x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Stromboli: earth, water and fire

A visit to the romantic island off the coast of Italy, leaves Killian Fox with a deep respect for its magnificent rock-spewing volcano.

Tourists swim in the cobalt waters below the lava-covered Sciara del Fuoco, or Stream of Fire.
Tourists swim in the cobalt waters below the lava-covered Sciara del Fuoco, or Stream of Fire.

My first thought, when I set foot on the tiny island of Stromboli and gazed up at the great black cone overhead, waswhere do I run to if this thing blows? The answer, as my hydrofoil turned away from the pier and melted back into the Tyrrhenian Sea's broad, empty horizon, became graphically clear: nowhere, that's where. The first item of evidence that the island I had arrived on is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and the only continuously erupting volcano in Europe, was the solid thud that stopped me in my tracks as I walked into Stromboli town. It sounded - and felt - as if an angry god had flattened a nearby island with its fist. I danced a little jig of excitement. The beast was awake.

I had never heard of Stromboli until late last year. A friend, who had just visited, told me about it in the sort of whisper people use when they don't want a really amazing secret to get out. It sounded like the most romantic place on the planet. If you approach the island on the overnight ferry from Naples, he told me, you can sit out on deck and watch it belching flames into the darkness like a restless dragon.

I arrived in mid-afternoon from the opposite direction, on a short hydrofoil hop from Milazzo in northeast Sicily, so I got no nocturnal preview of Stromboli's fiery energies. I found it difficult to believe that this big chunk of rock rising 900 metres out of the sea could possibly be spewing lava on a daily basis, let alone once every five or 10 minutes. The beautiful town that curves around Stromboli's north shore, with its whitewashed houses and car-free streets, was much too laid-back and peaceful. Didn't they realise what was bubbling up under their feet?

My hotel, La Sirenetta, a gorgeous, upmarket place at the end of a long, black-sand beach, also felt blissfully unaware. I settled into my luxurious chalet, set back from the main building, and took a quick dip in the salt-water pool. Then, as the sun was setting, I sat out on the front terrace and watched a family of dolphins breaking the glassy surface of the water. Farther out I could see Strombolicchio, a craggy block of basalt rising from the water like some infernal cathedral.

It took me a while to tear myself away from this spectacular view. But I had an appointment. Two friends of mine, a couple who were no doubt tapping the island's romantic potential, had arrived on Stromboli the previous day. They were staying at a different hotel, so we had arranged to meet in the main square. A sign beside the beach advised me that, in case of a full-scale eruption, I should climb to a higher point on the mountain. This seemed rather counterintuitive, but the first thing you need to worry about when the volcano blows are giant waves caused by the eruption hitting the water. This very rarely happens, but just to be on the safe side I left the seafront and climbed a narrow flight of steps up into the heart of the town.

My path was overhung by lemon trees and bordered by white walls, bright blue gates and colourful houses. As I approached the square, a plaque on a dark orange exterior caught my eye. Ingrid Bergman once lived here, it said. In 1949, the movie star came to the island to play a role in Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli. She ended up having a torrid affair with the director and they stayed together in this very house.

Just beyond the house, in the square, I discovered a delightful shrine to Stromboli's favourite celebrity. Perched on a promontory above the town, Bar Ingrid is one of the most stunningly located bars I've ever seen. Its bustling balcony affords panoramic views of Strombolicchio and the wide horizon beyond. It also serves delicious gelati. If those giant waves struck during my visit, this is where you'd find me.

And this is where I found Matthew and Emily. They were relaxing on the balcony and looking very pleased with themselves. I don't know why: they'd been on Stromboli a whole day and still hadn't managed to discern any volcanic activity. It was a ridiculous state of affairs, I informed them, so after a very pleasant half-hour at Ingrid's I marched them off to L'Osservatorio, a pizzeria higher up the mountain with a view of the crater.

The 40-minute walk to L'Osservatorio took us along the cove-dappled coast beyond the town and part of the way up the north flank of the volcano. Night had drawn in and we could see an ominous glow in the sky above us. The restaurant's terrace seemed like an excellent viewing point, and just as we sat down to order pizzas, our first eruption occurred. It was an enormous Roman candle that turned the night air red and showered the side of the mountain with rocks and crackling fire. We gasped, nodded at one another and laughed. We nearly stood up and gave it a round of applause.

Five minutes later, it happened again. The pizzas arrived and were consumed, but our attention was elsewhere. Now that our appetites had been whetted, we were ready to take a proper look. At five o'clock the following day, after a terrific lunch of spaghetti with clams at Punta Lena on the seafront, we joined a Magmatrek tour and set off up the mountain with a group of fellow enthusiasts. One of the lovely things about visiting Stromboli as a tourist is that, unless you come during high season in August, all the other tourists are here for the same reason: to marvel at the volcano. They don't come to party or shop or crowd out the beaches, and this must explain, in part, why the island still feels so unspoiled.

Our group was diverse in nationality and age - ranging from early 20s to late 70s - but we were alike in being enormously excited about what lay ahead. The first half of the climb, meandering through fertile undergrowth, was sweaty work. Then the path opened out onto scree and loose volcanic sand. We zigzagged up the carbon-coloured slope amid piles of purple-grey rocks, littered there by long-forgotten eruptions. The climb took nearly three hours, and as we closed in on the summit a seriously loud bang went off, shaking the earth and sending a cloud of sulphurous smoke high into the atmosphere.

The sun was setting as we reached the top, donned our hard hats and took our seats for the spectacle. Below us was the crater, a wide lop-sided bowl with two open vents, one of which was continuously spluttering out flames. We were perched on the crater's upper lip, high enough above the action to feel secure. When the first big eruption occurred, it didn't come from the fiery vents but from an unpromising patch of ground on the other side of the bowl. Lava blasted 30 metres into the air, hung there for a split second, then cascaded over the far lip of the crater towards the sea. A peal of laughter rippled through our group. Emily let out a loud whoop.

Then another eruption happened, and another. The sun vanished below the horizon and dusk fell, making the great blasts of red fire, which thundered out of the earth every eight minutes or so, even more spectacular. We stayed on our perch for an hour, gawping and shaking our heads as the last of the daylight seeped away. Our guide Sergio, who had only just started taking groups up Stromboli, was excited to see his first double blast - two big eruptions occurring within seconds of each other.

We lingered for one final eruption and then Sergio shepherded us off the summit. But the excitement wasn't over just yet. Descending Stromboli is a lot more fun than climbing it. With its thick layer of volcanic dust, the southern slope of the mountain is like a gigantic sand dune, and it's easier to skid down on your heels than it is to walk. We switched on our headlamps, affixed masks to keep the dust at bay, and set off down the dark piste.

Less than an hour later we were back where we started, tired, hungry, exhilarated and very, very dusty. The solution to all that ailed us was delicious pizza and a glass of ice-cold lemon granita at La Lampara, a short walk from the square. I couldn't resist taking one last peek at the volcano, so the next morning I rented a kayak and set off to view the beast from a different angle. It took me half an hour to paddle around to the Sciara del Fuoco, or "stream of fire", where the crater drops down to the sea. I'd been warned to stay a long way out, and I soon realised why. Shortly after I arrived, Stromboli let out its mightiest bellow yet, and a shower of boiling-hot rocks came crashing down the sheer black slope, colliding with one other and spinning far out into the aquamarine water.

I took this as an omen, a sign that maybe it was time for me to leave the dragon in peace and be about my business. So I picked up my paddle, turned the kayak around and headed back to the village at decent rate of knots, leaving that magnificent thing roaring and snorting in my wake.

The flight Return direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Rome cost US$800 (Dh2,945) including taxes with Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) The boat The hydrofoil from Milazzo (a three-hour drive or train ride away from Palermo) to Stromboli with Ustica Lines (www.usticalines.it, 00 39 0923 873813) costs $62 (Dh ) return and takes up to three hours.Ustica also has a ferry service from Palermo during the summer The hotel La Sirenetta Park Hotel (www.lasirenetta.it; 00 39 090 986025). Double rooms start from $191 (Dh700), including breakfast and taxes.

The trek A tour of the volcano with Magmatrek (www.magmatrek.it; 00 39 090 9865768) costs $41 (Dh150).