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Italy: The smell of Vulcano

“I can tell if someone has been to Vulcano,” Gianfranco told us. “The smell can stay in the skin for a week.” It was a warning I should have heeded, but with rash enthusiasm I waded into the coffee-coloured mud and sat on the gooey ground.

Italy: The smell of Vulcano
Vulcano, Italy. Image: Sameena Jarosz.

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While the sulphurous odour permeating from my pores did eventually relent, it took a few wash cycles to get rid of the smell from the clothes in the backpack.

Of the seven Aeolian islands, Vulcano is the nearest to the north coast of Sicily and around 45 minutes by hydrofoil from the port city of Milazzo. It’s an easy day trip from neighbouring Lipari, the main base for visitors to these popular holiday islands. Vulcano is, as its name suggests, an active volcano, and for those willing to take on the heat and the steep climb, the highlight is the energetic but easy hike to its 1,247ft-high crater. The air at the top is thick with sulphurous fumes, while the yellow powdery deposits add a splash of colour to the otherwise ashen landscape.

Alongside the hikers and photographers enjoying the views into the belly of the volcano and across the chain of Aeolian islands, volcanologists in white protective suits are busy collecting samples from the crater. It’s a sight that belongs to another world, but I’m quickly brought to my senses when I step onto the path beside the sulphur deposits and immediately discover that my sandals are no match for the intense heat of the volcano’s steaming rocks.

Back beside the port after a couple of hours on the volcano, I find the mud pools for which the island is also well-known. The light brown sludge is rich in sulphur and considered to have therapeutic properties for conditions including osteoarthritis, gout and carpal tunnel syndrome. The pools appear to be a magnet for elderly German tourists, and I join around 30 of them as they wallow in the dirty water, scooping up handfuls of sludge and plastering it on every inch of exposed skin. The elderly Germans are in their element and I sit bewildered as a man in his 70s drops his trunks and scrubs his nether regions in full view of all, including the tourists taking photos of the mud pools from what they’d thought would be the safety of the main road.

The mud pool is a few metres from the sea and it takes no more than five minutes in the goo for me to head to the steps that lead down into the clean water. The mud washes away in an instant; the smell, as I later discover, is far harder to shed.

Vulcano has for many years played second fiddle to Stromboli, the northernmost Aeolian island and Europe’s most active volcano. Every other business in Lipari offers evening boat tours to Stromboli, selling them with dramatic pictures of lava waterfalls and spectacular natural pyrotechnics. I take the bait, even though I know I’m visiting at a time when Stromboli’s activity is going through a particularly quiet period. Along with the others on the boat trip I sit and watch the cone from the sea as it lets out a puff of black smoke every 20 minutes. It’s certainly unusual, but I’m pretty sure the tours from Lipari wouldn’t sell well if the pictures resembled the current reality.

At its explosive best, there’s little doubt that Stromboli offers a magical natural spectacle. For now and until the activity picks up again (as it surely will), a visit to Vulcano offers an easier and more rewarding experience. And while the memory of seeing flowing lava on Stromboli is bound to take a long time to fade, Vulcano can lay claim to the same long-term impact with its smell alone.