It started out as a normal hike. You passed whitewashed houses and a curving black-sand beach. You walked through overgrown grass and shrubby caper plants. You struggled as the incline became steeper and the gray sand became harder to grip. You stopped for frequent water breaks, since the sun was high and hot overhead. Then you climbed over black, lunar-like boulders to finally reach the peak. Now, for the first time, you’re staring into the mouth of a gurgling volcano. Not so normal.
That volcano is Stromboli. It sits in the Aeolian Islands, off the north coast of Sicily, on an island with the same name. A few thousand people lived on the 13-square-mile island in the early 1900s. Most emigrated due to frequent eruptions and isolation—the island’s three villages aren’t even linked by roads. Today, visitors arrive by boat, relax on Forgia Vecchia (that black-sand beach), and hike the 3,000-foot volcano.
Stromboli is one of three active volcanoes in Italy. It’s called the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean because it’s constantly active and has been for more than 2,000 years. Most eruptions are mild to moderate. They spew ash and lava a few hundred meters into the air and last between a few minutes and a few hours. The larger ones create explosions, send lava flowing down to the sea, and close the hiking trails.
Luckily, the trails are open today. Some visitors hiked to the viewpoint to see Sciara del Fuoco (Stream of Fire), a lava depression that runs down the volcano’s northern slope. Others went to the summit early, when it was still calm and cool. But you wanted to see the volcano as the sun set.
So you’re now staring down into three enormous craters that continually emit short bursts of white and black smoke. The setting sun looks like a fireball to the west. A loud roaring noise announces the next eruption, as gas forces magma into the air. Instinctively, you take a few steps back as the lava spews. The incandescent lava looks dramatic against the indigo Tyrrhenian Sea and the darkening sky. You’re fascinated, mesmerized, and more than a little fearful. It’s anything but normal.