Italy's Stromboli Offers Thrills of Living With Volcano
STROMBOLI, Italy It's like living on a powder keg.
Perching on the slopes of Stromboli, Pasquale Giuffre eats, sleeps, and breathes in the shadow of the volcano which is constantly spitting red fountains of lava and clouds of smoke.
But the 27 villagers living in Ginostra treat Europe's only permanently active volcano with respect rather than fear.
"The volcano is part of our life's fascination, like the beautiful sea around us and the stars above us," said Giuffre, 55, sitting on a terrace of his whitewashed stone house perched on the volcano's slope. "It's a dangerous giant, but at the same time it's a good and beautiful giant. Beautiful things are often dangerous."
For several thousand years people have been living on the rugged, almost perfectly conical island, some 30 miles off the tip of Italy's boot, defying the hardship of volcano life, not to mention the danger of being destroyed by it.
Every 10 to 20 minutes, Stromboli spews gas, ash, and up to 656-foot-high spurts of red hot lava into the sky. Occasionally the volcano puts on an even more dramatic show.
On Dec. 30, 2002, when Strombolians were sitting down for lunch, a 565-million-cubic-foot chunk of volcanic rock broke off and plunged into the sea, causing a 33-foot-high tidal wave that damaged some buildings around the coastline.
In April 2003, Stromboli shot smoke and ashes about a half-mile into the sky in a violent explosion not seen for at least 50 years. Lava flow rushed down to the sea and stone blocks smashed onto Ginostra, destroying some houses. No one was hurt.
Strombolians say they understand the volcano, which is why there have been few casualties over the centuries despite frequent strong eruptions and earthquakes.
"We feel when the volcano gets angry. We know it better than the scientists," said 51-year-old Mario Cincotta whose family has lived on the island for centuries. "We know that there are places which belong to the volcano, where you just don't go, like the craters and the summit. We respect it, and there are rules of coexistence."
The volcano's shape makes the lava flow down its uninhabited northwestern flank into the sea, away from Ginostra and the bigger village of Stromboli on the opposite side of the island.
Boulders ejected from the vents usually fall into the crater field, also far from the villages.
"We live hoping that nothing serious will happen," said Giuffre. "We know that compared to other places, we have an extra problem. But then we don't have the dangers you have living in big cities."
Stromboli's population of between 400 and 750, according to different estimates, is a tiny fraction of the 5,000, mostly farmers, who lived here at the beginning of the 20th century.
Extreme poverty, not the fear of the volcano, triggered mass emigration in the 1930s and after World War II, mainly to Australia and the United States.
In Ginostra, cut off from the larger village of Stromboli by the volcano and from the rest of the world by the sea, the population has dropped to 27 from about 800 a century ago, as people fled the harsh, almost medieval conditions.
The village was hooked up with electricity only in March 2004. Donkeys are the only means of transport, and most of the food, water, and other supplies have to be shipped in.
The tiny port the smallest in the world, locals say is surrounded by cliffs and accessible only by small boats. When the weather is bad, forget communicating with the outside world.
"It's a life full of suffering and sacrifices. You have to fight for everything on this island," Giuffre said, shyly admitting that, despite his love for his native village, he wanted his son, Gianluca, to seek a better life elsewhere.
But Gianluca chose to stay, as a recent tourist boom was breathing new life into the island.
Farming has given way to tourism, and many people, including designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, are snapping up houses on the island, part of the Aeolian Archipelago.
Strombolians are happy that the volcano is earning money for them but worry that tourism, which boosts the islands' population 10-fold in the summer, could destroy its charm.
"Ginostra seems to be the end of the world but also the center of the universe. You have time to think about fundamental things in life and to communicate with people deeply," Giuffre said. "I wouldn't change it for any other place in the world."