By now most people will have read about the BBC journalists, the German tourists and the vulcanologists who got caught up in one of Etna’s explosions yesterday. I found out when my partner called me to tell me the news. Quite frankly, I was a little surprised that they were there and so close because I had seen grey smoke rising into the sky early that morning and had seen that the alarm was yellow which is the pre-alarm warning. I also couldn’t believe that they weren’t wearing protective head gear as I was recently made to do when I visited the craters a few months ago. Anyway, it could’ve been worse and fortunately, there were no serious injuries. The streets of Catania pose far more danger due to the bullies who drive like maniacs and the phone addicted who send texts while driving.
I can also understand the allure. Etna has always fascinated me and I spend a great deal of my free time there. I get excited every time it erupts and usually take a trip to see the lava flow up closer (although not as close as these guys went). I have watched its form change with every eruption and if it hasn’t been active for a while I start to complain. I have taken the funivia to the top a number of purse-string breaking times but it was my recent trip to the crater zone that excited me the most.
When we booked the excursion we were told that we should arrive early at Rifugio Sapenzia and the guides would determine if it was safe to go up. It was quite windy and weather conditions can deteriorate quite quickly there so it is never guaranteed that a trip will go ahead. We were lucky that day and the guided walk to the top was given permission to proceed. However, first we had to sign our lives away. When you read the declaration that you take full responsibility and that you are aware of the dangers it does make you think twice but obviously not enough. We were given hard hats and my first thought was that they wouldn’t protect us much if she decided to blow, but now, in light of recent events, at least they would have prevented a head injury. Our guide told us that he was always slightly afraid of the volcano because being a vulcanologist he was aware of her power and unpredictability, but that he noticed that, often tourists showed no fear at all and that, he thought, was more dangerous.
We were quite a large mixed bunch with a few people standing out. Two eldery French tourists looked the most professional and were probably the fittest, each one using walking sticks which would later cause me much annoyance. There were a group of friends from Palermo who had decided to go at the last minute and had had to hire boots and later bemoaned how lightly dressed they were. Two German guys on the last day of their holiday saved the guide from having to translate in 3 languages by showing no interest in the scientific stuff; I was presumed to know enough Italian to follow and thankfully I kind of did.
We took the cable car up and then the large 4×4 buses which take you to the Torre del Filosofo or what used to be the Torre del Filosofo as a previous eruption had destroyed that landmark. Then it was a long, difficult climb to the top. The steepness of the path was quite deceptive and the high altitude meant I went from the front to the back of the pack in no time. Every time I needed to stop to catch my now somewhat laboured breath, I would pretend that I just wanted to take a picture, but as we drew closer to the summit craters I didn’t even have the energy for that. The incredible views spurred me on. One slow step after another and finally, we had reached the top and my energy came back in leaps and bounds as I was refueled by excitement.
You haven’t experienced Etna until you have visited the crater zone. Hours could be spent staring at the different coloured rocks, marvelling at the active fumaroles and knowing that just beneath the crust under your very feet magma was creeping its way up. Up there photo opportunities are galore and our group completely forgot where they were and the dangers that were abundant and we all, more often than not, would find ourselves far from the guide who would patiently wait for us to catch up because he probably experienced this frequently. We stared into Voragine and Bocca Nuova in awe for some time then walked on towards a small pit crater.
As we got closer to the pit crater which we had seen emitting grey smoke from the other side of the larger crater, the ground grew more bright yellow and we could see the smoke from the pit and other gases moving across the ground. Our guide deemed it safe to continue and off we trotted but the wind changed and soon we were all standing around, somewhat unsure, gasping for air as our throats tightened, our heads got dizzy and our noses burned as we breathed in the toxic gases coming from the volcano. There had been that putrid smell of sulphur most of the morning but the intense concentration of gases at that spot meant that most of us were overwhelmed by it. The guide in the meantime had been drawn to something and disappeared for only a minute but for what seemed like forever towards the NE crater. We stood motionless, covering our mouths with our scarves but the gas would still catch the back of our throats and soon our chests also felt like they were burning. As the guide came back towards us we suddenly became aware that one girl was having a panic attack. The guide rushed to her aid and took her off back down the mountain and away from the danger zone. The rest of us followed a bit more slowly as we were all a little disorientated.
As the group gathered together once more we saw a cloud of grey smoke rise from the New SE crater but it was a mere puff and nothing too dangerous. After that, the pace back down increased, a few of us stumbled as if slightly intoxicated and when we were at a safer distance we sat and ate lunch. I was so tired and hungry that I sat on the snow and didn’t care until much later when my trousers were wet and my bum numb from the cold. I had also sat in the shade opposite from the Sicilians who were soaking up the sun.
Rejuvenated after a picnic lunch we continued on down the mountain past big boulders that had been spewed out in previous eruptions. At times, the slope was steep and the rocks large and the French lady’s stick kept dislodging large stones that hurled down the slope like an avalanche only stopping when they hit my ankle. I cursed loudly and waited for her to pass so that I wasn’t injured further but I am not even sure she noticed. We passed different lava formations and craters and stuck our hands into a hole in a crater which was still warm. My legs at this stage were rather wobbly but there was no let up in the pace so I did my best to keep up whilst staying upright. Despite the thrill of the morning and my enormous excitement, I was relieved to reach the cable car station and head back to Rifugio Sapienza for a glass of well deserved local red wine and a bit of warmth. Would I do it again? Absolutely, the recent eruption means that all has changed and there will be something new to see. Might just wait until it has calmed down a bit though and for now just watch the lava flow from my balcony.
Last week, I was in shorts. It is fair to say I got a few strange looks from the locals. A few old people shivered and drew their coats up around their necks as they passed me, but it was 22c and for me that’s summer.
That was last week though. The temperature has dropped significantly and winter has rocked up, shocking us to the core. Most Sicilians now look like they are about to go on an expedition to the Artic. It surprises me how many winter clothes they have, considering they get such a relatively short winter. Like it or not, old ladies are wearing fur which has passed down generations, mind you, I have seen fur coats being worn when it is 20c.
The best thing about this cold snap? Snow. Snow has turned parts of Sicily into a winter wonderland, especially in the Madonie mountians and on Mt Etna. Schools have closed and everyone is grappling with snow chains or rushing to buy them. Avid skiers are looking for news as to when the ski runs will open. It is exciting that you can ski on an active volcano while marvelling at views of the sea in the distance. It is also quite scary, not just that the volcano could erupt at any time but also when you are up there it looks as though you are going to ski right off the edge into oblivion! But if that’s not for you then there are other places to ski in Sicily, such as the Madonie Mountains at Piano Battaglia. If you want to know when the slopes are open then you can check out www.pianobattaglia.it and Etnasci.it.
And if skiing isn’t your thing, then you can partake in the popular pastime of Catanese and drive up to Etna, pile a load of snow onto your car bonnet and drive down the mountain and see how long it takes for it to melt!
The thing about living in Sicily is that there is so much to discover, yet only a few people seem to be ‘in the know’. So much potential, tourism-wise, is just wasted, ruined even. Take the Salinelle di Paterno, for example! Little exploding mud volcanoes in other countries are made into tourist attractions. They are nature’s little wonders. They are to there to be seen, admired and wondered at. You don’t have to be a vulcanologist to be excited by them. In Paterno, on the slopes on Etna, their beauty, their fascination is lost on the locals who seem to view it as a place to dump their rubbish. People have tried to make it an attraction. The Inner Wheel Club of Paterno erected a detailed information sign in 2014. However, if you went there today you would see rubbish strewn around it. It is located next to an abandoned and vandalised stadium which probably should never have been built there in the first place. You can peer through the fence and glimpse the mud spurting from the ground like we did but the rubbish is off-putting and you really feel let down by the whole experience. Many of my students are unaware of their existence even though they made the local news the other day with new explosions splashing mud all over cars and a mud river running, or should I say, slowly moving down the street (see link to article here).
‘Hmmm….’ the Parco Del Etna guide looked us up and down, ‘…………..they are walking shoes, not boots and have you got anything warmer it can get cold up there’. My partner and I looked at each other and promptly decided we would be fine as we had used the same shoes in Iceland where there are far more volcanoes, we had warm clothes in our backpacks (which in the end we didn’t need anyway) and that the guide had just felt the need to say something as tends to be the case here in Sicily. Someone is always there with some unwanted advice and this was no different. This was confirmed when others joined us and the guide said nothing about their ‘inappropriate footwear’.
Every now and again, the Parco Dell Etna organise walking tours at the weekend. You pay a very small and reasonable fee and you get to discover new walks on Etna whilst learning titbits of information along the way. Finding out about these walks is down to luck as they are not advertised very well and you therefore often come across them by chance, as I did. This one particulary intrigued me as it was a walk into the Valle de Bove or Valley of the Bulls. I have stood at various points and looked down into the Valle del Bove but never have I actually ventured into it, mainly because I had no idea how to get there.
The Valle del Bove is a massive, wide valley that was thought to be created from a collapsed crater. It hugely important as the majority of lava flows from eruptions end up here and the basin is so large that it is able to take all this lava thereby protecting the towns on the lower slopes of Etna – most of the time anyway. When you see it you can’t quite take in how big it is but what you definitely notice is that it is one vast, black expanse of lava. For more information on its formation, click here, it is quite an interesting read!
The weather was perfect on the morning of the walk. Clear blue skies gave us the best view of Etna that we have ever had as we made our way up the winding roads to Rifugio Sapienza. A group of about 20 of us took the cable cars up to a height of 2,500 m. The view of distant mountain peaks and the occasional lake was quite a breathtaking sight. We walked uphill for a short distance before veering away from the main craters and walking to a ridge which overlooked the Valle del Bove. Here, the panorama was something else. Yes, we could see the mainland of Italy to our left but on our right we were also able to make out the Scogliera at Aci Trezza. As we marvelled at the view a cloud of ash blew out of one of the craters behind us.
As we stood on the ridge, I kept looking at the angle of the slope we were about to go down. A steep slope which consisted of volcanic sand. As we started to descend my legs felt a bit wobbly and I nearly lost my bottle but I soon learnt to lean back slightly to steady myself and before I knew it I was taking bigger and more confident steps. The sand was so soft that it went up to almost knee height. Little by little people grew in confidence and soon one or two of them went flying past me. It didn’t matter that we were only wearing walking shoes and not boots as everyone had to stop now and then to empty the sand from their shoes. The changing landscape and views as we made out way down continued to impress as we snapped away with our cameras and phones. Several stops to empty shoes (and boots, I gleefully add) later we arrived at the bottom of the valley where we pearched on some lava rocks and ate something, lamented how we should have brought some wine with us and emptied our shoes again.
The next part of the walk was equally as fascinating as we meandered through the valley past different lava formations, jumping over large cracks and finding a new route around a large rockfall.
After a brief respite we started the climb out of the valley. We had to climb over a few trees which had fallen across the path and the climb was steep. Most of us stopped to take photos of a particulary poisonous mushroom which glowed bright red against the black earth. For me, it was a great excuse to catch my ever dwindling breath. Once we got to the top, we were again met by beautiful views of one of the craters and the Valle de Bove. I managed to appreciate it despite my now wobbling legs.
We then completed our walk passing through a familiar trail and all feeling tired but satisfied with the day’s walk. The only downside was the large amount of litter we encountered at the car park. All those ignorant people who picnic there and dump their rubbish should be hanging their heads in the shame as they are destroying the very nature that the flock to visit.
About one week after Etna’s last eruption we decided to hike up Mount Zoccolaro to get a good view of the Valle del Bove into which the lava rivers were flowing. This was our third attempt at the trail. The first time, we had had to turn around near to the top as it was lunchtime and you don’t keep the ‘in-laws’ waiting. The second time, we were both recovering from the flu and had tried to hike too soon.
It is not that the trail is particularly long, it is only about 1.5km. It is more a case of it all being uphill and quite steep at times. It is a beautiful walk and fortunately there is lots of shade at the start which was definitely needed this time round. It starts off along an apple orchard before entering into a wooded area of beech trees. There are two noticeably large trees which countless people have carved their names into. The trail can be slippery at times especially if there is a fresh covering of ash from an eruption and you do have to watch out for tree roots. As it was summer there was quite a lot of undergrowth that was quite tall in places and there were plenty of wildflowers to see along the way.
There are plenty of viewpoints along the way to spur you on and to give you an excuse for a pit-stop. On the last part of the trail we had to scramble up a bit of rock as the path wasn’t very clear but this time we got to the top and the view was breathtaking.
We could make out the lava flows from the recent eruption and we could see the whole of the Valle del Bove, a black, lava strewn expanse (in fact, it is 37sq km). Just as my partner was saying that Etna had gone quite again she started grumbling rather loudly and I felt a little bit too close to danger. She continued to grumble the whole time we were up there and from time to time we could see plumes of smoke being blown out of the New South East Crater. I am not sure how long they will call it the New South East Crater. It was formed a few years ago when does it lose its ‘new’ status?
When you look down into the Valle de Bove you see so many different shapes and cracks made by different lava flows. Nothing seems to be growing there and it is difficult to gauge the size of the cracks that you see. I have looked down into the Valle de Bove from above but this view far outstrips that one and really enforces the magnificence of Etna. After looking at the view for ages and nervously jumping every time we heard a boom from the grumpy one we took advantage of a nearby platform and sat and had a picnic of chicken and chips which we had picked up in nearby Zafferana Etnea. Although I didn’t really eat much despite being rather famished, probably because I kept looking in awe around me.
It would seem that we weren’t the only hungry ones on the mountain. Not long after we had finished our picnic, I saw a fox appear from the bushes. It ignored us at first. It had spotted something living in a hole nearby and it set about furiously digging until it had managed to get the small reptile. It then noticed us, or at least smelt our chicken, and started to come closer. Not sure why but I didn’t feel comfortable with this, foxes can look quite menacing and I am not used to one coming so close, so fearless. Therefore, we took our smelly chicken and headed off back down the mountain. On our way we met a German family who we warned about the fox as they had young children who were looking rather hot and bothered. It turns out that was one of the reasons they had taken the trail. It appears that they had been told of a ‘friendly’ fox who lived on the trail by the owner of their B&B. The fact that the fox was up there spurred them on.
It is not the first wild animal that we have seen on that trail. Previously we had encountered a mountain cat which had quietly but calmly walked right past us. Not sure if the cat would ever attack the fox or vice versa if hungry, would definitely be concerned for any cubs.
The way back down is harsh on the knees but it is definitely a walk that I will do again, especially next time Etna erupts!
I have been waiting for Etna to erupt ever since moving back to Sicily, she has been so quiet lately, yet in 2013 she didn’t seem to stop erupting. My partner came out here before me and kept ringing me to tell me about her activity in December 2013 and January 2014. At one point he said that the windows were shaking and his mother was praying and that she had never sounded so loud. Back in England I felt like I was missing out.
Why would I want the volcano that I live at the foot of to erupt? Well, that’s a good question and one that years ago I would have asked myself. When I did my Geography degree and studied disaster zone management I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live in a disaster prone area but here I am living beneath (actually sort of on) a volcano and in an area that experiences earthquakes.
I have seen Mt Etna erupt before and each time I have to blink and check that it’s real. You can’t fail to be impressed by a display of nature’s great power. Volcanoes create and destroy, whilst their lava flows can claim land and houses they in turn create rich fertile land. Etna has vineyards on its lower slopes and orchards of apples and pears higher up. Etna makes you aware of your own mortality and makes you appreciate your very existence here on earth. I think living with an active volcano explains why many people here seem to live dangerously and without a care. They have a saying ‘In bocca al lupo’ which means in the mouth of the wolf – our fate lies in the hands of others.
On Sunday night, June 15th, after slight strombolian activity from it’s new south east crater in the preceding days, Etna’s activity increased and she put on one hell of a show. In fact, she is still erupting. Our in-laws called us as they have a great view of the top of Etna from their house and we drove straight over there. A block of flats annoyingly blocks the view from our place, go up or down the hill a bit and you can see her clearly. Huge rivers of lava streamed down her side and into the Valle del Bove, an expansive valley on the volcano which contains the lava flow and naturally protects the villages below. It seems to be bottomless holding the lava from eruption after eruption but it is going to have to fill up one day, surely? We watched, transfixed as lava, gases and rocks shot up into the air again and again reaching what seemed from below, astonishing heights. We thought about driving a bit further up the mountain to get even closer but decided we were both too tired and that we would do that another night, we could see the flashes of cameras high up the volcano. I am not sure how long we sat there eating ice-cream whilst watching her erupt but we saw her again last night and she was still going strong. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from an eruption.
No visit to Sicily would be complete without exploring Mt Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano which is sometimes known as Mungibeddu in Sicilian or Mongibello in Italian, well the top of it is anyway. It is about 3350 metres high, covering an area of 459 sq miles, in other words it is huge and dominates the landscape of the east and north-east of Sicily. At the height of its activity you can often see lava flows snaking their way down its slopes from Catania or Taormina at night and fine ash from eruptions has often fallen on the city’s streets – a crazy sight when people have umbrellas up on a beautiful sunny day and not good for asthma sufferers. Towns closer to its summit such as Zaffarena Etnea are often continuously hit with larger pieces of pumice stone during an eruption resulting in a costly and time-consuming clean up operation. Bags filled with the ash are left outside shop fronts ready for collection and some people pick them up to use in their gardens.
Etna really should be on every tourist’s itinerary. The beauty of Mt Etna is that she is always changing, through the seasons, with each eruption and even from morning to night as the clouds build, so that no visit is the same. Snow covers the mountain in winter and then in summer alpine flowers start to colonize old lava flows and the slopes are covered in broom. In autumn locals go there to collect chestnuts and look for mushrooms. It is so easy to reach the top and visit the many craters that have been left from various eruptions. If you look at a map of Etna it depicts lava flows from countless different eruptions over the centuries, some of the fields of lava are immense and are really a sight to behold. Indeed, there are so many ways to explore this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and experience all that Etna has to offer that one visit can never be enough. So, here are some of my favourite ways to explore Etna with links for further information:
Explore the craters at Rifugio Sapenzia
A winding road takes you from Zaffarena Etnea through extraordinary lava fields and up to the Rifugio Sapenzia. It is a fascinating drive and the excitement and wonder as you get nearer to the Rifugio just builds and builds whilst the temperature drops. It is always prudent to carry a few layers of clothing because of the falling temperature as you climb higher but also because the windchill can make you feel even colder, especially if you visit outside of summer. Weather here can change abruptly! Mind you, I have witnessed a mad local sunbathing topless in the snow so it is a case of how much you feel the cold I guess. Morning seems to be the best time to go before the clouds build up in the afternoon but then the clouds can just as easily clear away again. The Rifugio Sapenzia has cafes, restaurants and a lot of tourist shops but it is also the easiest place to explore some of the many craters on Mt Etna whilst taking in spectacular views of the coastline. Just a few steps away from your car and you could be looking into the Silvestri Craters without having to hike or spend any more money than getting there in the first place.
Funivia dell’Etna – Etna’s Cableway
Perhaps the most popular way to visit the main craters of Etna but also very expensive and not one for those who are scared of heights. Etna’s cableway is located at Rifugio Sapenzia. €30 will currently get you a ride on the cableway, taking you from 1900m to 2500m. Instead, €60 includes the cableway, a jeep ride and a short guided tour of the main crater area. Where you get to go on the tour and how much you get to see depends on how volatile the area is at that moment. Many people balk at the price but you have to put it into perspective and ask yourself ‘How often do you get to explore an active volcano?’. Furthermore, you have to remember that they have already had to rebuild the cableway once after the 2002 eruption so with that much risk costs are bound to be high! I don’t think you could ever be disappointed, the view is amazing. Some people only choose the cableway and try to make the rest of the way on foot – smokers don’t often get very far and then if you do get to the main craters you might not learn very much. Whatever you do, just don’t go beyond the roped of areas.
My favourite way to get up close and personal with Mt Etna. The Etna guides are very informative and will take you on a 5-6 hour tour. They know the safest routes, where to see lava, the volcanic features, the history of eruptions, all of it. There are the Etna Sud Guides or the Etna Nord Guides, both offer a variety of excursions on Etna and if you don’t want to pack a heavy jacket they have lots of warm weather clothing to loan you if necessary. Take some lunch, plenty of water and wear some good hiking shoes. The ground can get hot enough to melt the rubber but you need sturdy shoes as the terrain demands it. You will see and understand Mt Etna better than most after this type of trip and you won’t stop smiling for hours after.
People usually head straight for the top, or walk around the old craters at the Rifugio Sapienza and for some people that is enough of an experience for them. However, there are lots of beautiful walking trails on Mt Etna, taking you to various craters, through woods, to caves and to some of the best panoramic views the mountain has too offer. Two that stand out for me, are Mt Zoccolaro and the Sartorius Mounts but there are many more and I have only walked a few of them. Sometimes, signposting in the area can be a real pain but if you look out for lava blocks with Sentiero written on them, then after that the way is often marked by paint on stones or piece of tape tied to branches of trees or small vegetation. Parco dell’Etna is a good website for information but I have also found Etna Tracking to be useful. When you go hiking you get closer to nature and if you are lucky, like I have been, you might see a fox or mountain cat. It allows you to experience a different side to the volcano that few tourists get to experience. Walks take you past farms of apples and pears, and abandoned farmhouses. On some trails you won’t meet another soul making you feel as if you have the mountain all to yourself and allowing you to absorb the beauty and serenity of nature at its best. There are lots of trails of varying lengths and for a range of abilities, and it is also possible to stay overnight at one of the refuges that are run by the Forestale (Foresty Commission).
Take the train – Ferrovia Circumetnea
Not the most user-friendly website but at least it has the timetable available. This train ride goes around the base of Mt Etna and therefore takes you through some really scenic countryside. You will go past small towns, vineyards, olive groves, orchards and you will get a great view of Etna of course. Unless you take a good guidebook or map you won’t really learn much about the places you pass but it is a nice way to sit back and relax and take in the majestic scenery.
Of course, there are many other experiences to enjoy that I haven’t covered such as mountain biking, skiing, a plane trip or helicopter ride over the volcano, caving, the obligatory picnic on a bank holiday; and you will watch in awe as you see cyclists on road bikes making their way to the Rifugio Sapenzia not just because of the level of fitness such an excursion requires but also because you need to be very brave to cycle anywhere in Sicily, never mind a road with countless sharp bends and very distracted drivers. Etna never disappoints even when she is not putting on a show.