Mount Etna is the cherry on the cake of my volcano expedition to Sicily. After hiking the Gran Cratere in Vulcano and Mount Stromboli, I am looking forward to conquering Mount Etna. After all, it has been a dream of mine for a long time. And the regular news reports on its eruptions have been making it all the more fascinating to me.
Etna is located on the south east of Sicily, not far from Catania. That’s only a one hour flight from Cagliari, Sardinia, where I am based. I really can’t find any more excuses for not visiting: it is time to finally go.
The Mighty Mount Etna
With its 3350 meters, Mount Etna may not be the highest volcano in Europe (that’s Teide, in Tenerife), but it certainly is the largest one with a base circumference of around 150 km.
Mount Etna actually is a series of stratovolcanoes – a number of volcanoes built of layers of lava flows, ash and blocks of unmelted stone. It has four craters at its summit: the central ones, called Bocca Nuova and Voragine; the Northeast crater; and the newest Southeast one (formed by the 1978 eruption).
Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe, and one of the most actives in the world, with Strombolian kind of eruptions (producing ash, tephra and lava fountains) that constantly change its shape and elevation.
In 1669, a large eruption destroyed part of the port of Catania. Since then, eruptions have been regular and of a smaller scale, though rather violent. These kind of eruptions are called “paroxysms.” The last recorded one has been in February 2017, when 10 visitors were injured by boiling rocks ejected from a crater on the south-east side.
I am hoping to experience at least one small eruption during my hike of Mount Etna, though my friends call me crazy when I mention that. Either way, I am looking forward to the hike.
However, things don’t quite go as planned and I end up not hiking Etna at all. But I enjoy it all the same, and I plan to go again to conquer it. Here’s what happened, and why I didn’t hike it but still enjoyed it.
Mount Etna: Volcano or Mirage?
Mount Etna is the very last stop of my volcano extravaganza tour of Sicily (a region that should always be included to any trip to Italy). Four days, 3 volcanoes: it can’t get better than that. I can’t wait to be there.
The cold I have had the week before seems to be finally gone, and though I have felt a bit chilly while at the top of Mount Stromboli, I conclude that the uneasiness I am feeling is pure exhaustion due to the 7 weeks of uninterrupted travel, from Italy to Sri Lanka, then to the Maldives and Spain before ending up in Sicily; the change of a few time zones and of a number of beds I hardly care to remember.
To read more about my hike of Stromboli, check my post “Why Mount Stromboli Is The Best Volcano Hike.”
It’s really early on Saturday morning, when I board a hydrofoil that is meant to take me from Stromboli to Milazzo. There, I catch a ride to Bosco Ciancio, near Biancavilla, on the southern slopes of Etna. The closer we get there, the clearer I see the mighty volcano. And the stronger the headache and body ache I have been feeling since I woke up get.
By the time I reach my hotel in the early afternoon, all I want to do is crawl in bed after taking a strong dose of paracetamol.
I suppose sleeping and paracetamol work, because a few hours later I wake up feeling better, though definitely not my 100% and not ready for a difficult hike the morning after.
The good news is that I can still visit Mount Etna without having to hike it. I decide to opt for the soft approach, thinking that I can always take advantage of the direct flights to Catania in the future, to go on that much dreamt hike.
Mount Etna Without The Hassle
The starting point to visit Mount Etna on the southern slope is the complex where Rifugio Sapienza is located, at little over 1900 meters above sea level. The area is lined by souvenir shops, coffee shops and restaurants.
I wonder if the owners are not afraid that eruptions and lava flows may destroy their businesses. I know that lava flows have destroyed houses and businesses in the past. On my way to Etna, I spot a house whose only visible remain is the roof – the rest covered by solidified lava. I conclude that business may be quite good if the owners are willingly taking the risk to have their shop destroyed.
I walk past the shops and restaurants to jump on a cable car that takes me to an elevation of 2500 meters. The view from the cable car is stunning, but just a prelude to what I will see once at the top. Every now and then I see people walking up, following a rather uneven trail (in the lava flows). I would have done the same, had I not been so sick the day before.
Once at the top, I hop on a 4×4 bus that, driving along the desert slopes of the volcano, takes me to 2950 meters above sea level, by the Torre del Filosofo (Philosopher’s Tower), where I and the rest of the visitors are greeted by Paride, a local guide and vulcanologist.
Paride takes the group around the caldera and shows the solidified lava flows, as well as the results of the latest eruptions and the fumaroles. We stand in awe of the Valle del Bove (Valley of the Ox), a large caldera in the shape of a horseshoe on the eastern slope of Mount Etna.
I ask if eruptions cause any threat to the local life, and Paride mentions that the lava flows occasionally threaten agriculture, transportation, and at times even the local towns surrounding Mount Etna. He points to the road that the 4×4 buses use to drive visitors up from the cable car and tells me that the park authorities regularly have to re-build it, as it gets destroyed by eruptions.
He mentions that in the winter, people go skiing on Mount Etna. I try to imagine how incredible it must be to ski on an active volcano, snow all around, and at the same time have a view of the Mediterranean sea in the distance.
I can see why the locals call it “Mongibello” (the beautiful mountain): Mount Etna is simply splendid, in a frightening yet charming kind of way. It is a huge resource for local life. Its fertile soil is perfect for the cultivation of olives, grapes and fruit – some of the best Italian olive oil, wines, mandarines and oranges are produced here. And the revenue produced by tourism is thriving, with ski tourism in the winter, and hiking the rest of the year.
As I hop back on the 4×4 bus that takes me to the cable car, I vow to visit again.
The best access point to Mount Etna is on the southern side, where Rifugio Sapienza is located. That’s also where the cable car is located.
There’s various ways to visit Mount Etna, reflecting the difference in one’s budget. Keep in mind that due to the high activity of the vulcano, it is necessary to hire a guide in order to go all the way to the peak craters. Indeed, the fumaroles close to the craters eject toxic gases whose direction change depending on the wind. It is not uncommon for guides to have to go rescue groups that venture on their own and eventually get stuck because unable to breathe.
The cheapest (and most difficult) way is to walk all the way up via the path that follows the cable car.
A cable car ride costs €33 for the round trip.
A combined ticket that includes a cable car ride, a 4×4 ride to the Torre del Filosofo, and a guided tour around the calderas costs around €63.
Guided treks to the peak craters start from Rifugio Sapienza and cost around €85. The meeting time is normally 9:30 am. The excursion starts with the cable car ride to 2500 meters, and is then followed by a guided hike all the way to the peak craters and back.
Gearing up for the visit
Whichever month one plans to visit Mount Etna, it is important to keep in mind that there’s at least a 10 degrees Celsius difference between the temperature at the base of the volcano and the top. I have visited in mid October, and it was quite cold. I can only imagine that it is really cold during the winter, when Mount Etna is covered in snow.
The following list is applicable to those visiting Mount Etna during the warmest months:
- Hiking boots: the terrain is rocky and sandy at the same time and that extra ankle support will be needed.
- Hiking pants, a thermal t-shirt, a sweater, and a warmer wind proof jacket: it does get cold at 3000 meters above sea level! I also recommend taking a scarfand a hat, and gloves to be on the safe side.
- Sunglasses: the sun can be fierce on the eyes in the summer months, and there’s a lot of dust flying around.
- A daypack to carry the extra clothes, plenty of water (especially if planning to hike) and food and snacks.
- A camera to catch the amazing views.
Where to stay and eat near Mount Etna
There are various places to stay and eat near Mount Etna – either in the villages around it, or even in Catania for those who prefer staying in a big city.
After weeks of non-stop travel, I was in desperate need for a quiet place where I’d hear no noise of traffic and where I’d be sure to get proper sleep.
I opt to stay at Bosco Ciancio, a beautifully refurbished rural house, once the ancient manor of the Dukes of Ciancio. The building, dating back to the 1800s, is located in Etna Park and completely immersed in nature. All rooms have stunning views of the countryside, and there is a lovely internal garden and an outside patio.
The reception area, where the bar is located, is stylishly furnished and it’s a cozy place to relax while reading a book or sipping a glass of wine.
The restaurant at Bosco Ciancio offers meals that reflect the local tradition and which are carefully prepared using local and seasonal ingredients. The breakfast buffet includes homemade cakes, jams and local chestnut honey. In fact, as I go for a walk in the forest I spot a number of hives.
The dinner menu changes every day and generally includes a selection of appetizers, pasta dishes and main courses, with also vegetarian and vegan options.
The quietness of the location, the charming environment and the cozy room make my stay at Bosco Ciancio simply perfect. I manage to get over 9 solid hours sleep, which is a real treat!
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Bosco Ciancio during my visit of Mount Etna. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
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