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A Guide to Italy's Active Volcanoes

Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.

When we think of Italy, the first thing that comes to mind might be its amazing ancient history, its stunning natural beauty, or its wonderful food and wine. With a few thousand years of history behind it, there is certainly much for Italy to brag about. One thing few visitors realize is that Italy is home to some of the most dangerous and active volcanoes in the world.

With over two dozen volcanoes, Italy is the only mainland European country with active volcanoes. This heightened activity is the result of the boundary between the African tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate being located just to the south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. It is thought that the subduction of one plate slipping under the other is causing the upward forces that are responsible for Italy’s active volcanoes.

Italy’s volcanoes are part of the country's long legacy of natural disasters which include devastating earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Some of the country’s most popular vacation destinations happen to be the result of past volcanic eruptions. Of Italy’s three active volcanoes, two of them are currently listed as having continuous volcanic activity, a rather dubious distinction.

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

The granddaddy of them all is without a doubt, Mount Etna. At over 10,900 feet in elevation, this stratovolcano is not only the largest volcano in Europe but also the most active. Mount Etna currently has the longest documented period of eruptions in the world. It has been placed on the United Nations list of “Decade Volcanoes”, a list of the sixteen volcanoes that have the ability to have the most destructive eruptions due to their proximity to populated areas. Mount Etna is less than twenty miles from Sicily’s second largest city, Catania, with a population of about 300,000 residents, and the seaside community of Taormina.

Mount Etna looms over Catania

Mount Etna looms over Catania

While Mount Etna is considered to be in a constant state of eruption, not all of its eruptions are the same, and they don’t all cause loss of life or property. With six craters and literally hundreds of vents, the mountain is capable of producing a variety of different eruptions from devastating lava flows to simple venting of gases.

Mount Etna’s last major eruption that caused significant damage was in 1928 when the town of Mascali was completely destroyed by a lava flow. Other major eruptions have occurred with some frequency and average at least once per decade. Some of these eruptions have narrowly missed destroying towns and some lava flows have been diverted with barriers and blasting the landscape to change the direction of flow. The last decade has been a particularly active one for Mount Etna as there have been almost yearly significant eruptions. The volcano has had many minor eruptions over the years with the latest coming in December of 2018.

The slopes of Mount Etna

The slopes of Mount Etna

Despite all of the volcanic activity that takes place on the slopes of Mount Etna, it remains one of Italy’s most popular destinations and offers winter skiing and summer hiking and exploring. Most of the organized tours of the volcano leave from the Sapienza Rifugio station, which is located on the southern slopes of the volcano at about 6,500 feet. This area is pretty much the hub of activity for the mountain and has a large parking lot to accommodate visitors (fee). From here you can take an organized tour of the mountain, take the chair lift up to the upper reaches of the volcano for hiking or skiing, or hike the many trails that originate from here. There is a mountain lodge for those wishing to spend the night here as well as a few food options and gift shops.

The Sapienza Refuge area is a hub of activity.

The Sapienza Refuge area is a hub of activity.

Many organized tours will pick you up at locations in Catania and Taormina but you can also make the drive to the Sapienza Refuge area with a car if you happen to have one. It’s actually a very scenic and interesting drive up the mountain.

Another interesting thing to do on Mount Etna is to visit the Alcantara Gorge. Located on the northeastern slopes of Etna, this gorge was formed thousands of years ago when the Alcantara River carved a gorge through a lava flow.

Today it provides a refreshing break from Sicily’s summer heat as visitors can swim, hike, and explore the gorge.

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Alcantara Gorge

Alcantara Gorge

Stromboli

Located just north of Mount Etna in the Tyrrhenian Sea is a small group of islands that were formed by volcanic activity over a period of 250,000 years. The Aeolian Island chain consists of eight islands, two of which are considered to be active volcanoes. Vulcano, appropriately named, is one of these. Although it last erupted in the 1800s and is presently dormant, it is technically considered to be active although most scientists do not count it among Italy's three active volcanoes.

Of much more interest, however, is the island of Stromboli, which is considered to be in a constant state of eruption. The island is made up of pretty much just the volcano, which rises dramatically out of the sea to 3,000 feet in elevation. In an eruption cycle for about 2,000 years, its last major eruption occurred in July of 2019. There is little room on the island for anything but the volcano itself, although there are a few small coastal villages that are home to the five hundred or so residents of the island.

Often referred to as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean”, Stromboli’s eruptions produce lava-like rocks that glow at night and give the island its nickname. The only way to visit Stromboli is by boat and there is regular service from Naples and Sicily, and between the other islands of the Aeolian chain. Surprisingly, the Aeolian Islands draw over 200,000 visitors every year. Once on the island visitors should be prepared to do some walking as there are no cars, buses or trains (Scooter rentals are available). If you wish to spend the night on Stromboli there are a few hotels although most visitors to the island come just for the day. If you wish to climb to the summit of Stromboli you will need to do so with a guide, which can be hired on the island.

While a visit to the Aeolian Islands will not be for everyone, a trip to Stromboli can make for an exciting and scenic day for the adventurous spirit.

Mount Vesuvius

Italy’s most famous volcano just might be Mount Vesuvius. Responsible for burying the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79AD, Vesuvius sits prominently on the Bay of Naples in the Campania region of Italy. Unlike Etna and Stromboli, Mount Vesuvius is not in a constant state of eruption and its last significant eruption took place in 1944. However, due to its proximity to the high population center of Naples and its violent history, it has been included on the United Nation's sixteen “Decade Volcanoes” list.

Mount Vesuvius from Sorrento

Mount Vesuvius from Sorrento

Mount Vesuvius from Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius from Pompeii

At 4,203 feet, Mount Vesuvius provides for dramatic views from almost anywhere on the coastal region of Campania. From Sorrento in particular, visitors are afforded spectacular views of the mountain. For most visitors Mount Vesuvius is the backdrop on a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum, which were both buried by the 79AD eruption.

If you wish, you can drive or take a bus up the slopes of Vesuvius where you can hike the perimeter of the crater. Keep in mind that the drop off point for taxis and buses is the National Park entrance and it is a significant walk from here to the summit. A shuttle bus is available for a couple of euro. The fee to enter the National Park is 10 euro and bus tickets from Pompeii will run you about 6 euro round trip. If you drive, parking at the upper parking lots will cost 5 euro. Buses to Pompeii run from both Sorrento and Naples and visitors can also take the circumvesuviana train, which cost about 4 euro roundtrip from Sorrento and slightly more from Naples.

For the really adventurous and active out there you can hike the 6k winding road to the summit. Just be sure you have adequate water and clothing with you as the weather at the summit can vary greatly from the valley below.

Mount Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples

Mount Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples

Italy’s active volcanoes are some of the most closely monitored and watched volcanoes in the world, and as such are considered safe destinations when eruptions are not occurring. With the current technology available today, scientists are confident that if a major eruption were imminent there would sufficient advance warning. Particularly in the case of Mount Etna and Stromboli, which are constantly erupting, precautions are taken to ensure the safety of visitors and when eruptions are occurring these areas are off limits.

This cluster of three active volcanoes forms one of the densest areas of volcanic activity in the world, yet plays host to millions of visitors every year. If you are heading to Italy be sure to pay a visit to one of these great geological wonders.

Ciao for now.

Italy's volcanoes:  Green is dormant, red is active.

Italy's volcanoes: Green is dormant, red is active.

© 2012 Bill De Giulio

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