The Aeolian Islands form an archipelago of seven volcanic peaks poking above the sea to the north of Sicily and the Messina Straits. Of those seven, one, Stromboli, is active, and has been in constant (“strombolic”) eruption for at least 2000 years. Another, Vulcano (the name is a bit of a giveaway), is a smouldering stratovolcano which last blew its top about 100 years ago, and must be thinking about a repeat act in the not too distant future, based on its past record. Lipari, the largest island, is classified as active by geologists, and has some low key fumarole activity scattered around. The rest are dormant or extinct. Salina, with it’s distinctive twin peaks, is the second largest, and fairly busy by Eolian standards (i.e sleepy). Panarea is a small, discrete high end tourist resort, with the relicts of a massive explosion, Basiluzzo, featuring active undersea vents, a kilometer or so offshore. Filicudi and Aliculdi are car-free, timeless, sleepy dreamlands which you’d love or loathe. All seven are linked by a web of hydrofoils and ferries. If you ever happen to have read Christopher Priest’s novel “The Affirmation”, or his “Dream Archipelago” short stories, this could well be the setting for them.
The Dream Archipelago
I have always been vaguely aware of the Aeolian Islands. They seemed to be a distant, mythical, far off place which was hard to get to, and about which little was said. I just knew I wanted to go, and finally at the tail end of a two week vacation in eastern Sicily (also highly recommended, especially Etna), I had my first opportunity. Three days in Lipari, a quick glimpse of Stromboli, an afternoon on Salina and a hint of Vulcano and I was hooked. The next trip was exclusively to the islands, included cameras, and a first ascent of Stromboli. The second, earlier this year, was exclusively photographic, out of season, and featured Vulcano and Stromboli, and some serious near-vertical trekking.
Vulcano and Stromboli are the obvious attention grabbers, especially Stromboli, so for now I’ll concentrate on these. I’m really at a loss to say which fascinates me the most. Stromboli is more spectacular, more isolated, more wild and, I guess, more romantic. Ingrid Bergman certainly thought so. Vulcano is more accessible, has fewer restrictions, is pretty spectacular itself, although you need to seek it out a bit more, and from a photographic perspective arguably has more potential. I’d hate to have to choose between them.
Vulcano’s main feature is the Grand Crater. It is truly impressive, about a km in diameter, with the rim between 400 and 600m above sea level. The north west side is riddled with fumaroles, of varying activity, and wide deposits of sulfur and other minerals. The crater itself is sprinkled with large lumps of obsidian, which you really would not want falling on your head.
The contrast between the bright yellow sulfur, the deep blue Mediterranean sea, and the equally blue sky, is full of potential but not so easy to exploit well. Especially when the pretty yellow patches are associated with enthusiastically poisonous fumes emanating from the fumaroles and tending to creep up behind you when you least expect them. Please note: if you do visit Vulcano, don’t let the relaxed attitude to public safety put you off. In a nanny state like the UK these would be seriously fenced off. They can be lethal, and stumbling around a steep rocky smoke breathing toxic fumes is not a fun way to spend your time. But then again, with care and attention to your getaway route, you can get extremely close. Of course, then you’ve got to watch out for boiling water and scalding steam. Hey, it’s a volcano!
The climb up to the crater is quite straightforward, but don’t carry too much gear, and do carry as much water as you can carry, and a snack. There’s no bar or gift shop up there! If you’re taking photographs, honestly you want to go for the sunrise or sunset slot. Sunrise is better (clearer air) but sunset can be spectacular. To get to the path, just follow the road south out of the port, skirting the crater. About 2km from the dock you will see a path to your left. Don’t even think about shortcuts, the path is the only safe way, and any shortcut is going to be much harder. The path zigzags up the side of the crater. At the first hairpin, a recently installed feature is a kiosk where you might be asked to pay 2€ for entrance. This is not a con, but an official move to raise funds to protect the area and improve access. The results can already be seen in a much improved upper section of the path, which previously could be quite tricky. However, the kiosk tends not to be manned at 5am ... Initially the path is pretty steep. Take your time, plod along. It’s not as bad as it seems and all will be forgiven when you get your first glimpse of the crater.
And it will get you prepared for Stromboli! Stromboli is a different kettle of fish. The crater zone is approximately 1000m above sea level, which is where you’ll be starting from (sea level, give or take 50m).
No pain, no gain
The climb is steep, unrelenting, frequently exposed to the Mediterranean sun, and as you get higher you’ll be walking on volcanic sand and ash. It takes between 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the conditions and the group. Because you’ll have to go in a group. Health & safety regulations introduced some years back in reaction to several accidents as well as increasing volcanic activity now dictate that you must go with a recognised and licensed mountain guide, who will always have at least one assistant, and stays in constant communication with the emergency services. Most guides are local, multilingual (at least to some extent), and have extensive knowledge of aspect or the other of the island and volcano, be it geology, vulcanology or botany. Several are qualified scientists. So there is no rip-off here, the guides are well organised and responsible, and the charges are quite reasonable (around €20). But there is a supply and demand problem. In-season (basically Easter to August), demand is very high, and groups are large and constrained. In theory each group should spend no more than 30 minutes on the summit ridge (not including a rest at the lower platform, at about 850m). This is in part a restriction for safety reasons, to minimise exposure to toxic gasses (including carbon monoxide), and in part a limitation to allow the maximum number of visitors per day (and all groups aim to be there or thereabouts at sunset). After such a climb, it can feel pretty disappointing to have so little time at the summit, so try to go out of season. Rules are more easily bent, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and 90 minutes on the ridge is not unheard of - by which time it’s dark anyway.
Shooting a volcano
So, photography. Well, really, don’t take too much gear. Really, if you’re exhausted when you reach the top, you’ll be in no shape to take good photos, especially as you’re going to have to act and react quickly. First of all, if you’re in a large group, try to be at the front for the final stretch. You’re going to want a front row view. Second, or actually no, first of all: safety first. This is a dangerous place. One slip, and you’re quite literally toast. Nobody is going to go down into to the rift to rescue you. No photo is worth that. Do take a tripod. Forget filters, you don’t need them, and you’ve got no time to fiddle with them, with the exception of a UV / Skylight to protect the lens from ash and dust ... which quite possibly will be raining down on you. That’s why the guide gave you a helmet. Put it on. I would recommend a mid-range zoom lens, with a 35mm equivalent of around 70-200mm. Take a wider angle if you feel you can take the weight (but honestly, there are few worst places to change a lens), but you probably won’t use it. I’ve taken an XPan up twice and got almost nothing worthwhile. A remote cable release is good to have as well. Observe first: try to avoid seeing the world through your viewfinder. The experience of being 500m away from an erupting volcano is literally awesome, and pretty much unique at least in Europe. Identify a good candidate for photos, usually a crater which is producing eruptions every few minutes or so, frame your shot, set up your exposure, check your histogram, and focus manually. Set up your motor drive (actually, set up as much as you can before the climb). Then hold your cable release, enjoy the vista, and wait for the opportunity. If you hold your nerve, you’re in with a good chance to get a great shot. If you just flap around reacting to the volcano rather than observing and waiting, you’ll end up with a lot of blurred shots with something that might be lava in the corner. It’s really not dissimilar to shooting fireworks. Planning and anticipation are key.
Then sooner than you want it’s time to go down, but actually this is almost as much fun. You won’t go down by the steep path you came up on, but rather by a wild, head-torch illuminated semi-controlled slide down and across the relict ash slope on the south side of the volcano. You’ll take about 45 minutes to reach the village. And you’ll want several beers to go with that well-earned pizza.
And now ... the easy way up
If you feel like a (relatively) more relaxed and less constrained experience, alternatively you can walk out towards to east of the island, past Piscinas, past the Punto Labronzo lighthouse, and follow the old path up the ridge overlooking the “Sciara del Fuoco”. You are allowed to climb up to 450m without a guide, and you can get as far up as a platform which povides great views of eruption craters along the top of the ridge, as well as (if you’re lucky) lava flowing down the slope, and ejecta crashing into the sea below. It’s a different experience, but equally rewarding.
And there’s a lot more to the Eolian Islands than Volcanos. The best time to visit, in my experience, is late March, but it varies a bit year to year. At that time things are pretty quiet, the tourist infrastructure hasn’t really got going, and finding a guide is not 100% guaranteed ... but just relax. It’s all part of the experience.
The most reliable, year-round link is by hydrofoil from Milazzo. Both Ustica Lines and Siremar operate regular services. Departures to the outer islands, including Stromboli, are much less frequent out of season. Milazzo is reachable from Catania airport, by a combination of public transport (entertaining but slow), or by taxi service (fast but more expensive). In-season some bus services link both Catania and Palermo airports with Milazzo.