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Stromboli Calling: Where Aeolus Blows and Vulcan Fumes.

Peter Bridges is a freelance writer.

I woke in dimness in some moving place, then realized I was in our cabin on the Vittore Carpaccio southbound from Naples. Quickly I shaved and dressed. My wife, in the top berth, was pretending to be asleep. I said, "Stromboli's coming up," and went out on deck.

It was a clear spring dawn, and we were plowing through small waves. Ahead of us rose Stromboli's volcanic cone, smoking. A band of white at the water's edge was the village where we would make our first call in the Aeolian Islands.

I have enjoyed sailing around the Mediterranean since the 1960s, but though we once climbed Mount Vesuvius on an Easter morning with our children, we had never vacationed on volcanoes.

The Aeolian group comprises seven inhabited volcanic islands off Sicily's northern coast. They rose from the deep relatively recently; Stromboli, the youngest, formed 40,000 years ago. The Aeolians were settled by 4000 B.C., and in some centuries the islanders knew great prosperity. Homer said King Aeolus, who gave Odysseus a sack full of winds, lived in famous halls behind ramparts of bronze. We were planning to visit his citadel, on Lipari.

We had few recent reports, although we had seen the islands in Italian films. There were funny sequences from Alicudi and Stromboli in Dear Diary; Pablo Neruda's house in The Postman was supposed to be on Capri but actually was on the island of Salina, our destination this morning.

The Carpaccio drew up to the concrete quay at San Vincenzo on Stromboli, a small white town with a big church. The seas had been rough the week before, and the islands had been cut off from the world except for cellular phones, the Internet, and television. Now all was peace and sun. Three trucks were waiting on the quay to embark; seven or eight passengers disembarked; a quiet place.

Stromboli is about three miles in diameter. When the volcano erupts, the lava conveniently pours down a chute called the Sciara del Fuoco on the other side of the island. At least it has done so for some centuries. I had read of serious scares, notably the eruption of 1930, when the whole island shook, boiling mud flowed down to the edge of the village, and the island surface rose three feet. Six persons died, and many islanders emigrated to Australia.

Tourists started coming after Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman came in 1949 to make the film Stromboli. No one could know what the future might hold. Stromboli's explosive activity in 1985 and 1996 did not fall in the moderate category in which the volcano is usually placed. Sometime would come a grander event.

We sailed around the island to Ginostra, a couple dozen houses on a green slope leading toward the volcano's summit. A narrow landing with several small boats was below. How could our 4,000-ton ship call there? A motorboat came out from shore; a door opened in the ship's side near water level; two young women with big packs were helped into the boat and went off to Ginostra.

The Carpaccio continued to Panarea, smallest of the inhabited Aeolians. My wife had joined me on deck. It was a pretty morning, and we stood in the wind, content. Good sea trips do not have to be long ones.

My longest was my worst, a winter crossing from Brooklyn to Bremerhaven, Germany, as an Army private on a troop transport.

Panarea looked like a smaller Stromboli, its volcano dormant if not dead and only half as high, although its village was larger. Off Panarea, several islets poke up from the sea; the largest has sheer cliffs but also sloping fields where ancient humans grew grain.

After we left Panarea, Salina's twin peaks came into sight a dozen miles southwest. At first, Salina looked like two islands; the ancient Greeks called it Didyme, twins. At 9, we tied up at the quay at Santa Marina Salina, on the island's east side, sheltered from the maestrale that sometimes blows strong out of the northwest.

We pulled our suitcases across the quay to a little piazza in front of the church and asked the town policeman if there was a mezzo pubblico, a public bus, to Malfa. Yes, in 10 minutes, and tickets were to be bought on the bus. We went to a bar for coffee, then boarded our little blue bus.

Sharply Uphill

The road went sharply uphill. We saw bougainvilleas with bright red blooms; fig trees whose fruits unfortunately were still green; olive trees on old terraces, no longer cared for; prickly pears, which Italians call ficchi d 'India (Indian figs, although they came from America); and, best of all, big, blooming bushes of geraniums.

We had found the Albergo Punta Scario in a guidebook; we had chosen well. Our room was pleasant and opened onto a terrace atop a cliff. A hundred feet below were clear water and a rocky beach.

Panarea stood sharp in the northeast, and beyond was Stromboli, wearing a little cloud. For a moment, I thought of sailors on this sea in Homer's time, when the skies were always limpid and the forests were uncut. ... It was time to investigate Salina, and we set out walking.

Just three or four cars passed us as we walked the road that goes from Malfa up between the two volcanic cones. Much of the island is overgrown in thorny thicket (macchia); but some is tilled, and we saw new plots. Three men were reclaiming a half-acre. "What will you plant?" we asked. "Capperi," was the answer. The caper is a chief crop here and a main element in island cuisine. It grows on a smallish bush and takes a lot of cultivation; caper plantations are small. In any case, I did not care for capers.

Not just plants, but birds are different on Salina. We had our "Birds of Europe" and identified a Marmora's warbler, slate-gray with a red eye; a tiny yellowish finch called the serin; a woodchat shrike, with a red head, white throat, and black tail. We saw soaring above us a noble falco della regina, or queen's hawk.

In 45 minutes, we came to the high point in the road and the church of the Madonna del Terzio. It was noon, and the carillon, gift of a migrant to Australia, played a long melody. Our map showed a path from here up Salina's higher cone, Monte Fossa delle Felci. At 3,100 feet above sea level, it is the highest point on these islands, a little higher even than Stromboli's volcano.

To the Summit

We decided to strike for the summit. The path was steep, the day was warm, and we got thirsty as we zigzagged upward. Foolishly, we had left the hotel without knapsack, water, or food. My wife and I are good hikers, but one of us was 67, the other a year older -- and even young people get thirsty. Should we keep on? We came to a picnic table and a pump, so we pumped cold water into each other's cupped hands and drank our fill.

Soon we were walking up through an old forest of chestnuts, maples, and oaks, far different flora from the seaside. At the summit, we found 30 middle-aged hikers from the Rhineland sitting on the rocks.

Beyond us was the old crater, shallow and tree-covered. Well, Vesuvius, too, had been wooded, until it blew up in A.D. 79. Below us stretched the blue sea, Stromboli invisible in haze, but the islands of Lipari and Vulcano visible to our southeast.

Going back down the road, we found a sign for Malfa pointing down a steep trail. I was for sticking with the road; my wife insisted on the direttissima. We came down a steep gully flanked by huge volcanic rocks, and my wife tripped and slid and bounced five yards downhill. Her jacket was not ripped, but when I pulled it off, there was a gash in her forearm. When we reached Malfa, which has the island's only Guardia medical or emergency clinic, the doctor gave her three stitches.

Postman House

Next day, we walked another road to Pollara, a hamlet on a high cliff. Here was the house supposed to be Neruda's in The Postman. The present owner wanted privacy, so we walked down a path to the beautiful sea. This time, we had bought things to eat and drink.

That evening, we dined on the patio of the Ristorante Pizzeria a Lumeredda in Malfa. Everything was delicious. I began with an antipasto of small artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, caper leaves, and caper fruits under olive oil.

We had never seen caper fruits, greenish and pepper-shaped. My wife had a caponatina of capers, eggplant, dried tomatoes, and mint under oil. We both went on to spaghetti with a sauce made of capers, pecorino cheese, garlic, and oil.

Walking had whetted our appetites, but, objectively speaking, the food was great. We ended with a macedonia di frutta, having also consumed not quite a liter of local white wine, sweetish but far less sweet than the malvasia that our host, Renato Galletta, now offered us.

Malvasia, along with capers, is a main product of Salina. It is a fortified sweet wine, best in small glasses. The English corrupted the name to "malmsey"; Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester has his brother drowned in a butt of malmsey. That the duke had gallons of the stuff says something about both wealth and taste in fifteenth-century England.

Dinner at the little Hotel Signum, our other evening on Salina, was equally based on the caper, both antipasto and pasta, but not the shrimp or macedonia, and equally good. By now, I loved capers, at least the way they were used on Salina.

The next morning, a hydrofoil took us from Santa Marina to Lipari in 20 minutes. The best thing about Aeolian hydrofoils is their speed; they make 40 knots. However, there are few window seats, and the only place to stand outside is a small rear deck sloping down to the foaming wake.

Lipari city seemed a big place after Salina, although just several thousand people live on its narrow streets and lanes under the ancient citadel. We had reserved a room at the Gattopardo Park Hotel, and its minivan met us on the quay. Again, we had chosen well. Our room had a view of the acropolis, and we had a little terrace overlooking a garden full of flowers.

Aeolian Museum

We needed to visit the Aeolian Museum on the citadel. We were pleased to learn that the museum was open every day of the week but displeased to learn that on Sunday, when we went there, only the classical section was open. It was enough: rooms full of Bronze Age and Mycenaean finds; ceramics, tools, and tombs from the prosperous city-state the Greeks founded at Lipari around 580 B.C.; hundreds of amphoras from ancient Roman shipwrecks.

Outside the museum is an excavated area with ruins from Bronze Age huts to Roman streets. The gateway to the citadel includes massive ancient Greek masonry and a plaque reminding us that in Mussolini's time, the citadel was a prison for opponents of fascism.

Filicudi

The next day, we went to the island of Filicudi. The hydrofoil from Lipari took an hour and landed us at what looked like a Third World village. There was not even a place to buy coffee. We walked out of the village, which took about three minutes, to seek out the Bronze Age settlement on the promontory just in front of us.

Eventually, we found a steep, narrow path paved long ago with rough stones, leading up to a two-acre plateau and the low stone walls of prehistoric huts. Above us were old terraces rising to the highest point, 600 feet above the sea. Initially, the people had built down by the shore; they had moved up later for defense. It was too bad ancient humans could not live in peace on Filicudi. Still, I wanted to believe that they had known some happy centuries, absent volcanic activity, in this sunny world.

The other end of Filicudi is the old volcano. We walked up its slope under the hot sun and found a pension called La Canna, where we were served good pasta (no capers) and local white wine on a shady terrace looking toward Stromboli.

We walked down an old mule track and caught the next vessel for Lipari, not a hydrofoil but an older car ferry, the Filomena Matacena. We sat happily on the top deck in sun and wind, dozing as we steamed home at a modest speed.

Sulfur and Smoke

By now, we had decided against going to Stromboli. Still, we wanted a little sulfur and smoke and next day took a hydrofoil from Lipari to Vulcano, a 15-minute run.

Vulcano is the mother of volcanoes, at least etymologically speaking. The rim of its crater is just 1,000 vertical feet above sea level, and we reached it in 45 minutes from the quay, passing some other hikers.

The crater has a round rim several hundred yards across, and people were walking all around it, looking down at the flat interior a few hundred feet below.

No sign of activity down there, but on our rim walk, we passed through about 100 yards of hot fumaroles and enough sulfuric smoke to remind us what was going on inside. Vulcano's last period of major activity ended in 1890, and it is certainly not dead today.

A pizza down by the port ended our tour of Vulcano, except for watching two dozen French tourists immersing themselves in the pool of hot volcanic mud just beyond the port. It was said to be good for rheumatism, but we knew hiking was better.

That evening we said goodbye to the Gattopardo Park, where we had spent a pleasant three nights -- and eaten more good dinners with capers -- at a cost of about $300 for the two of us. Even a retired diplomat and spouse could afford a trip like this.

The hydrofoil took us to Milazzo on the coast of Sicily, and we caught the overnight train to Rome. Our sleeping compartment was smaller than our cabin had been on the ship; we wished we had gone back the way we came. But we would return, some September when summer vacationers had gone home and off-season prices were back and the sea was still warm enough for swimming, as it had not been in May. We also knew we would hike up fiery Stromboli.

Hiking Stromboli

Indeed, the next year we did so. We spent a night on Stromboli at a surprisingly elegant hotel, La Sirenetta Park, and next day started out from the village in the late afternoon with our guide, Antonio, and a dozen others. It took three hours; much of the way up is steep, and we wondered if one plump woman would make it.

Finally, though, we all were there, sitting in the dark on the coarse sand of the summit, enjoying our sandwiches and wine as we watched bright red masses soar steadily out of the craters nearby and go coursing down the Sciara del Fuoco to the black sea below.

Not long afterward, at the end of December 2002, came the major event that scientists and islanders knew must come sometime.

Huge masses of lava flowed down to the sea, fortunately following the usual route down the Sciara del Fuoco. Then, part of the volcano's rock structure gave way, and an estimated 6 million tons of debris fell to the sea, causing tsunamis that surged up Stromboli's shores and destroyed boats and houses. Several people were injured, though no one was killed; the island was evacuated temporarily.

Stromboli soon reverted to its usual minor eruptions. People remain apprehensive. Tourism, no doubt, will suffer for a while. Sometime, though, we plan to picnic again atop the volcano. We will bring not just sandwiches, but a caponatina with Aeolian capers and a bottle of the best malvasia.

* * *

Websites with information about the Aeolian Islands include www.initaly.com/regions/sicily/aeolian.htm.

Gattopardo Park Hotel: www.netnet.it/hotel/gattopardo

Hotel La Sirenetta: www.netnet.it/hotel/lasirenetta

Hydrofoil service and ferries to the Aeolian Islands are available from Naples and Messina in Sicily during the peak summer season: www.netnet.it/aasteolie and click on "How to reach the Aeolian Islands."

The Italian airline Alitalia (www.alitaliausa.com) flies daily to Milan. For reservations and information, call 800-223-5730.

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Title Annotation:Aeolian Islands
Author:Bridges, Peter
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:2785
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