I think I have an obsession with volcanoes. One of my favorite (and hardest) runs I’ve ever done was around Mt. St. Helens (it took over eight hours). Two years ago, we went on vacation to Yellowstone and learned about the volcanic activity there in a wonderful guided tour, and just this month we went on a cruise in the Mediterranean that included not one, not two, but three volcanoes. I’m not even mentioning the fact that my current writing project centers around an ill-fated hike up the side of Mt. St. Helens. Some may think I’m a little obsessed. I’m not sure how this happened, but I have to admit, I’m amazed by the sheer power and earth-changing force of volcanoes. I find them infinitely interesting.
Seeing volcanoes, per se, wasn’t the purpose of our cruise, which was more focused on being in the Mediterranean during the summer than any single landmark, but one can barely think about the beauty of the southern coast of Europe without acknowledging the impact of volcanic activity.
We started our cruise from Piraeus, a port city outside Athens, Greece. From there we sailed to Santorini, an island in the Aegean Sea that is a remnant of the great Minoan Eruption over 3,600 years. Historians theorize that the eruption eliminated the Minoan civilization and gave birth to the legend of Atlantis, the lost city under the sea. What is left almost four millennia later are the stunning cliffside towns of Oia and Fira and a vast, deep lagoon as picturesque as any I’ve seen.
Oia as seen from Nea Kameni
The lagoon fills the caldera of the once-great volcano and measures 400 meters deep, which gives an idea of how massive the eruption must have been. I can only imagine the destructive power of the eruption given the size of the rock that had to be expelled to create this beautiful chain of islands in the Aegean Sea. All that remains today are the islands at the edge of the caldera and the emerging cone in the middle (the islands of Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni).
We took a small boat to Nea Kameni and hiked to the top for views of Oia and Fira from across the lagoon. From this amazing vista I snapped many photos of the whitewashed walls of the buildings that looked like they were carved into the top of the ragged coastline. Nea Kameni is uninhabited, but it has a treasure trove of volcanic information. Volcanologists have installed sensors at the top to keep tabs on the volcano, and even the layman can see evidence of its grumbling with fumeroles that emit a warm stream and sulfur-stained rocks that look like someone had spilled their banana milkshake on them.
The view atop Nea Kameni (also called New Burnt)
After a fun-filled day in Santorini and a brief stop in Kotor, Montenegro, we set sail for Sicily and a visit to Europe’s most-active volcano, Mt. Etna. Etna erupted for the first time over 500,000 years ago and has remained active since including very recently in March 2017.
We anchored in the port of Messina (near the point where Italy’s boot meets Sicily) and took a two-hour bus ride to Mt. Etna. We made it to about 2,000 meters up the 3,300-meter mountain before we pulled off at an obvious tourist stop and hiked around the Silvestri crater. The land and climate on Etna stood in sharp contrast to the crowded, hot streets of Messina. As far as the eyes could see were layers of black and burnt brown soil and a landscape broken up by swirls of ragged volcanic rock and verdant streaks. The temperature dropped about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) as well. The desolate and lonely landscape simmered atop the fierce power beneath our feet, which was both awe-inspiring and thrilling, if not a little scary.
Silvestri Crater on Mt. Etna
After enduring the bus ride back to Messina with a gaggle of loud pre-teens, we hopped back on the boat and headed to Naples. While Naples itself is exciting (they invented pizza here!), we took another bus ride (this one much shorter) to Pompeii to visit the city buried under volcanic ash. Mt. Vesuvius loomed overhead as we approached the ancient city giving its best Cheshire Cat grin in the gleaming sunlight. It had been almost 2,000 years since it unleashed its fury on the unsuspecting residents of Pompeii.
With summer sun bearing down on us, we followed our guide through the gates to the ancient city. What we found was much more than an archaeological dig, although there is plenty of that going on. The sprawling complex covers more than 170 acres and the uncovered portion reveals an amazing artifact of life back around 79 A.D. complete with a theater, bath houses, store fronts, and homes. We walked on the original cobblestone streets and ogled the intricate artwork on ceilings and floor tiles all within the shadow of Vesuvius.
The ruins of Pompeii (the museum in the top right was built on top of the ruins before the excavation, which gives an idea of how much has been excavated).
After Pompeii we bid farewell to the European volcanoes and boarded our ship to our final port in Barcelona. We were able to learn more details about a history that was vaguely familiar to us, but most importantly, we were able to see firsthand the awesome earth-changing power of volcanoes. Now, I just have to finish my novel that features a certain North American volcano. Someday. Hopefully before it erupts again…