Ingrid, Me, and Stromboli

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Ingrid, Me, and Stromboli
By Susan Van Allen



The Italian island of Stromboli is not the bleak and impoverished place it was when Ingrid Bergman's character struggled in a post-WWII movie, but the volcano still puts on a dramatic show.


Stromboli travel

I am climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli, off Sicily’s coast, to get an up close experience of one of the world’s most famous volcanoes. I keep flashing back to Ingrid Bergman, in absolute glamorous distress, stumbling along this same route in the 1950 movie, Stromboli. She plays Karin, a Lithuanian World War II refugee, who marries an Italian POW. The husband turns out to be a tyrant who takes her to his homeland desolate island. There she’s surrounded by cruel village crones.

In the final scene of Stromboli, Ingrid desperately tries to get to Ginostra, on the other side, where she can catch a boat and escape what has become an unbearable life to her. She’s wearing a pretty print dress, choking as clouds of smoke and ash billow around her. When she reaches the top of the volcano, she realizes it’s impossible—the earth explodes below her—there’s no way around it. Ingrid/Karin cries out to the heavens: “My God, help me!” She collapses in agony and tears. The camera pulls in for a close-up of what must be the most beautiful crier who ever lived: those cheek bones, perfectly arched eyebrows, the full lips.

Stromboli Movie Poster

On my lips is the sweet taste of scrumptious banana and chocolate gelato I just ate in the piazza below. Ingrid is remembered in that piazza with a bar named in her honor. Close by is a rose stucco house with a plaque on it that says this is where she lived with Roberto Rossellini in the spring of 1949, when he directed her in this movie. They fell madly in love during the making of Stromboli, though they were both married to others. Americans and Italians reacted with shock and disapproval to the brazen scandal. In Hollywood, where Ingrid was beloved for her roles in Casablanca and Joan of Arc, her rep plummeted (in her words) “from a saint to a whore.”

I remember Ingrid in the movie now, with a hand on her belly, as she struggled up this path—she was pregnant with Roberto’s child at the time. The filming experience was horrific. She had come here because she was impressed with the realism of Rossellini’s films Open City and Paesan. They were such a contrast to the glitzy fantasy pics of Tinseltown in the 1940s. Ingrid wrote Roberto a letter, asking if he’d use her in a movie, and he obliged. But little did she know what Rossellini's Neorealism was truly about. The director was fanatic about this new form of cinema that burst forth after World War II and insisted on authenticity when it came to location. So his Stromboli showed the island exactly as it was: primitive and poverty-stricken.

The Rossellini House in Stromboli, Italy

The Rossellini House

Sixty years later, my Stromboli is full of happy tourists. The island is part of a group of eight, called the Aeolians, scattered in the Tyrrhenian Sea, between the toe of Italy’s boot and the northeastern shore of Sicily. It’s become a dreamy place for travelers, who take ferries from port to port, to luxuriate in thermal springs, swim in lovely coves, and eat delicious seafood. Stromboli is the most dramatic of the bunch. Every 15 to 20 minutes there’s a rumble and explosion of fiery red rocks from its top.

Strombolians are not rattled in the least by the eruptions. They call their volcano, Iddu, (“He”), as though it’s just their grumpy old Papa above them, periodically belching smoke and fire. There haven’t been major eruptions recently, but still, for safety reasons, it’s illegal to walk to the top on your own. Travelers like me and my fellow Country Walkers gang join Stromboli’s hiking companies, which start the climb in the late afternoon so we’ll reach the top by sunset.

Hiking Slowly to the Fire

At the trailhead, our handsome, bearded guide Mario gathers the 20 of us—a mix of Americans and Italians, and begins the trek with a question, “Who is the slowest?” Without missing a beat, a 60-something year old Brunhilda type signora steps up with her walking stick. “Our leader!” Mario announces. La Signora raises her arms in triumph, the evening’s goddess.




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100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go

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50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go

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Letters from Italy

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