HOW TO GUIDE: DIY CYCLING UP MT ETNA
For many, cycling in Italy would bring a few classic visions to mind: cruising the rolling hills of Tuscany with a wicker basket at the handlebars, stopping occasionally to sample a tipple of local vino. Or perhaps it conjures images of pedalling up towards the snowy spikes of the Dolomite mountains followed by that rush of adrenaline as you speed back down. Both of these ventures are spectacular, but for something a bit different, try riding up the largest active volcano in Europe - the Mighty Mount Etna.
When we decided to give it a go, we found it a bit of a challenge to find information on the best route to take, or where to begin. Often times when searching online for cycling routes, search engines come back stacked with results about paid guided tours, and little to no 'how to' guides for the DIY cycler. We dropped in at a few tourist centres, some said "just ride up" and others said it wasn't possible to do alone. With such a confusing start, we thought we would write our own little 'how to guide' for travellers like us. This is definitely not the only way to do it, just the way we managed and loved.
Etna is huge. It seems like an obvious and redundant statement, but we honestly didn't truly grasp its expanse until we got there. As we drove towards our starting point, our world turned black and dry and Mordor-esque. It got more desolate and strange as we climbed higher - as though entering a different planet. The landscape was all giant lumps of coal, sprinkled with the occasional cluster of wildflowers in shades of red and pink as though echoing the lava that had once rolled its way downwards. We arrived at Rifugio Sapienza mesmerised by the eerie quiet of blackness.
Rifugio Sapienza is a refuge set up on the southern slope of Mt Etna. It is one of the main starting points for exploring the volcano. Here you will find some restaurants, cafes and a plethora of guided options for travelling up Etna on foot (note you will need an authorised guide to travel above 2900m). There are also some cable cars that will drop you off at various points up the mountain for those short on time or not keen on a hike. You can easily drive up to the refuge, and park in any one of the large car parks. It's also a pretty famous and challenging road climb to get to this point (in fact, Aussie comedian Hamish Blake made a hilarious video of his experience doing a similar climb, watch here). We chose to drive up here as we knew the remainder of our journey would be challenging. From the refuge, all paved roads disappear and the path upwards becomes purely for off-road vehicles. Leave your road bike at home, you will need some tires with grit to manage the rocky gravel of the path. We were lucky to have our RadRhino fat bikes which made easy work of the terrain.
It's quite simple to find the starting point of the route - just look for where the authorised off-road vehicles are going up and down, and follow their dust (they kind of look like giant moon buggies). The volcanic trail looms upwards from here. You travel along the same road as they do, as do the keen hikers who have chosen to do various parts of the journey on foot. We found the cycle to be an absolute challenge but unlike anything we've ever done before.
The journey up the mountain is more or less entirely uphill on harsh volcanic gravel, making for a strenuous climb and an exhilarating trip home. There were very few people making the same trip as us, so for long stretches at a time we were entirely alone, which let us soak up the harsh expanse of the mountain. In the distance you can see the crater, puffing away, and for the longest time it feels like you're just climbing and climbing but getting nowhere. As you do get higher, however, the breeze will carry the clouds across the black landscape and engulf you completely. You'll get goosebumps and feel the mist on your skin. Then, just as quickly, the cloud will clear and you'll be able to see for miles, giving you an idea of just how big Etna is. Your destination is a refuge called Rifugio Protezione Civile - don't expect something like Sapienza, this is literally just a hut in the middle of nowhere with nobody around. There are absolutely breath-taking views from this point on the mountain and despite Etna being a massive tourist destination, you feel truly alone. You can park your bikes and just sit and watch the steam rise out of peak of the volcano, or take the short (excessively steep) hike up to Crateri Barbagallo.
The trip down is pretty self explanatory - turn around and let gravity take you home! It's still tricky to manage the slippery, rocky slopes and the patches of soft sand (Noni stacked it more than once, but she's more uncoordinated than most people) but it's great fun after the gruelling ride up. Once at the bottom we stood looking back at the trek we'd undertaken, completely in awe of nature. Mt Etna is 3,329m tall with a base circumference of about 150km, and even with a small eruption, she manages to cover cities more than 35km away with ash and lava. And we'd just cycled her.
Don't have your own bikes? There is a cycle rental service at Refuge Sapienza that rents out off-road eBikes.