The classic cone-shaped volcano huffs and puffs, and even erupts, regularly. In ancient times Stromboli was called the “lighthouse of the Mediterranean.” I had seen and admired its image from the coasts of Calabria and Sicily, as well as from the sea itself, but recently I had the opportunity to visit Stromboli in person.
WHERE IS STROMBOLI?
For those unfamiliar with Italian geography, Stromboli (the accent is on the first syllable) is a Sicilian island in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the northeast of Sicily’s mainland, an island itself. One of seven that make up the Aeolian Islands that include Panarea, Filicudi, Alicudi, Salina, Lipari and Vulcano, Stromboli is the most northeast of the group and is actually a little closer to the Calabrian coastline than to the main island of Sicily. The distance from Calabria’s Tropea is just 60 kilometers (37 miles) as compared with 63 (39) from Sicily’s Milazzo, the main port of embarkation for ferries and hydrofoils to the Aeolian Islands.
During most of the year, Stromboli can only be reached directly from Sicily and a few days a week from Naples, but in the summer there are more connections, and for example, mini-cruises take passengers to visit Stromboli and other Aeolian Islands from the Calabrian ports of Pizzo, Vibo Marina, Zambrone, Tropea, Capo Vaticano and Nicotera.
I had passed by Stromboli a number of years before, on a cruise ship sailing between the ports of Cefalù and Salerno. On another trip, I had taken a tour boat from Lipari, the largest island in the group where I happened to be staying. We just about reached Stromboli but were unable to disembark as planned when a change in weather forced us to turn back. So this past spring finding myself on the island of Vulcano, I decided to give it another try.
HYDROFOIL TO STROMBOLI
The day was beautiful, full sun with a light breeze. The trip was scheduled for about two hours with stops to drop off and pick up passengers at Salina and Panarea. The aliscafo or hydrofoil wasn’t as large as the one I had arrived on from Messina and it was crowded with hikers, their oversized backpacks and a healthy dose of personal humidity. Not seeing a seat right off, I started down the steps to the lower level at which point my glasses began to fog up, so I quickly turned around and began asking about the “saved” seats. I determined that a choice aisle seat wasn’t occupato by anyone in the vicinity, placed the small bag overhead and sat down. I never did see the owner of said bag, but it disappeared shortly thereafter.
Settling in, I turned to greet the woman next to me and couldn’t help but notice that she was about the only other person on the boat not dressed for a hike. All in white, she looked like a nice Italian woman on a cultural excursion, and so she was. We struck up a conversation and spent a very pleasant afternoon together looking around Stromboli. Well, after we got off the boat, that is, as the hydrofoil didn’t frictionlessly lift out of the water and carry us smoothly to our destination. With all windows closed tight, the craft moved fast, but it felt as though we were fighting wave after wave on the open sea. Good thing it was such a beautiful day.
Getting off the boat, I rushed to a café for a bottle of sparkling water to settle my stomach, and after a bit, I got my land legs back and we took a stroll on the road along the beach. The volcano dominates the island. Actually, the island is pretty much the volcano, which quickly soars to 926 meters or 3,038 feet above sea level. The villages rest near the sea. We got off the boat in the main town, also called Stromboli, on the northeast side of the island. The only connection with Ginostra, the small village on the opposite side, is by boat.
The sand was black and the rugged terrain, abloom with wildflowers. Clouds shrouded Stromboli, the volcano. We didn’t follow the group from the hydrofoil up the main street to the center of town, but walked along the coast the length of the inhabited area and took the back street uphill, peeking into yards and almost getting run over by young males on scooters and diminutive electric transports whizzing tourists and their luggage up the narrow road.
STROMBOLI, THE MOVIE
Reaching the village, we came across the house where Ingrid Bergman stayed during the filming of Stromboli, the movie. The Italian title is Stromboli, Terra di Dio (God’s Earth). The year was 1949 and the scandal of her relationship with the film’s director Roberto Rossellini perhaps overshadowed the movie itself. The room where Bergman and presumably Rossellini slept was open for viewing, furnished with the typical double headboard of the period.
Watching the movie Stromboli is a step back in time to a very difficult episode in the island’s existence. The faces of the film’s town folk were actual villagers who communicated a real desperation. From a high of close to 3,000 inhabitants at the end of the 19th century, the population dropped severely in the years that followed and the island was at risk of abandonment. Reasons for the massive emigration ranged from problems as a result of Italian unification to natural disasters that included a disease of the grape vines and yes, volcanic eruptions.
The film introduced Stromboli, the island, to a worldwide audience. A literary reference of note, not of the realist but of the science fiction genre, came a handful of years later in Jules Verne’s 1964 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the characters descend into the crater of a volcano in Iceland and are eventually ejected up from Stromboli.
While the island historically lived off its agriculture (vineyards, olives and figs) and fishing, today, tourism is the main source of income. The town center features a couple of trendy shops with expensive T-shirts and the latest hiking gear, the likes of what one might find in the Colorado Rockies. The Stromboli day hiker can buy or rent before embarking on a five or six hour round trip up to the crater. And no summer sandals, Stromboli is not a passeggiata or stroll. Outfitters issue hardhats with their gear, hiking boots are a must and mouth scarves are recommended. There are various trails and most excursions leave from Stromboli, but treks also begin in Ginostra.
Stromboli is a very active volcano, with on average one eruption an hour, but they can range from every twenty minutes to rare instances of even a month or longer between explosions. Boat trips are a more leisurely way of appreciating the volcano, viewing the fiery explosions and flow down the wide path on the northwest side of the island all the way to the sea, particularly exciting at night.
I found the island’s classic Aeolian architecture particularly appealing. The building style capitalizes on the natural volcanic materials: lava stone, pumice and tufo or tuff. The clean lines of the whitewashed, cube-shaped houses with their vividly painted doors and shutters say, “Vacation!” for visitors to the island.
STROMBOLI, THE SANDWICH
After walking around a bit, my stomach had adjusted to dry land and we decided to get a bite to eat. Surrounded by all that water, fish definitely came to mind. But oddly enough, being on the island also brought me back to my New Jersey high school, perhaps the first place I had ever heard the word Stromboli, although the pronunciation definitely did not entail an accent on the first syllable. Once every couple of weeks, the word would crackle over the morning announcements with regard to the lunch menu.
Normally, the menu was read without much fanfare, but on each and every Stromboli day, we heard about how our cafeteria ladies had taken third prize in a state contest with their award-winning Stromboli. I admit that I was curious and I would have tried it if the lines hadn’t been so long. I remember the hair-netted staff held their shoulders further back and heads just a little bit higher with pride on those days. And rightly so, it was clearly a popular sandwich, what appeared to be a pizza-like outer shell with chopped meat and melted cheese wrapped in tinfoil.
Needless to say, I ate fish that day. The Stromboli sandwich was apparently invented in the United States in the 1950s.
As the afternoon wore on, the clouds at the peak cleared and we had an unobstructed view of Stromboli, the volcano. But as with most enjoyable excursions, the time to depart came all too soon. Very few people were waiting to get on the return hydrofoil, no tripping over backpacks, a much fresher ride. I said goodbye to Stromboli, in person, and my new friend from Livorno, aka Leghorn.
Do you have a connection to Stromboli through a visit, the movie, family or a sandwich? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Read about my excursion to the Aeolian Island of Vulcano, Stromboli’s neighbor, in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in Calabria, the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot.
More about Sicily in my blogpost My Friend, The Duchess.
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