Monday, August 23, 2004

Under the Volcano

Actually, we were ATOP the volcano. Mt Etna, that is, the largest active volcano in Europe. I will be living on the slopes of it soon, in a village where the last lava flow stopped just a few kilometers shy.

To reach the top, you must drive up about 2000 meters to the Refugio Sapienza, the location where all excursions to the top originate. It consists of several restaurants, gift shops, the cable car, and ticket office. Groups are taken to the top either by 4-wheel drive buses or a combination of cable car and then bus to the highest point possible. The volcano is 3323 meters high (that's over two miles!).

Kendra was put in a bad mood because she had to give up her sandals and rent socks and hiking boots from non-helpful Italians. (The non-helpful is what caused the mood.) The bus ride was about half an hour long but seemed like five hours because it was nothing but bouncing and jouncing and you could just feel your vertebrae crashing together. It seemed there were no shocks or springs on these buses. The road itself was a series of sharp switchbacks through barren wastelands of lava--some sandy and some chunky. Since the explosions of 2002-03 wiped out the road, it has just recently been reopened in its current crude state.

Luckily we were smart enough to bring jackets, because it was cold and windy up there, unlike the 90+ degrees down below. Once at the top, we hiked about an hour all told and peered into the two live craters from which the eruptions of 2002-03 came. Both are still smoking and hot. The ground we walked on was very warm, and some small holes were dug for us to feel the 300+ degrees inside. It was eerie and awesome at the same time--like being on the moon. The lava rocks were many different colors, depending on the minerals they contained (i.e. copper, iron, sulpher). The strong wind blew the lava sand all around, stinging any exposed skin and getting in our hair and on our clothes. Shoes and socks were pretty black by the end of the trek. Our Italian guide made sure to tell us in English what he told the rest of the group.

We were lucky to only have to ride the bus partway down the volcano and then catch the gondola (lift), which was much, much smoother and nicer. Pizza and beer were the order of the day when we got to the bottom.

I don't know that I feel any safer or less safe about my choice of houses now. Apparently they have lots of warning before any action from the volcano and they can also divert the slow lava flow somewhat. On the other hand, it IS a volcano, and a darn big one. It takes out whatever is in its path, which we could easily see on our ride up and down. Nothing is safe.

If you are interested, there's plenty on the internet. This is one site I like. It's partially in English, partially in Italian.


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