When visiting Sicily, visiting the island’s towering Mount Etna is a must. It is Europe’s largest and most active volcano (3,329m), is in an almost constant state of activity, having erupted several times in the last five years, and dominates eastern Sicily’s skyline like an enormous earth cloud.
The Greeks believed that the mighty god Hephaestus used it to create Zeus’ thunderbolts with the help of his Cyclops assistants, and that the eruptions and earthquakes were triggered by the Titan Enceladus imprisoned at the mountain’s root, forever battling to break free.
I’d have enjoyed seeing Zeus lob a thunderbolt or Cyclops bat an eyelid but really I just wanted to see some lava.
However, we got acres of dark, burnt out volcanic rock and a very windy walk around the edge of the highest reachable volcanic vent. But if there had been a recent eruption, or indeed, if the volcano was actually in an eruptive phase, we wouldn’t have been able to get so close.
A trip up the Funivia (gondola) costs €30. From here we could either walk to the vent or jump in the jeep which comes with a guide, for an extra €30. We hiked; it was a day for the great outdoors and we thought we’d feel as though we had achieved something, however marginal, when we reached the top.
The walk is long, quiet and– other than clusters of tourists slowly trudging their way to the top –there is no life to be found. The air is cold and thin, hence the slow pace, and the sun bright and dangerous. Most uncharacteristically, I’d actually remembered to bring some sun cream, which probably saved my face from burning to a crisp. The further up we walked, the redder the rocks became– not because they were getting hotter, but due to the natural oxidation of iron-containing minerals.
It takes about an hour and a half – an hour if you’re in good shape. If you’re not in especially good shape, or unable to walk long, uphill distances, the shuttle is your best bet.
The path and road both come to an end at the crater, where a small hut is stationed. From here, everyone walks, or rather battles against the fierce wind, which almost knocks you off your feet! The rocks are deep red, with the odd smudge of white where some have turned to ash. There is the option to continue even further up the volcano, though this is only permitted if you with a professional, licensed guide, and on a blustery day you’d probably give it a miss anyway.
Here is a checklist for things you’ll need for a day trip to Mount Etna:
1. Warm clothes; you’ll need them up top.
2. Sun cream; the sun at this altitude is fierce and unforgiving!
3. Sturdy footwear; the ground is uneven, stoney and slippery in parts. Take trainers with good grip, not knackered converse.
4. Sunglasses. Obviously.
5. Sugary snacks; keep your energy up during the hike!
6. Water. Obviously.
Etna is a great place to pick up a souvenir, from fridge magnets and cutlery sets to bottles of fiery Etna Rosso; all of it made from volcanic rock. The prices in the souvenir stores are very reasonable and there is a wide variety to choose from. Don’t be tempted to make your purchase at the gift shop at the upper gondola station; wait and pay less!
Also, it was here that I had my best ever (double) foodgasm. I’d already treated myself to several delectable treats in Catania and Taormina but none were better than the Arancini and Cannoli I tried for the first time at the café/restaurant besides the lower gondola station at Mount Etna. Both were divine, and easily the best things I ate all week. There were lots of other mouthwatering cakes and pastries I’d love to have tried but the cannoli was so good I had to spend my last €3 on another!
There might not have been any lava on this occasion, but the beautiful views, roads, food, weather and otherworldly landscape make this trip well worth doing whatever the conditions.
The gateway to getting up Etna is the Rifugio Sapienza above the town of Nicolosi. You must either drive or take the bus from Catania to get there. The road that winds up the mountain is a joy to drive up/down (in contrast to Catania!), with plenty of spots to stop and take pictures. There are private shuttle bus services in Taormina but it is probably not worth the extra cost and better to go to Catania by bus early in the morning.