- - "Sicilian Gravelava": Riding the Ashes of Etna Volcano

“Sicilian Gravelava”: Riding the Ashes of Etna Volcano

photography and video by Marc Gasch, words by Kim Van Dijk

We have arrived on Sicily, Sicilia, also named Trinakria, the island that gets kicked by the boot that is the Italian mainland. An island famous of its delicious Cannoli’s, Marsala wines, and for the main reason we visit it: the Etna volcano.

All week we have been refreshing our weather updates for our 3 day trip to Sicily. Unfortunately it never changed: rain, rain, rain. A team of 4 of us decided to get together in the middle of November, a foreign invasion of Sicily. All prepared for what would come. More fear for the weather than for Mt. Etna. But fear for both is warranted to go up 3.330 m to the top of the Etna, Europe’s most active Volcano.

Our plan is to cycle around it in 3 days, but also trying to get a peek into the crater if the weather conditions will let us. We have a route in mind that will guide us up and down the mountain each day to show us every side of its beauty…let the exploration begin! As the name of the bike says, we ‘Exploro’ the best ways to have the most beautiful routes and options to see, and get the best out of being on the bike. The Etna volcano is located on the North-East of the Island.

We come together in one of Italy’s recommended Agriturismo’s, our ‘base-camp’. “Agriturismo” is synonymous with free time spent in the open air, at one with nature, immersed in a social-rural environment abounding in culture, authentic traditions, and quality agricultural food products. Lovely places to stay, for a good price. Agriturismo Casale Poggio del Tiglio is where we leave from on the first day and return to the last day.


We slowly meander up the mountain following a huge truck carrying gigantic olive trees, into Zafferana (1240m) where we start the official route. Every time the trees hit the illegal telephone or electric wire they get a haircut. This interesting and funny start of the trip distracts us for a while till we all see: the first snow at the top of the volcano! Amazing! Zafferana, a town just missed by Etna’s eruption in 1993 that almost engulfed the whole town. It has a lovely marketplace near the Chiesa Maria SS.della Provvidenza Church. A wonderful place to refill bottles, take some food and adjust clothing for what’s coming up next. We ready ourselves for a long, long climb… 

Over 19 km climbing on asphalt, an average of 6.8% going from Zafferana to Rifugio Giovanni Sapienze. Beautiful roads lead us on from the East, clockwise to the West around Etna. The amazing views of nature, green and wet and showing the side of the volcano that hasn’t been touched by Etna’s hand for a while. We first seem to be in a kind of rainforest, then the temperature starts dropping and the environment starts changing dramatically.

As you can understand when a volcano erupts, the lightest parts take to the air and fall far away from the crater. The heavier the parts you see, the closer you know you are to its crater. The beautiful colours of the autumn trees against the black colour of the mountain. Amazing. Every kilometre we climb the lava paths shows the way the lava rivers have been streaming…Getting higher and higher and we just zig-zag on the asphalt road between nothing else but lava. Impressive!

Almost 600 meters higher and 12 degrees colder, we have reached the first crater: Crateri Silverstri. Its Bar provided us a warm fire place, a hot chocolate and some lovely snacks. It was quite foggy so not much of a view at the moment. After a quick stop we go on because we have seen an interesting gravel climb on the map. We try but it’s very loose surface and really steep!

We meet a Mountain guide who tells us it would be better to take the ski lift up! And go down by bike… Normally we may not have listened but hey, our trips are about the freedom to explore anyway so we had to the Rifugio Giovanni Sapienze Ski lift. For the price of €24 you can go up, probably as often as you want that day, with the bikes on the outside mount. From 1.900 m to 2500 m altitude in just 4 minutes! Snow!

Our wish to cycle up from this place (Bar Etna) to get a peek in the crater gets disturbed by heavy snow and wind. Most of the daylight has passed now and we still need to get to our Agriturismo called Corte Aragonese, close to Santa Maria di Licodia. That makes us do a ‘moon-ish’ downhill. Going down 600 meters, in foggy, wet, cold moonscape black conditions: Epic Etna moments! That’s a wrap for day 1!


If you ask us to describe this second day we can write pages full! What an epic day! For me (Kim), as a roadie, I got pulled out of my comfort zone today as much as I ever have. We start from the Agriturismo where we look for the route we have in mind. Knowing it was a long downhill yesterday night to get here, it will be climbing from the start. Heavy rain is coming down, happy we could just start with dry shoes and kit.

Waves of rain coming down from the hills and we start our way clockwise around Etna and finish in the North-East in Linguaglossa. When you take the SS284 it seems the best route to get around the cities Biancavilla and Adrano!  Once you hit the “green” you know you are in Etna’s fertile soil area. Beautiful, the contrast we see between the darkness of the ground and lava dust and the bright colours of the small plants and flowers. Even the sun makes an appearance and we get spoiled by a wonderful rainbow…

Waterfietsen! That’s what comes to mind for a Dutch girl like me, the pedal boats that roam the canals of Amsterdam and many other places in the Netherlands. The heavy rainfall had made a stretch of the road flood. I didn’t feel confident enough to go through the BB-high water. Therefore I decided to be smarter and walk along the edge of a wall. After some meters the bike and the stuff we take starts to tip over, but luckily my hero of the day comes and saves me from falling down straight into the deep water below just in time.

After the impromptu ‘bath’  we are rewarded with a pretty steep climb of about 4 km and a 7.8% average. The road suddenly turns into a fantastic gravel path. We cycle on a dual-track path in between two lava-stone walls and while climbing up we are riding along the ‘Circumetnea’ Railway. This train, which goes around Etna, dates back to 1895. The 110 km long route climbs up the slopes of the volcano showing its passengers on board the beautiful scenery of Mount Etna, its citrus orchards, valleys and streams, lava flows, small towns and breath-taking countryside.

We approach the official signs riding into Parco dell’Etna. Again pretty steep climbing, starting on asphalt but at one moment, when we have seen percentages of 15% for a while, we climb into the forest. The gravel riding is back and the nature and fertile soils treat us with the fantastic colours that this area brings.

Lava dust slowly turns into lava pebbles, and getting closer to the crater. We have only been riding gravel for a few km’s… and then there was light! Whilst we exit the forest almost being at the highest point we will ride that day, it looks like we have landed on the moon again. Everything around us is lava. We see multiple smaller kraters and decide to take a loop around one, because we don’t want to be home in the dark again. We finally see the top of the Etna again and Marc takes photos of the most beautiful scenery.  

There is a bizarre 2 meter high lava tsunami wall that shows the differences of the two worlds: one moonscape and the other more foresty. Because of all the rain we’ve  already had we got spoiled with this amazing view of the Etna all covered in snow and a beautiful rainbow.

As a roadie I’m most at ease on asphalt but the downhill we have after our small photo moment is a breathtaking wonderfully curvy descent. All the boys love it as much as I do!

We were all hungry and could feel the legs, and because of the quietness we thought we would see no food until our next Agriturismo. But suddenly, when you least expect it, there is this wonderfully amazing place: Rifugio Piano Dei Grilli! Wow, this is again the best thing that could happen to us today: a warm fire place, good pasta, everything is possible! This place is run by volunteers who escape the busy city of Catania and have a quiet and peaceful weekend helping travelers. We proceed on our way with almost only downhills towards our second Agriturismo in Linguaglossa. Beautiful downhills, but lots and lots of rain that makes us want to rush and get to a warm shower quickly. Some sheep on the road add some pleasant variety as the night is closing in. We get a phone call of the home owner where we stay because it’s raining hard and there is even lighting and thunderstorms in the now pitch dark night. We finally arrive, after the best gravel day I have ever had in my life.


Sitting at the breakfast table, the misty sky makes room for the sun and the wonderful architecture of this Agriturismo Valle Galfina. Today is a short route from Linguaglossa back to ‘Base-camp’ in Zafferana, so that we can still catch our flights tonight.

We start with blue skies and nice views, and directly from start we get this great climb, winding up the mountain, corner by corner, 23 kilometers with an average of 5.1%, so we keep spinning the legs. Strange how cycling with these Apidura bags filled with all the stuff we need for the 3 days doesn’t feel like a ‘load’. On day 2 you know exactly where to put what and I never had the feeling I am not a roadie anymore.

“Come Josephine in my flying machine going up she goes, up she goes”…. The last trees and more and more we come on the North-East side of the Etna, the side that seems to have had the most recent eruption. At the beginning of this trip all lava was overgrown by moss and plants, then later on the lava has that greyish look. Here everything is Black. We even had difficulties finding Marc when he was shooting photos wearing his black kit in the black lava landscape.

We have to choose between two routes now, one going down easily and the other one, requiring about 400 m more climbing but offering a bar along the way! Fresh drinks and food were already really needed, and we really wanted to take it to the top. Sprinting the last meters, as we count down the meters to the top that are painted on the road.

And there it was: Rifugio Citelle Etna 1741m… Coffee and Cake! But, CLOSED for restoration just that week! Nooooooooo. Bad luck this time. Quick granola bar from our pockets and down we go.

Finally an asphalt downhill! Now my skills and what I like most and been riding all this way up for comes true: nice corners, not to steep, just under 7% down on average. The rain and humid air give us less of a view…but I love every corner! Every straight bit you let it roll and what a control you have on this bike! Loving the disc brakes that gives way more control than riding with rim brakes in the rain, and also these WTB Horizon tires (big “mountain bike” volume but smooth “road” treads) have been perfect on every surface I have been riding on these days. Even going downhill with my three bikepacking bags doesn’t bother me at all. It’s if there not even there.

It’s a wrap! Returning in Zafferana before darkness on this shorter day today allow us to look back on an amazing trip. Beautiful scenes, and although there was a lot of heavy rain, no one was complaining or even bothered about the weather because this beautiful landscapes gave us back so much more…




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