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Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

Volcanic cones of Mt Etna, Sicily, in winter

I’m on the last leg of my trip before heading home, and my son and I are staying in the ancient town of Ortygia, Siracusa, at the southernmost tip of Italy.  Today we headed north for a close up look at the largest volcano in Europe: Mt Etna. At over 3300m tall, Mt Etna hasn’t once stopped erupting in its 200,000 plus years of existence, and what looks like a symmetrical cone from the coast (very much like Mt Fuji) is in fact a grumbling, steaming, spewing volcano with hundreds of different cones all over the place.  The most recent major eruption was in 2001, and the cafe we had lunch at, which is about 2000m, was partially covered by the lava flow from that eruption, which stopped at its walls – literally:

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

A CLOSE shave for the Mt Etna mountain refugio cafe

We did a short walk around the rim of one of the smaller cones, in a group collectively called the Silvestri Craters which are 2000m above sea level, and despite it being mid winter, noticed the air was ‘simmering’ down one slope, adn the ground was in fact very warm to the touch – nice to keep your toes warm on a cold winter day!

Getting up to Mt Etna is easy if you have a car – it’s only a short drive from Catania – which has been covered in lava flows numerous times through antiquity – though the resulting fertile soils bring people back, and Etna is now famous for its wine, pistachios, honey and lemons grown around its base. You drive through the most extraordinary rugged lava fields: an incredible moonscape which stretches as far as the eye can see once you are above the tree lines, and the steam which bellows from one of the top cones bulges across the skyline.

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son's photo!)

View across Mt Etna lava fields (my son’s photo!)

As far as walking goes, you can either walk up the cones from the refugio at 2000m, or catch the cable car (when it is operating) and then 4WD truck.  Above 2900m you are required to be accompanied by licensed guides, as despite extensive monitoring, the volcano is still unpredictable and very active with new fumaroles and lava vent explosions happening with no notice.  In addition to the higher level walks, as you come to expect anywhere in Italia, with its extensive networks of hiking paths, there are a large number of signed ‘nature trails’ throughout the national park, which also take in the native chestnut groves and wild birch forests at lower levels. Covering an area of over 300 square kilometres, there are a number of quite distinct geological and floral zones on the volcano, and each cone has its own characteristic activity – be it flows, steams, smoke, ash or occasional lava explosions.  You could happily spend many months exploring and walking here – one day certainly wasn’t enough.

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

Lava formation, Mt Etna, Sicily

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