Stromboli volcano: a lesson in respect, nature, and life

This blog is by Cris Toala Olivares, an Ecuadorian-born photographer who has spent recent years working on a story about volcanoes around the world, focusing on the people who live around them and how they approach the danger and beauty of this natural phenomenon on a daily basis.

Here he recalls his experiences on Stromboli for Italian Gems:

People who live on Stromboli tend to view their volcano as a sort of god, a divine being. They refer to the volcano as “Iddu” or “He”, and show deep respect for his power to sustain their livelihoods by attracting visitors to the island.

I spent several months on Stromboli, getting to know the locals and capturing their lives in photos for my volcano series which has appeared in magazines around the world. (www.instagram.com/toalaolivares)

I remember the first time I sensed this volcano was a being –a living breathing being– with his own character. I had climbed up to the crater area with a guide during a period when Strombolians thought the volcano was “sick” because he had stopped his normal explosive activity.

I was leaning into the crater complex to take a photo when all of a sudden, a shower of stones shot out in my face, as if I had irritated the volcano. I was shocked and frightened. From that point on I realised I needed to show him the same respect as the locals do. Now before I photograph any volcano, I kneel first, to ask permission to approach.

One of the most active volcanoes in Italy, along with Mount Etna in Sicily, Stromboli has been almost continuously erupting for the past 2,000 years. While I was living on the island, I began to view his regular outbursts of smoke, ash and lava as a sign he was breathing. When you hear him breathing, it’s magical.

A smoking crater of the active Stromboli volcano. In the backdrop we see the islands Panarea, Lipari, Vulcano and further behind Sicily.
A smoking crater of the active Stromboli volcano. In the backdrop we see the islands Panarea, Lipari, Vulcano and further behind Sicily.

I climbed up to the top of the volcano several times during my stay. It takes about four to five hours for the full trip up and down the mountain. There is a zig-zag path which guides lead you along. You have to wear strong shoes to walk over the sharp volcanic stones, and to cope with the steep descent. You also have a helmet and headlight, for walking down in the dark.

It’s important to go with a good guide, if possible a local with a true understanding of the volcano. I recommend the tour guides Il Vulcano a Piedi.

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Tours usually start at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, as the guides want to avoid the hottest part of the day in summer. They also want you to be able to view the lava eruptions and flows down the Sciara del Fuoco slope at night, when they are most visible and impressive.

At the top you can look into the crater area and see Stromboli’s five active vents. Usually you can see smoke coming out, and lava spurts. That is the attraction: fire. Local guides also show you hidden aspects, such as parts of the sand that you can put your hand in and feel the strong warmth of the volcano. It’s an incredible sensation.

The most difficult part about climbing the volcano is keeping up with the group. That can cause issues if some people are less fit, older or younger. But if you are with a good leader, they can help you manage, and they keep the group united and motivated.

Tourists people around Stromboli island
Only a few hundred people live on Stromboli permanently. Many of them are fishermen. I enjoyed visiting the island in the winter months when there were hardly any tourists– that way I got to see the people leading their normal lives.

The fishermen start their days at 4 or 5 o clock in the morning. They go out fishing with nets and they come back at about 8. They sell fresh fish on the shore, including swordfish, octopus and squid. In the afternoon they clean and prepare the boats and sometimes they go fishing again.

I was privileged to be able to join them on some days. I discovered some of the daily rituals they follow. For example, before they start, they bless the net by sprinkling some water from the sea over it. When I was with them I often did not feel the need to speak, I just sat quietly and observed them, learning from them and their close relationship with nature.

One of the ways they show respect for their volcano and their surroundings is by not being greedy. They do not take too much, just what they need. For example, if they did not sell all their catch, I often saw them return fish to the sea.

Mario Caccetta (59) returns from his fishing trip and sells his catched fishes on the spot to local citizens of Stromboli.
Mario Caccetta (59) sells the fish he has caught to local citizens of Stromboli.

STROMBOLII also met some local artisans and craftsmen during my stay. These included Salvatore Russo, who sculpts faces out of the volcanic stone, which is one of the strongest types of stone in the world.

Salvatore Russo was born in Lipari in 1964, but has lived on Stromboli all his life. He started off working as a bricklayer, and his interest for art initially led him to take up photography, capturing the beauty of his natural surroundings. In the winter of 2009, he was walking along the deserted beaches of the island among volcanic stones when he realised he could make out faces in those stones, faces that the volcano and the sea had given them. So he decided to take them home and sculpt those faces more clearly. For Salvatore, every stone has its own story and feelings, and he handles them with tender care. For more information on his work see here

Artist Salvatore Russo (1964) is born in Lipari and lived in Stromboli his whole life. From volcanic stones he finds on the shore of Stromboli he creates faces. The art pieces he creates are very popular and sold to art lovers world wide.
Artist Salvatore Russo (1964) .  The sculptures he creates are very popular and sold to art lovers world wide.

Visitors to Stromboli must try out the local food. Zurro, one of the best chefs on the island, has a restaurant at Via Crivelli 5. He comes from a simple Stromboli family and has remained loyal to their traditions. He had a poor and hard life when he was growing up, and is used to enjoying dishes such as Pasta Stromboliana, with tomatoes, anchovies, capers, olives and peppers. He recreates those basic recipes while adding his own twist.

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A trip to Stromboli helps show you how simple life can be. In modern times, most of us live in big, hectic cities. Technology and commercialism have led us to create so many additional problems for ourselves, and to think that we always need more to be happy. Strombolians remind you that the reality is really the opposite: we would be happier if we had a less complicated life, if we were more respectful of our surroundings, and if we were connected to nature rather than our smartphones.

Fisherman Mario Caccetta (59) early in the morning during a fishing trip.
Fisherman Mario Caccetta (59) early in the morning during a fishing trip.

Here is a video of Cris’ interviews with some of Stromboli’s inhabitants:

For more information about Stromboli’s geological features, see here

For a blog on Stromboli’s place in culture and what you can do on a day out in Stromboli and nearby Panarea, see here

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14 thoughts on “Stromboli volcano: a lesson in respect, nature, and life

  1. I used to live on Stromboli from 1964 to 1968. We owned the last house on the island not far from the new port today. In my day, there was no running water, nor electricity, no restaurants and tourist shops and no doctors. One Policeman who rode a motor bike! I climbed the volcano with one other friend…no groups, no hard hats, just a torch. We never left at 4 pm…tooooo hot. We would leave in The dark at 10:30 pm and arrive 3 hours later. Rest on top for an hour or so. Then start the decent just as dawn was breaking. Those were the days. Now it has been spoilt with houses renovated, hotels, bikes, restaurants, running water, air con, Vespas running here and there making loud noises and ships arriving and departing every day. When I lived there we had one ship a week from Naples and one ship a week back to Naples. If the weather was too bad to take the long boats out to the ship, we had to wait a week for the next return! Oh, turn back the clock

    1. Fascinating. Thanks for your story Faith. Why were you based on Stromboli? What do you remember liking most about the island? I imagine the commercialism has spoiled some aspects, but several locals seem happy to welcome tourists as it provides them with income. Of course tourism always needs to be managed carefully.

      1. We were living in Rome at the time. My mother hurt her back and it was recommended she take us children to Stromboli for the summer months so that she could lie on the black sand which was supposed to be good for bad backs. The island at that time only had 200 people (locals). If you have seen the film “Stromboli” with Ingred Bergman, the island depicted was exactly how I knew it. I loved the total isolation living there. The water boat only came in once or twice during the summer….so we learnt how to manage water as our cisterna was very small. When I returned in 2006, I wept for 4 out of the 5 days…the island was ruined for me…it was noisy with those little Vespas running around. Any back when, there were only one or two. There were two shops and one little tourist shop. The vegetable boat came once a week on a Wednesday and if we wanted meat, you had to take a boat to Lipari for a three hour shop. I think some old stewing meat may have come on the vegetable boat but I am a little hazy on that as it was my mother who bought the provisions. The boat ” Lipari” came from Naples on a Tuesday morning around 5 am. It anchored off ahore and the long boats came to fetch us off the ship. The local priest would always ride in the front of a boat. When the sea was rough, going down the ship’s ladder and jumping into the long boat had to be timed correctly as the long boat rose up to the end of the ladder! I was lucky enough to climb the volcano when it was in full eruption… 1967 or 1968. I brought a friend from Rome down to the island to open the house for the summer and naturally wanted to take her up. As we rounded the hill where the lovely restaurant is near the lava flow , we were able to see the entire red lava flow from top to the water. I had never experienced this but insisted on going to what I called stage 2 of the climb. At stage two you are much closer and you could feel the heat from the lava flow. I took the decision to go to the top. Needless to say, we stopped only for 15 minutes once at the top instead of a couple of hours. A few days later a friend with one of those inflatable motor boats took me around the island but he would not go anywhere near where the lava tumbled into the water as he was afraid of melting the rubber boat!

        My love of the island is the actual volcano and the once upon a time isolation of living there. I understand the islanders need to make a living, but I feel the majority of people making the money are those who saw an opportunity to buy and make money and are not original Strombolians. Prices are disgustingly high for the accommodation on offer.

        I hope I have not rambled on too much!

  2. I too used to go to Stromboli during the 1960 ‘s and 70’s, and always wanted to buy a ruin, but had insufficient money at the time. Returned in 2002 and took one look from the pier, and returned to the mainland. Paradise lost!

    1. John, I felt the same way as you but the call to return despite the modernity is too strong for me…I am returning end May 2017 for a week. Our old house is still there but greatly enhanced by the owners who bought it from us in 1978! They invited me in. Very sadly, my once perfect Italian had disappeared and I felt so tongue tied not being able to ask questions or reply to theirs. I am at present brushing up on my Italian so this will not happen again.

      1. I wonder what arrangements there are in reference to waste. I cannot emagine how they are coping? In my time the rats were already abundant, even found near to the summit.

  3. Despite my earlier words about Stromboli, I am taking my family back in May 2017. My son has never been. The utter shock of its modernity now behind me, I will not be weeping 4 out of 5 days this time! (I hope). I would like to climb the volcano just one more time, starting from the little restaurant at the foot of la sciara. This is where I used to start the ascent back in the 60s. I wonder whether the original foot path is still there and not partially blown away after the huge eruption years ago when 2 new craters were formed. I never used to start the climb until dark (10:30 pm) when it was cool. We used to go in twos or threes….never more…no hard hats, no head lights…just a torch. As dawn broke, we would descend watching the red dawn light appear and the fishermen returning with their catch. A stop to chat with them on the beach, sometimes share their breakfast which used to be a fish on a hastily made simple fire on the beach (they put a whole fish; guts, scales and all on the fire). One had to be skilful to eat just the meaty parts! There used to be a sort of disco place on the beach. It had a wind up record player! All in all a great evening of dancing was had by all. Memories!

  4. Hello Faith, It would be interesting to know if Bar Roma is still in existence? It was located on the bend, just before the church square on Via Roma. From what I can understand from the site “Stromboli on Line” the traditional route is still being used, but badly eroded in certain parts. So many people climbing up, like Hannabul crossing the Alps. Today the authorities run the place, with penilties imposed for those who try to make it alone. Sigh, we are or were the lucky ones.

    1. Oh my dear….penalties for going up Alone…I will keep this in mind. The old proper road past the restaurant near Le Sciara was built by the Americans during WWII so they could get to a vantage point where they could keep an eye on approaching enemies. I call this stage 1 of the ascent. From there you get the first real view of La Sciara. Stage two took one 2/3 up the volcano and where one is very much closer to La Sciara…you can feel the heat now…then the dreaded last 1/3rd or 300 metres of black sand…two steps up, one back…exhausting!

      Bar Roma…..the only shop I remember was on a corner of whatever the name of the only road leading from where we lived in Scari to both churches and down into Piscita. (Not the lower route by the beach). The road which passed Ingred Burgmans house where they filmed Stromboli the film in the late 59s. This shop was our closest shop…I remember very vividly the owner’s old flea ridden dog lying top of the sack of pasta and having to boot it off if I wanted a kilo of pasta!! I also remember a member of the house next door dying and her corpse lying in state for 3 days ( in 40c heat!) and after day 1 having to RUN past it for the Stentch was so bad.

      I remember finding what I thought was a huge bomb on the beach some ways beyond our house on Scari…in the next cove from the main beach in front of our house. I was with a couple of Italian friends. One of us went to fetch the only Caribiniere on the island. It turned out it was a flare from a submarine or ship from WWII! Someone from Sicily came to dismantle it.

      I remember going to Ginostra by inflatable with friends and getting off before the actual town. We scrambled up the Clift and walked to several deserted houses! They were left just as they had been left…plates virtually on the table, beds with linen on. The owners emigrating to “Brookolino”, New York or to Australia. We could have bought any of those ruins for the price of 10 to 15 years back taxes. Trouble was one would have to find all the family members to get their signatures and this was near impossible at the time…you can well imagine. I am talking about the years 1964-68.

      There are still one or two ruins between Scari beach and Ginostra which are (or were) there in 2014…still ruins. One would have to have a boat to reach them. Very remote.

      Ramble on!

  5. I would often go up to the summit late in the evening, then stay up there until it became too hot, returning down to Bar Roma just before lunch. Each year, I would meet other friends who like me would return year after year. I still have a friend from Austria, who had been going there from the early 1950’s. I also met a friend in 1970, and since then we have kept in touch and have remained good friends to this day. It wasn’t until 1970 that I wore a hard hat, a GI steel helmet from Vietnam. I did a series of close up pictures of the vents within the fall out zone for National Geographic. Unfortunately because I was not a member of the National Geographic team, my pictures were not accepted. Today almost all of my pictures (slides) have been destroyed by fungus, nevertheless three are on the Stromboli online website under the title of 1970.
    If I was living close to Stromboli today and still 30 years of age, I would certainly return. Today the best way up would be from Ginostra, as the authorities are less on that side of the island. If young, there are still ways of getting up to the summit without meeting people, if you know my meaning?
    Paradise lost!

    1. How fascinating about the close up of the vents! I do not know the way up from Ginostra so wouldn’t like to do it. I did know about people doing it from there however. I had no idea it was so prohibitive to go up on one’s own now….if I were to do it in May, I would struggle to keep up with a young crowd…my daughter and son in law struggled back in 2006 and they were early 30s. I used to know a bearded guy called Franco who is a Strombolian…he was the one who taught me the route up. He used to do stupid things when on the volcano….he would run a bit down a non functioning crater or something like that in order to scoop up some crystals! I have them today!
      He apparently lives in a house above the main church and has become a recluse. I will enquire after him in May…..perhaps I could find someone to guide us up privately and at my pace!

      I will let you know when we come back. The last time there (2006) I arrived with a terrible pinched nerve in my back! I Used to lie in bed wishing I were dead! The hotel sent for a doctor and he used to come each day to give me a pain injection to make the pain acceptable to a degree! It was all for free too! In my day, there wasn’t even a doctor on the island! Now they have a lovely surgery and a heli pad….come to think of it, I think the heli pad today was the place we used to dance to the wind up record player!

      I will try to find the Stromboli web site and look under 1970 for your photos.

      Cheers,
      Faith

      1. Yes I know the valley well, to the left of the summit, a very good place to find crystals such as feldspar, Olivan, and Pele’s hair which I have to this day. Within this valley, was the shelter used by the film crew. It was constructed out of lava blocks, but must be buried long ago.
        Sometime possibly in 1960, a British swimmer in a wet suit, had an epileptic fit and drowned. He was pulled out of the water and placed under a tarpolan. No one was allowed to touch him, even his friends. He was there until the evening when the undertaker arrived. By this time, he had been laying under the sun all day. By the evening he was already blotted and advertising his presence.

        Later in 1970, I was up on the summit when a Frenchman was killed by vent number one. I had my helmet with me, and was considering pulling his body and camera with tripod, back up to the summit? But the Italian police would no doubt have arrested me for robbery and possibly assault? So I decided to leave him much to my regret. There was no one else up there, along with low cloud rolling in. Much later, the one and only guide and policeman retrieved his body. I am sure that it was the shock that killed him? At the time, number one was going off every twenty minutes, which allowed me to get even closer the day before, suposedly to take photographs for National Geographic that was never accepted.

  6. Hi John, well, May 2017 has arrived and I and my family are about to arrive on Stromboli via the overnight boat from Naples on Saturday 26th! We have rented an airb&b very near Bar Ingrid (internet connection there!) and very close to San Vincenzo Church where the guided tours start up the volcano. I think I will go to the 400 metre mark as that is allowed without a guide. Will write after I gat back. Interesting story about the chap getting killed by a stray rock! I only read your reply 23 May 2017!

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