Stromboli, Aeolian Islands, Italy
“Stromboli! Last year you erupted like a firework – I saw it on TV. This year we’ve come to see you in person and what do we get for our trouble? Nothing!” The old lady had lost patience with the volcano and rose precariously from her seat on the gently pitching boat to berate it. She shook a fist at the wall of grey rock which rose sheer from the sea in front of her. Sitting beside her, her granddaughter held her other hand and steadied her with a palm on her back. She joined in the general laughter at the old lady’s outburst but looked embarrassed and gently tugged at her grandmother to resume her seat.
We had joined a tour group on an evening’s circuit of Stromboli by boat. On the island itself two or three companies offered treks up the slopes of the live volcano to witness the carnage from a safe distance. They provided boots, jackets and helmets and even carried ropes and harnesses, just in case. But Stromboli’s eruptions of the previous year had apparently altered the shape of the cone and a vantage point from which to peer into the bubbling morass was not guaranteed, just a close up examination of last year’s lava flow and, no doubt, an aerial view of the rest of the island.
So we opted for the boat tour which included dinner on board and a close up view of Strombolicchio, the jagged-toothed remnant of Stromboli’s former volcanic rim a mile to the east of the harbour. Towards twilight, with the sun’s last slanting rays long gone and a cool breeze nudging those on board to pull on their sweaters, we sailed into position off the north coast, opposite la sciara, a kilometre-high chute of grey rubble down which the volcano threw its daily emissions. And there we waited.
I first saw Stromboli from the deck of the overnight ferry between Naples and Palermo the year before. It called at the island just before dawn and for an hour or more beforehand, cradling cups of coffee in the cold morning air, I stood watching the black cone and the ball of smoke to which it seemed permanently attached – like a cartoon thought bubble – draw nearer and be illuminated by the red sky behind. Black rock became streaked with grey and brown; a black sand beach was delineated by white sea foam; and white cubes dotted the scrubby landscape between the two. Remote and unpeopled at this early hour, a panorama of wooden shacks and dirty whitewashed villas revealed itself as we drew up to the port of San Vincenzo, its desolate appearance betokening Africa rather than Europe.
Consequently, I did not envy the handful of passengers who disembarked, dropping their bags on the concrete port and casting around for an assurance of other inhabitants, but tried to shrug off concerns that the rest of the island group into which I was heading might be similarly uninviting. Equally, as the ship moored off the island’s southwestern coast to deliver supplies and papers to the tiny settlement of Ginostra, I watched dispassionately as a single passenger was helped into the rolling well of a waiting motor launch. Putting on a brave face, she waved doubtfully back to the ferry as the launch’s wake traced a thin plume in the surrounding sea, carrying her like an early Christian anchorite to an island hermitage.
One of the seven Aeolian Islands contained within the arc of Italy’s toe and the north coast of Sicily, Stromboli is the middle of three active volcanoes which straddle a fault line running from Vesuvius, south of Naples, to Etna, north of Catania. It rises nearly three kilometres from the sea floor, revealing the last 926 m (just over 3,000 feet) above sea level and boasting three active craters at its peak. It is thought to have been constantly active for at least 13,000 years and that the existing island is just the remains of what was once the rim of a much larger volcano.
Writing nearly 2000 years ago, the Roman commentator Pomponius Mela said of Stromboli that it “burns with an uninterrupted flame”, while more recent eruptions were witnessed by the British naval hero, Lord Nelson, and the French novelist, Alexander Dumas, at the end of the eighteenth and middle of the nineteenth centuries, respectively. The twenty-first century has already been greeted by three series of eruptions, which are said to produce more noise than life-threatening lava flows, but the volcano is in permanent commotion and is readily identifiable from miles around by the cloud that hangs over the sea even in the clearest of blue skies.
Which made it all the more remarkable that human populations, no matter how small, clung onto the island. Two more or less conjoined villages, San Bartolo and San Vincenzo, wrap themselves around Stromboli’s northeast corner and boast a combined population of five or six hundred for three-quarters of the year, rising to around a thousand in summer. The hamlet of Ginostra, accessible only by sea, has perhaps twenty or thirty residents, depending on the time of year. These populations are stable and represent a recovery on the numbers counted even in the 1970s and 80s. But they are still less than half those which existed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, before the waves of emigration to the New World that nearly emptied the Italian islands and left behind only those too poor, too frail or elderly or too lacking in ambition to make the long journies involved.
Indeed, Stromboli has a cinematic legacy that allows us to see very clearly what life was like for those left behind. Most famously, the island was the setting for the eponymous Stromboli, terra di dio, a 1950 Italian-American film directed by Roberto Rossellini and featuring Ingrid Bergman. The drama was notorious at the time for the affair between director and star – and the baby which resulted – but it is also considered a classic example of Italian neorealism.
Shot in black and white and using local islanders as extras, it contained long, languid scenes of peasant life, brooding expressions and conservative manners. There are endless preparations for fishing, culminating in the violent orgy of the mattanza or annual tuna slaughter and the temporary evacuation of the island during a volcanic eruption, all distinguished by the number of women and children and older men in the pictures: “my house is full of old men talking about America,” the heroine, Karin, complains to the priest.
Two years later the Swiss photojournalist Daniel Holzer came to Stromboli. His primary inention had been to get dramatic, close up images of the volcano but the lure of island life proved so strong that he returned with a film crew the following year and shot a documentary movie on local life and customs. More than sixty years later, inured as we are to seeing films about the destructive effects of natural phenomena, it is the vivid black and white or bleached colour images of a pre-modern society, more redolent of the mid-nineteenth than the mid-twentieth century, that still have a resonance and hold their fascination.
So it was with mixed feelings that I returned to Stromboli, taking a ‘feeder’ tour from the much larger and greener island of Salina to spend a couple of hours in San Vincenzo and then to join the boat trip around the base of the volcano. The prospect of landing on Stromboli hadn’t been that appealling the previous year but what I had since learnt of its history and the idea of getting up close to the belching cone were both enticing.
On the way to the island we had the company of a group of British vulcanologists, enjoying a package tour of the three southern Italian volcanoes plus the nearby, semi-dormant, island of Vulcano. Unlike the other tourists on board, for whom this was just another boat trip and the top deck just another opportunity to top up their tan, the attention of the scientists was fixed very firmly on the volcano. When they weren’t on deck – fully covered and smothered in sun cream – with their binoculars, they were gathered around sea charts and comparing notes down below. Once on Stromboli, they quickly donned boots and helmets and headed up the mountain with their guide.
San Vincenzo was much more ‘chic’ than I had envisaged and also more lush with vegetation. Many of the former peasant and fishermen’s cottages had been restored and extended and were now available as holiday lets or hotels. Built on ascending terraces overlooking the harbour, they retained the traditional open veranda and twin-columned porch, typical of the Aeolian Islands. Smartly whitewashed, overhung with bougainvillea and accessed up stone steps or down narrow alleys, many had the addition of colourful sun blinds or billowing curtains for that touch of contemporary design. The shops were equally fashionable, lined with beachwear, dresses and jewellery to entice holidaymakers on their evening passegiata.
Aside from the run down appearance of former or actual fishermen’s cottages to one side of the harbour, the only concession to the former way of life on the island were the black and white posters of scenes from Stromboli, terra di dio or other moody projections that suited the stylish shop and restaurant interiors. And of course the more workmanlike appearance of the shacks from which the guided tours up the side of the volcano began.
Surrounded by wooden benches for walkers to put on their boots, they hung orange, red and yellow helmets down the outside of their walls and advertised themselves with dramatic posters of the erupting volcano. As we left to take our places on the evening cruise, they were doing a steady trade and a thin trail of helmeted tourists was slowly winding its way through the village and onto the black rocks above.
At this distance it wasn’t possible to hear the commotion emanating from the cone’s boiling bowl of lava, nor witness the fury that was evidently at work within. But every so often the volcano spat glowing rocks or chunks of cooling lava over its lip and into the night air which disappeared in the darkness until plumes of dust on the scree slopes betrayed their impact and they crashed silently down, dislodging other boulders in their wake and finally raising clouds of steam from the water below. Seconds later a full-throated thunder, a hiss and then an echo from the natural sounding wall behind completed the theatrical effect – all topped off, appropriately, by loud clapping and shouts of “bravo!” from the boat.