Sicily: Castelmola & Taormina

After a 3-hour hydrofoil ride from Stromboli back to mainland Sicily I start the journey towards Mt Etna.

First though I’m dropping into the village of Castelmola, perched on a hilltop above the bigger Taormina.

Castelmola

The main square: it’s a small village with only about 1,000 people, but Castelmola has fantastic views over the town below.

At the top of the hill is the castle that gives the village its name. Originally built by the Normans, it’s ruined now but you can still walk among the stones and admire the view from all sides.

Looking inland from the castle.

Castelmola is a very picturesque village and I’m glad I visited, its full of these narrow twisting streets leading to shops and cafes.

Walking down one of the streets I came across Bar Turrisi, famous for its ahem phallic themed decor.

Descending to the bottom of the village I reach the Sentiero dei Saraceni (Path of the Saracens), its the ancient path between Castelmola and Taormina.

Looking back up the trail: it gets quite steep and overgrown in places but the trail is well marked and it’s impossible to get lost.

Taormina

After about an hour I arrive at the gates of Taormina, this archway is the Porta Catania at the western end of the city. It’s one of several entrances in the historic walls that once protected the city.

The journey down took about an hour, and I’ve only got time to briefly walk through (and eat some gelato), I’ve still got to travel 50km to my guesthouse for tonight.

The main street (Corso Umberto) runs through the center of Taormina, its pedestrianised and full of boutique shops and hotels.

It’s clearly geared towards tourists and everything is pricy, but there are lots of side streets and alleys you can duck into.

The Cathedral of Taormina, dating back to the 13th century and dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari. I’m only walking through the town so I don’t have time to properly visit.

The fountain in front is pretty old too, the Quattro Fontane was built in the 1630s. Its name (in English: four fountains) refers to the four fountains on the corners.

At the very end of the street, the road narrows and passes under the Porta Messina – the eastern gate to the city.

Its a shame I can’t stay longer, Taormina has a spectacular Greek amphitheater a short walk from here and I’d love to visit.

Unfortunately for me, tomorrow is the day I tackle Mt Etna and I’ve got an early start, so instead I head south to my overnight halt in the town of Nicolosi.

Sicily: Stromboli part 2

Wandering around

It’s my second day on the island of Stromboli, this evening I’ll be climbing to the volcanic craters to see the eruptions from up close. I’ve got most of the day to kill so I decide to go exploring.

This building is the visitor centre for the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, unfortunately it’s closed (it’s off-season) and won’t reopen for a few months.

Since I don’t fancy waiting until July, I walk down to the beach.

Being artistic on the beach, obviously the rocks here are volcanic so you end up with these very cool basaltic textures.

Today is also the best weather I’ve had since I arrived in Italy, the few clouds in the sky actually come from the volcano.

Around the corner of the island I found a ship anchored close to shore, its supplying Stromboli with water.

The volcano means the water on Stromboli isn’t fit for human consumption, so the island is reliant on these tankers for its fresh water supply.

Heading back inland I visit the Church of San Bartolomeo, I don’t have an exact date for the church – but its been around for a few hundred years. That’s impressive considering its survived numerous volcanic eruptions.

When I sat for lunch, I saw this helicopter landing in a compound opposite the restaurant. It kept collecting these pallets and flying off, then returning without them.

Turns out it’s flying fuel around the island, there are no roads between the main settlement and the village of Ginostra (there’s a big volcano in the way) – so fuel for motor vehicles is airlifted instead.

A typical street on Stromboli, no room for cars here – and there aren’t any.

Climb to the volcano

Ascent starts off in the late afternoon, Stromboli is over 3,000ft high so we’ve got a few hours of climbing to get near the top.

Since this is an active volcano, safety is important here: we’ve got a volcanologist guide with us, and everyone is carrying a helmet to protect from falling rocks – though we won’t need it until we approach the top.

After a couple of hours the trail gets steeper and rougher, the vegetation has all gone and the path is just a series of switchbacks heading up to the top.

Looking down from near the top. You can see why this isn’t an easy walk, it’s a challenging ascent, especially after the halfway mark where the trail becomes ash.

By now its been more than 3 hours since we started and the sun is beginning to set.

Settling down to watch the crater, we shouldn’t have long to wait – Stromboli has been erupting continuously for 2,000 years.

The Romans called it the ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’, at night it’s visible from far out to sea.

Four minutes later…

You can really feel the power of the volcano, every eruption causes the ground to shake like an earthquake.

After watching a few of these eruptions it gets darker, and we plan to move to the other side of the rim and get above the crater.

Getting up close, we’re only a few hundred meters from the eruptions now. They’re happening every 20 minutes or so and the anticipation is intense.

An hour later and its properly dark, even when it’s not erupting – it just bubbles and glows red.

After watching for a little longer we start our descent. It’s pitch black so I don’t manage to take any photos on the way down.

I do manage to roll over on a rock buried in the ash and sprain my ankle, it’s not bad but swells up the next day. Luckily I’m wearing proper boots, otherwise I’d likely have broken it.

I finally get back to the hotel at midnight and gratefully roll into bed, tomorrow I’m heading back to mainland Sicily.

Sicily: Stromboli part 1

On day 4 of my Sicilian adventure, I arrived on Stromboli. The island has an active volcano that erupts almost continually but despite this, it’s home to about 500 people.

I’m here for two days, later on I’m heading up to the Sciara del Fuoco and then tomorrow night I’m climbing to the crater itself to see the eruptions in the dark.

I arrived here later than planned so I don’t have too much time to go exploring before the hike.

My hotel for the next two nights is the Hotel Ossidiana, right next to the beach and only about 150m from the hydrofoil pier. In the background is the main crater, you can often see it smoking and occasionally you’ll hear rumbles.

I just about had time to check-in and grab some lunch before starting the trek across town and up to the viewing point.

Hike to the viewing point

Tonight I’m on my way to the Sciara del Fuoco (stream of fire) on the northern side of the island. It’s a large depression where the flank of the volcano has collapsed over many years.

What makes it special are the red-hot rocks and lava that flow down the slope into the sea.

It should only take about two hours to get up there, and importantly, you don’t need a volcanologist guide. The trail starts a few kilometers north-west of my hotel so I need to walk through town first.

On the way I pass the red Church of San Bartolomeo, I’m going to visit it properly tomorrow when I explore the town.

Starting the ascent near Piscità. The viewing point is at about 400m, less than half the height of the volcano and I’ll still be about a kilometre from the crater.

Even so, I should be able to get a pretty good view of the eruptions. On average Stromboli erupts every 20 minutes, so I’m almost guaranteed some good shots tonight.

That’s Strombolicchio, a tiny volcanic stack about a mile offshore.

The boats are taking tourists to see the eruptions from offshore. For those who don’t fancy the walk to the crater, it’s a much easier way to see the volcano.

Looking back towards town. The trail is pretty easy-going here, it’ll get steeper as we get higher.

About a kilometre outside of town is the Osservatorio pizzeria. Apparently it has pretty good views over the Sciara del Fuoco and the top of the volcano, especially after dusk. Unfortunately though, it’s closed today so I’ll have to eat in town instead.

It’s also time to start adding layers, it’s not particularly cold but the track above the Observatory is really exposed and there’s a mean wind blowing.

My first real sign of being on an active volcano. I heard the bang and missed the eruption but managed to catch this smoke.

Looking back on the final few steps up to the viewing platform. In hindsight poles might be pretty useful here, we’ll need to be out of here just after sunset. It won’t be fun descending this in the dark.

Sciara del Fuoco

After two and a half hours I’ve made it here to the Sciara del Fuoco. I’ve just missed another eruption, the clouds of ash are flowing down the kilometre or so to the sea.

Looking up towards the crater, still not seen an eruption yet but it’ll come from this direction. From here you can just about see the crater smoking.

Eruption! I’ve never seen a volcano erupt before but I was not expecting this. You can hear the roar as the lava is thrown high into the air before the rocks roll down the slope and turn to dust.

My volcano-shooting setup, my new D5300 with a 70-300mm telephoto lens on a GorillaPod tripod. My trusty Lowepro Photo Sport rucksack completes the gear.

I have a bit of a dilemma at this point: the next eruption could happen at any time – and my camera battery is low…If I switch to a spare battery I might miss it…

Caught it! Although I lost a battery somewhere in the switch 🙁

This one feels bigger, even at this distance I can see the glowing rocks at the crater after the smoke has cleared.

Too soon, its time to start the descent towards town. On the way I managed to snap this (out of focus) eruption that shows just how far the lava can reach.

It got dark on the way down, the head torch and poles were certainly needed.

Back in town

I decided to advantage of the lack of light pollution on Stromboli – I’m over 15km from the nearest inhabited island.

Sicily: Panarea

The small island of Panarea wasn’t on the list of places I was visiting. The hydrofoil taking me to Stromboli had other ideas.

We made it about halfway before coming to a stop in a cloud of black smoke. After some time bobbing around the Mediterranean we finally limped to the nearest island: the VIP playground of Panarea.

Everybody off. Half an hour after we should have arrived in Stromboli, we disembarked at the pier in Panarea to await rescue. There’s another hydrofoil coming to pick us up but until it gets here…

The pier’s getting a bit crowded with a boatload of people standing on it, so it’s time to go exploring.

That’s the islet of Dattilo in the background, one of five off the eastern coast.

The smaller Aeolian islands generally don’t have cars, instead, people get around by moped, golf buggy, or the three-wheeled Piaggio Ape.

In the background of this picture (on the left) is Stromboli. It’s about 20km from here, less than an hour…if we had a working boat.

Panarea has a permanent population of about 300 people.  I’m here in April so it’s still pretty quiet, but in the summer the rich and famous of Italy and Hollywood descend on this exclusive island.

This is the only port on the island and there are lots of colourful wooden boats here.

Notice the two Italian police who came to investigate why 100 people have just rocked up to their island.

After about half an hour hanging out at the nearest cafe and sampling some granita (a frozen slush type drink), the rescue hydrofoil arrived.

This time I got myself a seat on the lower deck for the ride into Stromboli, it’s closer to the water there’s a better view as the waves crash over the windows.

In this picture we’re pulling into the first stop in Stromboli, the small village of Ginostra.

It took a few hours longer than planned, and a rather pleasant detour, but I finally made it here: the island of Stromboli. 

Sicily: Lipari

My second stop in the Aeolian Islands is Lipari, I have two nights here.

The largest island in the chain, it has a normal population of about 13,000 people but this swells to 20,000 in the summer.

Car ferry in Lipari

The quickest way between the islands are the hydrofoils, but there’s also a regular ferry service. This ship in Lipari port, the Laurana, can carry 800 passengers and over 250 cars.

Western coast

On my second day here I took a bus to the village of Quattropani and then started the 7 mile walk along the coast back to Lipari town.

Looking over to the island of Salina.

Mt Etna in the distance. I arrived in Sicily late at night so this was the first time I’d actually seen it. It’s over 50 miles away from Lipari and looks huge even at this distance.

The dramatic west coast of the island is undeveloped and unspoiled.

Lipari had the best scenery of all the islands I visited, with sheer cliff faces and deep valleys.

Luckily for me, since I started at Quattropani the walk was mostly downhill. The trail was reasonably solid and I didn’t need to use poles, unlike the loose gravel of Vulcano the day before.

Taking a break near the cliff edge.

While stopped for lunch this little guy decided to join me. A Sicilian wall lizard (Podarcis waglerianus), it was the first of many I saw around the islands.

The citadel on the walk back into town. It was built in the 1500s around the town center to provide a safe haven from raiding pirates. Although the town has now expanded far beyond its walls, much of the castle remains – still standing guard over the area.

Almost back at the hotel, I took the chance to rest and grab a beer in Marina Corta. About half a mile from the main port, it seems to mostly be used by local fishing boats.

Looking the other way across Marina Corta.

Lipari town

Later in the evening, I went to explore the castle and town in the dark.

After walking up several million steps I arrived at the Lipari castle. Seeing as its 10 pm on a Tuesday… it’s locked. On the flip side, it means that nobody is around so I have the place almost to myself.

Walking around the castle I found the Church of the Immaculate. Right in front here are some archeological excavations.

Shooting out of a window the in castle walls across the bay.

The town of Lipari is full of these colourful narrow streets and pretty houses.

After Lipari I jumped on the hydrofoil to go straight to Stromboli, unfortunately, that didn’t go quite to plan.

Sicily: Vulcano

My first stop on my tour of the Aeolian Islands is the island of Vulcano: the original volcano. The southernmost of the Aeolian Islands, it covers about eight square miles and has one active caldera – which was the purpose of my visit here.

I got here by high-speed hydrofoil from the Sicilian town of Milazzo, taking about an hour to travel the 40km or so across the Mediterranean. In the background here is the crater of the caldera I was here to see.

On approach to the small port, I could see wisps of smoke curling out of one of the fumaroles, although the most impressive ones were out of sight until I climbed higher.

The caldera

There was a walk of about a kilometer from the port to the start of the climb to the crater. On the way, I passed signs of past volcanic activity, although there hasn’t been an eruption here since 1890.

View of the main town from about halfway to the crater. In the middle is Vulcanello, originally a separate island it was joined to Vulcano in 1550 when an eruption created a small isthmus.

Beyond that is the larger island of Lipari, and the twin peaks on Salina. Further back on the horizon you can just make out Filicudi (left edge) and Panarea (right of Lipari). It was very cloudy and misty when I visited so Stromboli wasn’t visible.

View of the crater after finally reaching the rim. It was quite a hike to get up here, the sides were made of loose gravel and the trail had collapsed at several points – meaning a few jumps were necessary.

There’s a trail all the way around the crater. The plan was to assess the fumarole field to the left and if conditions were good – to walk clockwise around the whole rim.

Getting up close with the fumaroles. These vents are emitting sulfurous gases – you’re told not to stop or walk too slowly, breathing the gas burns your throat and lungs. If it’s not too windy the smoke can hang around for a while.

People who were better prepared than me were walking around with respirators. I could see their shapes moving around through the haze like something from a horror film. I had to stop in clear air between each group of vents.

Resting at the highest part of the rim. Although it hasn’t erupted for a while, Vulcano is still observed by scientists. I passed several pieces of monitoring equipment on the way up here.

You can’t quite see it from here but someone had made it to the base of the crater and scratched words into the ground. We couldn’t read it but assumed it meant ‘help’ in Italian.

Isthmus

After descending from the crater I had a few hours before the hydrofoil ride to Lipari (and the hotel). So it was time to explore the rest of the island.

A side effect of the volcanic activity on Vulcano are the mud baths, supposedly they provide therapeutic benefits. I didn’t have time to visit them and explore, so given that they absolutely stank even from a distance: I elected to continue exploring.

Just offshore you can see a disturbance in the water, this is an underwater fumarole bubbling to the surface.

The other side of the isthmus with Lipari in the background.

Looking at the crater from a distance. As always it’s weird looking back and realising I’d climbed to the top a few hours before. In the foreground are the volcanic mud baths.

Vulcanello

Once out on Vulcanello the weather finally cleared up and I got a good view of some of the other islands. On the horizon, at the very far right you can just make out a faint outline of Stromboli.

One of the reasons I went to Vulcanello was to see its own (smaller) crater. I never found it but discovered later that I was less than 50m away when I took this photo. It was so overgrown I just didn’t see it…doh!

While here I got my first look at some Sicilian Moorish Heads. This style of pottery was introduced to the region by the Moors who invaded in the 11th century. I found these flower pots throughout the Aeolian islands and on Sicily itself.

Town

After my jaunt to Vulcanello it was time to head back to town for a well-earned gelato (Stracciatella quickly became my favourite).

Obviously at this point, the weather decided to clear up and I got some good shots of the crater while sitting at the dock.

Hydrofoil approaching Vulcano on plane. My ride to the next island, Lipari.