How to responsibly visit Italy’s volcanoes

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

“The mission of any park is to preserve its biodiversity,” says Agostino Casillo, President of the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio (www.parconazionaledelvesuvio.it). “And to do that, you have to combine nature conservation with human activity.”

After all, there is more than just the cone of Vesuvius on around 20,000 hectares. There are farms, vineyards, a medieval village (Casamale) and – Agostino’s favorite place – the Cognoli di Ottaviano, a hike with panoramic views over the Valle dell’Inferno, the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius itself. To savor it all, he recommends to stay longer. “Tourism must focus on sustainability,” says Agostino. “Hit-and-run tourism is bad for the environment and doesn’t benefit the community financially.”

Alberto Ciarallo agrees. As the founder of Cognoscenti Travel, he organizes volcano hikes and helicopter tours over Mount Etna and Stromboli, and recommends visitors to stay overnight 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 tackling not just the volcano itself, but the surrounding countryside, and taking a ride on the 19th-century Ferrovia Circumetnea, a local railway line that snakes around the foothills. A visit to the vineyards that produce increasingly popular Etna wines such as the Cottanera is also recommended. Here travelers can view the steeply terraced vines at the base of the volcano before enjoying a wine tasting accompanied by excellent home-cooked food.

If you are going to the Gran Cono or Crater of vesuvius, it’s best reached from Ercolano (Herculaneum), says Mario Riccardi, a Campania guide for the local Gaia cooperative. You can reach it by bus from the city’s Circumvesuviana train station (note that there are no restrooms if you head to the crater). Buses take you up the volcano to an elevation of about 3,200 feet, from where a zigzag path takes you to the crater, which is about 1,000 feet higher.

On Stromboli, is all about the eruptions that happen about every 20 to 30 minutes. Tours leave a few hours before sunset and return after dark, but to travel responsibly you need a guide who knows the weather conditions, as well as those of the volcano, so they can warn of impending explosions or tsunamis. This expert assistance can help travelers put the island in geological and political context. “Tourists go home changed when they understand Stromboli,” says Adriano Di Pietro, a volcanologist at Magmatrek. Guides can also take you higher – visitors can hike up to 300m alone, but can hike up to 400m with a guide.

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

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