Trip duration: 4 days | Approx cost: £300 | When: May bank holiday
Doinit factor: A rare opportunity to explore an active volcano!
In the south of Europe, on the Island of Sicily stands one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Almost in a constant state of activity Mt Etna dominates much of the Island, its eruptions are so frequent they’re seldom consider breaking news… it’s just the norm. With that in mind I thought a visit might be a blast.
Our first view of this impressive volcano is on our approach to Catania through the aircraft window as Etna’s peak bursts through the cloud cover. Its sheer size really dawns on me. Mt Etna is absolutely massive. In fact it has a circumference of approximately 140km and a variable summit at around 3,329 meters makes it the highest peak in Europe south the Alps and I can’t wait to step foot on it. Now, I must confess that not too much planning actually went into my long weekend away, something I started to regret as I starred with fascination out the plane.
We touch down and make our way to our accommodation, about an hour’s drive north of the Catania, to the small town of Taormina. At the time of organising our accommodation I had no idea how beautiful and charming Taormina is, and how many tourists there are. We’re only here for a few days, so while a cold beer on the beach is defiantly on the agenda it’s a trek on Mt Etna what I’m really here for. The volatile nature of Mt Etna means a guide is recommended. They know which areas of the mountain are least active and therefore safe to explore. We enrol the services of a local geologist from ‘Etna Truvatura’ who acts as our guide for the day.
Above: Taormina is a charming town
For anyone who has any aspiration of actually reaching the 3,329 meter odd summit of Mt Etna, I must unfortunately dash your hopes, just like mine were when I read the first online blogs. The very real dangers on Etna mean that much of the higher ground is within an exclusion zone which for the average person means that it’s out of bounds. Only scientists conducting research are allowed to highest creator.
A little disappointed that I won’t be reaching the top we’re taken by jeep on windy forressted roads as we climb to altitudes of over 2000 meters. Today we’ll mostly be getting a taster of what hiking on Etna is like. We’re on the north side of the volcanoe. Most tourists flock to the south of the of the mountain, were there is a cable car, shops and buggy rides but I’d much prefer the solitude of a less popular part of the volcano, but by no means less spectacular.
Above: Mt Etna shrouded in clouds
Despite it being the middle of May and most of Sicily is baking in summer sunshine, at this elevation its much cooler and we have to wrap up warm as we head out on to the volcano. The landscape is truly spectacular and quite eerie. The ground is mostly black, brown with hints of rusty red rocks and volcanic. Patches of tress have started to come through the grounds. It’s quite remarkable how quickly nature will start to claim its environment back. Parts of the mountain look dead, like an apocalyptic event wiped out everything that once was here. But Mt Etna is far from dead. The fertile grounds mean that it’s not long (in geological time) before dead land gives rise to dense forests. It really is and forgive the cliché a wonderful cycle of life and seeing it and listening to our guide who speaks with such passion about how nature works here really fills me with admiration for out planet. Large patches of Birch trees grow here, their white bark in stark contrast with the black ground, along with the Birch there are also large scrolls of alpines.
Above: We begin exploring the lava fields | Among dead trees new forests have sprouted to life
Our trek part geology fieldtrip takes us along some of the most destructive lava flows in recent years and to the creators of 2002. The lava flows engulfed the Piano Provenzano tourist centre. Not much is visible as much of it as disappeared below tones of lava but what is visible is pretty startling. We pass the site of a hotel with only its roof visible, pocking through the ground as we continue forth towards the creators.
The ground is uneven and we walk between and over mounds of volcanic ash. The word ‘ash’ being a little deceptive here. Volcanic ash is not just fine dust but also includes massive rocks which have be thrust into atmosphere and falling back to Earth around the mountain. Parts of the walk feel like we’re sliding down sand dunes others are like walking on gravel. We see rather odd looking trees every so often which a clearly dead, but still standing. Our guide explains as the lava advanced down the sides of the mountain, these trees were petrified – essentially rapidly boiled from the ground upwards.
Above: We spend hours among the black lava and ash fields | The old hotel buried in lava
We continue, every so often we’d stop for a quick geology lesson. I find this a particular enjoyable way to explore a mountain and my disappointment of not reaching any summits today has completely subsided. I loved Geography & Geology at school and perhaps for the first time in my adult life I feel the same excitement as I did when I was a child learning about volcanoes.
Mt Etna has certainly been an enjoyable experience, and a great taster. Despite much of the area being out of bounds there is still plenty to see and as already mentioned with a circumference of about 140km there are a number of different trails. I’m told there is a great four to five day track which takes a walker around the entire volcano, something that will certainly lore me back in the future.
Above: It’s a surreal landscape | The team sitting over an old volcanic vent
As for Sicily, well we’ve only have a spare couple of days which we spend in Taormina. It’s a beautiful town, with a rich history and plenty of significant archaeological sites. It’s worth noting that this is one of the Islands biggest tourist attractions, with local prices that reflect the influxes of holiday makers. Never the less you can’t deny it natural beauty.
It’s location on the hillsides of the coast mean it’s easier to get the towns cable car from the lovely beach to the main part of town. The old main street lined with cafes, shops and churches make for a nice walk. One must sample the local Arancini, stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Perhaps have some Ice Cream and sip on some Lemoncello, all under the presence of Mount Etna which for now sits peacefully.