Volcano to village

On the theatrically beautiful Aeolian Islands, Dugald Jellie traces stories of migration and a steamy Hollywood affair.

Ingrid Bergman brings me here, to an island that could be a dream if it weren't for the seasickness. It's no idle pleasure, an afternoon on a boat with tourists who abruptly fill plastic shopping bags, then empty their jetsam into water so azure it looks fictional.

Now at dusk it seems a fateful drama; caught on the lip of a broken mountain, a crash helmet strapped to my head, knocked by a chill wind, coughing, in a plume of ash as fine as castor sugar that stings my eyes and blackens the moon and the stars.

The steamy longing of Casablanca this isn't. Instead, I'm on the gritty rim of Stromboli, a wildly beautiful dot in the Mediterranean where for a brief moment in 1950 all the world's eyes turned when news broke of Roberto Rossellini's affair with Ingrid Bergman. It was a cause celebre. As US senator Edwin C. Johnson condemned: "The degenerate Rossellini has deceived the American people with an idiotic story of a volcano and a pregnant woman."

Stromboli, the film, financed by Howard Hughes, put the mountain on the map. It aroused curiosity and fantastical wonder. Bergman fell pregnant to her Italian director. The film flopped at the box office. Hollywood turned its back on the Swedish star. But the mountain - a smouldering tease, a cauldron of lust - soon became the most improbable of tourist attractions, as it remains today; a favoured playground for Europe's leisured elite, where luxury fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana have a holiday villa, where Madonna visits and where boatloads of queasy day trippers arrive for the spectacle.

I join the crowd, chatting with papaya farmers from Hawaii ("we're used to volcanoes") on a pearl wedding anniversary, beguiled by a volcano that looks exactly as it should - conical, puffing smoke, hissing threats - which is to say, it looks as though you shouldn't trust it for a minute.

"I think is good evening to climb," our Italian guide, Alberto Zucchetti, says reassuringly.

He works mostly in the Swiss Alps but for a month each year escorts sightseers on Stromboli. "If we find many stone and many lava and many fire at the top then that is problem. If I say we must go down, we must go down."

I've come to the most remote of the Aeolian Islands, theatrical outcrops strewn over the slender toe of Italy, to walk up a geological novelty: Europe's only permanently active volcano. But I've travelled also to this "home of the winds" - the floating islands of Aeolus in Greek mythology, described in Homer's Odyssey as having cliffs rising "sheer from the sea" - because of a story that begins and ends on the other side of the world.

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In 1885, the Bongiorno brothers came all the way from this archipelago (known also as the Lipari islands) to Sydney, whereupon they sold fruit on Parramatta Road. Their journey was part of a larger shared story; of a group of people from a faraway place who became the first wave of Italians to migrate to Australia. Before Sicilians, Calabrians and those from Veneto, it was this small islander community that pioneered a foreign experience so many other Italians would follow.

Most Aeolians who arrived in Australia settled in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, typically becoming fruiterers and fishermen. The Bongiornos had fled poverty in Lipari, the largest of the Aeolian islands, and in Sydney settled in Leichhardt, where they were the first to open a fruit shop in a suburb that's since become a crucible of Italian-Australian identity. Migrants from Lipari still form the neighbourhood's cultural heart.

Chain migration accounted for almost 10,000 people leaving the islands for Australia between 1901 and 1914, commonly with names such as Natoli, Divola, Cincotta, Lo Schiavo and Casamento.

In Melbourne, the Aeolian community had by 1925 founded its own society with a hall on Lygon Street, still the oldest Italian club in Australia. Some were fishermen at Black Rock; most were fruit-sellers in Richmond, Prahran and Coburg. Political activist B.A. Santamaria was one of their number. Born in Melbourne in 1915, he was the son of an Aeolian greengrocer with a shop on Sydney Road, Brunswick.

So on our first morning in Lipari, the most populated and most popular of the seven Aeolian isles, it's no surprise that we encounter two groups of Australian travellers. Bartholomew Iacono, 57, is here with family to visit his parents' birthplace for the first time.

"We've got a few cousins to see," he says. His parents migrated to Melbourne in the early 1950s, living in Northcote, and named Bartholomew after the island's patron saint. We also meet a wedding party; the bride from Sydney, the groom from Melbourne. His name is Steven Amendola, he's an industrial-relations lawyer and he's chosen to get married in his nonna's homeland.

Naples was the usual port of embarkation for Aeolians off to Australia - as with the Puglisi fishing family from Ulladulla, whose sea voyage via the Suez called at Port Said, Colombo, Fremantle and ended at Woolloomooloo. We're coming the other way and take the shortest route to Lipari - a car ferry from Milazzo on the north-east Sicilian coast, stopping at first at Vulcano where we inhale a pungent stench of sulphur.

Vulcanology is the first conclusive evidence that we have arrived elsewhere; to this string of cone-shaped peaks in a corner of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the most southerly of which was named after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. "This one is explosive," says Letizia Russo, a 30-year-old Sicilian who lives beneath Mount Etna and who I meet on the walk up the island's Gran Cratere (Large Crater). "There is so much power to break this like a cork."

Warning signs below display a skull and crossbones and read like a cigarette-pack deterrent: "Do not go near the smoke holes extreme danger of intoxication". I go near the smoke holes - sulphurous yellow and looking like coral - because I am curious about fumaroles, about mother Earth burping heated gases and because a reporter needs to report. They stink. They are unbearably hot. They are best avoided.

At Lipari our ferry berths with a great swirl of water into a commotion of comings and goings. It looks as though all the town is here, including our hotelier, a silver-haired, South African, Diana Brown, whom we had emailed from Australia and who now greets us on her bicycle. It's a wonderful sight, among the heady aroma of roasted chestnuts, the shrill cries of fish-sellers, stray cats, taxi drivers, the other tourists conspicuous by their suitcases, maps and designer sunglasses.

"An island," as the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago once remarked, "is the most fortuitous of events." This is how we feel having left the Sicilian "mainland" behind, the two of us travelling with our infant son, on holidays with the gift of watery distance between us and reality. Only on a small island, it seems, can we truly unwind; girt by sea, cut off by geography, limited by ferry timetables.

In no time we fall in with local rhythms: the morning church bells, slap'n'tickle of the tide, daily siestas, afternoon espressos and gelato at pasticceria Subba (opened in 1930), the funeral processions that moult yellow gerberas and pink carnations through narrow streets, touts offering "escursioni Stromboli" tickets for wildly fluctuating prices.

We had booked a rooftop apartment for €60 ($80) a night at Diana Brown's B&B. Each day we buy local produce - cherry tomatoes, capers, anchovies, olives, oils, balsamic vinegar, salad greens - to cook a pasta dinner once our boy's asleep. Enforced early nights are lengthened on our private terrace, with Sicilian beers under the stars and a nightly nightcap of malvasia.

It's a sweet and fruity drop with its own DOC (denominazione di origine controllata), bottled in Salina, a neighbouring island best known for its star role in Michael Radford's hypnotically beautiful 1994 film Il Postino (The Postman).

In 1890, an outbreak of the pest phylloxera destroyed about 90 per cent of the island's malvasia grapevines, prompting a mass exodus to Australia. Immigration records show that of the 92 Salina migrants naturalised in Australia from 1881 to 1947, many listed their occupation as "wine seller".

Our days on Lipari are gloriously insouciant: seeing sights, licking ice-cream, trying to get comfortable on a pebbly beach, doing all those things expected of a Mediterranean holiday. We visit the town's 17th-century cathedral of San Bartolomeo, built by the Spanish on a citadel to defend the island from pirates. We watch fishermen use bread to catch bait fish. We get lost in claustrophobic alleys paved in black obsidian stone. We see the hills of Calabria in clear dawn light. We count the cruise ships that come and go.

Like locals, we also spend much time on jetty ends. It's one of the great joys of the Aeolians; island hopping and the social commingling at the wharfs, with ropes tossed and tethered, farewell kisses, idle talk and always the anticipation of travel. From our base in Lipari, we catch ferries to Vulcano, Salina and Panarea, where all the houses are built of whitewashed brick with doors and shutters painted Aegean blue and all have bunches of garlic and tomatoes drying in the shade and underpants strung up in the sun.

It's on our last full day that I board a boat to Stromboli, the archipelago's famed tourist drawcard, paying €65 to be tossed about on a luminous sea rinsed clean by volcanic pumice. Nausea is inescapable and it's not helped by the captain stopping at a spot where the aquamarine water bubbles and pops. He says it's from an underwater vent, a crack in the Earth's crust where sulphuric gasses burble to the surface. It smells worse than a bath fart.

The name "Stromboli", derived from the Greek "strongulos", meaning round, doesn't fairly describe its silhouette. The mountain from afar looks like a Hollywood creation - dramatically conical, puffing its top, confirming its reputation as a firecracker that has erupted for as long as anyone can remember. For Rossellini's film, it did all its own stunts.

"Usually there are one or two explosions every 15 minutes," says our guide who, by way of explaining its geology, uses a walking pole to sketch its profile in black volcanic ash. From its base, the mountain looks just as it did in Rossellini's black-and-white picture; tilting deliriously up and up, 926 metres above sea level, into a cauldron of fire and brimstone.

Most hire boots, helmets and headlamps and our group of 21 begins the long zigzag up the scoria scree. I saunter at the end of the line, thinking about mountains, about the land's shape, about angles, about parenthood and about the Swiss, German, French, Italian, Spanish and English couples ahead of me. It's hot and sweaty work, gaining altitude and a clearer understanding of our place in the world.

The sun lowers, the air cools, a full moon rises. The mountain begins to talk, hissing through pursed lips. A wind picks up, the sky darkens. It's peak hour at the top. I count nine groups of about 20 trekkers, all with guides who talk through their walkie-talkies. We've come for the evening show, a pyrotechnic extravaganza - nature's skyward aerosol spray of burning magma.

And Stromboli doesn't disappoint. It sounds at first like a coastal blowhole, a loud whoosh and belly roar, accompanied by squeals and shouts of delight. Molten rock spurts upward - a plume of fire - falling in a waterfall of foundry sparks. It lasts about eight seconds, then all is quiet. The crowd cheers, everyone smiles. The wait begins for the next performance.

We shuffle up to the crater's lip where the air is thick with ash and the sky turns black. We listen to the mountain and wait. It's here on Stromboli that I think of Ingrid Bergman. I think of Woody Guthrie and the song he sang about her on this mountain. I think of how I've paid good money to spend three hours walking up this mountain - here in the middle of the Mediterranean - and now at the top, bunted by a cold wind, with soot in my eyes, we lean and peer into a black hole in the dark, waiting for something to happen.

Nothing does. Stromboli never blows again on our visit to the top. It's on our walk down that a sprightly Englishman who lives in Berlin justifies the whole experience of getting to the island and climbing it, all for a quick thrill of fireworks. "You have to do something with your Monday evenings." It sure beats putting out the bins.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates flies to Rome for about $2025 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly to Dubai (14hr), then Rome (7hr). Trains from Rome to Milazzo take a little more than eight hours and cost about $120 first-class. Milazzo is the main setting-off point for the Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie). Siremar and Ustica Lines run services almost hourly in the high season (June to September) and frequently enough during quieter times. Find ticket offices at the port. Hydrofoils to Lipari cost €11.30 ($15), one-way. We caught the slower car ferry, which is cheaper, although we paid €40.10 for the car. Regular services also link the islands to Naples, Palermo, Messina and Reggio Calabria.

Staying there

Touts and hoteliers greet most new arrivals at port, offering rooms in guest houses and private villas. Most travellers base themselves at Lipari. We booked a rooftop apartment at Diana Brown, a shipshape B&B run by an indomitable South African woman, and recommend it highly. Double rooms cost €40-€100. See dianabrown.it.

Climbing Stromboli

Most visit on a day trip from Lipari and most ascend it in the late afternoon to reach the crater at sunset. Climbers must be in guided groups. Tours are best arranged from Lipari and booked at least a day in advance. Prices fluctuate according to demand. I paid €65 for the trip, plus €9 to hire compulsory boots, helmet and headlamp. volcanodiscovery.com /stromboli_updates.html.

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