Sunday, July 10, 2016

Exploring an active volcano in Etna, Sicily

We visited Sicily in May 2016.

Snow, Volcanic ash, fumes, and the sky


Taormina and Palermo are the main touristic cities in Sicily. As our primary target this time was to explore Mount Etna - the largest active volcano in Europe, we decided to stay in Taormina from where you can easily make a day trip to Mount Etna.

Taormina


Taormina is a beautiful city on the Mediterranean cost in Sicily. It has all the "old world" of Italian cities. The city itself is quite small, and you can easily walk around most of the attractions. The primary attraction has to be the Ancient Theatre ruins (bellow):


Taormina ancient ruins panorama


While the ruins are by no means as impressive as say the Colosseum, the Mediterranean coast and mountains in the background make for the perfect panorama shot. From Taormina downtown, just follow the 'Theatre' signs; and you will be there in no time.



Taormina downtown is basically a very long street, with shops, cafes, on both sides of the street; and cobbled stairs leading to even more shops and restaurants in the vicinity. Do not forget to try the 'Tomato Bruschetta' and / or pistachio ice-cream (both of which seem to be very much the local favorites) in any of the cafes here.

For the shopping enthusiasts, do not be fooled by size of the city - you can easily find many local and global luxury brands in the alleyways.


The "painted" stairs


At night, the city transforms itself into the idyllic seaside resort with live music and the delicious aroma of seafood wafting in the air.


Taormina centre clock tower at night
Taormina night life


Isola Bella,  Castelmola and Giardini Naxos


There are many interesting places to explore in the vicinity of Taormina. And, the best way to explore them is to take one of the Hop-on / Hop-Off buses which cover all the 3 attractions mentioned below, namely Isola Bella,  Castelmola and Giardini Naxos.

Isola Bella


Isola Bella (aka The Pearl of the Ionian Sea) is a beautiful island located slightly outside Taormina. As you can see from the pic below, it is unique in that there is a walkway (slightly below water) connecting the beach to the island. There is a small natural reserve on the island - which you easily explore in 30 mins or so. It is still a very nice experience to wade through water to the island, and definitely recommended!!


Isola Bella (Isole Borromee) island


There are resorts / hotels on the beach and you can also stay on the beach if you so wish; but it is clearly not the most happening place during evening :) - and you will most likely end up in Taormina centre anyway.

There is also a cable car connecting Taormina centre to Isola Bella, however you are better off taking the Hop-on / Hop-off bus as the cable car is nothing spectacular and the bus will allow you to cover more at less price.


Another view of the very beautiful island - Isola Bella

Castelmola


Castelmola is a charming village on the outskirts of Taormina. The village is about 1800 ft. above sea level, so be ready for a 30 mins bus ride over winding roads. However, once you reach the top, the panoramic views are absolutely spectacular  - check out the pics below. There are also quite a few cafes and souvenir shops nearby where you can relax and enjoy the view at your leisure.


Taormina panorama from Castelmola
View from the Ancient Ruins Theatre in Toarmina

Giardini Naxos


Giardini Naxos is a coastal town neighboring Taormina where most cruise ships dock in Sicily. It is a good place to take a break, have lunch at one of the many amazing restaurants on the coast, and enjoy the sea view.


Giardini Naxos cruise terminal
Giardini Naxos coast



Mount Etna


Mount Etna is famous as the largest active volcano in Europe. And, we would definitely recommend this place / activity as one of those "things to do before you die". A day trip is sufficient in our opinion. We booked the following trip "Mount Etna Day Trip from Taormina" (link). As we were staying in Taormina, this was ideal for us.

The trip can be divided into 3 stages: First is the bus trip from Taormina to the Mount Etna cable car station. The cable car station (shown below) has car parking, cafes, souvenir shops, and rest rooms.




The second phase consists of a cable car ride to a stop high up in the mountains. Below, is a shot from the cable car terminal (at the top).




The third phase consists of a bus ride to the absolute top of the mountains. Below, you can see the bus going through the "fuming" mountain path,


On the way to the top of Mount Etna


Note that the buses are not tour company specific, and they are the same irrespective of whichever tour you have booked. The buses are included if you have paid for the cable car. Otherwise, it is possible to book the bus and / or cable car separately; for people who might be interested in hiking parts of the trip - yes, it is possible to cover most of it by hiking if you feel sufficiently motivated and energetic :)

It is an extraordinary experience once you reach the top of the mountain. The pervasive black volcanic ash (you can still see fumes at many places) gives the landscape an almost extra-terrestrial feeling!!

At the top (after getting off the bus), it is safe and easy to walk around yourself. In fact, we were promised a guide as part of our tour. However, we could not find anyone at the top, so we started exploring ourselves. There are huge craters and black ash everywhere you look, so just start walking in the direction you like - you cannot get lost. There are also some guided paths to a few craters.


Exploring Mount Etna - amidst the volcanic ash


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