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Are you planning to make excursions to Etna? After a long period of uncertainty, this has again become possible, even though with certain limits, but in any case the new regulations (declared by the Prefect of Catania in early June 2003) are much clearer than their predecessors. These regulations leave much more freedom to visitors than the previous decree of mid-April 2003. As of mid-October it seems that an important shift of the decisional power from the Prefect of Catania to the Etna Natural Park is due shortly. Local newspapers indicate that this will lead to a further relaxation to the access limitations imposed previously. More detail is provided at the end of this page ("A brighter future?").

As of mid-October 2003, everybody is free to climb, alone or with anyone else, up to 2500 m elevation on the southern flank (that is, more or less to the place where there was until 2001 the arrival station of the cable car), and about 2700 m on the northern flank (Piano delle Concazze - Pizzi Deneri). This means that the lower craters of the 2001 eruption (at about 2100 m elevation on the southern flank) and the spectacular eruptive fissure of October-November 2002 (above Piano Provenzana on the northern flank) can be freely visited.

Access to 2900 m elevation (the site of the Torre del Filosofo mountain hut, now deeply buried under pyroclastics of the latest eruption, but partly excavated in early July 2003) is allowed if visitors travel in four-wheel buses and are accompanied by an authorized mountain guide. Such guided tours (the cost is 39 Euro) include a visit to the newly formed craters immediately to the south of the Torre del Filosofo site, which is absolutely spectacular, and a stop at the "Belvedere" lookout on the rim of the Valle del Bove. This area (above 2500 m elevation) may not be visited if not accompanied by a guide.

It is allowed to visit any spot above 2500 m, including the summit craters, in groups of up to 10 persons if accompanied by a guide. Prices for half-day excursions accompanied by a guide are 180 Euro, which, if the group consists of 10 people, is 18 Euro per person. If the group needs to be transported to the Torre del Filosofo area in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, an additional 200 Euro are due. Generally prices get lower the closer the number of participants is to ten.

Special permits are granted to persons who can somehow prove that they are "local experts" (this includes volcanologists, Etna passionates, and other people knowing the mountain very well); these are released by the Etna Natural Park direction.

The situation that visitors to Etna find in these days is that excursion business on the southern flank is fully functional, and is also resuming on the northern flank. Long sections of the access road to Piano Provenzana were buried by lava, and so far nothing else than a dirt road has been made to replace it, which can be driven on only with 4-wheel drive vehicles (however, the bureaucratic obstacles that have so far prevented the reconstruction of the road seem to have been surmounted as of 29 June 2003). Excursions in 4-wheel-drive buses have resumed in late June 2003. These start at about 1300 m elevation (at the "Chalet delle Ginestre") along the "Mareneve" road that leads from the town of Linguaglossa to the volcano. These excursions presently go up to Piano delle Concazze, at about 2700 m elevation, and include stops at the destroyed Piano Provenzana and the eruptive fissure that caused all the devastation at Piano Provenzana. The price is 38 Euro per person, and the trip is definitely worth this money, for it renders a comprehensive impression of the sites of the 2002 disaster, and furthermore provides an endless quantity of spectacular panoramic views over a landscape that is now even more varied than it was until 2002.

On the southern flank, the most impressive things to see are the new craters formed during the latest eruption, which nearly steal the show from the summit craters. To those who have been on Etna quite some time ago, but also those who knew the mountain well before this latest eruption, the view of the place as it is now is overwhelming. The area between the Montagnola (about 2650 m) and the summit craters, which was once called "Piano del Lago" (Plain of the Lake), is now a true mountain range, with the large cones formed during the eruptions of the summer of 2001 and the winter of 2002-2003. And if the 2001 cone seemed big, then the two new ones of the 2002-2003 eruption are simply enormous. At least if you look at them from the south, where they rise up to 200 m above the former surface level. Fortunately (to both visitors and tourist operators) on the upslope (northern) side, they can be accessed surprisingly easily, for the low rim of the upper of these two craters rises only about 10 m above the surrounding surface. Footpaths are already well established, and large numbers of tourists are guided to the haunting world of the craters, which are still giving off certain quantities of sulfur-charged gas, especially after heavy rainfalls.

I am not able to show here the prices of all hotels in the Etna region, but there are some web pages with such information - many, unfortunately, only in Italian. Much valuable information is available (in English) on the home page of the Provincial Tourism Board of Catania (Azienda Provinciale di Turismo), and promises "better organization of your vacation in Sicily", so give it a try.

Renting of a bus with a local driver (of an enterprise I have already involved) may cost something like 1000-2000 Euro for three days, depending on the distances covered. This is a good offer, some enterprises have much higher prices.

A brighter future? In recent weeks, local newspapers (e.g., "La Sicilia", 10 October 2003) report that a significant change concerning the regulations for excursions on Mount Etna is due in late October 2003. In fact, the competence for making decisions regarding access restrictions and regulations will be shifted from the Prefect of Catania to the Etna Natural Park. It is planned to replace the partially rigorous access restrictions released earlier in 2003 by increased information and a much wider range of freedom. According to "La Sicilia" (10 October 2003), information infrastructures and a much improved network of indications along excursion paths will be created. In this framework, the Council of the Etna Natural Park is collaborating with the Civil Protection, the Forest Guard Agency, and the administrations of the towns around the volcano. One of the most significant details is that access to the summit area will no longer be limited. "There will be no conditions and no limits in terms of altitude for access to the volcano", the president of the Etna Natural Park, Concetto Bellia is cited. "The Park will not prohibit hikers from going to the summit area, although access is recommended only within the areas with well-recognizable and signed footpaths (up to about 2900 m altitude), while access is not recommended where there are no footpaths and access is dangerous due to the volcanic activity. In any case", continues Bellia, "nothing will prohibit expert hikers from reaching the summit, but in those cases the hikers will be asked to inform the Coordination Presidencies (which have their seats at the Rifugio Sapienza on the Nicolosi side, and at the Chalet delle Ginestre, on the Linguaglossa side) about the targets of the excursion, the planned itinerary, and the approximate time scheduled for the hike. At the same time, information systems, sign posts, and the footpaths themselves will be significally amplified, in order to grant major safety."

In another news note distributed on 9 October, it was reported that a decision will be made whether access to the Etna Natural Park will be possible only by paying a ticket. This is believed to help in improving and maintaining receptive structures (mountain huts), extend the network of hiking paths and sign posts as well as establishing information centers.

Last but not least it should be mentioned that rapid reconstruction work is under way on the southern flank, and it is planned to have the Etna cable car back running by the spring of 2004. At the same time, reconstruction in the Piano Provenzana area on the northeastern flank is proceeding slowly, mostly because so far not a single cent of the emergency funds have arrived there. Recently, the European Union has decided to grant about 16 million Euro (which is a bit more in US$) to aid the communities stricken by the events related to the 2002-2003 eruption of Mount Etna. This sum stands in stark contrast with the estimated amount of damage, which exceeds 800 million Euro. The swift reconstruction on the southern flank is possible because the emergency funds for the damage caused by the previous eruption in 2001 have arrived in the meantime. That eruption affected the Nicolosi (south flank) area, but not that of Linguaglossa on the northeastern flank. Ironic as this might seem, but presently the fact to have been stricken by two eruptions rather than by only the most recent one proves an advantage to the southern side.

If you are interested, contact me via e-mail at
[email protected] or at [email protected]

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