I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone or not, but I can vividly remember learning about volcanoes as a child; seeing lava explosions in books, watching documentaries on tv of cameras going deep into the bright red core of the volcano and really wanting to build one out of paper mache and fill it with a bicarbonate of soda mixture to make like an eruption.
I’ve always dreamed of seeing an erupting volcano and totally thought this possible until planning to hike up one three years ago and Marie telling me seeing red lava just wasn’t really a thing you can do. Crushed I was, dreams held onto for years crushed in an instant (the hike up the volcano was amazing though). Crushed, until now. [By the way, Marie has read this post over my shoulder and denies ever telling me that you can’t see red lava, just that you can’t get close to it- it seems we had a bit of a misunderstanding at the time.]
We’ve been to-ing and fro-ing about a trip to the Aeolian Islands on this trip. They’re visible from our villa, large mountainous rocks jutting out the sea, and we’d planned to visit them before we left having been recommended this by our friend Chloe and seeing other reviews and pictures of them which looked tempting. However, Jackie gets awful seasickness and the tour I really wanted to go on doesn’t run until June. During our ‘farniente’ day we’d finally decided and booked a ‘Stromboli by night’ tour which visits Panerea and Stromboli in the afternoon and then pulls away from Stromboli once the sun sets to let you get a good view of the active volcano. People’s reviews of it were pretty positive, though some said they saw smoke only, others saw lava. I am pretty excited and Jackie has bought all the seasickness remedies available from the pharmacy in Cefalu yesterday.
Our departure has some interesting twists and turns in it – we arrive in Milazzo harbour to be stopped at the entrance of an official looking car park by a guy with a moped and a t-shirt with a (different) car park logo on it- he tells us to follow him to the parking- we agree assuming we’re heading into the car park right in front of us. Not the case and we’re led right the way along the port, Dad in convoy behind us. The further we’re travelling, the more we’re questioning our decision to trust him and wondering where we’re going to end up (Dad, Jackie and Vicky were having the same conversation in their car it turns out). We also haven’t yet figured out where our tour departs from and are wondering if we’re getting gradually closer or further away from our boat. Ah phew, we see the ticket office for our boat company at least, we decide we can park up and ask in there if it isn’t much further. We’re in luck and we’re led to a private car park just beyond the ticket office.
Thinking all is now well, we get directions from the ticket office onto the very nearby boat and happily walk across together, batting away the men insistent on selling Dad a sun hat for some reason (they keep indicating to the sun and his bald patch, I don’t know what they’re suggesting…). I hand my phone over with the tickets on and get promptly sent back to the ticket office to have them printed out. Fortunately everyone else is let on board and there’s still 20 minutes to departure….15 minutes later everyone is wondering where I’ve gotten to and Marie comes to see if I need any help. I don’t, what I in fact need is for the couple in front of me to make a decision and get on with their day; they’ve arrived 30 minutes before departure asking for boat tickets, parking arrangements and for a B&B for the night, with collection from the port (and ideally parking at it, but that’s not an option). They then spend a good 10 minutes haggling on prices via the lady in the ticket office who is on the phone to the B&B, meanwhile the queue behind them lengthens. I explain our parking arrangement to two different people in the queue meanwhile and a few of us feel at least reassured that we’re all aiming for the same boat so hopefully it won’t leave without us!
Fortunately (and as you may have guessed by the title of this post), we do make it onto the boat. The journey is pretty smooth, though a bit longer than I expected (it seems the islands we are travelling to are past quite a few other islands).
We arrive in Panarea in time for lunch and head straight up to a restaurant with a view over the harbour, hoping to get a table before everyone else from the boat takes them all. After a bit of a scramble we’re seated on two tables a little way apart, perusing a handwritten menu on a piece of A4. Well, actually, we’re enjoying the view waiting for Marie to return from the toilet to translate it for us, and it turns out, into French for the table beside us. We’re in a small hillside village with a harbour and quite a lot of restaurants for its size. The houses are white cubes with blue shutters, much more like Greece than Italy.
Then comes the longest, most disorganised service I think I’ve ever experienced. The food is good, but prepared in a random order so antipasti arrive later than some of the mains and there is a good 15 minute gap between plates arriving on the table, with the waitress bringing out several plates in her hands and depositing them on different tables. The advantage of this is that Eliza has cuddles while we all eat our food when it arrives, as there is never more than two people eating at a time. The downside of this, apart from the obvious, is that it takes about two hours, the entire time we have to visit and explore the island. So, lunch finished, a quick glance at the water around the harbour and we are back on the boat.
The ride over to Stromboli is much shorter, with a pretty tour around some rocks on the way with beautiful azure water.
We admire the smoking volcano on the way in and I decide the trip has been thoroughly worth it already, just for the sight of definite smoke billowing out of the top of the volcano. As we land I’m immediately drawn to the black sand on the beach and we head down to take a closer look. It’s soft, warm and beautiful, with shiny specks glistening in the sun.
I can’t resist and head into the water for a swim, unknowingly leaving Marie to deal with a poonami of epic proportions, made worse by Zaza managing to get sand all over her during the change. As I understand it, Marie calls on Vicky for help who is beside herself with laughter throughout the process. What follows is me then trying to dry myself and get dressed without exposing myself in probably the most cackhanded way possible, whilst being teased by everyone for it which is making me laugh so much I’m even slower and more cackhanded.
Having had what turned out to be a pretty late lunch, we have some bakery snacks for dinner in Stromboli and a small wander around (to appease a fussy Zaza while Marie finishes her beer), noticing ‘tsunami escape route’ signs to signal the best way through the narrow lanes. This means that the people living on this island live with an active volcano on one side and a tsunami risk on the other- why?!? They also drive round on golf buggies, mopeds or really tiny three wheel pick up trucks with space for only one person in the cabin as the village is so small.
Soon it’s time to head back to the boat and like everyone else on board, we’re back early to try to get a good seat for the volcano show. It’s a mass of people and I’m a little nervous with Zaza in my arms. We make a family protection pod with someone on each side of me and progress through, with a plan of Dad and Jackie getting a booth downstairs for the journey back and Marie and Vicky heading upstairs to get a good spot outside for me to join them in once I’ve fed Eliza below.
Stage one of this plan works perfectly, stage two kind of fails as I can’t find them anywhere, conclude they must be at the tip of the boat but there’s too many people to fight through to try to find them there and set myself up on the side with a great view of the volcano ahead. Now we’re at the opposite side of the island to the village, there’s flat black mountain side, right the way down, cutting directly into greenery. I start imagining the eruption that caused it, taking out everything in its path. It’s quite incredible to see.
As for the eruptions, it is amazing! It erupts every 20 minutes or so and we start out in daylight, the sun setting beside us in a beautiful pink sunset and see smoke rising out of it. The next one, in almost darkness, has a few red lines shining through the smoke, we all ‘oooooh’ in appreciation. Then, the next two are fantastic with red lava shooting up into the sky in what feels like a slow motion replay with it building up over a few seconds each time. It’s incredible and I’m concerned Dad and Jackie may be missing it below so plan to head in just as the boat begins to move- I’ve missed my chance- and then moments later ‘Heather?’ – Jackie’s managed to find me to let me know Eliza’s hungry. We head back downstairs, finding Marie and Vicky already there, talking excitedly about their views from the front of the boat and the photos they have taken.
We travel home full of the images of the erupting volcano and discussing our plans for the following day- do we travel across the island on the fast coastal motorway or through the centre to get a good look at Etna, which is also currently active (we’ve seen a glimmer of smoke in the distance on an earlier drive).
After considerable indecisiveness we opt to go through the middle, planning to meet my family in Taormina as they are taking the motorway (having already ‘seen Etna from every angle several times’ on their challenging drive on the first day). This involves an early morning departure after our late night, but we manage to still have a final bakery breakfast together first.
The roads are narrow, uneven and windy but Marie is loving the drive and the views are spectacular; lush mountains and valleys with the occasional village perched on top of a hill and the sea shimmering in the background. We have spectacular views of snow-topped, smoking Etna for a generous section of our drive and pass through some pretty mountain villages to boot. As we get nearer to Etna, we also see the lava fields interspersed with fertile farmland and pause to take a souvenir piece of lava home for our garden collection (we also have a bottle filled with black sand from Stromboli yesterday).