Mt. Etna has been capturing imaginations for centuries – and with good reason. If you’re anywhere near the Catania region in Sicily, you can see it. Not only can you see it, you can see it smoking. It’s like she’s sitting there, cooking up a special surprise for everyone nearby.
In fact, the name of the mountain actually comes from an ancient word meaning ‘furnace.’ Technically, it’s not always smoke that’s rolling off of Etna. Usually, it’s steam: the mountain is high up, so it’s cold, and the warm Sicilian sun hits it and evaporates all the water that condensed due to the cold.
The top of Etna is currently about 3,330 meters high. I say currently, because she grows with every eruption. Since the 1980s, the mountain has grown over 300 meters. On the bright side, because the volcano is so active, most of her eruptions are fairly ‘benign,’ in that they don’t completely decimate the area around it, the way Vesuvius did at Pompeii. Usually, Etna burps out little pellets of rock (pallottole in Italian), and these completely cover the mountainside. When she does emit lava, it’s less of a spewing and more of an oozing. Being rather rounded at the top, the lava calmly rolls down the sides and hardens. This is what causes Etna to grow at such an amazing rate.
Sicilians talk about Etna the way they would talk about a fine Sicilian lady: like something that is beautiful, necessary for their way of life, and extremely dangerous. I said that most of her eruptions are comparatively benign, but, let’s face it, lava is pretty dangerous stuff. Also, tons – literally, tons – of golf ball-sized rocks flying through the air pose a certain threat for humans. When Etna is getting ready for a hissy fit, Sicilians know to get out of the way and find a video camera.
How can Europe’s largest active volcano be necessary for the way of life in its region? Easy. With every eruption, Etna spits out minerals. The soil, especially lower down on the mountainside, is very fertile, and is home to farms and vineyards. Luckily for the people who cultivate these spots and make a living doing so, the lava, when it comes, usually takes the same way down every time. So, the people have a general idea of where they can and can’t plant. The farmers here specialize in wine, apples, and honey production.
There are two ways to see Etna: from afar and up-close and personal. You should start with looking at her from afar – that way, you can appreciate just how big she actually is. Then, get a bit closer. From pretty much anywhere in eastern Sicily, you can book an Etna excursion. I recommend these excursions, simply because the people who run them know the mountain well, they won’t get you lost, and they won’t put you in a dangerous situation on the mountain. If you’re not an experienced hiker – and even if you are – a volcano can be a pretty dangerous undertaking.
I went with a group of friends through a company called Go Etna, and we all piled into a 4×4 and did some off-roading on the way up the mountain. The guides were able to tell us what we were looking at and why it was cool. For example, one of the first stops we made was in the natural catching point for lava that comes off the mountain. It looked like we had landed on the moon. Our guide, Francesco, explained the phenomenon that is lava rock formation to us: the surface of the lava cools faster than the interior, and the interior keeps flowing. As it flows, it breaks the hardened surface, causing a rough, jagged rock to form.
We also got to crawl – literally, crawl – through a tunnel that was created in the same way. The rock that is formed by lava is very porous, and so when new lava comes down the mountain, it goes through the middle of the old rock. Lava, being very hot, melts the old rock, and tunnels and caves are formed in the mountain side. This particular tunnel has been there for centuries, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used to freeze and store ice for the fishermen on the shore in Catania. Any leftover ice was used to make granita.
The very last stop of the day was the very top of the part of Mt. Etna that is open to casual hikers – any higher than that, and you need a specially certified guide and special gear. After all, while she is a lady, she’s a Sicilian one – she can be fiery whenever she feels like it.