The beginning of the week is often the pits, I remember that from my days of doing a desk job. It’s the part of the week that we most enjoy dreaming, thinking of beautiful destinations and plotting our escape. That’s how I plotted my escape from a desk at least. Because of that, I was thinking that each week on this blog we should have a destination post. It may be that you’re planning travel or just armchair traveling, either way, come with me to places that I know and love. Today, because she’s putting on quite a show this week, let’s visit Mount Etna.
Mount Etna is one of the most intriguing and famous parts of the island of Sicily, sitting just off the tip of the boot of Italy. You’ve probably heard a bit about her. The mountain is a female, by the way, often referred to as “Lady Etna”. She’s the rumbliest, grumbliest, smokiest volcano in Europe, and one of the most active in the world.
I’ll tell you a little of the basics of volcanoes, and I have to start by admitting that I’m no geologist, I learned everything I know from my 11 year-od son. He wants to be a vulcanologist some day and because of that, he’s been to visit the most famous volcanoes we could find: Vesuvius, Etna, Rainier, St. Helens, Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Yellowstone, which is a super volcano. I know a little about this topic due to our exploration together. I’ve also learned from one of the main scientists on Mount Etna, Boris Behncke. His passion for the mountain shows in his work, which includes speaking to groups about the volcano.
First things first. Why do volcanoes exist? The simple answer is that volcanoes exist at a break in the Earth’s crust, like the intersection of tectonic plates, which allows magma from the core of the Earth to come to the surface. They can form almost anywhere, but tend to form in chains. Typically, if there is one volcano near you there will be others, even if you can’t see them. Italy has Vesuvius, which everyone has heard of and is still active. But Italy also has Etna and a chain of smaller, highly active volcanoes, such as Stromboli and…wait for it…Vulcano.
Mount Etna is a stratovolcano, which is characterized by its conical shape. The other common type is a shield volcano, like Mauna Loa. The main difference between these two is the shape, which is due to the viscosity and composition of the lava. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you may have seen lava flowing like syrup into the sea. That’s typical of a shield volcano, which grows over time into a large mass with no obvious peak, much like the shape of a shield. A stratovolcano has thicker lava, which means it builds upon itself and creates vertical peaks. This type of volcano is the kind known for violent eruptions, because often times pressure builds up inside the lava cone until it blows. Mount St. Helens and Vesuvius both did exactly that. Mount Rainier, close to where I live, may do that someday.
Etna has been active and growing as long as humans have written that sort of thing down. Sicily, which was once a Greek colony, is the location for many of the famous Greek myths, such as Polyphemus or Cyclops. Mount Etna has its’ own Greek myth attached to it of course, as you can imagine, the ancients must have been amazed and terrified by her persistent smoke and fire. The colonists decided that this must be the home of Hephaestus, the god of fire and blacksmiths, as the inside of the mountain must be where the minions of the gods forge their weapons. It may have been scary at times, but it was also good to have a fiery mountain on your side during times of war. Eruptions in 396 BC changed the course of a battle between the Greeks and Carthaginians as debris clogged roads in the area and slowed the advance of enemy troops.
For all of the activity of the mountain, you may be surprised to know that the flanks of the mountain have always been heavily populated. The eastern slope has many cities and villages, including Catania, the largest city in Italy that is not a regional capital and the second largest on the island. In all of the years of human coexistence with Etna, there have only been a handful of major eruptions that caused damage. They say that less than 100 people have died in all of history due to volcanic activity. That seems impossible, that is, until you see film of the most major eruption in modern times. The eruption of 1928 destroyed a village, but the lava moved so very slowly that the villagers had the time to not only evacuate, but to take their possessions with them…including parts of buildings and train tracks. You can watch the evacuation and painfully slow destruction of the town in an old film reel posted HERE.
There is not one central active peak on the mountain, it has five which have been active at different times. At the moment, the New Southeast Crater is the most active and has grown exponentially in the past decade. As of the time of this writing, that crater is giving quite a show, one of the biggest in the past decade. It has produced lava fountains and huge ash clouds that can be seen for miles around. The sound of the eruption can be heard for miles around, like the sound of thunder. The activity may continue, or may stop abruptly. When I visited in September, scientists were predicting to continue the eatablished pattern of minor activity, no major eruptions were forecast. But this mountain does not settle for patterns.
Under normal circumstances, the mountain usually has a small smoke plume. I’ve been there when there have been small eruptions and ash falls. An ash fall sounds like rain, but is much messier! The locals have become habituated to sweeping up the ash and putting it in sacks to be hauled away. It used to be considered toxic waste, but these days it is being used for all sorts of products like fertilizers and beauty creams.
It may seem crazy to live at the foot of the most active volcano in Europe, but the people who live there would disagree. Volcanic soil is some of the most fertile anywhere, and thanks to this, the people of Sicily live on an island that can grow just about anything. The produce is simply unreal in size and quality. Wine from the region is some of the best in Europe and only getting better as more people see the potential in the soil. Mount Etna is sometimes called Mamma Etna, as she is the giver of life and fertility.
Visiting Mount Etna is a must on a trip to Sicily and you can put as much or as little effort into seeing her as you like. The easiest way is by visiting Taormina, a beautiful resort city across the bay from Catania, which has some of the best views of the mountain as a whole. Sitting on a terrace with a glass of wine and watching the sunset with Etna is not a bad way to do it. If you want to visit the mountain itself, it is possible to get to one of the tourist centers near the summit, called Rifugio Sapienza, by car or by bus. This can be a disappointment for some as you don’t see the summit itself, but the drive up is beautiful and full of the scars of previous lava flows.
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Once at the refuge, or tourist center, you can walk out onto some of the close, inactive craters and get a first hand feeling for the mountain and what it’s made of. Take rock samples if you dare, some say it’s bad luck and others say it assures a return. Those that want the full deal to the summit will need to go further. There is a cable car that takes you part way, and then jeeps that take you the rest of the way to the top, or as close to the top as possible. From there it is about a 2 hour hike to the summit. The whole trip is possible as part of an organized day tour, usually from Taormina, or on your own, and certainly at your own risk! Remember that it is a mountain, and even if it’s in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, it snows at the top. Dress accordingly, especially in the off-season.
For me, I love to visit Etna because I think she is enigmatic. You never know when you’ll get a show. Sometimes you can’t even see her. Sometimes she’s a flirt and gives you a little hint of her powers. What keeps me intrigued is the unpredictability and power of nature that is beyond our control. There is no better symbol of untamed nature and the untamed culture of Sicily than an active, fiery volcano.
Join us on an adventure in Sicily!
Complicated, misunderstood, generous, outrageous, sensual and seductive, Sicily is pure opera. If you think you know Italy but haven’t been to Sicily, you are in for a mind-bending treat. 3000 years of history piled up like a sweet cassata cake is waiting for your exploration. Andiamo!
You can check on the current status of Mount Etna and see what rock star vulcanologist Boris Behncke is up to on the official website of his agency, INGV – http://www.ct.ingv.it