When we first planned our late-winter trip to Sicily and Naples, Mount Etna wasn't even on our list. We planned Palermo and Catania, Norman/Arab churches, Greek temples, and lots of local food. A tour to Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii made the cut...who needed another volcano?
And then, days before our departure, Etna broke out in a spectacular eruption, with red flames shooting high in the air. First thought: will this disrupt air traffic or make it impossible to visit Catania? Second thought: Maybe we'll see something if it's still going on. Third thought: Oh, well...wish it had waited for us.
It wasn't until the second week of the trip, while we were driving from Siracusa to Catania that Joan, who is a retired earth science teacher, looked up and said "I think I'd like to see that." With the help of our B&B staff, we were able to arrange a tour with Filippo, who makes the trip daily and loves volcanoes.
It was meant to be a group tour, but it ended up being just us. Part of that was due to an airport strike in Germany that stranded some, but it also likely had to do with a feeling it might be dangerous: The night before, a BBC camera crew had been injured by flying stones. But Filippo assured us that while the crew had entered a dangerous area, we wouldn't.
While living with a live volcano is new to us, it has a long history in Catania, which sits at the base of Etna. And not just the ancient history (one eruption prevented Carthaginian troops from advancing against Rome) but the recent history with dozens of eruptions, a few of them large, in modern times. People who live that way have to be practical; note the now-abandoned plant above that mined the lava for building materials.
Here's another example of practicality on Etna; cut blocks of lava rock used to hold back potentially falling piles of rubbled lava. A lot of lava rocks went into the rebuilding of Catania after its disastrous 1693 earthquake and fires.
Once we climbed up the roads out of Catania itself, almost every turn brought us a sight of the volcano, with steam and smoke trailing off into the sky. A little disappointing not to see giant red flames, but that's basically a night sight.
We did get one special sight, though, a giant 'smoke ring' above the crater. Filippo was as fascinated with it as we were; they're not even common during eruptions. It's produced by a particular sort of volcano 'belch.'
As we continued up, we saw not only more views of the eruption, but also of the long road back after an eruption, as plants slowly begin to find a little soil, a little nutrient. Some of the earliest pioneers live on about as much as an air fern, but serve an important roles in breaking the lava down into soil for the next. Below, one of the earliest 'pioneers,' and then a later arrival.
The visible red on some of the rocks shows a higher proportion of iron. We also stopped at a former quarry, where time and geology have produced other interesting formations.
We also passed some reminders of why more and more of the land on the mountain is becoming part of the national park: it's better not to have to build and rebuild and pay for rebuilding. Here's a house that was destroyed in a 1990s eruption.
While in general we felt safe in our SUV and with our guide, occasional moments gave me pause, especially when the smoke/steam turned angry colors, such as this, or when I looked too closely with the telephoto lens...
But mostly it was a pleasant afternoon with an unusual background and views.
At the highest point we visited there is a restaurant and shop for visitors, and at this point, it's the highest point you can go without trained vulcanologists and a good reason for risking everyone's neck. Such as being a BBC documentary crew, I guess. The rest area has been rebuilt twice after previous eruptions.
In the area behind the restaurant, we hiked a short distance around a small and now inactive crater, with views of the surrounding area and of the summit. It may look quiet here in these pictures, but it wasn't. When you get this close, the volcano's belches, every few minutes, sound like huge waves crashing on a shore.
Below, the rim of another extinct crater. Below that: Love is everywhere, even at the bottom of a volcanic crater.
Etna has a habit of erupting not only at its summit, but on its flanks, which is why there are so many craters spotted about. In many cases, they mark where lava traveled considerable distances through underground conduits called 'lava tubes.' When the lava in that tube is exhausted, craters like this remain.
In other places, the ends of the tubes seal and it's not always clear where they were, but some have been marked and preserved, and you can go in. If you're not too bothered by tight dark spaces. This tube was discovered during the building of the road up; the road was built across it and a small pulloff created so you can stop and climb in.
And here's what it looks like from the inside...that's daylight at the end. You need to get pretty far in before you see it. That's why the helmets and lights!
All in all, for a day we never expected, it was full of the unexpected...and a great memory.
If you happen to be in Catania and are looking for a tour, Filippo's company is Etna Est at etnaest.com.