SICILY 2007 - Weeks 9~10
Our one night
stay at Camping Cirucco near to Cape Milazzo was buoyed with excitement
and expectation: tomorrow we were to catch the ferry out to the volcanic
Aeolian Islands - Lipari, Vulcano, Salina and Panarea 20 miles out into
the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, and the still active Stromboli a
further 20 miles out. In the port of Milazzo that afternoon, we had
managed to garner information about ferry sailing times: there are 3
ferry operators - Siremar and NGI ferries (navi) carry
vehicles, and Ustica Lines operate the faster passenger-only
Lipari, the largest of the Islands, has an amazing array of natural scenery to be explored, with spectacular views across the aquamarine sea to neighbouring islands. Along the north coast, natural resources of volcanic origin have been extracted since antiquity: obsidian (volcanic natural glass), sharper than flint, was worked into tools and weapons by Neolithic craftsmen bringing prosperity to these early settlers; today the coastline is scarred by the dazzling white waste from pumice quarries, a natural volcanic material used in modern chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Among the pumice waste, we were able still to find sherds of shiny black obsidian. And along the flora-covered cliff tops of the southern coastline, a magnificent panorama opened up towards the nearby island of Vulcano (Photo 2).
In addition to these natural wonders, the Aeolian Islands house one of Europe's most important prehistoric and Classical collections of remains from Neolithic and Greco-Roman settlements on the islands. The Museo Eoliano at the citadel in Lipari town displays archaeological finds preserved in layers of fine volcanic ash and illustrating the succession of cultures which flourished on the Aeolians from the 1st human settlements in the Neolithic period through the Bronze Age to the arrival of Greek colonists in the 6~5th centuries BC. Such was the economic importance of obsidian working before the discovery of metal smelting technology that remains show trading contacts between the Aeolian Islands and Mycenaean Greece. Lipari continued as a flourishing strategic centre during the Greek and Roman periods. Whether ancient history is your thing or not, the museum is well worth a visit, showing a comprehensive coverage of several millennia of local Aeolian history.
Lipari has only 1 campsite, Baia Unci Camping; despite being well-placed at the beach-side village of Canneto 3 kms from the port with regular bus service to other parts of the island, there any favourable report ends. When a campsite greets its guests with a diktat-list of rules forbidding everything, particularly enjoying a relaxed and peaceful stay, alarm bells should ring. Officiously unwelcoming staff displayed an inhospitable attitude and arrogant disregard for the well-being of regular camping clientele. Baia Unci has discovered the lucrative school party trade: the site was invaded by hoards of screaming teenagers who were allowed to rampage around making insufferable noise until midnight. Such were the indefensible dual standards that regular campers were subjected to pettifogging regulation, while in laissez-faire contrast, school parties were allowed to run amok unchecked. After 2 days, enough was enough and we left glad to shake the volcanic dust of Baia Unci from our feet. In 40 years of camping, Baia Unci on Lipari was the worst campsite we have ever experienced. Fortunately there is an alternative campsite on the neighbouring island of Vulcano which showed a marked contrast in attitude towards its guests. We found Togo Togo Camping on Vulcano a pleasantly straightforward site, shaded by scented eucalyptus trees and looking across a beach of black volcanic sand to the smoking cone of Vulcano's Grand Crater. It was a glorious setting, but more importantly, we were welcomed with warm hospitality by the family; Togo Togo Camping on Vulcano is thoroughly recommended for its setting and its relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.
From this delightful base, we continued our exploration of the Aeolian Islands. Vulcano itself is dominated by the brooding cone of its Grand Crater. Although inactive since its last eruption in 1890, this dormant volcano still exhibits spectacular but menacing secondary volcanic activity in the form of sulphur-encrusted steaming fumaroles around the crater rim. The beast is now constantly monitored for any signs of resurgent activity. It's a gruelling 1,350 feet slog up the ash cone of Vulcano's Grand Crater, and we paused for lunch at one of the more bizarre spots of our travels (Photo 3). The sight however to greet you at the rim defies description: the crater is 650 feet deep and 6,500 feet across, and the northern flank is lined with a series of fumaroles (Photo 4), bright yellow with sulphur deposits and gushing pungent smoke and steam. And the immediate sight from this uncertain vantage point was offset by the distant views of Lipari and Salina across the azure-blue straits. We walked the crater's circuit to tread gingerly over the hot steaming ground; the fumaroles are encrusted with beautiful sulphur crystals, the air reeking of choking sulphurous gases (Photos 5 and 6). It was like gazing on a sci-fi film set and truly one of the most memorable experiences of our travels, and that evening from the campsite, we sat eating supper looking directly up at the steaming volcanic cone.
The climax to our time in the Aeolians was to be a visit to Stromboli, the most distant of the islands its volcanic peak being in a constant state of eruption. Our enquiries showed the most practicable transport was to take one of the many long-day privately operated excursions which return late evening allowing sight of the glowing volcanic material ejected from the island's crater and rolling down to the sea. Although expensive, the private boats work out the same cost as the limited hydrofoil service which would need a costly overnight stay on Stromboli. When we came to book however, we learned to our bitter disappointment that, since vigorous eruptions in February this year, Stromboli had been uncharacteristically quiescent, emitting not the usual spectacular lava fireworks, but merely dangerous volcanic gases. As a result, not only would there be no explosive volcanic activity to witness at close quarters but the whole summit area was now 'out of bounds'. Even the more restricted guided climbs were already fully booked. We had therefore to settle for a more limited experience and hoped that we could at least sample Stromboli. The boat sped out across the open channel, approaching firstly Panarea whose sheer volcanic cliffs loomed ever closer. Frustratingly, undue time was allocated here, and although Panarea is a beautiful island, we were anxious to reach Stromboli. The views however from the southern cape, with the panorama of Lipari, Vulcano and Salina spread along the horizon, were spectacular (Photo 7).
At 3-30 we were at last on our way to Stromboli, and as we approached, the island looked fearsome with its cone capped by volcanic cloud. Rounding the craggy western side, there ahead was the mighty Sciara del Fuoco (Slope of Fire) down which incandescent lava from the volcano normally spills. But today, with the volcano not erupting, there was no trace of glowing lava, just the barren grey slopes of volcanic debris (see left for the Sciara's normal fiery appearance, and right for our experience). From the seaward northern side, the panorama of Stromboli was a formidable sight with the afternoon sun illuminating clouds of volcanic gases billowing down steep gullies from the crater (Photo 8). Our time ashore was limited, allowing opportunity only to walk out towards the observatory above the Sciara del Fuoco across the barren black landscape which contrasted starkly with the island's white cottages. It was a brief and frustrating visit with little to see of the volcano in its uncharacteristically quiescent state. But at least we had witnessed unsurpassed views from the sea. Despite our disappointment, emergency evacuation signs pointing to muster points in the event of eruptions showed that Stromboli does pose a serious threat to the islanders. We were unlucky with timing of our visit to Stromboli, but to give an impression of what we had hoped to experience, included try this link for 'a virtual climb' of Stromboli
Despite adverse winds and unpredictable ferries, we eventually arrived back at Milazzo on the Sicilian 'mainland', and as we approached the port at dusk, 2 porpoises passed by arching out of the sea. Our final week would be spent along the north coast. Compared however with our time elsewhere in Sicily, this was something of an anticlimax. The mountainous hinterland dropped steeply down to a narrow coastal strip along which motorway, railway and main road competed for space and which was populated with a series of unattractive and eminently forgettable resorts. This was the least appealing part of Sicily we had seen. Even worse however were some of the surly attitudes we encountered both on the Aeolians and along the north coast. Their economy is totally dependent on tourism, but they resent visitors, and show it - we want your money but not you. This was such a stark contrast with the helpful and hospitable welcome we had universally received in other parts of the country. Our conclusion therefore was that if you go to Sicily, confine your visit to the west, south and east of Sicily; there is far more of natural and historical interest there and the people are so much more pleasant. But all was not lost: a couple of days walking and wild-camping in the Madonie Hills gave a magnificent conclusion to the trip. And to cap it all, we were rewarded with a final glimpse of the distant snow-covered peak of Etna with its characteristic plume of cloud.
We completed our circuitous ramblings around Sicily back to Palermo, perhaps more attuned to the traffic than when we arrived 10 weeks earlier. That evening, we caught the overnight ferry back to Civitavecchia on the Italian mainland to begin the 1,100 drive across the continent. It's home now for the summer to catch up on backlog of jobs, but more importantly to see our family and to await the imminent arrival of our second grandchild. There's no denying, we shall be glad to be home this time, but doubtless before very long, the travel urge will begin to exert its pull; where will our autumn trip take us? Before then, we shall shortly publish a postscript-web to Sicily with a review of campsites and page of Sheila's wild orchid photos from Sicily. Arrivederci until then
Sheila and Paul Published: Wednesday 20 June