker descent to San Vincenzo, the largest village on the island. Upon arrival around midnight, I ditched my boots, traded them for my comfy sneakers, and joined my Australian friends, and our guide, at the bar for pizza, beer, and a cannoli. What a great way to end an amazing day. Long story short: go to Stromboli, you will never forget it.