Tag Archives: volcano

Hiking up Mount Etna, Sicily

As we mentioned in our post about Catania, the town sits at the foot of Mount Etna – Europe’s tallest active volcano at a height 3,329m (10,922ft). Having climbed Mt Fuji earlier this year, we wondered if it would still be possible to hike on Mt Etna this far into the winter season, and to our delight, it appears that only eruptions cause it to close!

Mt Etna, Sicily

Our first glimpse of Mt Etna on the ferry transfer from Pozzallo to Catania having just arrived on Sicily

Mt Etna is a still very much an active volcano and had erupted in August this year – just 4 months ago – and a couple of craters near the top are still emitting a little ash. I’ll say at this point that we didn’t know about the August activity until I was researching this post.. not that it would have changed our plans!

Getting there

As we’re finding in Sicily, information about public transport is relatively easy to find, but locations of bus and train stations are a bit trickier, and the English versions of websites aren’t as complete as their native Italian counterparts. This is just a little niggling pain when trying to plan our manoeuvres..

Waiting for the bus to Mt Etna, Catania

Waiting for the bus to Mt Etna with a few locals and 3 other tourists: 2 from Holland and 1 from Turkey

Anyhow, we confirmed our plans with the very friendly lady at the Catania Tourist Information office who also checked the weather and suggested we go sooner than we’d originally planned. Two days later we were up and out at the bus station near the train station waiting for the 08:15 bus that goes to Rifugio Sapienza some 1,910m (6,266ft) up Mt Etna.

08:15 came and went. Then 08:30. The somewhat official guy at the bus stop kept checking his watch and reassuring us in Italian, but when he showed us a pricelist for a tour of Etna by taxi we started to get a little concerned.. he kept checking his watch so we decided to keep waiting with the other handful of others clutching their coffees.

5 minutes later the bus came hurtling around the corner. We picked our seats and tried to catch up on a little sleep during the 1½ hour journey.

House submerged by lava, Mt Etna, Sicily

We spotted the roof of this house submerged in lava on the final approach to Rifugio Sapienza. Yep, we’re on a volcano!

The Hike

The friendly bus conductor told us all that he’d return to the drop-off point in front of the semi-circle of souvenir shops at 16:30 to take us back to Catania. Rifugio Sapienza is just over half-way up the side of Mt Etna, and this large open-air car park offers little protection from the bitter winds that whip through – it was a very cold first experience, and for the other 3 tourists who hadn’t come dressed to hike in winter conditions we think it put them off as we didn’t see them again until the return journey!

Rifugio Sapienza, Mt Etna, Sicily
1910m: Rifugio Sapienza, the starting point is very similar to the Yoshida-guchi 5th Station on Fuji, in that it’s a giant car park with cafes, restaurants, a hotel and, of course, souvenir shops.

Cable-car at Montagnola, Mt Etna, Sicily
1910m: While it’s possible to hike up from Rifugio Sapienza, we decided to take the cable-car to Montagnola and hike further from there. We’d read this section takes about 4 hours to hike or about 20 minutes on the cable-car

Jeep-busses at Montagnola, Mt Etna, Sicily
2500m: From Montagnola we could have taken one of the cool Unimogs to the guide station at 2920m, but it wouldn’t be much of a hike if we didn’t actually do any hiking!

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2600m: Starting out on our hike to Torre del Filosofo. At this point we were starting to feel a little short of breath because of the altitude

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2650m: Looking back down the trail. The landscape is binary – coffee black volcanic rock and egg-white snow with the sky providing the only colour

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2700m: Finally, the sulphur yellow of the top of Mt Etna pops into view

Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
2920m: Torre del Filosofo, or the top station. We’d read that it’s not permissible to venture further without a guide, but aside from a signpost there wasn’t anyone there to stop us if we were so inclined

Craters near Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
~2950m: We climbed the ridge of the nearby craters and were rewarded with amazing views of Etna behind and above us, and a blanket of cloud below that covered Catania. Views like this are usually the reserve of aeroplane journeys! We’d arrived at the top just after a Jeep-Bus, which made for some great photos – having people in our shots gives some perspective of how massive these volcanic craters are!

Craters near Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
~2950m: The highest point we reached was on the ridge of one of the large craters. Time to pose for a photo with Mt Etna herself!

After circling the craters (and taking a lot of photographs), we headed back down the same track alongside a couple of mountain bikers and 3 skiers!

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2550m: The downhill was a lot easier and as we didn’t have to stop to catch our breath as often it was quicker too. We made it back to Montagnola and then via the cable-car to Rifugio Sapienza with plenty of time to spare before the return bus to Catania!

Crateri Silvestri 1986, Mt Etna, Sicily
~1915m: Just to the east of the big car parks are a couple of recent craters that we decided to wander around while we waited for the bus. This is the Crateri Silvestri which was formed in 1986.

Despite hiking in December rather than July, Mt Etna was warmer than Fuji, and was nowhere near as arduous. Next time we’re bringing skis for the downhill leg though!

Volcanic activity near Kagoshima, Japan

In Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, the volcanic activity of the archipelago is obvious and nowhere more so than near Kagoshima towards its southernmost tip. Incidentally the area around Kagoshima is called the Satsuma Peninsula which we found endlessly amusing even before we found out it actually is famous for citrus fruits. The Komikan tangerine is a variety indiginous to the area and tastes a bit like a cross between an orange and a lime – very yummy!

One of the reasons we visited Kagoshima was the fish market tour, but we were also keen to see the volcanic activity and how it affects the day-to-day life of the residents.


Just 4km across the bay from Kagoshima is the very active Mt Sakurajima (cherry blossom island). It streams smoke almost constantly and erupts more than 1000 times a year although mostly just small quantities of ash. The falling ash is a fact of life for local residents and bags of it are cleaned up from the streets. Seeing the volcano billowing on the day that we visited was pretty awe inspiring and every so often we would turn to each other to say ‘Wow!’

20140619-135311-49991692.jpgBags of ash awaiting collection on a street corner in Kagoshima

We took the cruise ferry, which departs once a day from Kagoshima, and takes 50 minutes instead of the 15 minutes of the direct ferry. It skirted the lava fields around the south-west part of the volcano before arriving at the port.

20140619-135523-50123323.jpgSakurajima billowing smoke, seen from the cruise ferry

At the port we hopped onto the ‘island view’ bus to head up to the Yunohira Observatory, the closest access point to the crater. At 373m above sea level it’s just over a third of the way up. After we’d taken some photos of the volcano and admired the view of Kagoshima, there didn’t seem to be much more to do there and we still had 45 minutes to wait before the next bus. Then we noticed that the information leaflet said there were seven heart shaped stones hidden around. It seemed like a reasonable way to pass the time but even after a thorough search including the car park we only managed to find four, perhaps the rest were covered in ash!

20140619-140115-50475158.jpgUs at Yunohira Observatory

20140619-140831-50911093.jpgYunohira Observatory (clockwise from top): View across the bay to Kagoshima, aerial view of the three craters in the visitor centre, one of the heart shaped stones once we’d cleared the ash away

Back on the bus, we descended from the observatory to Karasujima Viewpoint where we read that it used to be an island 500m away from the volcano until the 1914 eruption. This is the most recent big eruption of Sakurajima and it not only buried this small islet under 20m of lava but also filled the strait between the volcano and the mainland, and destroyed three villages. Reading this we were shocked that Sakurajima still has a population of 5000 people but I suppose the economic lure of tourism, fertile fields and ash that can be mined is hard to resist. The tourism leaflet says that the population ‘live in harmony with the volcano’ but I’m not convinced that anyone has fully explained that to Sakurajima…

20140619-141616-51376083.jpgFrom Karasujima we walked the 3km trail back to the port town to end the day with a soak of our feet in the public foot bath

Ibusuki Sand Baths

An interesting effect of the volcanic activity can be experienced in Ibusuki, an hour south of Kagoshima by train, where steam bubbles up through the sand heating it to spa temperatures. We like a good hot bath and so we were keen to try the hot sand. First we wandered along the deserted seafront and ate our packed lunch sitting on the seawall and gazing out to sea before making our way back to Sunamushi Kaikan Saraku (Natural Sand Bath) and paying the entry fee.

20140612-115025-42625167.jpgDeserted sea front at Ibusuki

Ibusuki Sand BathsRows of spa goers buried in sand at Sunamushi Kaikan Saraku

In the changing rooms we put on the provided yukata (imagine a kind of cotton dressing gown) and made our way to the beach where we lay down in a hollow and the staff began to shovel hot sand over us, something like you might have done to your dad on the beach as a kid. It was a relaxing experience and not actually as hot as we’d expected. The recommended time to stay covered for the full blood cleansing benefits is 10 minutes but we both managed at least 15 minutes.

Julie getting covered in sandStaff shovelling sand over Julie

Taking a sand bathBuried up to our necks! You wrap a small towel around your head to protect your head and neck from the heat

Andrew getting out of the sandAndrew escaping from under the sand

After wriggling our way out we made our way back up to the onsen building to rinse the sand out of all the places it had worked its way into. The sand bath was a fun and unique experience and left our skin feeling thoroughly cleansed.