Stromboli Calling: Where Aeolus Blows and Vulcan Fumes

Article excerpt

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. …