I’ve been to Hell and back.
My trip to Hell wasn’t thanks to someone verbally sending me there after a spat. It was a wonderful trip, a summer holiday.
Hell is a geographical spot—yes, it actually exists. It’s the island of Vulcano off Sicily’s coast, part of Italy’s stunning Aeolian archipelago. It was dubbed the “Mouth of Hell” by my ancestors who believed it was the “Door to Hades” during the Renaissance, with access here banned by the Catholic Church. So, like a modern-day Dante Alighieri, I embarked on a journey to discover what this inferno is like.
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An Exotic Place That Looks Like Mars
Vulcano, the least known and most pristine of the Aeolian isles, is mesmerizing. It’s a lava-pebble desert with round green and yellow cacti sticking out of a Mars-looking reddish landscape. Beaches are jet-black. It’s a heavenly, elite retreat where uncontaminated, wild nature rules, making it great for an unplugged, detoxifying break. The active volcano with its massive crater overlooks clear turquoise waters, quiet pebble inlets, and sulfur-rich cliffs with streaks of shiny yellow, red, silver, and orange dotted with dwarf palms and prickly pears. The soil and rocks that line the pavements are reddish-golden, while heaps of shiny dark sand are piled in village courtyards. I felt an extraterrestrial vibe.
It’s Smoking Hot
Due to the active volcano which, is sleepy but not totally dormant, there’s heat coming out of everywhere, even from brick walls where tourists sit, resting or waiting for ferries under the sultry Sicilian sun. Roads are hot, too. I place my bare foot on the sidewalk and it’s a natural heater. It’s like walking on a boiling pot. Tiny clouds of gas can be seen at street corners, squeezing through dwellings and alley cobblestones, rising from the craters and hilltops where occasional vapors rise. So if you tour the isle on a dinghy and spot smoke among the thick bushes and prickly pears, don’t freak out. It’s normal, not the spark of a wildfire.
The top highlight on the island is a huge water-drop-shaped, open-air mud bath where you can leisurely lie on your back and spread healing sludge all over your body, making your skin shiny and soft while suntanning at the same time. The sticky mud is great for rheumatisms and aching bones. I spread it on my buttocks, thighs, and on my face until it solidified under the sun and cracked like pottery veins, trying not to get in my eyes (it burns terribly!) nor in my hair (as I’d need lemon to rinse it out). The mud bath is a giant brownish shallow pool where tourists just float there all covered in mud, wearing sunglasses and hats. It’s extremely hot, so avoid sitting in one spot for too long otherwise you’ll bake.
Healing, Treacherous Bubbles
A three-day stay on Vulcano works miracles, better than any spa. The sea is extremely warm, even scorching where there are underwater fumaroles, scattered in every single bay. Once my skin was nicely covered with the dried mud, the next action was to dive into the sea and swim to the huge air bubbles coming up to the surface and providing a violent natural jacuzzi. The trick is to keep swimming on the spot right on top of the bubbles to get the most out of the anti-cellulite massage and, if you dare, take a peek underwater with the mask to watch the gas escaping from the sea bed. But be careful not to burn yourself on the hot bubbles. The first time, I nearly fainted. While I was chatting to a guy, moving my legs right on the bubbles and attempting to keep seated on the largest one, all of a sudden I started to feel dizzy and weak, short of breath, my head spinning, my arms trembling. “Get out of there now, it can make you feel sick if you have low blood pressure!” screamed another woman nearby. So I made a leap for the shore–just in time!—and, boiled like an egg, I took to the shade to regain my breath and heartbeat.
As Vulcano is a sleeping giant with nasty geysers and steam oozing out everywhere you go, the first thing that hit me when I get off the ferry boat was the strong scent, or rather smell, of sulfur, which accounts for the rocks being a shimmering yellow and for the yellowish powder that fills the air, getting into your nostrils. It’s a bit like the smell of rotten eggs, but, to some people, it’s pure addiction. As we say in Italy, “even a smell can be a pleasant scent if you happen to like it.” I did not. It gets into your clothes and hair and hangs there. But many people love it. Visitors sit hours cropped inside so-called “stoves”–natural holes in the yellow-silver cliffs–just inhaling Vulcano’s nasty vapors, getting high on the sulfur. They say it’s good for your lungs, asthma, and breathing problems, but not if you also happen to have heart issues or low blood pressure. Inhaling a few vapors for just one minute, with an empty stomach, can be a killer. The black scenery, topped with the geysers, offers a supernatural stay. You kind of feel like you’re roasting in Hell–albeit in a pleasant way.
You’ll have the chance to live a chapter of Greek mythology. According to myth, this is where the God of Fire, Hephaestus, lived, deep underground, serving as the official blacksmith of Olympus. He was married to Aphrodite, the stunning goddess of beauty and a nymphomaniac who frequently betrayed her husband triggering his anger. So the poor cuckold god was forced to vent out his frustration from the bowels of the earth–hence the past eruptions. That’s the origin story of Vulcano.
Baths With Aphrodite
Local fishermen love to exploit the myth, particularly with foreigners who adore anything associated with the ancient pagan gods of the Mediterranean. With a group of ladies of all ages, I was taken on a dinghy to admire and enjoy the so-called Aphrodite’s Pool, a clear underwater hole enclosed by rocky cliffs, where I jumped into the fluorescent blue sea and relaxed, trying to avoid a jellyfish swimming by. It is said this is where the goddess, sad of being caught by her violent husband but still in love with him, regularly washed away her sins of adultery and reemerged from the clear waters as a virgin once again. I laughed out loud when an older French woman dived in four times after saying a silent prayer.
The isle is a pilgrimage site for volcano lovers who embark on an eight-hour trekking trip up to the yellow craters. You need to carry three different sets of clothes–both for sweating-through and adjusting to the varying temperature as you climb up–plus meals and at least three liters of water. The 360-degree panorama from the pinnacle is rewarding, but if you don’t feel like sweating as much you can still enjoy the view while sipping a cocktail as the sun goes down, setting the sky ablaze. Vulcano is the only one among all seven Aeolian islands where you can admire the entire archipelago, plus the many sea stacks.
Weird Natural Sculptures
One of the first things locals suggest you see is the “Valley of the Monsters.” That’s both symbolic and real. From the mud bath, a path winds up to the volcano flanks cutting through a wild, desert-like patch of land with tall, scary black rocks shaped like animals–lions, donkeys, dragons, and elephants–that look ready to assault you. The rocks are made of solidified lava. In prehistoric times at each eruption, the liquid lava would flow downhill and solidify in different, artistic shapes. A local shopkeeper warns me that the valley is inhabited by nasty big snakes and vipers, so best to visit with a pair of boots on even if you happen to be visiting in August. Forget your flip-flops.
Great Wine and Tropical Fruit
Volcanoes have great fertile soil due to the past lava flows, and this island is no exception. At dinner, I tasted local sweet wine, malvasia and passito, from grapes grown on the scorching cliffs, together with almond paste biscuits and a slice of ricotta and candied fruits. Also worth trying is pane cunzato, a huge hamburger stuffed with anchovies, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella, among other ingredients. But the biggest surprise of all was having locally grown papaya, mango, baby bananas, and black sapote–traditionally tropical fruits which have found a perfect home over here in Sicily thanks to climate change. I mull over whether they’re an abomination of nature or a delicious surprise. But after all, this is Hell.