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.