Mt Etna and Sicily’s volcanoes

Things you probably know about Italy: it’s shaped like a boot; the food is incredible; the Colosseum, the canals of Venice, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and they like their football.
Something you might not know: it’s the most volcanically active country in mainland Europe, and much of that activity is focused on Sicily, Italy’s largest island, the ‘ball’ off the aforementioned boot.
People visit Sicily for its classical history, around Syracusa and Agrigento especially; the distinctive culture quite apart from anywhere else in Italy, and the dangerously good food. And for many, their tour is not complete without a trip to see Mount Etna, one of the country’s most iconic symbols. You can hike on Etna, as you can on several other Sicilian volcanoes, and there are in fact entire holidays dedicated to getting you out and about on their thrillingly unpredictable slopes. In some cases your guides will also be accompanied by professional volcanologists, able to provide fascinating insights into what you’re seeing.

Hiking Mount Etna

A short hike on Mount Etna is a frequent feature on Sicily itineraries. The volcano dominates the island’s east coast – more than twice as large as Mout Vesuvius near Naples. Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe, and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, smouldering away as a constant reminder of Mother Nature’s incredible destructive power. The volcanic soils of the foothills are incredibly fertile, and lined with orchards and vineyards – the wines here are superb.

On Etna’s south side is a cable car, which takes you to an elevation of 2,500m. Here you climb into a 4x4 vehicle that takes you up a little further, before you reach the caldera for a walk around the dramatic landscape at the summit. As it is an active volcano, some parts of the route, or all of it, are of course subject to closure for safety reasons. The hiking is mostly moderate, challenging in places, and as with any steep treks you’ll find the hilly lava fields and generally rocky terrain much easier to navigate with walking poles and good boots. From the top, the views of the Sicilian coast are simply staggering. Try and be there for sunset, when the colours of the landscape are beautiful.

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The Aeolian Islands

This archipelago lies just north of Sicily, and includes another two active volcanoes: Stromboli and Vulcano. Stromboli is known as the ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’, and has been in a state of continuous eruption for some 2,000 years. Its black beaches and the ‘Sciara del Fuoco’ (scar of fire) – a stream of molten lava that flows into the sea – are popular visits but the most exciting attraction here is an evening trip to the summit when the pyrotechnics can be awe-inspiring against the night sky.
Vulcano, named for the Roman God of Fire, is of course where the word ‘volcano’ originates. The smoking fumaroles in its crater are an impressive sight, but what many visitors love most is sinking into the island’s bubbling hot springs and mud baths – wonderful for your skin.
Hiking holidays in the Aeolian Islands usually see you based, at least for a few nights, on the largest island, Lipari, which is famous for its vast fields of pumice rocks that have been violently thrown into the air by volcanic activity.

Kids and volcanoes – a fiery combination

As anyone will know when they let their children have their friends over for a sleepover, kids love destruction, so if you tell them you’re taking them on a holiday to climb a volcano, chances are they’ll jump at it. Sicily makes for explosively exciting family holidays, where an afternoon hiking on Mount Etna (start after 3pm to avoid the worst of the heat) can be combined with pizza making and gelato tasting sessions. There is also an interesting museum, with interactive exhibits, screening rooms and a 3D cinema exploring the history of the volcano and the science of volcanology – worth a visit, whatever your age.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Giuseppe Famiani] [Topbox (Etna): Wilson44691] [Stromboli at night: kuhnmi] [Family hikes: Mcx83]