GUARDIAN The trumpeting of angels or the spectral lights of heaven didn’t accompany me on my brush with death as I gazed at the angry bowels of the earth and the portal to possible oblivion. I sang camp disco instead. More specifically, Gloria Gaynor’s spirit urged me to sing “I will survive” at the top of my voice. Let me explain.
Travelling to the island of Vulcano takes 24 hours; not so long you may think, but this sulphurous speck is only off the coast of Sicily. After faffing around in Rome airport, I eventually touched down in Palermo where I stayed at the Excelsior Hotel overnight. A word of advice: don’t make the same mistake as me. It was nothing more than a palatial boarding house hung with grandiose chandeliers, even bigger pretensions and staffed with the surliest, most unpleasant personnel I’ve ever come across. Next day didn’t come soon enough, and I transferred to Milazzo to get a boat to Vulcano.
The tiny island (population 800) is extraordinary. The smell of sulphur precedes it and scents the air with strange aromatics long before you arrive. I understand it has its good and bad days; during my first visit the stench was stimulating, to say the least; this time it was a gentle – if sometimes farty – constant. There are few guesthouses and hotels to choose from (I stayed at Hotel les Sables Noir). The best beach on the island is here; it’s a dramatic sweep of coal-black sand that curls towards the jaggedy rocks of nearby cliffs. This is possibly the best place to swim off the island, too, as the ocean isn’t that accessible from other parts.
The hotel is simple, clean and cheerfully run, and meals can be had on their beautiful patio overlooking the sea. Or, if you’re feeling like a little cabaret, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind you having a tinkle on the white grand piano. It was an incongruously camp addition to the establishment.
But looming above all of this, like a poisonous slagheap puking a continuous stream of sulphurous gases into the atmosphere, is the volcano. It is an ominous sight even though the big boy is extinct now. He’s not blown his top for over a century.
The main reason for visiting Vulcano is to bathe in the mud pool and to hike across the elemental landscape. It’s the crude nature of the place that is so beguiling. The mud pool bubbles up warm slurry that reeks of fermenting hops. Its reputation relies on the curative powers of the silver sludge (claimed to be particularly beneficial for arthritic and respiratory problems). Beyond the mud pool, it’s possible to bathe in a naturally heated part of the sea to rid yourself of your all-over face pack – the water actually boils in places. It costs €1 a session.
Preparation for mountaineering was simple; I’d been told that it shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes to reach the top of the volcano; it was hardly Everest and a guide wasn’t needed. A lovely hot, spring morning; slip into sand-coloured linens and sandals and swish off up the hill. The world was perfect, nature had been given a wake-up call and spring was zingy. Large, vibrant green lizards and bumblebees the size of ping-pong balls were busy in the undergrowth, and spring flowers held the air to ransom with a heady scent of cinnamon (overpowering the more usual chemical whiff). I bumped into folk on their way back down the mountainside dressed in serious hiking boots and cagoules. “Get a life,” I thought, muttering to myself something about this being clambering for urbanites, and scampered (not quite in the manner of a fashionable mountain goat) to the summit.
Nothing prepared me for the crater’s edge: Dante eat your heart out. Curling tendrils of steam rose into the air on clouds of chemical gauze. It was much more dramatic than I imagined it to be. I stood behind a chrome yellow fumarole that blasted out a geyser of hot, damp, stinking air and attempted to walk through it. My breath was taken away by the outrageous stench and the knowledge that there was one hell of a drop just to my right. The sulphur started to smell like bitter coffee and the wisdom of flip-flops was questioned.
Walking around the crater became a scramble as the path rose at a steep angle through a mixture of sand, shale, pumice and shingle. I got a little antsy about the state of the linens but persevered until 15m from the summit, where I took a proprietorial look at the magnificence below me. I squealed and sat down on the edge of the precipice; I was petrified.
Returning the way I came wasn’t an option; I would have to head on around. First I was afraid, I was petrified. That seemed to ring a bell. I was going to survive. The spirit of Gloria Gaynor entered me at my most vulnerable. It wasn’t what I expected. Stories of ethereal beauty normally unite those who face uncertain death.
Being possessed by a campy old disco diva doesn’t figure large in the pantheon of spiritual near misses. She did with me, though, and I edged my way back to safety.
Supper, and the best place for it is Maurizio’s. You can’t miss it; just up from the harbour on the left. The carpaccio of swordfish was so-so, but the ravioli of lobster was pretty much top notch as was the spaghetti alle vongole and the valpolicella. The waiter couldn’t have been more helpful or theatrical if he’d tried. Allow yourself about €40 a head for a blow-out dinner with wine.
On to Stromboli (the last island in the chain, population 500) and the only one to have an active volcano. The island is car-less because the streets are too narrow to let them pass. It was designed for donkeys. At the top of the village is the church of San Vincenzo, a shop that rents out the correct gear for volcano climbing (which I ignore) and a café (which I don’t). I was served pizza in a basket; I kid you not.
This small area is essentially the main drag as most of the bars are up here; I’d urge you to try a bar/ restaurant called Roma on the Via. Great view, old-fashioned service and vodkas served by the litre for pennies. My hotel, La Sirenetta, was situated on the seafront near to the posher part of the village. Dolce and Gabanna are summertime neighbours, so it must be classy.
After Vulcano, my approach to the beast on Stromboli was fretful. Anyone considering a climb of this dangerous peak must do so with a local guide. They can be easily arranged through your hotel for either day or night-time hikes.
I decided on a decorous, unguided tour and headed up a stone pathway to the base to the growling monster in the early evening. If I were lucky, I’ d see the volcano glow red in the dark from afar. I wasn’t convinced; I was also cold, hungry and a little miserable. I had persuaded myself it was too cloudy, there would be nothing to see; dinner at the hotel would be a much better option.
I only looked up by chance and saw it – the hillside puked up its molten guts. I sat on a wall and waited for Stromboli to get bilious again, hoping it would do so sooner rather than later as hypothermia was threatening to do me in. I gave it another five minutes and wasn’ t disappointed. Its great orange firework display fingered the night sky and enthralled the lone spectator huddled on the slopes below. Returning was difficult, not because of life threatening plunges into the abyss but because of constantly looking back in the hope of seeing just a little bit more of nature’ s most exciting show on earth.