The volcanoes of southern Italy add a tremor of excitement and fearful
anticipation to the tourist round.
The island of Stromboli off Sicily’s
northern coast, Vesuvius easily reached from Naples and Capri, and Mount Etna
just inland from the Sicilian coastal towns of Taormina and Catania are all
Slumbering giants, each with a gentle plume of smoke
wafting from its crater mouth, draped with the torrents of cold lava that once
flowed red-hot down the slopes, they are constant reminders that the monsters
will one day belch forth again. But not today, surely, not on the day of our
visit to Mount Etna.
The view from our hotel room in Taormina was
spectacular – in one direction the Gulf of Catania across to the Ionian Sea, to
the west the skyline dominated by Mount Etna, snow-capped, immense, fascinating.
Next morning we set out in our hired car to explore the area.
from the south we passed the small town of Nicolosi, where houses have in the
past been engulfed by lava, but whose inhabitants continue to live unconcernedly
in the shadow of the threat from above.
The road begins to ascend
steeply, through fertile fields, slopes and valleys, with profuse carpets of
wild flowers and dense groves of oak, chestnut, beech and birch. The agriculture
and wild vegetation which flourish in the rich volcanic soil are in stark
contrast to the interspersed tongues of inert grey lava. Each bend of the road
brings a new panorama, with the air getting cooler as we come closer to the
3,330 meter summit. The landscape grows starker, lava outcrops and sharp crater
mouths more frequent and patches of snow appear on the slopes.
reached Etna Sud, the “La Sapienza” cable-car station and bustling tourist
center, located 1923 meters above sea level. Here we parked the car, put on warm
clothes and strong boots, had a hot drink and found all the information needed
for visiting the volcano. Although it was not high season, the parking lot was
full, and many visitors had come to the site by bus. There is a regular bus
service from Catania and Nicolosi, and many organized tours, both trekking and
by jeep, departing from Catania and Taormina.
Mount Etna is one of
Sicily’s top attractions.
We were reassured to learn that the tourist
infrastructure for safe sightseeing is closely supervised, visitors are turned
back and approach roads closed if there is any hint of danger. Vulcanologists
can now predict well in advance and with some accuracy the likelihood of a major
Over the centuries, the main destruction has been to property,
with very few deaths or casualties reported. But at the top care must always be
From the tourist center there are many trails leading to
extinct craters and to some fine lookout points, and the serious hiker can climb
from here to the summit.
We took the cable car which whisked us up in a
few minutes to within 400 meters of the crater itself. To get as close as is
permitted, 4x4 jeep transport is available for this last stretch, or you can
reach the lip of the volcano on foot, a three-hour climb.
This is a stark
inhospitable lunar landscape.
Here you see the sparks and molten lava,
and sniff the odor of sulphur. This is where you can truly peer into the bowels
of the earth. Strong-soled footwear is essential and one has to tread carefully
to avoid the molten patches. This is not a place for small children. Nature’s
strength is boundless and awe-inspiring, indifferent to the earth’s human
inhabitants; man is but a small insect in the path of the volcano’s pent-up
might and fury.
In ancient times Etna was venerated as the home of
Vulcan, the Greek god of fire.
Records show that there have been some 200
major eruptions in the past 1,500 years. The biggest was in 1669, when lava
poured down the slopes for 120 days and breached the city wall of Catania. The
most recent was in 2001, when the visitor center narrowly escaped being
The volcano, the most active in Europe, is in constant flux;
the location of the craters and even the height of the mountain change
continually. Today Etna has four main craters, and displays various styles of
eruption – smoke, ash, lava, stones, leaping flames, escaping gasses, all
dramatic and spine-tingling. There are also many vents and fissures,
mini-volcanoes, to be found among the slopes. And everywhere extinct craters,
large and small, and vast heaps and rivers of stonecold lava.
back to Taormina via the north face of the mountain, where tourist facilities
plus a ski resort are available. The views from this side are even more
attractive than those of the southern approach.
The remainder of our stay
in eastern Sicily included the beautiful port city of Syracusa, the Greek
temples of Agrigento and the Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale. The
roads were good, mostly with little traffic, and the food everywhere marvelous.
We had no difficulty finding accommodation in two/three star hotels – some good,
some less so.
Back in Catania for our flight home we found ourselves with
a day to spare. The weather was perfect, Etna beckoned, and so we returned. This
time we viewed the volcano from the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a tiny single-track
circular railway, which starts from Catania. The three-hour train ride, which
chug-chugs round the base of the mountain, offers an ever-changing panorama of
the lush countryside, stopping at small towns and villages on the way, with Etna
always in sight. The ticket costs a mere 6.50 euros, and we had the carriage to
The line was built in 1890, and the stations and rolling stock
retain a suitably old-fashioned appearance. We broke our journey at a small town
called Bronte, precipitously sprawled on the slope below the railway station,
and designated the pistachio capital of Sicily.. Here we stretched our legs,
bought some nuts, ate our picnic and continued on the next train, an hour or so
Inexplicably this little gem is barely mentioned among the
sightseeing attractions listed in the tourist literature, and indeed we had
difficulty in locating the station (some distance from the Catania main line
station) and getting information about the train timetable. But it was worth the
effort, and the Circumetnea trip turned out to be a highlight and the grand
finale of our Sicilian holiday.