Beginner’s guide to volcano-spotting in Sicily
Adventurous travellers can get close-up views of awe-inspiring natural phenomena by exploring Sicily’s three active volcanoes.
Europe’s largest volcano, Mount Etna, looms ominously on the horizon north of Catania, Sicily. Back in 1669, much of the city was destroyed by lava flows. Etna is still highly active, with eruptions every few years. But during normal periods, when no warnings are in force, visitors can safely explore its dark slopes and experience extraordinary scenes.
The morning bus from Catania takes us to Rifugio Sapienza, the starting point for hikers heading up the mighty volcano. A short walk away we find dramatic volcanic cones, rugged craters, and crusty lava flows from recent eruptions.
A cable car then hoists us to an altitude of 2,500 metres, from where we trudge on upwards through otherworldly landscapes strewn with ash, cinders, pumice, and lava bombs. Up near the summit, a thick mist descends while we are warily walking around the rim of a smouldering crater, but we still find a clear trail back down to the cable car station.
The hop-on-hop-off Ferrovia Circumetnea railway offers a leisurely way to explore Etna’s fertile foothills. The small train trundles through picturesque pistachio plantations, citrus orchards, and olive groves, halting at towns and villages whose residents live in the shadow of this famously explosive mountain.
For guaranteed hot volcanic action, we next head by hydrofoil to the Aeolian Islands, just north of Sicily, where the legendary volcanic island of Stromboli has been erupting more or less continuously for many centuries.
“It sounds paradoxical, but the more a volcano erupts, the safer it is, since eruptions release pressure, and the volcano has less time to build up energy for more dangerous eruptions,” explains volcanologist Alessandro Gattuso, who runs Stromboli’s information centre.
“Stromboli is geologically young, at just 85,000 years old. The unique frequency of its eruptions makes it the best destination in Europe for anyone keen to witness volcanic activity in safety. We have 84 monitoring stations round the island, so we get clear indications when activity intensifies,” he adds.
The summit was last off limits for a few weeks in 2014 when broad red rivers of molten lava were spewed out by the volcano. Access is otherwise routinely permitted for guided groups. Conditions during our stay were typical, with three active craters erupting repeatedly – but safely – at intervals averaging 20-30 minutes.
Eruptions look most spectacular in darkness when fountains of ejected red-hot magma are more visible through the smoke and ash. A great place to view evening eruptions is the garden of the pizzeria L’Osservatorio, built in a converted vulcanological observatory two kilometres from Stromboli village.
But for unforgettable close-up views of eruptions, thrill-seekers can join a guided trek to the top. By sunset, a couple of hours after leaving the village, volcano-watching groups reach viewpoints on the main crater rim, overlooking the most active volcanic vents just a few hundred metres away. “This is the only place in the world where you can safely come and see volcanic eruptions as close as this!” says mountain guide Poldo Aghemo of Magma Trek.
Volcanic mud baths and jacuzzis
A two-hour island-hop by hydrofoil takes us from Stromboli to the Aeolian island nearest to Sicily – Vulcano, which is also volcanically active, as its name suggests. A short but steep path leads up to a crater rim offering fabulous views of the entire archipelago, Sicily, and mainland Italy. The trail around the crater rim passes thick deposits of bright yellow sulphur and dozens of fumaroles – small mysterious holes, which emit steam and smelly sulphurous gases.
Vulcano last erupted explosively in 1898, but experts are keeping a close eye on the mountain, measuring temperatures, earth movements, and the make-up of its gaseous emissions to ensure they can warn residents and visitors in good time if activity intensifies.
Back down in Vulcano village, we find the ideal place to recover from our volcano-climbing exertions. The island’s mud baths are said to have health-enhancing properties, and after wallowing in the warm, yellowish-grey volcanic mud, you can blissfully soak in a beautiful blue sea bay fed by numerous bubbling hot springs, making it a kind of giant natural jacuzzi.
Fascinating cities and valleys
Taormina gets crowded during the summer, but its historic buildings and superb setting make this old clifftop town a must see. Highlights include an Ancient Greek theatre with great views of Etna and the Ionian Sea.
Syracuse rivalled Athens in importance back when the Ancient Greeks dominated the Mediterranean. Explore the city’s splendid squares, seaside promenades, and archaeological relics including the tomb of Archimedes.
The Alcantara Valley has rustic riverside walks and curiously geometrical geological features where the river has carved a precipitous gorge through old lava flows.
Catania is a good starting point for touring Etna and Eastern Sicily. Don’t miss the bustling fish market and lively Piazza del Duomo, overlooked by the city’s symbol: an elephant carved from lava stone.
Text Fran Weaver
Photos Tim Bird