Earlier that day on our breakfast terrace on Salina we had gazed across the sea at smoking Stromboli, a conical volcanic island, and now we were here, sat on the warm earth on the edge of a ridge peering down into the three craters, waiting for the show to start.
Stromboli is the tip of a vast underwater volcano off the coast of Sicily and is Europe’s only permanently active volcano. We’d begun our ascent at 4pm when the hot September Sicilian sun was beginning to subside. We left the white washed town (population 400) and the long black sandy beaches behind as we walked slowly up, first a gentle incline through caper plants and lush vegetation, before the path became steeper and bleaker, rocks strewn amongst the grey volcanic sand. We’d been worried about the hike but it was easier than we expected, taking two hours to get to the summit with frequent breaks.
We were the first group to arrive at the three craters, well before sunset and had plenty of time to observe their changing forms. Clouds of smoke constantly emerged from the craters, a mass of hazy gases, at first tinted green, then orange. They made strange gushing, gurgling sounds, an ominous warning. Part of our brains knew that waiting for a volcano to erupt so close to us was crazy, but that’s what we all craved, the chance to see the volcano showing its full power. It tempted us with glimpses of its fiery red belly or a particularly menacing rumble, and one of the small craters expelled a cloud of black gases.
All were false starts and we continued to wait. The sun sunk lower and the sky lit up in oranges, pinks and blues, reflected in the mirror-like sea. Across the water we could see Calabria on Italy’s mainland, and Salina the island where we’d eaten breakfast that morning.
As darkness fell we finally got what we’d been waiting for as the largest crater erupted in a sudden burst of orange and red, sparks flying like fireworks, the red of the flames echoing the colour of the sinking sun. It was a brief but dramatic display of nature’s might.
We were hooked and wanted more. We watched in silence in the darkness, in awe of its power, on tenterhooks waiting for the next eruption. Behind us the full moon glowed large and golden, creating a strong beam of light across the sea.
Just as we prepared to depart we were rewarded with another mini eruption—a fiery red spray from the gurgling beast.
We could have stayed all night but it was time for our group to leave. We descended the steep slope in darkness, our headlamps illuminating the path in front but all around was blackness. We half walked, half slid through the deep black sand, our shoes filling up with volcanic ash that would take weeks to remove all traces of. We fell into a rhythm, taking long strides, heels first, zoning out in the silent night. It felt strange to walk on solid ground again, our legs wobbled, confused by the resistant earth.
Back in town we were too tired for a celebratory beer and pizza—a hot shower and comfortable bed beckoned.
Sunset on top of an island, a full moon hike, a volcanic eruption—any one of these would have been incredible, but all together they created a magical experience that was definitely worth the climb.
Climbing Stromboli: The Details
- You have to climb Stromboli with a guide and most people join a group trek. We went with Magmatrek which cost €25 each and included helmets and an English speaking guide. There were 20 people in our group so it’s not an intimate experience but all the groups were large. We were happy with the service and would go with them again.
- Departure times vary from 3 to 5.30pm depending on the season. In mid September we left at 4pm and were back at 9.20pm.
- Hiking shoes or boots and a torch (flashlight) are obligatory. It’s also a good idea to take snacks, water (at least 1.5 litres per person), warm clothes (it gets cold at the top), and a change of tshirt (you’ll sweat on the hot climb up). You can hire trekking gear from a few shops in town.
- It’s a steep climb so you need to be reasonably fit but it wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be. There are breaks every 30 minutes on the way up and at least 45 minutes rest at the crater.
- We stayed in Residence Aquilone which has simple bungalow rooms set in gardens. Our small double room had a comfortable bed, private bathroom, fridge and terrace and was just what we needed for our one night stay. It cost €50 which is a bargain on this expensive island. There’s no WiFi but 3G worked well and data plans in Italy are inexpensive.
- You can reach Stromboli by hydrofoil or ferry with Ustica or Siremar from Milazzo on Sicily or from the other Aeolian islands. There’s also a ferry from Naples. We arrived from Salina on the Ustica hydrofoil which took an hour.
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