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Visiting Volcanoes in Italy

Joan M. Thompson (Joana)

In late June through mid July 2005, my husband Eric and I visited two volcanoes in Italy:

  • Mount Vesuvius overlooking Pompeii and Herculaneum
  • Mount Etna in Sicily

Since I teach my second grade class a unit on volcanoes and read a book about the effects of Vesuvius on Pompeii, I wanted to visit these sites and share my experiences with students. In preparation for our trip, we had read numerous guidebooks and histories, and engaged a guide to give us a tour of Pompeii and the archaeological museum in Naples. The rest of the time we were on our own, finding our way with maps, guidebooks and advice from SlowTrav, as well as kind strangers.

On the mainland, Eric and I were using train transportation and found it quite convenient to reach Vesuvius from our base in Sorrento. Luisa and Antonello, who run Sorrento Info and the webcam, gave us bus information and tips on places to eat. Since we had needed to use many sources to plan our adventure, I decided to put the information we had found helpful into one travel note for others to use.

View of Etna from Taormina

View of Etna from Taormina

Visiting Mount Vesuvius

We began our visit by riding the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii (about 1.80 euro each way). Getting off at the Pompeii stop, we walked down the hill past the Autostrada entrance to the Information Center and restaurant, where we bought bus tickets (3 euro each way). At the corner the bus stop was marked with a sign. The bus ride on a comfortable motor coach takes about 35 minutes to reach the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio.

When our bus left the Autostrada, we had a lengthy ride uphill on a very narrow, twisty road. There were many encounters with cars and buses descending. Our driver sounded his horn at every blind curve (and there were many). At one point, he stopped the bus and dashed out onto the hillside to gather some lava for each of us!

At the park entrance we found vendors with food and postcards, and there were public toilets (a 50 cent tip requested). We paid our admission of 6.50 euro and started our 30 minute walk to the summit of the crater. We learned that the ancient crater of Monte Somma contains Vesuvius with its successive eruptions. The crater is 200 meters deep (655 feet) and has a diameter of 600 meters (970 feet). From the top, we could see the Bay of Naples and look back toward the city of Naples. Down below we briefly saw Pompeii, with the open areas of the Forum and Amphitheatre. Soon, however, the clouds rolled in and obscured our distant views. We could see the demolished funicular remains through its twisted cables and concrete pilings. Far down the mountain we could see the path of Vesuvius' eruptions. It was a little windy, but light jackets were sufficient.

It was quite an intriguing excursion and well worth the effort to get there, as we saw impressive sights and met interesting people of all nationalities. We were definitely glad we were not driving amongst the tour buses on those curves!

Eric at the rim of Vesuvius

Eric at the rim of Vesuvius

Visiting Mount Etna

We then flew to Sicily and had a car for driving around the island. From our base in the seaside town of Taormina, we drove to visit Mount Etna, home of the highest volcano in Europe (3,300 meters, or about 11,000 feet).

We wanted to drive through the countryside, so we headed west on S120 from the Autostrada, north of Etna, along small winding roads where we could see farms, vineyards and small villages, with the mountain looming larger and larger ahead of us. By now, Eric was really enjoying driving along Sicily's roads in our trusty little Lancia!

Locating the turn south for Zafferani at the town of Linguaglossa was a little confusing, but we circled the block twice and found it. After about two hours travel, we arrived at Rifugio Sapienza, the southern point for tours ascending Etna. Parking at the large lot cost 1 euro (what a deal!), and we made our way to a cafeteria-like cafe where we had lunch.

The ticket center was in an adjacent building; tickets were about 43 euro each. A funicular with 6 passengers in each car took us 2,500 meters up the mountain. We then switched to a jeep-like bus which took us up to 3,000 meters height, traveling along an ashy track through what resembled a lunar landscape.

There our guide/driver led a group of us on a hike along the crater of the most recent eruption of 2002 - 2003. We saw steam coming from a vent in the crater, and the volcanic rock was still very warm to our touch. Although it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit down in the parking lot, there at the summit it was 55 degrees with winds making it feel much colder. Jackets and sweaters kept us fairly comfortable, and gloves would have made us even warmer! We were fine wearing sneakers and didn't need boots. (It is possible to rent heavy jackets and boots there.) Walking on the rim of this crater, we could see for miles in all directions. There was an enormous area of reddish-grey volcanic rubble, with no vegetation.

Funicular Site of 2002 - 2003 eruptions

Funicular Site of 2002 - 2003 eruptions

Back at Rifugio Sapienza, we stopped in the hut for the guides (Gruppo Guide Alpine Etna Sud) and saw some amazing pictures of volcanic activity as well as maps. Our guide kindly gave us a map poster when he learned I was a teacher. In return I gave him a Sacajawea US dollar coin, explaining that she was a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition in the US (thanks to a Slow Traveler for the gift suggestion of dollar coins).

Driving down the mountain afterward, we took the southerly route, seeing the path of the recent eruption as it covered over houses, fields and roads. We could tell where the main road was now rebuilt. Vineyards and farms in this area benefit from the rich volcanic soil, and we saw plant life regenerating in the midst of the rubble. It was inspiring to see nature and humans alike reclaiming the land. Connecting with the Autostrada near Catania, it took us about one and a half hours to return to Taormina.

Joana on Mt. Etna

Joana on Mt. Etna

The people we met in Italy and the sights we saw provided us with a rich panorama that helped us look back through centuries of natural phenomena, history and human experience. Our pictures taken by Eric help preserve those memories.

Resources

www.sorrentoinfo.com: Sorrento Info run by Antonello and Luisa Maresca, located at the corner of Via Tasso and Via San Cesareo - home of the Sorrento webcam.

naples.contexttravel.com/cart/tours.php?g=2: Guided tours of Pompeii and Naples (we used them and liked their services).

www.vesuviana.it/infoeng.htm: Time table for Circumvesuviana trains.

www.harcourtschool.com/activity/pompeii/pmpVesu.html: Explanation of Vesuvius's volcanic activity

volcano.und.edu/vwdocs/volc_images/img_vesuvius.html: Photo and text of volcanic activity at Vesuvius.

volcano.und.edu/vwdocs/volc_images/img_etna.html: Photo and text of Etna's activity.

volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/current_volcs/etna/: Most recent Etna activity.

© Joan M. Thompson, 2005

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