Italy: Volcanic Wonders
I remember some years ago, touring the South of Italy, such an interesting part of the world. Before my stroke (see: stroke), and besides other pursuits, I was interested in exploring ruins. I'm not so agile any more, but still pursuing my hobby now and again. Italy was picture-perfect.
Amphitheatres and ruins run cheek-by-jowl against up-to-date shopping and nightlife. Churches and basilicas versus pristine, blue-sky beaches. And food was to die for: 'antipasti' on offer, each day, was different depending on the different regions and so delicious.
Verdant green fields, delimited by hedgerows, then sprouting up amongst the scrub and poppy laden fields were ruins of Greek, 5th and 6th century BC Doric Temples. Lots of tiny villages, where every second business was a fabrica di mozzarella di bufala.
Most of the antipasti featured buffalo mozzarella as one of the selections, in that region. We happened to have stayed near a buffalo-mozzarella producing town; that was the epicentre of production in Italy. Happy days! Everywhere we went for food, even cafeterias, dished out by the tureens, it tasted of farm-fresh milk, melted on the tongue, silky soft....
Stromboli, on its own Aeolian island off the north coast of Sicily, is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth and has been erupting almost continuously since a major event 1932. It continues to periodically spit ash, steam and the occasional voluminous squirt of lava.
Mt. Vesuvius is near Naples and is famed for erupting in A.D. 79 and obliterating Herculaneum; as it happened, its citizens fled toward Pompeii to assumed safety but less than a day later it also destroyed Pompeii. Mt. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944; it is the only active volcano on mainland Europe. These three volcanoes are unique in that they have erupted in the last hundred years – we visited all three volcanos during our time there.
NZ has its own trifecta of hot mountains, as in Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruahoe and Mt. Tongariro in the central North Island. Ruapehu and Tongariro are both active, with Ruapehu getting a bit frisky in 2013 and Tongariro in 2012.
Mount Vesuvius is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to the large population in the city of Naples and the surrounding towns. Since we had already seen Pompeii before my stroke, we chose this time to visit Herculaneum. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous as one of the few ancient cities that can now be seen in much of its original splendour, as well as for having been lost in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius that had buried it.
Unlike Pompeii, the deep layer of pyroclastic material which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as doors, roofs, beds even food. Many streets and buildings are visible, although over 75% of the town remains buried under the present day Ercolano. It was eerily silent, despite there being a lot of tourists. Visitors were respectful of the tragedy that happened in AD 79, where life was obliterated in blink of an eye, in quiet contemplation. Herculaneum, rather than Pompeii, was more manageable given my gait (see: Stroke)
Mount Etna stands almost 11,000ft (3.4km) above sea level, looming over the eastern edge of Sicily. It is tallest, active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world, rich and unique culturally, especially with regards to archaeological and ancient sites. We drove up to the Rifugio Sapienza (Mount Etna south tourist area), which is the highest point you can reach on Mt Etna by car. Half of all visitors of Mount Etna travel via Nicolosi on the southern slopes.
The temperature dropped and the terrain more barren as we climbed higher; rugged lunar landscape came close to describing it. Slightly mythical, we drove higher into the clouds. Spitting sleet, the car was engulfed in mist as we approached the roads end, slowing down and abruptly stopping at a huge tourist bus traffic jam... as with fog and mist, they all suddenly appeared.
Plus all the tourists in myriad bright summer colours milling around. Despite the snow line temperature, many had lightweight clothes on, specifically t-shirts and flip-flops (but also serious bling sunglasses on, so that’s okay).
Close to the top but not quite there yet, we parked, and then walked from the parking area to the Silvestri craters as the signs invited. I was reminiscent of Lanzarote, or Mt Teide in Tenerife... both are in the Canary Islands, a chain of volcanic ocean islands located off North Africa's west coast where we spent winter holidays in the warmth as temporary respite from enduring the cold in the UK.
The terrain of Silvestri craters were a variation of black, grey, brown, even tinges of red, lava rock, as we picked our way up the incline. The desolate black lava craters dates from recent eruptions as compared with the older grey moss and lichen-covered lava. Some would have called it unearthly beautiful.
It was bitterly cold – after the visit to the crater, there were bars where we could order meals and hot chocolate drinks. By chance as we were ordering at the bar, delicious-looking cannoli were for sale; the invitation to sample some was not required twice. As usual there were trinkets and souvenirs for sale. Hopped into the warmth of the car, we did a scant five more minutes to the get to the end of the line.
This was Mt Etna tourist village, or what is commonly known as Rifugio Sapienza. Suddenly the day cleared and we could see Mt. Etna in full view. Quite breath-taking, it wasn't doing anything sinister at that point in time; it just seemed like any snowy mountain peak. We could see chairlifts going up the rest of the way – as in NZ, sightseers were in abundance to see the wonders of volcanoes. Funny that.
One of the high points of our stay in Southern Italy, was Stromboli. The most captivating of the chain of Aeolian islands, Stromboli is way out to sea, emerging out from the limpid blue haze, like a mirage, a pyramid-like island. Despite being an active volcano, Stromboli, just north of Sicily, is a popular summer destination; it is sometime known as the 'smouldering volcano'. Of the three volcanoes Stromboli is perhaps the most spectacular and one most studied by geologists.
We arrived by boat in the afternoon. Though it was a bright, sunny day, clouds of smoke constantly emerged, a mass of hazy gases, enveloping the smoking craters of the volcano. We wandered around the small township, perched on the southern part of the island. Popped into souvenirs shops and cafes, even a church, waiting for the sun to go down.
Happened by a restaurant, on the top plateau which was full of customers. And no wonder, it was a charming place, the views were spectacular: menacing Stromboli and olive trees on one side, the turquoise sea on the other, and a little plug of an island called Strombolicchio (the little Stromboli), a volcanic plug which is the remnant of the original volcano from which Stromboli grew from.
Mt. Stromboli has been in almost continuous eruption for the past 2,000 years. A pattern of eruption is maintained in which explosions occur at the summit craters, with mild to moderate eruptions of incandescent volcanic bombs. Would we see the eruptions that evening; jet fountains of molten rock from its lava-filled central crater?
At last it was dusk, and we got back on the boat; passed Strombolicchio, and just on cue, we saw Mt. Stromboli: blowing its top. The largest crater erupted in a sudden burst of orange and red, sparks flying like bold fireworks, the intense glowing red of the fresh lava. Stromboli – best to be out at sea when it unleashes its hidden fury ...