It was only about 11:30am and it was stinking hot. The yellow sun pierced through the clear blue sky and scorched both me and the earth as beads of sweat started to gather on my brow.
For what looked like a relatively easy 390m high volcano to climb, Gran Cratere on the Aeolian Island Vulcano was deceptive. I found it hard going striding uphill in the glaring sun – I blame the heat and lack of fitness finesse for this.
But this did allow me to pause and catch my breath often and to take in the stark volcanic landscape, with its black and red ash and Neapolitan ice cream-like layers of hardened lava.
Wafts of rotten eggs soon tickled our noses as we neared the crater where, off to one side,
steam issued from vents that were caked in yellow sulphur crystals.
We continued on up to the summit that overlooked the crater. From there we could see the other Aeolian Islands Lipari and Salina, and a spectacular view of the crater below, a broad flat-bottomed pit with etchings and rock formations in the ashy sand where people had written their undying love for each other.
As I fanned myself to cool down, I realised with horror that I had only brought one bra on the trip, which was now rather sodden having absorbed a fair amount of my sweat. It seemed I would have to resort to my bikini top for climbing the next three volcanoes.
But the next day, as we attempted the 962m peak on the island Salina, proved to be less of a strenuous affair.
Completely covered in forest, Fossa delle Felci presented a more enjoyable walk through the cool shadows of eucalyptus and pine trees. Instead of gritty ash, much of the track was covered in leaves, and large rocks formed natural steps to the next zigzag in the path. There was no bird song but the cicadas formed a giant choir, and our walk was accompanied by a continual chirp like rubbing plastic.
We emerged from the trees onto the summit, an unsheltered clearing with an unfettered view out to sea and Mt Etna and the Sicilian coast vaguely outlined in the distance. From here, the crater couldn’t be seen, for the slopes were covered in dense bush.
Our guide Raffaele whipped out a table cloth and proceeded to lay a picnic lunch of gastronomic delights – ham, crusty bread, cucumber, tomatoes, olives and two types of cheese. We feasted lavishly, finishing off with juicy doughnut peaches.
The return walk took us down a different route, along narrower, more overgrown paths where we trudged over a carpet of dried pine needles and dodged low hanging branches. Where the trees spaced out we caught the occasional glimpse of the resplendent Stromboli in the distance with its smoking vapour trails.
We passed small landslides that showed layers of coloured volcanic depositions, caper bushes where caper berries were starting to grow, and massive prickly pear cacti with giant thorns. By the time we had walked back into town, our appetites had returned and a creamy gelato was on the agenda – a perfect way to top off volcano number five.