As the light behind the jagged crater faded, a hush fell on our assorted group of volcano pilgrims. Eyes trained keenly upwards, cameras at the ready, we waited for the fireworks to begin.
A loud rumbling came from behind us. A huge pink cloud loomed menacingly and our guide, Lorenzo, looked concerned. He explained that if the storm came any closer we’d have to descend the volcano, as the huge iron ore content of the mountainside made it act as a giant lightning magnet, and was potentially lethal.
“But we will leave long before that happens,” he says, laughing to alieviate some alarmed faces.
Suddenly, a bright red flash and crashing noise jerked our attention back to the craters. This was what we had been waiting for, the famous ‘Strombolian activity’, explosions of lava and landslides on one of Italy’s three remaining active volcanoes.
Stromboli, the less famous cousin of Etna and Vesuvius, is one of the seven Aeolian Islands dotted to the north-east of Sicily. With a permanent population of just 300, limited water supply, winding alleys that lack signs and street lights, the island has a charmingly remote feel. However, daily hydrofoils will whizz you there in just two hours from Sicily and four from Naples.
Approaching the cone-shaped island from Naples, you’ll see the Sciara del Fuoco, or Trail of Fire, which has scarred and blackened a huge chunk of the volcano’s slope. A constant stream of smoke rises from this as volcanic waste slides into the sea. In stark contrast, the rest of the island is lush and green, whitewashed houses are interspersed with splashes of colour from heavily perfumed flowers. Traffic is non-existent – to get around in true Italian- style you can hire scooters. Golf buggies are used as taxis and even the island’s police car.
The volcano is over 200,000 years old and, together with the rest of the Aeolian archipelago, forms part of a vast volcanic complex, most of which lies under the sea. The surface of the island is 12.5km2, but it’s estimated that the undersea base of the volcano is a whopping 25 times bigger.
Stromboli has been active for the past 2000 years. Lorenzo tells us that on April 5, 2003, it experienced its biggest eruption in 80 years. A 10m-high tsunami formed when nine million cubic metres of rock fell into the sea and the island was evacuated for a month.
Tour companies used to offer an eight-hour night trek to the craters, but this has been suspended since the 2003 eruption, as the volcano is considered too unstable. However, it’s still possible to climb to 400m with a guide, from where you’ll get a dramatic view of the landslides on the Sciara del Fuoco and the frequent explosions, which occur most nights.
The ascent takes trekkers up steep stairs and round the side of the volcano. The landscape is green, but very dry – everyone can taste the ash that flies all around. It takes us just over an hour to reach the viewing point and we’re rewarded by a bright, pink sunset over the sea.
Lorenzo is one of the island’s vulcanologists and he gives us a brief geology lesson.
“Sometimes the explosions are two metres high, sometimes 400 metres,” he says. “The volcano doesn’t have seasons, it just does what it wants.”
Despite the volcano’s persistent activity, the tiny towns of San Bartolo, San Vicenzo and Scari to the east and Ginostra to the south are safe from the lava flow, as the shape of the volcano confines it to the Sciara del Fuoco. However, vulcanologists permanently monitor the activity and signs along the coastal road warn: “When the siren sounds, leave the coastal areas immediately.”
As if to stress the danger, Lorenzo points to a tiny boat near the base of the Sciara del Fuoco. “Look at these people, they are crazy, they are too close,” he says, sounding irritated. “The landslides can sometimes reach that far out to sea.”
But from our position, it’s more fireworks we’re impatient to see. Some explosions are bigger than others, illuminous fountains of red with a bright orange core, others are just a puff of smoke. Luckily, the storm heads in another direction and we stay watching for a full hour, the brightness of the lava increasing as the sky gets darker.
All too soon, it’s time to leave and we descend the slope in a procession of swirling ash and torchlight. Eagle-eyed trekkers spot more explosions, but the temptation to stay and watch is suppressed by the blanket of night now surrounding the island. Stars are out in force and the only noise comes from insects, and waves hitting the shore. The brightness of Stromboli’s explosions have earned it the nickname ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’, but this is one beacon I am happy I didn’t avoid.
• The best times to visit Stromboli are April, May, September or October as it’s still hot, but accommodation is cheaper and there are fewer tourists. Volcano tours run year-round, and are easy to organise. Try Magmatrek (www.magmatrek.it), found just off the main square on via Vittorio Emanuele.
• For information on Stromboli’s volcanic activity, see www.educeth.ch/stromboli/about/project-en.html.”