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.
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.
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.
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. I felt so connected to nature when I was with them that I often did not feel the need to speak, I just sat quietly and observed them, learning from them.
One of the ways they show respect for their volcano and their surroundings is by not being greedy. They do not take too much from nature, just what they need. For example, if they did not sell all their catch, I often saw them return fish to the sea.
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
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.
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.
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