Italy famously teems with World Heritage sites, but it’s less well known that those sites sit in Europe’s most volcanically active region. In fact, Italy is home to mainland Europe’s only active volcanoes: Vesuvius, Stromboli and Etna.
Etna is Europe’s largest volcano (at 3323m) and one of the world’s most active. In ancient times Etna’s summit was frequently lit up by spectacular pyrotechnics, and the enormous caldera has spewed forth rivers of lava much more recently (in 1987, 1992, 2001 and 2002). The last eruption swept away acres of ancient pine forests at Piano Provenzano and came to rest in the deep Valle del Bove, where you can now trek its scarified lava tunnels with the Gruppo Guide Alpine Etna Sud. It’s exciting stuff, as is the ascent to the barren summit to walk the ridge around the caldera.
Looking into the huge, steaming crater, once thought to be home to the giant Tifone (Typhoon), it’s easy to see how ancient myths were born. Just like the poetically named Campi Flegrei (Burning Fields) that lie to the west of Naples, in the suburb of Pozzuoli, which were thought to be the forge of the god of fire, Vulcan. Now we know it is an active four-mile-wide sunken super-volcano, constantly emitting sulphurous fumes. It last erupted 39,000 years ago, creating the picture-postcard cliffs that Sorrento now sits upon.
Despite its ominous power - it makes Vesuvius look like a pimple by comparison - you can access the ‘fields’ on foot, take a mineral bath at Terme Stufe di Nerone, drink fine DOC appellation wines and visit the Flavian Amphitheatre, the third-largest in Italy after the Colosseum and Capua. Enjoy it while you can because if it erupts again, this part of Italy could cease to exist and we’d be looking at another Pompeii, if not worse.
The obliteration of the Roman town of Pompeii, caused by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, continues to draw the crowds today, making it Italy’s most-visited tourist destination and a World Heritage site. Wandering the deserted streets and viewing the plaster casts of perished Pompeians (created by pouring plaster into the hollows made by disintegrated bodies), sends a certain chill up one’s spine.
But Vesuvius is just the start of a huge, mountainous volcanic arc that was formed 260,000 years ago as the African continental shelf crashed into Europe. The tips of its peaks now form the eight Aeolian islands, which stretch southwards to Sicily. They are some of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean, including Filicudi, Alicudi, Stromboli, Salina, Panarea, Lipari, Vulcano and Ustica, the last one forming Italy’s first marine park due to its coral-rich volcanic waters, which attract divers from all over the world.
The pleasure of the Aeolians is in their different characters, and surprisingly they are all unique. Vulcano, characterized by its extinct volcano, has mud baths and black sand beaches, while Lipari glitters white with the remnants of its pumice mines. Panarea is small and stony, while Salina’s twin-peaked volcano is richly forested; Filicudi is covered in capers and wild flowers in spring, and Alicudi is a barren cone, with no roads and only 120 inhabitants. But best of all is Stromboli, ‘the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’, which constantly throws out incandescent volcanic bombs, which you can see exploding against the velvet night sky.
The very end of the arc is the remote southern island of Pantelleria, 100 km southwest of Sicily and just 60km from Tunisia. Known as the ‘black pearl’, its black lava landscape is dusted prettily with fuschia-coloured bougainvillea and serried ranks of vines, from which a rich apricot-tasting passito liqueur is produced. No wonder the Milanese design crowd and Madonna choose to holiday here.