Written for RTE radio program Sunday Miscellany.
Illustrations from Exhibition called 'Sailing to Stromboli'.
Sailing to Stromboli
There are many islands off the coast of Italy. Some are large - Sicily and Sardinia – but there are many smaller, from the mud bank that is Venice to topical Lampedusa, currently on the front line of the influx of refugees fleeing North Africa. By chance, rather than any grand plan, I sailed in my yacht with my family to another famous Italian Island this summer - the volcanic isle of Stromboli, known down through the ages to mariners as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.
Stromboli, one of the Aeolian group of islands, guards the approaches to the Straights of Messina. This is the narrow band of water between the toe of Italy and the island of Sicily. Stromboli is an active volcano, a tall cone of smoking and at times flaming eruptions. In such a prominent position it earned the title ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’. It guides the wandering mariner into the mouth of the famed passage between Scylla and Charybdis.
No one wanders around the ocean these days on board boats looking for lighthouses. One knows exactly where one is thanks to modern methods of navigation - GPS, radar and other communication devices. But we espied with excitement the distinct cone of Stromboli while we were yet far off and it was not long before we could discern the wisp of smoke emitting from its summit.
We dropped anchor off the village. There is no safe harbour on Stromboli, it being symmetrically round in shape as it rises from the depths to its smoking cone. Our party of five landed in our rubber dinghy and sought out a pizza joint, which we had found online. Night was falling.
The rest of the Aeolian Islands are crowded and busy with tourists and holidaymakers. This is the summer playground of the Italian cities, Rome and Naples. Not so Stromboli. It has a small population, narrow streets, no cars, little boxy houses and, island like, no street lighting. We stumbled up dark lanes to find our supper. As we sat down on a large outdoor terrace we could look up and see the head lamps of the trekkers who nightly make the guided climb up to the crater to view the action. They make the six hour trip wearing helmets, lights and strong boots to see the bubbling cauldron.
Our party were more interested in food and we were not disappointed. I looked around the restaurant. There was a big group of sophisticated elderly Italians eating, drinking and gesticulating. On the walls was a large collection of black and white photographs. On closer inspection they turned out to be stills from the famous movie Stromboli which Robert Rossellini had made on the island in 1949 starring his then lover, Ingrid Bergman.
I was reminded of another island and another movie. Man of Aran was filmed by Robert Flaherty in 1934. It was a considerable critical success and won a prize at the Venice Film festival. It seems impossible to think that Rossellini had not seen it. There are many similarities between the two movies. Both directors use the local people as actors. Each movie has dramatic fishing scenes. The rugged faces of the locals, the weather and the harsh terrain are a big part of both movies.
Rossellini almost invented the genre of Neorealism in the movie business with his use of nonprofessional actors and actual locations. But into this harsh landscape and primitive population of Stromboli he casts the most beautiful woman in the world and proceeds to kill her off in a dramatic eruption. Viewed today it is almost comic in its storyline. While Flaherty’s film was a worldwide success, Rossellini’s was less so. Apart from a critical drubbing, in the United States the romantic affair between the director and his world famous star, both being married to others at the time, was considered too scandalous. The director fell out with his American backers and the movie was called out as evil on the floor of the United States Senate. But it also won a prize at the Venice film festival.
We returned to our anchored yacht through the unlit alley ways of Stromboli picking up our rubber dinghy on the black volcanic beach. We had our pre bunk refreshments in the cockpit. It was a beautiful calm night. We could look up at the groups of climbers as they snaked their way up the cone of the sleeping volcano, each with a head lamp on their helmet. Back and forth they went on the switchback trail. On these slopes, Ingrid Bergman, in the movie Stromboli, had met her fate.