She’s of massive proportions. She’s got a feisty temperament. And you can’t come to Sicily without spotting her smoking in the distance. She’s Mount Etna – Europe’s largest and most active volcano. Per my fascination with volcanoes (is that weird?), I can’t help but marvel at this monstrous mountain every time I visit Sicily.
Rising some 11,000 feet from the sea, Etna makes her presence known through her sheer size and tumultuous personality, which has shaped the landscape of this Mediterranean island and the lifestyle of Sicilians for millennia. Evidence of her bipolar nature is scattered across the island, particularly down her southern and eastern slopes. We’ll take a closer look at some of those examples in the next post.
Relatively speaking, Etna erupts All. The. Time., averaging a significant eruption once every year or two with many minor ones in between. Etna’s geological activity has been recorded for over 2,000 years. Yet, there is one particular seismic event that has laid the foundation for Sicilian life today.
AN ERUPTION FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS
In 1669, Mount Etna released a furious torrent of lava, toxic gases and pyroclastic materials in a historic volcanic eruption. For four months, an extraordinary amount of molten hot rock emerged from two deep fissures on Etna’s southern slope near Nicolosi. The slow but undeterred lava completely destroyed many towns in its path and even reached Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, some 18+ kilometers away. The 1669 eruption was well recorded by numerous written accounts, in paintings and drawings, through local lore and oral history.
As if one giant natural disaster per century weren’t enough, the eruption of 1669 was followed by a severe earthquake in 1693, which caused further and more widespread destruction across Sicily. Undeniably, these two cataclysmic events of the 17th century shaped the future of the island, forcing many Sicilians to readjust their entire lives around Etna’s horrific temper tantrum.
LIVING WITH ETNA
Having such an unpredictable neighbor may seem like a frightening way to live. Yet, Sicilians have embraced the benefits of Etna’s frequent eruptions. The igneous rock is rich in nutrients, and the Sicilian soil is ideal for growing many different types of crops. In fact, because the earth is so generous, most farmers have no need to add fertilizers or chemical enhancements to reap a bountiful harvest.
From citrus and olive groves to wheat fields and grazing meadows, the lands surrounding Etna produce some of the best fruits, vegetables, and livestock in the Mediterranean region. Sicilian cuisine revolves around those fresh ingredients, and many islanders would say that the risk is worth the reward.
HIKING MOUNT ETNA
It should come as no surprise that Mount Etna is quite the celebrity in Sicily. She attracts thousands of visitors every year, and when she’s in a good mood, adventure seekers can race to her uppermost craters.
There are several ways to summit the volcano. The most popular place to start is on the southern side at Rifugio Sapienza. This little outpost sits just shy of 2000 meters high; it has parking, restaurants, gift shops, and outfitters to support the tourism industry surrounding Etna’s magnetic personality. When the winds are calm, a ski lift takes willing patrons to Terminal Funivia. From there, visitors can continue on foot with a guide or take a 4×4 vehicle to the determined summit of the day. Because Etna usually emits sulfuric gas, reaching the central crater and gazing down at a pit of lava is only for the lucky few.
SO… IS IT SAFE?
Volcanoes are forces of nature that should be respected – always. Mount Etna is extremely active, but her seismic activity is monitored 24/7. Over the years, professional volcanologists and local farmers alike have developed a unique understanding of this fiery mountain. They can read her well, know her warning signs, and take precautions when she gets a little too angry.
So, is it safe to visit Mount Etna? Relatively.
Will she erupt again? Definitely.
Will Sicilians face another catastrophic event, like the eruptions of 1669? Possibly.
But for all the risks associated with living at the base of Europe’s most active volcano, many Sicilians cherish their beloved volcano, simultaneously respecting her power and enjoying her presence.
Hello nature fans and mountain men! What do you think about Mount Etna? Could you imagine adopting the same attitude as many Sicilians regarding their feisty neighbor? Would you dare to summit an active volcano? Do you think it’s weird that Justin and I like to see out volcanoes on our travels? Have you read our El Misti story from our time in Peru?