Dominating the landscape, Etna stands tall and elegant
Known locally as "Mongibello" or "the good mountain", Mount Etna's
dominating and distinctive form can be seen from as far away as Enna in central Sicily,
the Sicilian coast from Catania to Taomina and beyond.
It is the accessibility of Etna that makes her such a popular choice for European volcano enthustiasts and,
dare I say it, for the less enthusiastic tourist also.
Right: Mount Etna as seen from the piazza in Zafferana Etnea © Mat & Niki Adlam-Stiles
When we first visited Etna, there was something cultural that we'd most definitely missed. As we drove around the back-streets of Nicolosi,
searching for our Agriturismo, everything seemed to have a somewhat "third world" feel to it. There were houses with big cracks down
the gable ends, churches propped up with timbering, shops clad in makeshift scaffolding - and the weather was far from Mediterranean.
We later learned two important things.
- That earthquakes and volcanoes go hand in hand
- That Sicilian opening hours are rather different than those in the UK.
The small town of Zafferan Etnea, delicately poised at the foot of Etna's active slopes is a sleepy town by day, hiding behind
roller shutters. Visit in the evening, and it is a bright, vibrant town, with cafe bars and shops a plenty!
And Etna herself seems to have something of a split personality. Activity is sporadic, and varied. At the time of writing
(August 2008) there is a "bottoniera" eruption (so called because of the line of "buttonholes" of active vents) to the North East of the summit that has been active for some months -
a small "touristic" eruption ideal for viewing at reasonably close quarters. This style of eruption, comprising small-scale
Strombolian activity with a lava river of 1-2km in length is typical for Etna. But once every now and then, she likes to remind
us what she is capable of, and large scale eruptions, such as the one in 1991-1993 that seriously threatened the town of
Zafferana Etnea are not uncommon.
Although not common, Etna is capable of producing pyroclastic flows, and when visiting the summit area, one should always be alert.
Time to Visit
At over 3300m high, the thing most likely to spoil your visit to Etna is the weather. From early to mid morning, cloud tends
to gather around the summit as the thermals rise from the sea below. This tends to clear late evening, making for clear, cold
nights. Spring and late summer are probably the best time to visit – in spring the wild flowers are plentiful, and the weather
acceptable. Midsummer is hot and busy, and by October the weather is turning for the worse. Midwinter, however, offers a
snow-capped mountain and some good skiing.
Places to stay
If you’re serious about getting out and about on Etna, then Hotel Corsaro, the highest hotel on Etna
is hard to beat. It's a long way from the foot
of Etna to Sapienza (one of the main routes ot the summit) and being based at 2000m altitude has a lot to be said for it.
If you're after a vibrant night-life with nightclubs and bars, you'll be bitterly disappointed, but if you want somewhere where
you can spend all night on the mountain, and still get a good breakfast, this is the place for you! There is also the adjacent
Rifugio Sapienza, reported to be a good place to stay, but we don't have direct experience.
At the foot of Etna, Azienda Blandano offers pleasant accommodation “Agri-Tourismo” style. And staying at an organic vineyard
does have a certain appeal. They didn't have the swimming pool when we stayed there!
For up-market accommodation, Taormina has plenty to offer the affluent tourist, but you'll struggle to get the best out of Etna
staying at such a distance from her summit.
Watching Etna from a distance, and other resources:
Of all volcanoes, Etna is probably the most watched and best reported upon. There is a whole host of information available
on-line about Etna:
The INGV, Sicily's official body for monitoring/reporting on Etna, Stromboli and the other volcanoes in the region, has a most useful website, with a series of webcams of Etna, webcams of Stromboli and seismic monitoring of the volcanoes available on-line. The regular written reports are also invaluable – especially if your Italian is up to scratch.
The Etna Trekking Webcams are excellent offering, at the time of writing,
six good views of Etna. Moreover, they tend to adjust them on a regular basis so that they point at the latest activity!
The Hotel Corsaro website has an extensive list of links, and a running "blog" of volcano (and visitor) activity.
www.etnatracking.com is an
excellent and growing resource for all thing Etna - with walk descriptions with
GPS data, cave information, photos and much more. The site is available in
both English and Italian.
Guided Excursions on Etna:
Mount Etna is an active volcano, and brings with it a new set of hazards for the explorer to be aware of. First-time visitors
will benefit hugely from hiring a guide for a day, which will help give you a feel for the terrain, will introduce you to some of
the routes on Etna, and will inform you of current safe/danger areas. The full day excursion from the Etna Sud Alpine Guides at Sapienza is well
worthwhile (better than the ½ day excursion) if you’re happy to go trekking with a group.
For the more affluent, the same guides can be hired on a personal basis through, for example,
Volcano Discovery. A personal guide will set you back in the region of ~€300,
but you can sometimes share the cost with other Volcano Discovery clients. Etna is always changing, and even for seasoned
visitors, a day with a guide can help put you on the right track, alerting you to current activity and no-go zones.
Self-guided excurions on Mount Etna
From our various visits, we've compiled together a series of walking guides for Etna: