Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stromboli

Escaped for a couple of days to the magical islands of Stromboli, my favourite of the Aeolians. May is the perfect time to go as it is not too hot. As soon as you get off the hydrofoil you start to feel the Stromboli effect. No cars, just motorini, api (the three wheel moto-truck) and bicycles. The sounds of birds flitting among olive groves and lemon trees, and the low boom of the volcano when it erupts. Stromboli is a live volcano and you can walk to an observatory to watch it and have pizza by candlelight – which we did a couple of years ago when the volcano was particularly active, erupting every ten minutes or so, sending sparks of lava high into the air and molten rock tumbling down its dark silhouette. There are also guided tours which start in daylight and finish in darkness at the top with a picnic while you look down from a height into the crater before sliding and jumping down through the black sandy slopes.

This time we were staying in a secret garden – hidden from the outside by cypress trees, eucalyptus and pine trees, tucked away among rose bushes and olive groves this B&B nestles at the foot of the volcano, allowing unhampered views of the mountain and out to Strombolicchio, a huge rock looming out of the sea from its fragrant terrace. Our long cabin was so well hidden with sprays of greenery that we were convinced it was ‘abusivo’, built without planning permission, but it was the perfect accommodation to enjoy the full Stromboli experience. One of the benefits of having Mondays and Tuesdays off is that we have the whole place to ourselves. The only sounds up here are birdcalls and owl duets.

We head off to the Grotto di Eolo, our favourite bay with a huge cave providing me with much-needed shade. Plenty of walking on Stromboli but the fresh breeze and the pretty cobbled streets perfumed with jasmine and coloured with bougainvillea spray make it enjoyable. Our bay though, is packed with a large group of East Europeans, possibly vulcanology students of varying ages, and our peace is disturbed by their heavy drinking and Frisbee games with beer bottle tops. Also, the rough winter tides have rolled up masses of stones on to the beach, so now, where once there was soft black sand, there are uncomfortable spikey stones. Very hard to walk into the sea. The foreigners have the bright idea fo trying to rid their part of the beach of the stones and line up in a row of ten or so, flinging handfuls or stones at a time out to sea.

We head up the main piazza around 5pm for icecream at Ingrid’s bar (so called becaused Ingrid Bergman stayed on the island while filming and romancing ‘Stromboli’ with Rossellini). When I get to our table with my icecream I find my husband has been assailed by a little girl who seems to want money or food, or both. She flashes her toothless grin and I wonder just how often she plays this trick. Where’s your mother, we ask her. How come you are allowed to roam the streets so freely? Her older sister (Margherita, 12) soon comes along and it turns out she was getting the bread for dinner when her young sibling ran off. ‘You’re not to accept food from strangers,’ she scolds her. ‘You weren’t asking for food again, were you?’ Part of the double act or not? We’re not sure.

We’re back out before it’s dark to enjoy the sundown. The light at this time is magical on Stromboli. There is a sense of winding down, a smell of freshly cut hay on the air since our host is out tending to his nearby field. The volcano is bathed yellow in the last rays of the sun, creating shadows in its crevices. Seagulls and sparrows wheel overhead as we get nearer the piazza. We stop again for an aperitivo at the bar and this time Bartolo regales us with his mad wisdom. The wild fennel paste is best, he rants, about the bruschetta toppings.

Coincidentally, some friends from Rome have hired a sailing boat and we meet them after our delicious breakfast just for two on the magnificent terrace of our B&B. They take us out to bay where the old sciara is – where the former mouth of the volcano was- since it is too windy to be able to swim around Strombolicchio and the anchor would drag. My first swim of the season on Stromboli’s waters, not bad. ‘You have the life of Riley,’ say our friends. ‘Think of us in Rome, an hour to get to work, an hour and a half to get to the beaches outside Rome, when you have this paradise on your doorstep.’ It’s true: people come from all over the world to see these islands, in fact we see various groups of French, Swiss and German trekkers all geared up for the hike up the volcano.

We then head to one of the bays next to the Grotto di Eole and find one with lots more sand, rather than pebbles, and no one on it. Such luxury. Sail boats drift past. Not a sound, only the whoosh of the sea. Later we dine in a lovely restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sea and Strombolicchio disappearing into the nightfall till it becomes a beacon flashing three times from its lighthouse. One tasty occhiata later and we head back up to our secret garden, guided by the almost full moon casting our shadows onto the whitewashed walls.

Up at 6.30am for breakfast we see Stromboli at its best; the early morning light gives the clearest view of the volcano while Strombolicchio is just emerging from morning mists on the sea. A dawn chorus of owls and birds accompanies our caffè lattes and then we’re off to the hydrofoil.

A perfect break before the summer season kicks in.

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