Despite the obvious dangers they hold, we, as humans, seem to have an undeniable fascination with volcanoes. On one hand, we regale stories of past horrors in places like Pompeii yet, on the other, we admire the destructive beauty of these fire-breathing giants and attempt to conquer them by climbing to their summit.
For anybody interested in the science or natural make-up of volcanoes (or indeed the breathtaking views they offer), Italy is one of the best destinations in Europe in which to see them. The country has three active volcanoes in total, putting it second behind Iceland in terms of the highest number of these within the continent.
So, with Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli waiting to be discovered here is the best way to visit them all.
Vaulting Up Vesuvius
The destruction caused by Vesuvius in AD 79 has made the area around it an important historical site and millions of people come to this part of Italy every year to see Pompeii and Herculaneum for themselves. Many of these visitors also combine this with an ascent of the very peak that caused the devastation.
There are two main choices of where to stay if you want to climb Vesuvius – Naples or the Amalfi Coast. Whilst the former offers more affordable accommodation and the chance to explore one of the most interesting Italian cities, many prefer the luxury and relaxation that comes with the more expensive hotels in towns such as Positano, Amalfi and Sorrento.
The easiest route to the volcano is from Naples. The region’s Circumvesuviana trains depart regularly from two different stations (Naples Garibaldi and Porta Nolana) and the journey time is between 20 and 40 minutes.
The reasons for this is that there are two choices as to which station you get off at – Ercolano Scavi or Pompei Scavi. Choosing the Pompeii option will leave you further away from Vesuvius but with more options of how to get there, whilst getting off at Ercolano drops you closer but you have to rely on the unpredictable local buses.
Top Tip: Get on at Porta Nolana, the start of the line, to guarantee a seat. These trains are quite old and not the most comfortable, especially if you have to stand up the whole way.
At Pompeii Scavi, you will see a bus stop directly opposite the train station. From here, Eav/Sita buses leave every 50 minutes and you can just climb aboard and pay the driver the €6 it costs for a round-trip. Other options include taking the slightly more efficient Busvia del Vesuvio which will deliver you higher up than any other bus as part of an organised tour.
If you arrive at Ercolano Scavi, a swathe of taxis and minibuses will offer to take you up to the ticket office at 1000 metres. However, a better option is the Vesuvius Express which departs regularly and costs €10pp.
Travelling from the Amalfi coast involves a very similar journey. The line from Naples runs all the way to Sorrento, so you can simply take the train in the opposite direction and get off at one of the two stations mentioned above. If you are staying somewhere like Amalfi or Positano, though, you will need to hop aboard the local bus to Sorrento first.
Upon arriving at the ticket office, the hike to the edge of the crater begins. Estimates on how long it will take vary from 20 minutes to 45 but most people will find it to be somewhere between these two. At the start, the gravel path twists and turns at a steep incline, but this soon straightens and levels out as you get towards the top.
In terms of what you will see, don’t expect bubbling lava or dramatic steam columns. This makes peering into the crater no less exciting, though, as you admire the rocky landscape and evidence of past eruptions.
On a clear day, you will enjoy views out over the Bay of Naples and towards Pompeii and Herculaneum. The time of year you visit will dictate how likely it is that you will experience a clear day. During spring, in particular, you may well find yourself climbing through dense fog and cloud.
Throughout the years, Etna has earnt its reputation for being one of the most unpredictable volcanoes in the world. Effectively in a constant state of eruption since 1998, it regularly spews lava and ejects large rocks from its main crater, meaning that ascents to the top can be scuppered by volcanic activity on any given day.
Compared to climbing Vesuvius, a visit to Sicily’s Mount Etna involves a lot more preparation and is much more of a hike than a gentle stroll. You will need sturdy walking boots (these can be hired from the guides hut if you don’t have them), plenty of water, an extra layer of clothing in case the temperature drops and a scarf or something similar to tie over your face if you plan on going right to the top where the stench of sulphur will really get up your nostrils. A walking or hiking pole may also make your trek easier.
Top Tip: Because of Etna’s varied landscape and vast area, it is definitely worth hiring a professional guide. They will be able to tell you all about the history of the volcano, as well as showing you some of the caves and grottos that you may miss without an expert in tow.
There are two main ways of discovering Etna – one involves hiking all the way to the top and the other will allow you to explore the lava fields and smoking fumaroles around some of the smaller craters. If you are happy to do the latter, it’s best to drive or join a guided excursion from Linguaglossa.
From here, the snaking road will take you up to the mountain resort of Piano Provenzana where you can enjoy stunning views, take part in skiing and tobogganing, or climb higher via one of the marked trails.
If, however, you are looking for the full experience of climbing as close as you can get to the main crater these days, you will need to make your way to Rifugio Sapienza – a small resort featuring a few hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and places to join guided tours.
Getting to Rifugio Sapienza involves taking the local AST bus from outside of the train station in Catania. It leaves at 8.15am and then departs the resort again at 4.30pm. Note – this is the only return departure and so you should ensure you don’t miss it. At the time of writing, round-trip tickets cost €6.60.
You’ll now be at a height of 2,000 metres above sea level, but there is still a long way to go until you reach the top. Now you have a choice of walking the entire route (only recommended for serious hikers), jumping aboard the cable car and gliding to a height of 2,590 metres before walking the final stretch, or book tickets for the all-terrain jeep which will drop you off just 100 metres short of the summit.
The most popular option is the route via cable car, costing around €30 for a return ticket but taking a lot of the hard work out of the climb and significantly cutting the time it takes to reach your goal. The final 500 metres can be conquered via a hiking path that takes you on a twisting journey of just over a mile. Most people say you should allow two hours for this last bit as the air is thin and it can be quite tiring.
Your reward for all that planning and hard work will be the chance to see some of the main craters at a height of 3,000 metres above sea level. With a mix of jet black lava from previous eruptions and bright red glowing magma that seems otherworldly, it is definitely worth the effort it takes to get there. Not forgetting the stunning vistas across the fascinating landscape.
Ironically, the most impressive of Italy’s active volcanoes is the least known. In fact, some people may have only heard the name Stromboli in relation to the American food – a kind of pizza roll filled with the typical fillings.
However, Stromboli is also the name of an island off the coast of Sicily which is dominated by the volcano at its heart. Part of the Aeolian Islands, it can be reached via ferry or hydrofoil from Sicily or one of the many surrounding islands. Salina and Lipari, two of the largest land masses in the archipelago, are the most popular places to base yourself if you wish to make the climb.
There are three routes to the summit but, if you wish to go higher than 400 metres along any of them, you will have to join a guided tour or hire your own private guide. This is because Stromboli is known to put on a mesmerising show and it can be dangerous if you stray off the official path.
The Stromboli experience is one that involves the anticipation of volcanic activity rather than the mild hope that you might see something dramatic. The regular plumes of lava and rock that are dispelled from any of the three craters mean that it is usually just a matter of time before the performance begins.
Top Tip: Visit one of the many shops in Stromboli village to hire helmets, flashlights and hiking boots if you don’t have them as they are a necessity for your climb.
There is a choice of three paths to the top; the majority of first-time climbers opt for the New Route created in 2004. Offering an almost straight shot from the church of San Vincenzo to your own personal viewing spot in front of the craters, the path was created by the Italian State Forestry Corps and includes natural vegetation that helps protect the area.
The other two options are the Ginostra Route, which involves taking a small boat to the tiny village of Ginostra and then summiting from the west, and the Old Route taking you via a depression created by previous eruptions called the Sciara del Fuoco (stream of fire). Both of these are usually only chosen by experienced hikers, though.
As you follow the path of the New Route, with your guide pointing out areas of interest along the way, you can take advantage of some spectacular views of the Aeolian Islands. There will also be plenty of rest stops when you can quench your thirst and then it’s time to wait for the ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ to glow.
Incidentally, the majority of these tours take place in the middle of the afternoon. Not only does this mean you will avoid the scorching midday sun, you will also reach the summit around sunset and be able to enjoy the lava contrasting with the darkening skies all around you.
If you would like to see any of these magnificent volcanoes for yourself, we can tailor-make a holiday to your requirements. Our new Italy digital brochure has some great inspiration, but we can create a package that includes anything you like.
Call us on 0800 988 3369 for more details or click here to submit your online enquiry.