How to visit Italian volcanoes responsibly

Their fiery reputation may precede them, but Italy‘s volcanoes aren’t necessarily hard to visit. If you want to see the big three, Mount Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli (an island-volcano off the northern coast of Sicily), the most important thing to know is that they are all nature reserves and should be handled with care.

“The mission of each park is to preserve its biodiversity,” says Agostino Casillo, president of the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio (www.parconazinaledelvesuvio.it). “And to do that, you need to link conservation to human activity.”

After all, at around 20,000 acres, there’s more to Vesuvius than the cone. There are farms, vineyards, a medieval village (Casamale) and – Agostino’s favorite spot – the Cognoli di Ottaviano, a hike with panoramic views of the Valle dell’Inferno, the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius him -same. To savor it all, he recommends staying longer. “Tourism should focus on sustainability,” says Agostino. “Travelling tourism is damaging to the environment and does not benefit the community financially.”

Alberto Ciarallo agrees. As founder of Cognosci Tourist attractions, he organizes volcano hikes and helicopter tours of Etna and Stromboli, and suggests visitors spend the night on the latter. “It’s theatrical and unique, because the whole island is a volcano,” he says. “But it’s quite small and can get crowded with hikers.”

On Etna, Alberto suggests not only tackling the volcano itself, but also the surrounding countryside, with a ride on the 19th-century Ferrovia Circumetnea, a local railway line that skirts the foothills. It is also recommended to visit the vineyards producing increasingly popular Etna wines, such as Cotanera. Here, travelers can tour the steep terraced vineyards at the foot of the volcano before a wine tasting session with superb home cooking.

If you go to the Gran Cono, or crater, from Mount Vesuviusit is best to approach it from Ercolano (Herculaneum), explains Mario Riccardi, a Campania guide with a local cooperative Gaia. You can get there by bus from the city’s Circumvesuviana train station (note that there are no restrooms once you head into the crater). Buses will take you up the volcano to an elevation of about 3,200 feet, from where a zigzag trail will take you to the crater, about 1,000 feet higher.

On Stromboli, it’s all about eruptions, which happen about every 20-30 minutes. Tours depart a few hours before sunset and return after dark, but to get there responsibly you need a guide who knows the weather conditions, as well as the volcano, so that can warn of impending explosions or tsunamis. This expert assistance can help travelers place the island in its geological and political context. “Tourists return home changed if they understand Stromboli,” says Adriano Di Pietro, a volcanologist guide with Magmatrek. Guides can also take you higher – visitors can hike up to 950 feet alone, but can reach 1,300 feet with a guide.

So when is the best time to go? Mario Riccardi says any clear day is good for Vesuvius, but watch out for storms – the volcano is closed if there is a chance of lightning. Alberto Ciarella advises late spring and late September for Stromboli and Etna as the former is busy in summer, while there can be snow on Etna until May. “Spring offers carpets of wildflowers and the drama of melting snow, with bright blue skies and glistening sea views,” he says. But make sure you don’t leave your visit to Stromboli until the end of the year. “It is almost impossible to reach the island in winter,” explains Adriano Di Pietro.

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