I Hiked a Volcano

…and it was exactly as awesome as it sounds.

This weekend was quite and adventure. Volcano exploring aside, it was my first solo trip and my first trip by airplane. I’m happy to report that both of those went incredibly smoothly. And what a weekend it was!

I landed in Sicily on Friday morning, leaving the rest of the day open to explore Catania. Catania is a large-ish city (approx. 300,000) on the southern coast of Sicily. It’s a city that’s lived through lots of change – it’s been a part of Greece, the Roman empire, Spain, and (now, of course) Italy.  It’s endured the mafia, bombings in WWII, and a constantly changing – and sometimes fiery – landscape. Its residents have learned to adapt. The result is a completely unique culture, the likes of which I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Another interesting thing about Sicily (and the Etna region, specifically) is that it’s not really on the Eurasian tectonic plate, but not really on the African one, either. It belongs to neither – it’s on the fault line. It belongs to itself, in that sense.

My host father was born in Catania. He still loves it just as much as he did then. (Note: He loves my host mother more – that’s why he lives in Florence now.) He was so happy to hear that I’d be visiting the place he grew up, so he made me a list of places to go and things to do. It was like having a local guide show me the way! Here are some photos from my first day in Catania, all places recommended by my host father.

First things first: Sicilian food. This gooey ball of goodness was an arancino, a rice ball stuffed with cheese, beef, peas, and tomato sauce, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. It was from my host father's favorite cafe, Pasticceria Spinella.
First things first: Sicilian food. This gooey ball of goodness was an arancino, a rice ball stuffed with cheese, beef, peas, and tomato sauce, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. It was from my host father’s favorite cafe, Pasticceria Spinella.
I took the arancino across the street to eat in the beautiful Giardino Bellini. It was so bright and tropical!
I took the arancino across the street to eat in the beautiful Giardino Bellini. It was so bright and tropical!
The main gazebo in Parco Maestranze, the upper level of the Bellini Garden.
The main gazebo in Parco Maestranze, the upper level of the Bellini Garden.
Sicily is on the 37th parallel north, meaning that it has the same longitude as the Virginia/North Carolina border. That explains the warm-weather ecosystem!
Sicily is on the 37th parallel north, meaning that it has the same longitude as the Virginia/North Carolina border. That explains the warm-weather ecosystem!
Catania's ancient Roman amphitheater.
Catania’s ancient Roman amphitheater.
It was interesting to compare Catania's theater to the Colosseum, since the two structures served largely the same purpose and had many structural features in common.
It was interesting to compare Catania’s theater to the Colosseum, since the two structures served largely the same purpose and had many structural features in common.
However, instead of being built out of the classic Roman concrete and limestone, Catania's was made out of volcanic basalt.
However, instead of being built out of the classic Roman concrete and limestone, Catania’s was made out of volcanic basalt.
Catania's Cathedral of Saint Agatha was built and destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions several times before coming into its current Baroque state.
Catania’s Cathedral of Saint Agatha was built and destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions several times before coming into its current Baroque state.
Porta Uzeda, the ancient door connecting the church to what once was the city's center.
Porta Uzeda, the ancient door connecting the church to what once was the city’s center.
Castello Ursino was completed in 1250. When I first arrived, I was a little perplexed - usually castles with large watch towers like these, if built in the Middle Ages, were built atop hills or overlooking water for the best vantage points. Ursino appeared to be neither near water nor on a hill. What I didn't account for, though, was Etna's two eruptions in the later half of the 1600s. The eruptions produced so much lava (and subsequently, new land) that the castle was, in fact, once on a hill and near the sea. It survived because it was built on a hill higher than the lava rose. Nowadays, there's a museum in there.
Castello Ursino was completed in 1250. When I first arrived, I was a little perplexed – usually castles with large watch towers like these, if built in the Middle Ages, were built atop hills or overlooking water for the best vantage points. Ursino appeared to be neither near water nor on a hill. What I didn’t account for, though, was Etna’s two eruptions in the later half of the 1600s. The eruptions produced so much lava (and subsequently, new land) that the castle was, in fact, once on a hill and near the sea. It survived because it was built on a hill higher than the lava rose. Nowadays, there’s a museum in there.
Visiting the opera house! I didn't see any operas, but the building itself was stunning.
Visiting the opera house! I didn’t see any operas, but the building itself was stunning.
For dinner, I had a picnic by the sea.
For dinner, I had a picnic by the sea.
Catania's beach area was pretty far from where I was staying, so I chose a rocky overlook instead.
Catania’s beach area was pretty far from where I was staying, so I chose a rocky overlook instead.
Definitely a unique seacoast. The cliffs and shores were made out of volcanic basalt.
Definitely a unique seacoast. The cliffs and shores were made out of volcanic basalt.
The colors of Catania.
The colors of Catania.

I ended the night with a ricotta canoli (a Sicilian specialty) and an early bedtime. After all, the next day was going to be a big one!

I ate breakfast with the two owners of the hostel/B&B I was staying at – they were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met! We chatted about where we were all from (one of them was from Rome, the other, born and raised in Catania) and about Mt. Etna. Turns out they are both in the process of getting certified as guides to lead tours like the one I’d be going on that day. They were very interested to hear about it when I got back.

Then, at 8:50, a sturdy looking off-roading vehicle came to the hostel to pick me up. We drove to another hotel where we picked up the other two adventurers – making us a nice and small group of four. The other two travelers were from a little town between Venice and Verona. They were so friendly! We were all fast friends.

Our first stop was a little village just outside of Etna Park to pick up lunch supplies for the day. We’d be picnicking somewhere on the volcano when the time came. My travel companions helped me pick what to put on my panino (I truly believe that no one can make a better panino than the Italians) before we got back in the car and headed for the park. I was so excited!

Our first stop was a very old volcanic crater on the southeast side. It had been formed so long ago that trees had grown over it (which can take more than 1,000 years). Our guide told us all about the area’s geology and history, and that there was once a small village living in the crater. We learned about some of the plants that can grow in volcanic soil, and how the volcano has changed and continues to change the landscape.

Following the volcanic soil path!
Following the volcanic soil path!
A local nut that grows very well in volcanic soil.
A local nut that grows very well in volcanic soil.
If you look closely, you can see that there is a bowl-like dip in the trees. That's the crater! Once, an entire village lived in there, but moved out when it became much more convenient to live in the city.
If you look closely, you can see that there is a bowl-like dip in the trees. That’s the crater! Once, an entire village lived in there, but moved out when it became much more convenient to live in the city.
The path ran right around the top of the crater.
The path ran right around the top of the crater.
All of those mounds that you see in the landscape are old volcanic craters.
All of those mounds that you see in the landscape are old volcanic craters.
Certain types of mushrooms grow incredibly well in volcanic soil. We saw many locals out with baskets and bags collecting them. This is a poisonous variety, though - definitely not for eating!
Certain types of mushrooms grow incredibly well in volcanic soil. We saw many locals out with baskets and bags collecting them. This is a poisonous variety, though – definitely not for eating!

Then, we got back in the car for a bit of off-roading. Turns out you can, in fact, drive a vehicle both up and down a trail that I would have deemed “for advanced hikers only.” At first, I was a little scared. The car was bouncing and tipping and shaking. Then I remembered that the driver, our guide, did this every day for a living, and he was calm as could be. Once I relaxed a little, it was one of the most fun parts of the day.

Then, we stopped in one of the 300 year old paths created by the 1792 eruption. Since it was a much more recent eruption, only lichens and smaller plants had begun to grow. We ran into some thick fog here, too, introducing us to Etna’s ever-changing micro-climates. The weather on the volcano is almost always vastly different from the weather below. The weather on the south side is almost always different from the north. And the east – you guessed it – is always different from the west.

Our faithful vehicle, apparently better suited for some trails than most hikers.
Our faithful vehicle, apparently better suited for some trails than most hikers.
Remnants of the 1792 eruption. You can see traces of the first signs of life reclaiming the rocks.
Remnants of the 1792 eruption. You can see traces of the first signs of life reclaiming the rocks.

With the clouds moving so quickly, our guide predicted that we’d have better weather if we headed west. In small tour groups, he said, it’s easy to adjust the itineraries to suit the weather. That was fine by me – this way, we’d actually end up seeing more of the volcano than we’d originally planned. Off we went!

Our next stop was easily one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen.

The Silvestri Craters!
The Silvestri Craters!
Looks like the moon to me.
Looks like the moon to me.
Or Star Wars/Star Trek/Dr.Who/Insert-SciFi-Show-Of-Choice-Here.
Or Star Wars/Star Trek/Dr.Who/Insert-SciFi-Show-Of-Choice-Here.
The winds were so incredibly strong - it felt like I was on top of Mt. Washington.
The winds were so incredibly strong – it felt like I was on top of Mt. Washington.
The craters were formed during the 1892 eruption - which explains their sparse plant growth.
The craters were formed during the 1892 eruption – which explains their sparse plant growth.
How's that for a hiking path?
How’s that for a hiking path?
The volcanic soil appears red because it's rusting. It has such a high iron content that it's actually magnetic too. Our guide demonstrated this by picking up a chunk of soil with a souvenir refrigerator magnet.
The volcanic soil appears red because it’s rusting. It has such a high iron content that it’s actually magnetic. Our guide demonstrated this by picking up a chunk of soil with a souvenir refrigerator magnet.
Near the Silvestri Craters are the two main tourist destinations on the volcano - the summit cable car and the Rifugio Sapienza - a rest point for hikers and travelers.
Near the Silvestri Craters are the two main tourist destinations on the volcano – the summit cable car and the Rifugio Sapienza – a rest point for hikers and travelers.
I couldn't believe that something like this was real.
I couldn’t believe that something like this was real.
What an experience!
What an experience!

Then, we headed a little farther west in the car. We were heading to a meeting point where we’d get a new guide who would take us for a longer hike and into some lava caves. After introductions, we were given trekking poles and set off on our way. Our new guide was just as friendly and informative as the first. It’s like they personally know every rock in the park.

We learned about the different lichens that begin to take over the rocks. They're the first plants back after the eruptions, only later can larger plants grow.
We learned about the different lichens that begin to take over the rocks. They’re the first plants back after the eruptions, only later can larger plants grow.
Some grasses were able to make it in this field.
Some grasses were able to make it in this field.
Look - another crater!
Look – another crater!
Our guide showed us how unique this crater was, and used it to tell us about how the lava's cooling time affects the rocks it produces.
Our guide showed us how unique this crater was, and used it to tell us about how the lava’s cooling time affects the rocks it produces.
This crater's lava slurped out - it didnt flow or gush out. We can see the layers that this action produced.
This crater’s lava slurped out – it didnt flow or gush out. We can see the layers that this action produced.
Sometimes, the basalt has lots of different minerals in it - like this chunk - that make it extra shiny.
Sometimes, the basalt has lots of different minerals in it – like this chunk – that make it extra shiny.
Back on the trail!
Back on the trail!
What an interesting landscape. Only the toughest plants can survive here.
What an interesting landscape. Only the toughest plants can survive here.
We had lunch in a little cabin made out of the volcanic basalt. We ever made some friends there, too. Two bikers stopped by for a snack break as well.
We had lunch in a little cabin made out of the volcanic basalt. We even made some friends there, too. Two bikers stopped by for a snack break as well.
Definitely unlike any other hiking path I've seen.
Definitely unlike any other hiking path I’ve seen.
Our guide showed us a few more shelters that had been made out of the stones.
Our guide showed us a few more shelters that had been made out of the stones.
Those dark "rivers" were rivers of lava in spring of 2001. My guide laughed when I told him I would have been celebrating my sixth birthday when that happened.
Those dark “rivers” were rivers of lava in spring of 2001. Our guide asked if we’d heard about the eruption on the news, and laughed when I told him I would have been only six.

Then came the real adventure. We got back in the car and drove a little farther west, stopping on what appeared to be a very random spot in the road. Turns out it wasn’t random at all. Our guide pulled out our helmets, taught us how to put them on, and headed toward a meadow. First, we learned about a few of the plants and the geology of the area. Then, we headed in.

*excited squeal*
*excited squeal*
Wild saffron flowers! We saw some apple and walnut trees too.
Wild saffron flowers! We saw some apple and walnut trees too.
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The first cave we saw was a smaller one just a few yards away from the larger one we’d be exploring. This one is sometimes used by the locals for church services.
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Our guide explained to us that some of the smaller caves were formed out of large gas bubbles that keep their shape when the lava cooled, while others were formed when the lava on the outside of a lava stream cools, leaving the still-liquid materials inside free to flow to other places.
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Into the big cave! This one formed in two parts – a “first floor” and a “second floor.” We’d be exploring the second floor.
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One last look at the outside world.
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Even though this cave is many hundreds of years old, there are few stalactites forming on its ceiling. This is because, as our guide explained, less water gets into lava caves than other types of caves.
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I felt like I was on the Travel Channel or National Geographic.
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Me and my new travel friends – Emelio and Veronica. They’re from a small town just outside of Verona. They spoke very little English, so I had ample opportunity to practice my Italian with them.
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Back into the sunlight.
One very happy explorer!
One very happy explorer!

Once we were back outside, it was time to head back. What a full and exciting day! What a full and exciting weekend!

That night, I had dessert before dinner and explored the city when it was lit up by sparkling streetlights. Pretty good end to the day, I’d say.

On Sunday, I headed straight to the airport and back to Florence. I’m so thankful for the luck I ran into with the buses, airplanes, and connecting flights – I truly could not have asked for it all to run more smoothly. I’m also incredibly grateful for all of the people I met in Sicily. Every single one of them was easily one of the nicest, friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. And, I was able to talk to them all in Italian. Who says you don’t study on the weekends when you’re abroad?

All in all, it was a great experience. I’ve heard that you should travel alone at least once when you’re abroad, and after having done it, I fully support it. I feel so much more confident and capable, and it was definitely one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve ever done.

 

 

Gelato Count: 36

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