There is something epic in these volcanoes. I don’t know about you, but I ‘m afraid of the volcanoes, although I haven’t seen any of them or knew something special about them recently. I was always terrified about the possibility to find myself in the vicinity of an active one. This is how I imagine it – I’ll stand at the foot of the volcano and the hot magma will suddenly bounce like a bullet out of the barrel and hot lava will burn me in a second. Of course, all of it will be garnished with nasty earthquakes. But, fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Science has progressed so volcanologists generally know when and how the accumulated magma will burst through Earth’s crust.
On the United Nations List Etna is in the group of 16 most dangerous volcanoes of the world. Constantly active, with 260 lateral craters, it is a volcanologists natural laboratory – in June 2013 it was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
I approached Etna from the direction of Taormina, completely unaware of its size. It didn’t mean a lot to me when I red about its area of 1,190 km (with basaltic surface of 140 km). A bit more accurate to me was the fact that the current Etna’s height is 3,329 meters above sea level (data from Wikipedia, although on cable car entrance it says 3,342 meters, and on the map at the cable car 3,345 meters). Etna is ‘growing up’ with each of its eruptions.
In the active days visitors can not get close to Etna. In the calm days it is a paradise for hikers and tourists, but only by day. Night visits to Etna are strictly prohibited. Approaching the top of Etna starts from the South. As we were leaving the populated area following a rain forest, we were surprised when we came across the orchards, and not just any kind of orchards. Due to the volcanic soil rich in minerals, ‘fruit on steroids’ are growing here. As it was September, apple trees were coming down to the ground with numerous fruits on its branches. Although at first moment it seems that nothing remains after the glowing lava cools off, nature has ensured even more exuberant new world growing from nothing. The greenest of all green colors contrasting with the dark soil is accompanying you to the parking lot at almost 2,000 meters (half day parking costs 3 euros).
The scene takes your breath away - Catania below you, a multitude of extinct craters all around, and yet the top is far from your sight. With numerous souvenir shops, restaurants, there is also a mountain lodge/hotel Rifugio Sapienza. The history of this mountain lodge is quite interesting. Before the second world war, on this place, fascist government started construction of barracks that was never completed.
After the end of the war and the fall of the regime, it was decided to sell the never-meant-to-be barracks or let them be managed by those who will give them a more reasonable purpose – to Italian climbing club (Club Alpino Italiano). Thanks to numerous members donations, lodge, with 42 beds and a restaurant was completed by the 1947. The most dramatic moment came in 1983 when lava flooded and buried parking lot next to the lodge. Only nineteen years later, in 2002, after another big eruption, lava has destroyed a neighboring building with the initial cable car station and was moving towards to Rifugio Sapienza but the civil protection, the Italian army and volunteers reacted timely, diverted lava flow and rescued the lodge.
If this is the most you can handle, you will not be disappointed. Just turn around and choose the crater to walk around.
Monti Silvestri craters groups were formed at about 1800 meters above sea level during 1892 eruption. The largest eruption in the 20th century happened in 1928: after the initial activities around top area, the side crater opened at just 1200 meters. Lava stream reached and completely destroyed the town of Mascali.
But while you’re here, and yet is only a thousand to the top… it would be cowardly to give up. For experienced hikers there are beaten tracks, but for us (two-legged and four-legged) in worse shape there is Funivia dell’Etna. For 57.5 euros you will get the full treatment: cable car will lift you in fifteen minutes to the last ‘roof over your head’ (in the summer you can rent shoes and jackets here – renting hiking boots 3 euros, buying new socks for an additional 3 euros); on cross country buses you will pass last five hundred meters above sea level where a guide is waiting for you. He takes you into a half-hour walk across admissible craters. Important information for dogs owners – dogs have free entrance, and they are welcome to the cable car and on cross country bus (bravo Italians). In winter, you can ski on Etna slopes.
And coming on top? It leaves you breathless. At almost three thousand meters, after leaving bus, you feel the full nature power at this altitude. In the middle of the summer cold and strong wind is flogging, the temperature is just above zero. At first glance, everything around you is in shades of gray, until you begin to perceive traces of yellow sulfur and pyroclastic material of different colors covered in snow.
The entrance to Etna’s highest craters is forbidden to visitors. We were “lucky”, so we visited the crater that was created just a few months earlier. Still active, it was emitting steam.
Etna becomes significantly active few times a year creating very often new fountains of gushing lava. As much as glowing lava seems dangerous (and it really is) a greater threat to the local population represents tephra (cooled lava fragments) that often falls on surrounding towns, covers roads and destroys cars, crops and roofs.
From 1991 to 1993 Etna has shown once again all its strength by prolonged eruption - disciplined and trained Sicilians saved surrounding villages redirecting the lava flow by excavators. Lava has ravaged orchards in the Calanna valley and arrived a few hundred meters to the first houses of Zafferana Etnea city.
And a month after returning from Sicily, Etna woke up. In its full glory. I read the news: with forty weaker earthquakes Etna has erupted, lava is gushing from the fountain in the southeast of the volcano, gas and ash are coming out from the crater in the north, and the column of smoke is visible from satellites. Surrounding places are filled with pyroclastic material. Tephra shattered cars and completely covered the streets. (YouTube video)
My fingers was trembling while I was writing a message: “Etna woke up. Let’s go?”