MESSINA — From the moment the plane lands, it seems as if all the beauties of Sicily — its Mediterranean vegetation, its lemon trees loaded with heavy fruits, and its groves of broom and prickly pears — have gathered to welcome you. In the distance, Mount Etna, the "immense volcano" described by French writer Guy de Maupassant in his 1886 book Sicily, seems to mark the gateway to this land formed by centuries of earthquakes and eruptions.
All along the road to Messina, the landscapes are familiar to anybody who has seen The Godfather. Several scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's classic trilogy were filmed in Forza d'Agrò and in Savoca, including that of Michael expand=1] Corleone and Apollonia's wedding.
It's just a few more kilometers past the strait of Messina and into the harbor of Milazzo, in Sicily's northeast. That's where Sicile-Sundial, the 24-meter sailboat that will take us on our seven-day volcanic adventure, awaits.
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Lipari and its harbour — Photo: Flrnt
We leave Sicily headed north for an archipelago of seven craggy islands with ragged coastlines and black sand beaches. It's in the shape of a Y in the Tyrrhenian Sea, but our route will only take us to Lipari, Panarea and Stromboli, leaving behind Vulcano, Salina and the islets Filicudi and Alicudi to the west.
As you might expect, the weather is glorious. But the sirocco, a Mediterranean wind from the Sahara that sailors know only too well, threatens. For our sailboat captain Salvatore, it's out of the question to risk being caught by surprise in the archipelago. He urges us to head directly towards Stromboli, the volcano island immortalized in film by director Roberto Rossellini, and save Vulcano for the return trip.
In the distance, between the blue sea and the clear sky, we start to make out Lipari, the biggest island in the archipelago, and its white villages. Its old quarry of pumice stone, closed since 2007, was known to the convicts and outcasts who were sent there as "l’inferno bianco" (the white hell). Mount San Angelo offers a splendid view of the archipelago, and of the island of Salina in particular, where painter and wine maker Carlo Hauner produces one of Lipari's finest Malvasia wines.
Over the course of just a few years, all of these islands, long ignored by tourists, have become prized little gems, best discovered in the spring or fall. In winter, the blinds are closed and only a couple of hundred inhabitants remain on the island, with no more than a few boats still bringing fresh water and food from the mainland. Houses reopen in April, when the first visitors and sailboats arrive.
We're now en route to the Stromboli. Ancient Greeks used to call it the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean." On the island that shares its name, the volcano has been rumbling, smoking and spitting stones and fire for over 2,000 years. Mount Stromboli's summit is rounded but culminates at 964 meters, with its foot going 2,000 meters down into the sea.
On the way up to the "Sciara del fuoco" (stream of fire) — a large depression down which lava and rocks pour — explosions come regularly one after the other, every seven to 10 minutes. Just above our heads, plumes of smoke rise into the sky. On the volcano's flanks, gas and smoke spurt out of the cracks. We can't go further because ever since the 2003 eruption that caused a small tsunami and destroyed several houses, it is forbidden to climb up on this flank. We must go back to the center of the village, behind San Vincenzo's church, where a guide awaits us with helmets for the traditional excursion to the top. It's a three-hour hike in the wilderness on a rocky and sandy path before arriving on top of the black and smoking crater.
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The stream of fire — Gif: Jens Bludau
But the most beautiful sight comes a few hours later, at night, from the boat. Off the coast of Stromboli, the explosions give the dark sky a bright red glow. As the French photographer Arnaud Guérin wrote in his book Destination Volcans, it looks like "the rhythmic respiration of fantastic dragons." He goes on: "Then suddenly, after a few minutes, the energy is liberated in a detonation that fills up the atmosphere of the place." A truly majestic firework that only a seasoned photographer would be able to capture.
After a good night of anchorage, the time has come to make our way back to Sicily, calling on the way at Vulcano, this "fantastic sulfur flower that bloomed in the ocean" that seduced Maupassant all those years ago. "Everything around me, under my feet and on me is yellow, a blinding yellow, a frightening yellow," he wrote as he surveyed the island.
More than a century later, the landscape hasn't changed, and the morning ascent of the “Fossa,” a crater at least 500 meters wide and 200 meters deep, feels like a walk in the park compared to climbing Stromboli. No explosions here, but sulfur fumes still rise from the ground and swing across to the hikers' faces because of the wind, the yellow and white smoke almost choking them. And from the top, the view of Lipari is breathtaking.
Big dark clouds are menacing in the distance, a sign that the weather is changing. The sirocco is about to rise. It's time for us to head back to the boat and sail towards the safety of Milazzo. And prepare tomorrow's hike. This time, we're tackling Mount Etna.