Trip to Etna : 25 October - 1 November 2003

The trip started on 25 October, but the pre-trip panic was to dominate my life from Thursday 23. Oh sure, I had read in the newspaper that a general strike was planned in Italy for Friday, but what did that have to do with me? A lot, as it turned out. Thursday evening I found a message on my answering machine: ‘Hi, we’re stranded in Napoli’, it said. ‘Can you let us know where we are staying the first night?’ This was easier said than done, as I had heard at short notice that our regular accommodation would not be available, and Boris, our ‘man in Catania’ would be briefing me on Saturday on arrival – and suddenly I realised that no less than six of the group would be on their way on Friday. An evening of phone calls and mails ensued, but nobody was home, and time was getting short. I had an exam next day, with an early start to Geneva, and needed some sleep. The panic was to remain until sometime Saturday afternoon, when a phone call put me out of my misery.

Then, of course, there is the GPS. I must have the only GPS with a confidence problem. It would be useful on Etna, in fact, this sort of trip was the reason for buying it, but it is totally disoriented. I have to tell IT, where IT is! So, this time it gets left at home, until I have a chance to go back to the shop.

Day 1 : Saturday 25 October

It was a long wait for the transport, which the others had picked up in Palermo, but Boris was there and we had time to discuss further plans. I finally discovered where we would be staying, although finding Mario at his shop was going to prove difficult. We had the address, but Linguaglossa had renumbered the Via Roma, and the old numbers on the houses had not been changed. Finally, we found the apartment and then it was time for supper as we hiked up the road to the next pizzeria.

Day 2 : Sunday 26 October

Folklore in Taormina
Folklore in Taormina

A bright, sunny day and Mario’s wife arrived with breakfast. After this we headed for the vans and the monastery, where we would be staying for the rest of the week and then on to Aci Castello to inspect the pillow lavas. Compared with the last visit, more time was reserved for this, and it was to prove very interesting. The notes say that the block on which the castle sits has been uplifted, which may or may not be true, but the pillows run horizontally, and at the easternmost edge there is a vertical bed of limestone. We spent a couple of hours inspecting the block, some from above and some from below, and all came to the same conclusion. Feeling rather proud of ourselves and planning to ask the expert later, we continued on towards Taormina and an afternoon playing tourist.

Day 3 : Monday 27 October

With the weather changeable and high winds at the summit of Etna, it was decided to hike the north side and visit the Grotta dei Lampone (Raspberry Cave), a lava tube high on the northern flank. Driving up towards Piano Provenzana, the instability along the Pernicana fault can clearly be seen, with large cracks in the road, which have been repaired, but opened up again. At one point, a wall shows a 60 cm displacement, result of one episode, where the eastern flank is sliding towards the sea. This is the side of the volcano, which is not buttressed by mountains. At one time it was thought that the instability was limited to the area around the Valle del Bove, but these new fissures along the active fault have shown that a much larger area is affected. From the Rifugio Ragabo we made our way through the forest, after which we crossed the newest lava flow, that of October 2002. We found some examples of ‘cicirara’ lava (chickpea), with its large plagioclase crystals. This was definitely not native to the area, as the blocks stand out amongst the otherwise bland black basalts, but had probably been used to construct the base of the new footpath. Then it was onwards and upwards, over lava from the 1809 eruption, then 1646, 1923 and finally 1947 to arrive at a vast flow of pahoehoe lava of 1614-1624, in which the lava tube could be found. With the weather getting colder and unfriendly we had lunch and visited the cave, but with the clouds descending rapidly, it was time to turn back. After 12 km up and down, there and back, we rested our aching feet at the Rifugio, before returning to Linguaglossa.

That evening, the first anniversary of the October 2002 eruption, which had destroyed Piano Provenzana, Linguaglossa’s little tourist centre and starting point for jeep trips to the summit, the town was honouring its volunteers. It seemed just about everyone was there for the exhibition of photos and a film of the events, produced by the Italian TV company RAI. For me it was quite an emotional moment, remembering Piano Provenzana as it had been during the last visit, and seeing on film the lava advancing and finally destroying the little group of buildings where we had sat two years before, enjoying a glass of wine after a successful trip to the summit craters. Then it was back to the monastery and a well-earned supper.

Day 4 : Tuesday 28 October

Monte Ruvolo
Monte Ruvolo
Ruin of farmhouse above Randazzo
Ruin of farmhouse above Randazzo

The weather was getting worse, and it was unthinkable to venture too far up the volcano, so we piled into the vans and headed for the lower western slopes, driving along a road built on the transition between igneous and sedimentary rock. This could be seen in the change of vegetation, on the igneous side vast woodlands, and on the limestones to the north, grass with the occasional shrub. An intricately paved road led upwards and soon we were walking through a meadow, lined with oak trees and with flowering crocuses at our feet, quite different to the north side. Here we saw lava channels with low levees, looking rather like railway tracks. After visiting two of the extinct craters in this area, the clouds once again descended and the first drops of rain fell. Time to head downhill again and to Randazzo, where we found a restaurant serving ‘everything with wild mushrooms’, as this was mushroom time on the volcano and the few people we had met had been on their way to their favourite and often secret places, armed with baskets. The meal was exquisite, mushrooms in oil, mushroom soup, pasta with mushrooms, fried and breaded mushrooms and we were quite expecting mushroom ice cream for dessert.

With the fog ever thicker, we drove along the road between Randazzo and Linguaglossa, stopping on the way to see the ruins of farmhouses surrounded by lava.

By the time we reached Linguaglossa, the fog was so thick that the road signs were practically invisible.

Day 5 : Wednesday 29 October

The fog had cleared, but there was a chill in the air, and a quick glimpse of Etna’s summit showed that the wind was still too strong to attempt a summit trip. Therefore we would visit Piano Provenzana and take the jeep up to the new fissure to see the devastation for ourselves. Jeep trips start a little below Ragabo, and apart from hiking, this is the only way up towards the summit, as several drivers in their limousines found to their dismay, having attempted to drive the rough track and getting no further than a few tens of metres. Well, the signs do say…………..! The first hundred or so metres are on the road, which apart from its cracks, still looks quite reasonable, but turning a corner, the road was suddenly blocked by a 10 m lava flow. This was where we turned off and started the rollercoaster ride upwards – not for the fainthearted or those with back problems. Parts of the road are still accessible, and these brought some alleviation to the discomfort in the Unimog. Soon we were at the site of the tourist centre, or what is left of it, the remains of a wall, in place of the hotel and restaurant and the row of friendly chalets with their souvenirs. The green meadow stretching above the station has gone, replaced by tonnes of lava, covered with dead trees. This is not the first time that the fissure has produced a flank eruption, but previously the vent opened on the western side of the ridge, sparing Piano Provenzana. This time just a move of a few metres eastwards made all the difference.

Behind the ruins the track is still as it was, and a bumpy but familiar drive brought us to the top of the fissure, from where, looking down towards the north, the various new cones and a now solidified lava lake could be seen. It was so incredibly clear that Calabria was visible in the distance, as was Stromboli, its white plume quite obvious against the background of the blue sea. The landscape, however, here, has changed dramatically. The group split into two, with some returning with the jeep, whilst others hiked along the fissure.

Day 6 : Thursday 30 October

An igneous-free day took us to Syracusa and the Archaeological Park, which is always worth a visit. With All Saints approaching, the town was decorated for the celebrations, and market stalls abounded. From the Temple of Apollo we walked up to the Cathedral. It was almost dark when we left, and after two or three wrong turnings we were hopelessly lost in the complicated one-way traffic system. To our good fortune, the mariner of the group, Dave, sprinted between vans whilst we were standing at traffic lights and shouted ‘keep the Moon behind you’. With this advice, we soon found the main road, even if it did mean a detour via the industrial area along the coast. We were late for supper, but the staff at the monastery were glad to see us safe and sound.

Day 7 : Friday 31 October

Back to igneous environments and a visit to the south side. Starting at Nicolosi, we took in a crater or two on the way up towards La Sapienza. The many craters dotting the landscape bear witness to earlier events.

The road to the tourist centre here is still in good condition and although the station was badly affected by the last eruption, it has remained in business. Work is underway to prepare the ski piste and repair the lift, and I believe, with coffee at Euro 4.50 per cup, the tourists are footing the bill. The north side is much cheaper and friendlier. Winding downhill again a halt was made in a municipal recreation area for a farewell lunch with Boris, who had accompanied us on most of the outings and from whose knowledge we had profited. After another crater climb, this time to collect specimens of large pyroxene crystals, we continued on to Catania and the rush hour, or is it always so congested?

Craters towards Catania
Craters towards Catania

Returning to Linguaglossa there was just time to do some last-minute shopping for Dario’s photos and Etna maps before we headed off to the pizzeria for our farewell dinner. At this point I would like to thank all those who helped to make this trip a success: Sue and Chris Hart for their organisational help in getting the UK group to Palermo together, Chris again and Paul de Schutter, our drivers for the week, who brought us safely to every venue and back again, Tom and Dave for the daily shopping and, of course, Boris Behnke, Etna expert and good friend, who allowed us to share his knowledge of Etna and learn a little of its vagaries. It was time to say goodbye, with half the group leaving for Palermo before dawn and the others a bit later via Catania. The direttore at the monastery made a note of my interest for a further trip in May 2005. Wonder what Etna will have in store for us then.

Annette Kimmich

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