DM and MM's Italy Trip Diary

Day 19 - Lipari to Stromboli

Thursday, 17 May, 2001

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With no alarm to wake us, we had to be up at 07:00 in order to have time to catch the hydrofoil to Stromboli. Fortunately this was not too early and we were naturally awake by about this time, so we had no problem. We packed everything we were not going to take to Stromboli in our large backpacks and sealed them up to leave behind. In our small packs we packed toiletries and a warm change of clothes for the night time climbing down the volcano. So packed, we left Affitacamere Villa Rosa (the name of our accommodation) and walked down the road back to the main town of Lipari.

We walked as far as the end of the main street, where it petered out into an array of tiny streets. Not seeing any sign of the port, we asked a local woman who pointed us the right way. We were soon at the port and headed directly to the ticket office to buy tickets to Stromboli on the 08:10 hydrofoil. This gave us half an hour to spare to find breakfast.

We walked over to a row of nearby bars and selected one at random. It had a huge selection of pastries on display, from which Michelle stuck to the tried and true jam croissant. I had a chocolate croissant, and we ordered another two jam croissants to take away for later. Michelle had a cappuccino and, like everywhere else when we'd bought breakfast, the man had to ask a couple of times "due cappuccini?", "no, uno", "uno?", "". Clearly they are not used to dealing with anyone who doesn't drink coffee.

After the sweetest croissants ever made, we walked back over to the wharf area to wait with a crowd of other people for our boat. We decided we should try to buy tickets back to Lipari and then back to Milazzo as well while we were here, so I went to the ticket office again and asked about the possibility of buying tickets from Stromboli to Lipari for tomorrow. The man nodded and wrote out a receipt for which he took the money for the fare, then explained that I had to take the receipt to the ticket office on Stromboli and they would give me the tickets. Deciding not to risk further complications, I didn't even ask about tickets from Lipari to Milazzo for the day after tomorrow.

We now realised we might be running a little short of cash to cover accommodation, food, and our guided walk up the volcano on Stromboli, and the Lonely Planet had said simply that the one bank on Stromboli only ever opened between June and September, so we were not confident of being able to withdraw more cash there. I looked for a nearby ATM but by now a boat was pulling into the port. For all we knew it was our boat, so the cash would have to wait.

As the boat began unloading passengers, some of the waiting crowd drew nearer to board. Then a second boat similar in appearance to the first pulled in to an adjacent berth. A middle-aged couple in front of us asked the man taking tickets on the first boat if it was headed to Stromboli and the answer was no, Vulcano. So we wandered with several other people towards the second boat instead. We'd noticed that everyone getting on the first boat had tickets on different coloured paper to the one ours were printed on, which seemed to indicate a different company.

The second boat turned out to be run by the same company as the first, and rejected us, saying we had to wait for yet another boat. Our boat finally appeared as the second one left. It had a blue colour scheme instead of a red one, which apparently indicated the correct company for our tickets. We boarded with several other people and the hydrofoil ended up being quite full. We squashed into the two seats in the back row, against the window, as a couple with a baby in a pram used up the adjacent two aisle seats.

The boat headed first to Vulcano, then in order Salina, Panarea, and finally Stromboli, putting off and taking on a considerable number of passengers at each island. The couple next to us were headed all the way to Stromboli, as we could see from the guide book they were reading. Finally we arrived at about 10:00 and spilled on to the wharf in bright, hot sunshine. Blinking against the light after being cocooned in the hydrofoil, we followed the crowd wandering down the tiny village street. There were a few touts offering rooms as we walked by, but none as enthusiastic as the people at Lipari yesterday, and we ignored them, thinking we could find somewhere easily by following what appeared to be the single main street of the place.

Main Street
Three-wheeled trucks passing in the main street of Stromboli

As we walked along the narrow laneway which formed the main street of Via Roma, scooters and several of the tiny three-wheeled trucks we'd been seeing all over Italy drove past in both directions, forcing pedestrians to back against the walls as they passed. We passed the office for the Alpine Guides, who ran the guided tours up the volcano, but it was closed, as was the Stromboli tourist office near the port. The main street ran through several blocks of whitewashed houses before turning into a shopping area. We continued walking along, expecting to see signs offering accommodation, but seeing nothing but a single affitacamera which, upon inquiry, only had a single room with a shared bathroom to offer.

While wandering, we passed the red painted "Ingrid Bergman House", where the actress stayed with director Roberto Rossellini while they were filming the movie Stromboli. We also saw an amusing incident when one of the three-wheeled trucks got stuck on the narrow main street, wedged between the wall of a house and the wall on the other side of the street. When it became clear the truck couldn't squeeze through the gap, a bunch of guys ran out of the nearby buildings and lifted the truck up and through the gap slightly higher up where the walls sloped apart! Placed back on the street on the other side, the truck beeped thanks as it continued puttering down the street.

Ingrid Bergman house
Ingrid Bergman house

We ended up walking as far as the main square in front of the church without further luck finding a place to stay, when a man approached us asking if we were looking for a room. We said yes, and he offered to show us one he had available. We asked how far away and what price, and he answered 100 metres and LIT80,000, both of which sounded reasonable. He led us across the square to an old and rickety three-wheeled truck and indicated we should jump in the tray on the back, but first we needed to help by giving him a push start to get the engine going. Having worked this out, he climbed into the single-person cab and tried to close the door, having to attempt this several times before it would stay shut. Then we pushed the truck, with the help of a couple of other tourists who joined in when they saw what we were doing, and the engine started. We hopped on board and had a short ride down a hill and to the accommodation the man was offering, attracting amused glances from people we passed along the way.

The accommodation on offer turned out to be in the Locanda Stella, the exact place I had written down as a likely spot from the Lonely Planet write up. Coincidence being a good thing, we looked at the room and decided that, even though a bit old looking, it seemed clean and comfortable enough, so we stayed. The man checked us in, or rather simply took the cash in advance in a laid back fashion. He asked us where we were from and when we answered Australia he told us he had an uncle living in Melbourne for the past 40 years.

Strombolicchio and town of Stromboli
View over town of Stromboli towards the rock Strombolicchio

After settling in, our first priority was to check the Alpine Guides office near the port to see if we could book ourselves on a guided walk up the volcano. We walked back down the main street the way we had come earlier, but took a wrong turn and ended up running out of street and into fields of what looked a bit like sugar cane. After backtracking a bit we found the turn and walked down to the Guides office, which was closed. It should have been open according to the opening hours, but had a sign saying if it was unattended to ring a given phone number.

We had planned to do a circuit of the town, returning to the pensione via the street which runs along the beach, so we kept going down to the port. Michelle spotted some pay-phones and we walked over, hoping they would take coins. No such luck, it appeared they took some sort of prepaid phone cards, but also credit cards. A young couple were standing at the next phone, the woman talking in Aussie-accented English into it, so I asked the man if he knew if the phones worked properly with Visa cards. He said they were doing reverse charges but generally the Italian phones were pretty good. It turned out they were from Mosman, just down the road from us in Sydney, and had seven months of touring overseas - nice work if you can get it!

When I said we were trying to contact the guides to go up the volcano, the man said to come back around 15:00 when one of the ferries came in and hordes of people got off - which was the only time they opened it. He said they had climbed the volcano yesterday, but hadn't bothered with the guide. He mentioned scrambling over rocks using hands and feet at one point. The woman then got off the phone and joined the conversation, mentioning that on the way down they went down a sandy slope and their shoes got completely full of sand and rocks, forcing them to stop and empty their shoes several times.

The walk along the beach promised to be hot and without any shade at all, so we put it off and elected to walk back along the partly shady main street again. I remembered seeing another Alpine Guide office near the main square so we decided to try that one as well before heading back in to our room for an afternoon siesta out of the heat. One can certainly see why the locals avoid that part of the day if they can.

Mediterranean Whitewash
Whitewashed house in Stromboli town

At the square, we descended a set of steps to find a small office which was staffed by a wiry looking middle-aged man. He signed us up for the guided walk up the volcano to depart at 17:00, giving us a leaflet with information on what to take and warning that the climb was not for the weak of heart or short of breath. We assured the man we had plenty of water and warmer clothing for the stay at the summit and said we'd see him at 17:00.

Thus relieved of the burden of ensuring our walk up the volcano, we went straight back to our room for an afternoon nap before the expedition ahead. A bit of a rest was needed since the trek was due to return around 23:00 or 23:30 and we hadn't exactly been sleeping in every morning on the vacation so far.

At 16:30 we ventured forth again, equipped for our walk up Stromboli with three litres of water, two apples, a block of chocolate, dried dates, and corn chips. We also had some cheese and ham left over from lunch, intended to make sandwiches with, but by this time the supermarket was out of bread, so we couldn't get any. Our guide equipped us with blue safety helmets, to be worn at the top of the volcano in case of falling rock particles. We noticed that most of the 25 or so other walkers had red helmets, and looked the sort who made trips such as this regularly, equipped with walking poles and boots and so on. Two other people, also looking decidedly amateurish were also given blue helmets, making us think this was a way to mark the inexperienced hikers. We discovered however that us blue-helmets were the only people in the group who spoke English and not Italian.

Volcanic beach
Black volcanic beach and view towards Strombolicchio

And so we set off. The first part of the walk was somewhat depressingly downhill, since we had to scale a peak 918 metres above sea level, it seemed a shame to waste what little elevation we already had at the town square. Descending almost to the beach, we walked westwards along the shore, passing several of the better hotels on Stromboli (with views of the ocean rock Strombolicchio). We stopped at one, where a group of men and women in their 60s or even older were sitting around lazily on the shaded verandah drinking beers and cocktails. As we watched incredulously three of the men got up and took packed picnic hampers from a bow-tied waiter, including a small bottle of red wine each, placed them in their packs, and joined us.

Climbing to the abode of Vulcan
Our tour group climbing Mount Stromboli

We continued walking along until we got to the edge of the town, where a track paved with large stones started winding its way up the hillside, switchbacking every 30 metres or so. Some of the more experienced walkers started singing in Italian, and generally chatting and having a good time. Thankfully the heat of the day had passed and we were walking under a heavy haze that almost fully blotted out the sun.

After a while we reached an area where the path was overgrown with the local wild flora, including several types of bushy shrubs with flowers in yellow, purple, and pink. The English-speaking woman commented on how wonderful the flowers smelt, but Michelle was sniffling a bit due to all the pollen.

Volcano flank
Vegetation on the slopes of Mount Stromboli

We stopped for a rest and the guide explained that the walk would get more difficult from here, and that if anyone had to stop because of lack of breath to let him know. He said this in Italian, which a helpful woman translated for the sake of us English speakers. This woman gave us translations of pretty much everything over the trip, and we thanked her profusely at the end of it all.

We proceeded uphill, on a steeper track which was now unpaved. This continued for some time. At a couple of stages along the way, one of the old men fell behind considerably, and the group waited until he caught up. One helpful man ran back down to get him and make sure he was okay at one stage, then walked with him. The other two old men were doing surprisingly well near the top of the group.

Scar of Fire
The Sciara del Fuoco

Topping a ridge, we beheld the Sciara del Fuoco, where the lava ejected by the craters at the top of the volcano slid down into the sea. It was a flat slope at an angle of about 45 degrees, rocky and with absolutely no vegetation. Smoke or steam rose from various parts of it, mostly towards the bottom. We couldn't actually see anything identifiable as flowing lava, but the sight was spectacular to behold. At the top of the slope we could see the crater, smoking gently and stained yellow with sulphur all around.

We continued climbing, being almost halfway up at this point, on an exposed slope along a steep gravelly path. A few times we crossed the ridge away from the Sciara, then returned for an even better view from higher up. The leg muscles were beginning to work hard and breathing was a noticeable effort, if not yet heavy. From our vantage point we could see a few yachts and ships in the water far below, clearly waiting for nightfall to see the Sciara from their positions.

High view of Stromboli
Looking down the volcano to the village and the sea

We topped the ridge again and the old man who was struggling to keep up said he couldn't go on any more, being too out of breath to keep up with the group. We had a break of about 15 minutes while the guide contacted the town on his walkie-talkie and informed them of the situation. We believe they sent someone up to meet him and escort him back down again. While we were waiting, we saw the first big eruption of the crater, with a fireworks-like display of red hot rock spraying in an upwards shower out of the hole. The old man must have felt bad at not being able to go on, but at least he got a good display of the lava bursts, and probably several more while he waited for his escort back down.

The rest of us continued upwards, from here having to scramble on feet and hands up a steep slope of solid rock, though thankfully with plenty of outcroppings to use as hand and footholds. Michelle got a bit nervous at the steepness of the slope we were expected to climb, and the guide came over to help and reassure us that it was safe and not seriously difficult. He said we should take the positions immediately behind him, where he would be able to make sure we were okay. Thus encouraged, we pushed on. The rock section lasted about 30 metres, after which we were back on a path, albeit a very steep one.

Stromboli crater
Approaching the caldera of Mount Stromboli

Pressing on, we came to a region of soft sand which we trudged up. Thankfully this was not as steep as the rocky sections below, but it was harder work pushing the legs through the sandy ground and my calf muscles were getting very tired, making me struggle to keep up with Michelle and the guide, but I managed. Slowly but surely we topped over a gentler section and on to the last approach to the summit.

The peak is some 200 metres above the height of the craters themselves, so the view looking down into them is fantastic. We could look right into a pool of hot lava, glowing deep orange in the twilight gloom. We had reached the top at about 20:30, taking three and a half hours to go up, and the sunlight was beginning to leave the hazy sky. The other two old men had made it easily, and proceeded to pull out their picnic dinners and eat them with gusto and a good serving of wine. There were about half a dozen other people at the top already, with cameras and tripods set up to take lava photos, who had apparently made the trip without a guide, which is supposed to be forbidden.

Stromboli Eruption
Lava eruption on Mount Stromboli

We sat and rested in the lee of a rock outcrop, since the wind at the top was considerable, and picked up the volcanic sand and ash which was all around, making facing into the wind impossible. Thankfully the craters were downwind from us and we had a good view. We ate our apples and some chocolate and had a good swig of water.

The party stayed at the top for about an hour, watching the intermittent eruptions of lava from the craters. Having forgotten to bring my tripod from Lipari, I settled for taking a few handheld shots which hopefully won't turn out too wobbly. To be honest, by this time I was glad I hadn't also tried to drag the tripod up the mountain.

Eruption of Fire
Lava eruption on Mount Stromboli

With the sun completely down, we set off on the walk back down by the light of torches and headlamps. Thankfully we took a different route, down the eastern side of the mountain, where a large drift of sand made the going quite easy, if dirty on the shoes and socks, as we simply planted our feet and let ourselves sink ankle deep into the gritty, ashy dirt. After slogging downhill through this for 20 minutes or so, the guide called a halt for people to empty out their shoes and socks, which was gratefully taken. We had already lost a good deal of altitude slipping and sliding down the steep slope. The rest of the descent consisted mostly of walking in a deep rut caused by the tramp of many feet before us, surrounded by overgrown vegetation. We wended our way to a hill above the back of the town from where the path joined a concrete road which led us back to the town square.

So ended our trek, just before 23:30. Several other people were thankful it was over, judging by their cries in Italian, while others were keen for pizza and beer. We simply handed back our helmets and crept back to Locanda Stella and the peacefulness of our room. We had to have showers before going to bed, to wash off the layer of dust and ash which had settled all over us. Our clothes were wet through from sweat and covered in grime. Our shoes and socks might never be clean again. But when it was over, it felt worth it.

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