The Aeolian Islands group in the south of Italy are a geological paradise – especially if you’re a volcano geek like me 😉 The islands are the stuff of legends. One of them, Vulcano, is the actual namegiver to the phenonemon of fiery & eruptive mountains we now know as volcanoes. It was named after the Roman god of fire, and considered to be his sacred workshop where he forged bolts of lightning in its fiery pits. The famous Stromboli, the ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean, has given its name to the type of gentle fountain eruptions it has been spewing forth almost continuously since Roman times.
The archipelago has been around for over 260.000 years and consists of a volcanic arc of 7 islands. Stromboli and Vulcano are still actively steaming and erupting today. The other islands of Lipari, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea have quieted down in the meantime. But all boast spectacular scenery with impressive mountains, lush vegetation, various geological features and laid-back villages with an atmosphere of La dolce vita.
Volcanic islands in Europe
Besides the island of Santorini in Greece, Italy is the only country on the European mainland with several active volcanoes within its borders. Other places that are technically part of Europe are the Canary Islands (Spain) and the far-flung islands of Madeira and the Azores (Portugal) in the Atlantic Ocean. And of course Iceland, which is basically one big volcano with a multitude of cones and fissures by itself.
I went on a trip to the Aeolian Islands with Dutch organisation Geo Travel, flying to Naples and returning from Catania on Sicily, with an island hopping expedition inbetween. In Naples we visited the intimidating Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei volcanic fields. And saw the devastating destruction that happened in the year 79 at the historical ruins of Pompei. On Sicily we saw the Etna from different angles (but unfortunately not erupting…) And on the Aeolian islands we hopped from Stromboli to Lipari and Vulcano.
Departing on the ferry to Stromboli from Naples, with a rainbow over the harbour and the intimidating shape of Vesuvius in the background.
Stromboli is the northernmost of the Aeolian Islands, and can be reached by overnight ferry from Naples. The ferry trip takes about 10 hours. The ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean has been erupting its mesmerizing glow for over 2000 years.
When I saw its volcanic shape looming on the horizon, I was so excited to finally climb to the top and gawk upon its fiery pits. I had visited Stromboli once before on a daytrip from Sicily. But then you only have about 2 hours on the island, and the evening summit hike is not an option. If you want to climb to the top of Stromboli, plan to stay for a couple of nights, so you will at least have some margin if the weather is not cooperating. We stayed on Stromboli for 2 nights and did the hike on the first evening.
Local transport on Stromboli. There are no cars on the island.
Classic volcanic island
With its perfect triangular shape and a fiery crater on top, Stromboli is the quintessential volcanic island. Even the ‘volcano icon’ on the smartphone is modelled to its likeness, complete with a Sciara del Fuoco sliding slope.
Sciara del Fuoco (the Stream of Fire) is a striking feature on the northwest side of the island. A barren volcanic slope where hot rocks and sometimes even lava flows spewed forth from its craters slide down into the sea. The two villages on Stromboli are behind the mountain ridges on the other side, and therefore (usually) not affected by the constant stream of ejected material from the volcano.
Stromboli harbour and boulevard.
The beach and the town center.
The walking track to the top
Stromboli rises up to 924 metres above sealevel. The path winds its way up over a distance of less than 4 kilometres along very steep and rocky slopes. It is literally breathtaking – and incredibly beautiful. There are dazzling views everywhere, down the slope and over the sea to the other islands.
Because of safety reasons and the constantly changing activity, you can only go to the top with a guided hike. These are available between the end of March and the end of October. The hike takes about 5 to 6 hours return, including some 45 minutes at the top. The groups usually leave around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You will get to the top just before sunset and walk back down most of the way in the dark.
Lava shapes on the lower path.
Needless to say, a flashlight, a jacket, proper walking boots, food and plenty of water are essential items to take – as well as a camera for the spectacular views you’re going to encounter. The tour company provides a helmet – you need to wear it at the top in case of rogue flying rocks coming out of the crater. If the conditions are too dangerous, the hike will be cancelled.
But even if the hike goes ahead as planned, there’s no guarantee that you will actually get lucky at the top and see the Strombolian action in all its glory. I started off on a perfectly sunny afternoon at the end of May, but along the way more & more clouds were gathering around the top…
The progressively misty & barren upper path.
By the time we got there, the view was completely obscured and I stared into a crater full of fog. I could hear the explosions going off nearby, but there was nothing to be seen…
The second evening we went to the observatory on the lower flank, where you can have a nice meal while watching the fiery fountains from the veranda. There had been clouds around the top all day, but there were no clouds that evening. I was screaming in frustration as I finally saw the Strombolian action – from a distance. I would have climbed it again without hesitation if I’d known there would be a clear view that night…
The observatory on the lower flank of Stromboli.
I will just have to go back to Stromboli again some day… 😉
Lipari is the main island of the Aeolian archipelago, and an excellent base to explore the other islands from. Several ferries and hydrofoils depart from the harbour town of Lipari in all directions, including Milazzo on Sicily and Naples on the Italian mainland.
Nestled at the foot of Monte Galina, the port of Lipari is a pretty town with a historical castle and citadel perched on a rock between the two harbours. Here you can find a variety of accommodation, restaurants, shops and coffeehouses to enjoy excellent island- and wilderness espresso 😉
Quaint street in Lipari town.
Viewpoints and enticing islands
Across on the southwest coast of the island is a viewpoint called Quattrocchi. It literally means ‘Four eyes’ – because you will need an extra set of eyes or a panoramic camera to handle the broad sweeping vistas of stunning views.
Rocky bays and hidden beaches along the southwest coast of Lipari, with Vulcano and its steaming crater in the background.
View to the towering twin volcanoes of Salina, beckoning you to come over & climb their lofty tops…
We didn’t visit Salina on this trip, but I definitely want to go there next time. Another reason to come back to the Aeolians – besides finally climbing Stromboli on a cloud-free evening… The one in the foreground is Monte Fossa delle Felci, the highest peak in the islands at 962 metres. Even taller and steeper than Stromboli!
Lipari is especially known for its obsidian and pumice. A variety of volcanic features can be seen on a beautiful hike along the west coast, leading from the ancient Roman baths of Terme di San Calógero to the kaolin quarry just outside the village of Quattropiani.
A giant lava bomb, layers of ash & various volcanic deposits from different eruptions. There are eucalypt trees too! 🙂
Colourful rocks and gullies at the Lipari kaolin quarry.
The steaming island of Vulcano looms large to the south of Lipari. A giant crater dominates the interior, its bulky shape rising up behind the town, steam wafting from its edges. This is the ancient forge of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire – and he’s still busy at it.
Like Stromboli, Surtsey and Hawaii, Volcano has also given its name to one of 8 volcanic eruption types now commonly used to indicate the specific style of activity. A Vulcanian eruption means a dense ash cloud billowing up high from the crater, accompanied by loud explosions at irregular intervals, with lava bombs and various other deposits spread out over a large area. It’s the same type of eruption Eyjafjallajökull became famous for in 2010.
This doesn’t sound too encouraging to venture anywhere near the origins of all this doom. But that’s exactly what most visitors to Vulcano come to do. The crater is now peacefully steaming away, and has been fairly quiet since the last eruption between 1888 and 1890.
The colourful walls of Gran Cratere. Looking towards Vulcano town and Vulcanello peninsula, connected to the main island by a small isthmus.
The walking track to Fossa Gran Cratere
The walk from the harbour to the top of the crater is 7,5 kilometres and takes about 3 hours return at a leisurely pace. You can circle all around the crater and up to the ridge behind it, at an altitude of 386 metres. If there’s too much steam wafting from the crater rim, it might be better to skip that part. The sulphur steam can get quite overwhelming in places.
The giant Gran Cratere in the centre of the island.
Nevertheless, it’s worth venturing through it if you can handle it – and be engulfed by a surreal landscape with brightly coloured steaming fumaroles, some of them encrusted with delicate red and yellow sulphur needlecrystals. The views from the crater rim are spectacular!
The steaming island of Vulcano, with Lipari and Salina in the distance.
Bubbling mud bath
After the walk you can reward yourself with a relaxing soak at the Fanghi di Vulcano mudpools. A natural spa with great views, right next to the harbour. The minerals and silica will make your skin feel nice & velvety soft. Wash away the sticky mud at the hot water beach on the other side, where mineral springs bubble to the surface in varying temperatures. Be warned though: a faint but distinct smell of sulphur will follow you as a silent witness for days… And better not take a shiny new swimming suit 😉
How to get to the Aeolian Islands
The Aeolian Islands can be easily hopped individually as well. There are many inter-island ferries sailing between Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Filicudi and Alicudi. The archipelago can be reached by overnight ferry from Naples to Stromboli and the main island of Lipari. Another option is the high-speed hydrofoil, leaving in the afternoon and arriving on the islands the same evening. From Milazzo on the northeastern tip of Sicily, the ferry takes about 2,5 to 3 hours to Stromboli, depending on the route and type of boat.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
This volcano is easier to pronounce than that other infamous one… 😉
What is your favourite Aeolian island and why? Let me know in the comments at the bottom of this page. Or simply press the ‘like’ button below if you enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for sharing 🙂
Follow the Wilderness Coffee & Natural High page on Facebook for more stories and updates.
More stories & inspiration
Stromboli – The ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean
Etna – Vigorously steaming from all its craters
Cook Islands – The stuff of Pacific dreams
The zen of Stafsnes – The hidden beach
The Vierdaagse of Nijmegen – Four days of long-distance trials & tribulations