Piano Provenzana - a requiem

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Piano Provenzana - a requiem (and a resurrection)

Piano Provenzana, only three weeks before its destruction
A view of Piano Provenzana and the Northeast Rift (partly in clouds), only three weeks before the 2002 eruption
(photo by Guy Ollivier, Tournon, France)

Photos of Piano Provenzana after the destruction are at the bottom of the page

Rarely since the destruction of numerous hotels and other tourist facilities on the upper southern flank in 1983 has an eruption of Mount Etna caused similar destruction as that of 2002-2003. Piano Provenzana, a verdant plain with hotels, restaurants, numerous souvenir shops, a ski school and several ski lifts has been virtually cancelled on the first day of that eruption, on 27 October 2002. Less known than the tourist complex on the southern flank (which also suffered from the same eruption), Piano Provenzana mostly attracted people from the surrounding areas rather than the masses of foreign tourists and thus suffered a certain disadvantage. This was in spite of the striking beauty of the place, a symphony of colors ranging from the perennial green of the pine forest named "Ragabo" to the multicolored lava fields of various age surrounding the nearby cone of Monte Nero. Tourists who only knew the touristic area on the southern flank, which is spectacular rather for the bleakness of its recent lava flows and pyroclastic cones, missed the other face of Etna, the sweet one, which gave an impression of eternity and peace. Piano Provenzana and the surrounding forest of Ragabo had not been invaded by lava flows for many centuries; eruptions on the Northeast Rift, which looms menacingly above the plain had occurred as recently as in 1911, 1923 and 1947 but their lava flows had taken a more westerly course, leaving Piano Provenzana and the forest unharmed.
Tourist facilities and a skiing area were constructed at Piano Provenzana during the late 1960s-early 1970s. The skiing area was popular among the local residents because lying on the northern flank of the volcano it received more snow than the one on the southern flank and the winter season lasted longer. Furthermore, the southern skiing area was more prone to receive tephra falls from the activity of the summit craters due to predominant wind directions.
Only once before 2002 was Piano Provenzana seriously affected by what can be called "the dark side" of Etna, at Christmas 1985. An earthquake along the Pernicana Fault (a few kilometers to the northeast of Piano Provenzana) destroyed the Hotel "Le Betulle", killing one person. That earthquake was accompanied by an eruption in the Valle del Bove which itself was very small and did no damage. "Le Betulle" was rebuilt following antiseismic construction standards and became the hub of the tourist business on Etna's northern flank. Those who took the chance to do guided excursions in jeeps to near the summit craters bought their tickets in that hotel; many of them later stopped to have lunch or dinner in the restaurant of the hotel.

I first came to Piano Provenzana and "Le Betulle" in 1999, and immediately fell in love with that place. During the following years numerous friendships evolved with the people working there, and I recall numerous evenings when returning from exhausting trips to the summit area of the volcano I found a marvellous beer waiting for me at "Le Betulle", one of the best things that can happen to me after an excursion to Etna. I recall a great number of walks in the beautiful forest around Piano Provenzana, always accompanied by the scent of the pine trees of the "Ragabo". I remember the multitude of volcanic forms and colors around Monte Nero, only about 2 km to the west of Piano Provenzana, and the feeling during all these moments was one of endless gratitude for having the chance to live them.

Yet an uneasy feeling sometimes crept into these sparkling sensations of beauty. Piano Provenzana and the "Ragabo" forest had not been invaded by lava flows since very long time, but like all of Etna, the terrain had once been created by lava flows. Lava flows which at their time had buried earlier forests, in a process of natural recycling which cyclically creates new ground for new forests and later destroys them to give space for yet another generation of vegetation.

Piano Provenzana is no longer that little paradise on the northern flank of Etna. On 27 October it was transformed into a vast plain of rugged lava flows that descended from new vents on the Northeast Rift, much closer to the place than the vents of previous eruptions. The buildings of the tourist complex were first destroyed by the strong seismicity which preceded and accompanied the opening of the eruptive fissure, and a few hours later devoured by the lava flows. Of all the structures that once invited the passing visitors only one remained standing, though severely damaged by the earthquakes: the restaurant "La Provenzana". All the people who had stayed at Piano Provenzana that night escaped with a last souvenir of terror and destruction. But what may have been a thrilling experience for those who only visited was the end of many years of effort to those who worked there.
On the first day of the eruption, the day when Piano Provenzana vanished from the face of Earth, there was already talk about reconstruction, and this has been repeated numerous times since then. But even if a new tourist station will be built in the same place, it will not be like its predecessor. It is not even sure that it will be rebuilt in the same place. At Piano Provenzana, like everywhere around Etna, the 2002 eruption has created a much greater awareness of the volcano, its activity, and its hazards. There are some who believe that the entire concept of tourism and excursionism at Etna has to be re-evaluated, and certainly this has something true to it. It is as if only now the public were recognizing that this is an active volcano whose eruptions represent a real threat to any man-made structures existing too close to it. For many decades Etna has lured its inhabitants with the image of a "benign" volcano, which it isn't and has never been, only that most eruptions of the second half of the 20th century were relatively harmless in comparison with many earlier eruptions.

The knowledge of Etna, the second most active volcano on Earth (after Kilauea, Hawaii), does not help one from feeling deep grief about the end of Piano Provenzana. Destruction would have come inevitably, sooner or later, and this will happen in other beautiful spots on the volcano. Like Piano Provenzana, all of these spots owe their existence to the volcano and its eruptions. Yet one tends to think "why didn't the eruption strike another, slightly less beautiful place?" And I think of those for whom Piano Provenzana was their life, their principal source of income. One day there will be a new tourist station on the northern flank, but it will not be anything like Piano Provenzana, beloved by those who knew it.

Note added in September 2004, nearly two years after the destruction:
Piano Provenzana is alive again. Compared to what it was until 27 October 2002, the new tourist station is quite humble, but the folks there are getting back to business and this is happy news. Maybe it is still more impressive to see that the folks working there have lost nothing of their kindness and affection, in spite of the tremendous blow they have suffered in 2002. To see how Piano Provenzana looks today, visit this page. And next time you come to Sicily, visit the real place. It is still extremely beautiful.

Scenes of devastation: this is what little remains of Piano Provenzana after being invaded by lava flows on 27 October 2002. Only one of the buildings (the restaurant "La Provenzana") has escaped burial by the lava, but it partially collapsed during the earthquakes that accompanied the beginning of the eruption, and later incandescent bombs from the nearby eruptive vents pierced its roof setting the building ablaze. Photos were taken on 19 November 2002 by Peter Hahn



Copyright © Boris Behncke, "Italy's Volcanoes: The Cradle of Volcanology"

Page set up on 15 November 2002, last modified on 17 September 2004
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