Icelandic volcano Fimmvörðuháls erupting against the Northern Lights in February
Volcanoes are magnetic. They are unpredictable, exciting and unknowable. They link us to the far past and to an unimaginably disturbing future. Many are thrillingly active, and as I write these words a new volcanic vent will be appearing, somewhere. As it does, and the news spreads, people will head there—volcanologists certainly but also intrepid and inquisitive travellers, many laden with expensive gear to capture the moment.
Volcanic beauty can take many forms. The eerie turquoise-coloured sulphur lake, at the heart of Costa Rica’s most visited volcano, Poas, emerges from a warm, damp blanket of rainforest. The first volcano I visited, Poas hardly looked a candidate for eruption. Yet it had been active in 1954, little more than 30 years earlier, and will, no doubt, show signs of life again in the future.
Two years ago, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, covering large areas or northern Europe in clouds of ash and causing international air travel to grind to a halt. Along with thousands of others, I was left stranded—but working, appropriately enough, on a cultural history of Vesuvius. My week’s stay with Cypriot friends extended to a fortnight, while in Iceland an estimated 100,000 people (nearly a third of the population) went to marvel at the latest volcanic action. This was first-hand evidence of a universal truth: the disruptive but awe-inspiring power of volcanoes. An erupting volcano is like a blank slate, a place on which to inscribe feelings of vulnerability, wonder and sheer terror.
But there are other, quieter pleasures to be found in volcanic regions. Turbulent geology leads to curious juxtapositions: you can take a hot mineral bath in Japan with the rocks edging up against the outdoor, natural pools covered with snow. There are hot spas in Turkey and Chile, both seismically highly active areas. Fortunately the Roman spa waters of Bath can be experienced without any chance of disturbance, and for the traveller doggedly determined to avoid the unexpected, there’s a nightly “volcanic” episode, with zero risk, on the hour every hour, at a Las Vegas hotel. Just to intensify the impression, the promoters recently added authentic recorded sound effects.
For the dedicated volcano watcher nearer home, the geology of southern Italy offers dependable natural son et lumière shows at Etna and Stromboli. At the latter, lumps of lava continually tumble straight into the sea, fizzing like chips thrown into boiling oil. The Sicilian volcano in action is mesmerising and relatively accessible, and not without its dangers, but Iceland offers the greatest theatrical effects. Recently a British photographer managed to immortalise Fimmvörðuháls erupting against the Northern Lights (above); it was, he said, “a dream come true.” Around the world scores of websites detail every spasm of volcanic activity. A dozen or so episodes were recorded in the first two months of 2012 alone. The challenge for the dedicated volcanic tourist is to get there in time—as well as back safely.
But the volcano we Europeans are most familiar with is Vesuvius—the only active one on the mainland. It’s drawn an almost continuous stream of visitors since the 17th century. At a halfway house en route, tourists would leave their transport and weaker friends and proceed on foot. By the time Dickens arrived there in 1845, the place was a tourist trap, with so-called monks offering expensive refreshments and quarrelsome, avaricious locals selling their services. From there on, tourists were at the mercy of the guides who helped them across treacherous lava flows (if there had been a recent eruption) and then pulled them up the precipitous final stretch to the cone, attached to one another by leather straps. Arriving at the lip of the crater, the visitors, on occasion even intrepid women, had one more test ahead: the descent, if conditions allowed, into the steaming depths.
It was this very danger that appealed. Vesuvius performed regularly from the mid 18th to the early 20th century. Reading of a new eruption in the press, intrepid Victorians hurried south by ferries and trains but all too often arrived to find the lava cold and the action over. After my book was published last year I received two letters from men now in their nineties, British servicemen who had witnessed the astonishing events overnight on the 18th and 19th of March, 1944, when the volcano last erupted and destroyed nearby villages.
To gain a real sense of what is going on, geologically speaking, visitors should head for the Solfatara—a volcanic caldera (a shallow basin caused by collapsed land following an eruption) closer to Naples that smells and looks like Hades might. The ground is mostly eye-splitting acidic yellow and the air a fug of sulphurous mist, steaming up out of the ground beneath your feet, providing sustainable underfloor heating. Nature here is as operatic as it gets.
In contrast, Vesuvius itself emits nothing more than a wisp of sulphurous smoke, like the exhaust from a Vespa. It is deeply somnolent but not moribund. The guides are as persistent and intrusive as ever in its history, springing to life after the ticketed entry point off the car park and dictating how far you may venture (in general, not far). On my most recent visit, two years ago, the place had the jaded air of a 1950s tourist attraction, charmingly vintage in the case of the shop and café, but less so with the ranks of portable lavatories, unconvincingly disguised by garish photographic posters of the volcano on a good day.
But at a distance, glimpsed from the plane windows as you are circling over Naples or looming over Pompeii or Herculaneum, you can’t avoid the potency of Vesuvius; the continued sense of silent menace allied to its seductive beauty, changing through lavender to dun according to light, season and mood. Living so close to it and with no evidence of its vitality, Neapolitans have become increasingly blasé about the volcano. The memory of 1944 is fading with the last of a generation. Development on its flanks, despite financial inducements not to do so, continues—a deadly game of grandmother’s footsteps, as the local population creeps up behind the monster and dares it to turn.
Risk has always been an essential ingredient in volcano watching. Vesuvius may have lost the power to scare those who live there or to attract those who long to see it spurt fire once more. But for the intrepid traveller, there is always another continent, another active volcano to be visited.