Julie is the author of a number of guidebooks, including 'Melbourne's Best Bush Bay and City Walks' & 'Melbourne for Dogs' (with RSPCA). Read more of her adventures at her walks blog: walksmelbourne.com
Fascinated by volcanoes? Explosions of rock, steam, ash? Rivers of molten lava? Mt Etna is all this and more. The largest volcano in Europe at over 3400m, Mt Etna covers an area of more than 300 square kilometres. It has been continuously active for more than 200,000 years, and is actually made up of not one cone (despite it's picture-perfect Fuji-esque appearance from afar) but in fact hundreds of them, with new ones emerging from time to time. The most recent major eruption was as recent as 2001, when the mountain refuge cafe in which we had lunch, marked the stopping point (literally at its walls - it is half buried in lava flow).
Mt Etna Mountian Refuge Cafe - stopping point of the 2001 eruption
Getting up Mt Etna is relatively easy. Sicily's second city, Catania, sits on its flanks. In fact, in one of the most catastrophic eruptions, in the 1600's, part of Catania was overrun by lava and ash. Which begs the question: why on earth would people settle in such a dodgy location? Well it's an easy answer - the eruptions leave the land around the volcano covered in highly fertile ash and soil, which produces some of Italy's finest produce - including wines, olives, lemons and oranges.
There are a number of roadways which take you up to either the southern access or around to the northern access point. The most popular route, to the Refugio Sapienza, at 2000 metres, involves driving up on good roads through rugged black lava fields. There are breath-taking views across to the coastline with regular stopping points along the way. At the refugio, you can then take the cable car up to 2500m (note that it doesn't operate on Tuesdays), and from there a 4WD bus takes visitors up to the edge of the crater (Euro60 return, including bus). The volcano is actively monitored and visitor access may be limited if the volcano is particularly active. You can also walk up the mountain, and there are extensive nature trails at lower levels. Above 1900m you are required to take a licensed mountain guide for safety reasons. In winter, a number of ski lifts operate from the mountain station, and your can rent all the necessary ski equipment. Access to the top may be limited by snow cover, which, when it melts, provides the water supplies for a third of Sicily.
If you really want to explore the volcano in more detail, there are a number of dedicated companies who lead treks on the volcano, including Volcano Treks, who have daily trips onto Mt Etna,as well as to the other Sicilian volcanoes on the Aeolian Islands. Prices start at 75 Euros for a half day and 85 Euros for a full day and there are a range of options, depending on how adventurous you are. Alternatively, at Refugio Sapienza, there are a series of old craters, the Silvestri Craters, which are well signposted and which you can walk around quite easily.
The usual hire car companies all operate out of Catania airport - the offices are across from the airport in the car park, and are fairly affordable, especially out of season. Alternatively, AST public buses also run from the train station at Catania (departing 815am) up to the Refugio Sapienza (returning at 445pm).