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,…