Stromboli's volcano: Twilight on the edge of a towering inferno

Take a walk up Stromboli's volcano and stare in awe into its fuming crater. For maximum effect, says Alex Leith, do it when the sun goes down

Stromboli's peak is shrouded in a murky bank of cloud as my boat pulls into port. This is disappointing. I was expecting a plume of smoke. I've come to the northernmost of the Aeolian archipelago, off the coast of Sicily, to climb the 1,000 metres to the summit of the volcano at sunset, to look into its eight active craters. If I'm lucky they will spit molten lava hundreds of metres into the night sky in front of my eyes. I'm excited - and extremely nervous.

I arrive in Stromboli village by hydrofoil, a two-hour journey from the port of Milazzo on the Sicilian mainland. Its bustling jetty is flanked by black-sand beaches littered with scruffy wooden fishing-boats. Then a few bars, and a road leading up into the village centre. Cars aren't allowed in the narrow streets: everyone's buzzing around two-to-a-scooter or in little three-wheeled Ape trucks, passengers standing in the rear section, holding tight to hand-bars above the chassis. All the low-rise buildings are whitewashed, the walls made of volcanic rock. A little way up the hill you can drink cappuccino and eat panini at a bar overlooking the seafront in the small square outside a pink neo-classical church.

Above everything rises the volcano, its base covered in vegetation, its sparse summit black as night. The longer you are on the island, the more you become aware of the looming, fuming, unstable presence of the inferno at its core. And the more you feel in awe of its power.

The locals call their island Iddu, local dialect for "him", both a personification and a deification, a friend and a god. Iddu has provided fertile ground to grow capers and vines, Iddu has scattered volcanic ash on the shimmering black beaches. Iddu attracts tourists, and ensures the islanders' livelihoods. But sometimes Iddu gets angry and they have to leave, as they did in December 2002, and April 2003, when spectacular eruptions and tidal waves devastated the little village port at the foot of the mountain.

These days you can only climb to the summit with a guide. Locals tell of unauthorised tourists standing (or sleeping) in the wrong place, killed by flying lava. The first day I'm there, because of that dark cloud smothering the peak, there are no trips up. The second day, there are no spare places. Only 80 people at a time are allowed up the mountain, in four groups of 20. It's worth booking in advance. By the third day I'm on my way.

We meet in the square at 5pm, kitted out with a torch, a helmet, sturdy boots, two sweaters, a rainproof jacket, two litres of water and a sandwich. Our guide is Mario, a dignified Strombolano wearing a skull-cap and a beard. The sun is still quite high in the clear blue sky. We walk, at a slow steady pace, through head-high reeds, past purple mallow and swathes of bright yellow broom, snaking up the mountain, stopping occasionally for a drink of water, watching the neighbouring rock-island of Strombolicchio shrink below us. After an hour and a half the terrain changes as we reach the barren top half of the mountain, along narrow paths cutting through steep slopes of volcanic ash, peppered with black porous boulders. As we get higher, it's best not to look down. It's hard work.

Time moves slowly, and the sun drops from the sky. The temperature, too, falls sharply. How many more false summits can we reach? Then the path loops round the side of the mountain and there, on the horizon, out to sea, is a beautiful sunset, a shimmering yellow stripe in the water. But before it, vying for attention, is the smoking crater. Then, with an almighty crack, comes our first volcanic eruption, a splash of incandescent orange liquid. We carry on walking, uplifted. It's another 20 minutes to the top.

The climb gets more and more spectacular. We reach the summit of the mountain, an extinct crater 300 metres above the active basin, and sit in a line on the edge. We put on our hard hats, our sweaters, our cagoules. We can pick out six of the eight craters below us. Molten lava is bubbling near the surface. Far below is the sea. The sun has set, and it is getting dark quickly. Suddenly, frighteningly, with a thundering boom, a 50-metre spout of livid liquid leaps into the sky.

"There you go," says Mario. "Bet that made you jump. Don't worry if you feel scared. Only an extremely insensitive person would not feel scared first time."

Mario tells us how he was nearly killed two years before, when only bad weather stopped him from being up there at the time of the last major eruption. Since then the island has had a team monitoring the heartbeat of the volcano to try to predict its moods. "But who knows how Stromboli will behave? Vulcanology is a relatively new science - unfortunately we know next to nothing about how volcanoes work. Maybe our grandchildren will know more than us," he says.

At this point I am hit by contrasting emotions. I am dumbstruck with wonder at the power of nature. I am battling against the instinct to apply spiritual meaning to what I don't understand. And I want to be entertained: I want another spout; I'd like another firework. Iddu provides with a spectacular 200-metre-high explosion of lava which nearly reaches eye level. It's a heart-stopping experience. And that's not all. Before we go, the nearest crater to us emits another type of spout, more of a gentle slow-burning Roman candle that lasts at least 10 seconds. It's like a gentle farewell.

It's a long walk back, straight down the mountain, masks on to protect our lungs from the volcanic dust we are kicking up, our torch beams seeking out rocks we might stumble over. For the last hour all I can think of is a beer in the bar. When I order it, I'm so tired I can't finish it. The next morning, early, it's time to go. There's a clear blue sky. I stand at the stern of the hydrofoil watching Stromboli getting smaller, a gentle plume of smoke trailing from its peak.

Give Me The Facts

How to get there

Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) offers return flights from Stansted to Palermo from around £154 return in August.

Siremar Ferries (00 39 091 743 111; www.siremar.it) operates a regular service to all the Aeolian Islands. However, you should be prepared to change ferry at Lipari. The journey from Milazzo to Stromboli takes two hours and costs €31 (£22) each way.

Where to stay

The writer stayed at Pensione La Nassa (00 39 090 986 033), which offers doubles from €38 (£27) per night.

What to do

Magmatrek, Via Vittorio Emanuele (00 39 090 986 5768; www.magmatrek.it), offers evening guided tours up Stromboli for €34 (£24).

Further information

Italian tourist office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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