The “Mountain of Fire”: Mount Etna

Mount Vesuvius may be Italy's most famous volcano, its place in the annals of history guaranteed with the destruction—and, more importantly, preservation—of the Roman town of Pompeii in 79 A.D. Vesuvius looms over one of the most densely populated stretches of coastline near Naples, and is generally viewed as a benign giant, quietly venting steam and smoke and ultimately fated to erupt again. The King of the Bay of Naples is your neighbor who keeps a friendly but unpredictable watch dog chained in his yard.

mt-etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Mount Etna, on the other hand, is your neighbor who has a pack of snarling, howling beasts roaming the streets, terrorizing the neighborhood and posing a constant threat of death and destruction. This lively volcano on the east coast of Sicily between the cities of Catania and Messina is the largest in Europe, and one of the most active in the world, a hulking yet dramatically beautiful mountain in a constant state of eruption. From belches of gas, bursts of steam, to full-on lava flows, Etna makes no bones about its danger to the millions of residents who live at its foot and the thousands of tourists who visit the hissing craters at its summit each year.

etna-cr-brian-dore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We were among these brave visitors on a recent trip to Sicily, and despite the adrenaline-pumping sense of standing on a ticking time bomb—or, perhaps, because of it—found it to be an unforgettable adventure. The history of this volcano that has been active for more than 500,000 years is written in the landscape. Fertile stretches of volcanic soil cover the lower slopes of the mountain and the sweeping Catanian Plain to the south, and the land is planted with lush vineyards producing Etna DOC wines made with Nerello, Carricante, and Catarratto grapes, and citrus orchards growing Sicily's famed blood oranges. As you climb from the valley floor, farmland gradually gives way to thick woods and wild brush covering some of the oldest lava flows, until the land turns black. Here, the destructive power of the volcano is apparent in the swallowed homes and barren moonscape of dark lava pebbles that stretches across the upper slopes.

house-lava-flow-mt-etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

From the Sapienza refuge base camp, visitors can take an aging but efficient cable car to the summit, where the views are spectacular. “Moon buses” transport passengers up the steep stretch to the cone, a fun but white-knuckle drive. At the top, we explored the trails covered in hardened lava that was still warm to the touch in certain spots, saw the steaming calderas and craters, and learned about the most important eruptions over the centuries and the flora unique to Etna's volcanic micro-climate from our expert guide. Though we enjoy touring with a guide in general, we found it especially helpful and informative on Etna, where there is very little signage (or handrails and other safety precautions, for that matter!) to explain the history and geology of this fascinating mountain.

etna-cr-brian-dore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We were surprised by how many visitors there were on the summit, but Etna has been a popular attraction for adventurous tourists for decades and the crowds continue to increase each year. This poses a certain risk, as the growing number of people exploring the summit has led to a spate of injuries in recent years, most notably in March, when a BBC crew filming the volcano were caught in a shower of boiling rocks caused by an explosion of lava mixed with snow in a crater on the south-eastern side of the mountain. Nothing newsworthy happened during our visit - the most excitement we saw was an "off-road" race being held that day, with intrepid runners huffing past us on the trail.

etna-cr-brian-dore(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

etna-cr-ciutravel(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

The name Etna comes from the Greek for “I burn", and in ancient Arabic the volcano was known as “The Mountain of Fire”. Though millennia have passed since the first Mediterranean civilizations caught sight of this smoking peak on the horizon, Mount Etna still lives up to its ancient names and reputation. The mountain's lava may have swept away entire towns over the centuries, but there was no drama on the day of our visit - we survived unscathed.

Notes: We found that we needed an entire day to visit Etna, including the trip up to the cone for a hike around the craters, lunch, and a wine tasting afterwards at one of the excellent vineyards on the lower slopes. We also stopped at a local apiary and purchased a jar of artisanal wildflower honey. We were happy to have thought ahead and worn comfortable shoes to walk the pebble-covered hills on the cone, and an extra layer of clothes, as the weather was quite cool at the summit.

Related posts:
Sicily and the Ancient Greeks: Sites to Visit
Caltagirone: Ceramic Capital of Sicily
Caravaggio in Sicily

Contributor: Rebecca Winke

Concierge in Umbria
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