Sicilian spectacle: A visit to Mount Etna

The view was spectacular – in one direction the Gulf of Catania across to the Ionian Sea, to the west Mount Etna, snow-capped, immense, fascinating.

mount etna 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
mount etna 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 active volcanoes.
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.
Approaching 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.
Soon we 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 eruption.
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 exercised.
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 engulfed.
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.
We drove 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 ourselves.
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 later.
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.