The Sicilian people call it “a muntagna” or “mongibeddu”. It is alive, it breaths and constantly reminds of its existence, modifying the surrounding landscapes with spectacular lava streams and puffs of fire and smoke from its top. Mount Etna is surely the most beautiful and restless volcano in Sicily, part of the World Heritage List of Unesco since 2013.
Mount Etna, in the district of Catania, Sicily, is the highest active volcano in Europe and was declared a Unesco site because of its enormous geological, biological and environmental value and thanks to the richness of marvellous environments he contributes in creating.
The regular eruptions of the mountain have made of it a subject of great interest since very ancient times, giving life to several myths and popular beliefs. Despite the many damages it has inflicted through time to many villages and even to the city of Catania, the populations who have always lived at its feet have developed a strong affection towards it, and even a sort of respect, celebrated in many mythological legends who identified in it the smithy where Hephaestus lived and worked, forging weapons for the gods. It was also thought of as the land of the Cyclops, among which lived Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant blinded by Ulysses. After the bad trick the hero played on him, the enraged monster throw three huge stones from the Etna to hit the ship of the king of Itaca and thus created the seas stacks of Aci Trezza.
Every time the volcano erupts, with explosions reaching several hundreds metres of height, the lava slowly flows down the mountain and stops in open spaces or sediment on top of ancient layers. In more recent times, though, and precisely in 2001 and 2002, the Etna has had destructive eruptions which have buried sky lifts, roads and several touristic structures of the sky resorts on northern and southern slopes.
The Etna has a diameter of 40 kilometres and it is not made only of boiling lava: before its peak- over 3.300 metres of height- there are pinewoods, forests of birch trees and oaks, chestnut trees and orchards, citrus groves and typical plants. Apart from the broom which blooms in spite of the omnipresent lava streams, a very peculiar plant, called “spinosanto” grows among volcanic ashes and burnt land.
Climbing towards the top, from where it is possible to admire the Aeolian Islands, the perimeter of most part of the Sicilian coast and sometimes, in days of perfect visibility, even the island of Malta many are the inactive craters. Near the top, instead, the environment is a lava desert, almost a lunar environment, black soil that hides, right beneath the surface, everlasting ice.
The craters of the peak are almost always smoking, the highest one being the south crater.
Sometimes, during occasional summit eruptions, the lava coming from a lava “tank” twenty kilometres below the terrestrial surface, reaches Valle del Bove, a huge natural amphitheatre with walls up to 1000 metres’ height, crossed by deep canyons.
The Etna was born about 600.000 years ago, in the Quaternary period and it has an eruptive history which was documented up to 2.700 years ago.
Its importance comes from the fact it is an extraordinary testimony of the evolutionary periods of the Earth and its geological processes, that is why it represents a privileged destination for research and environmental education and training.
In winter time, when snow hides it, it becomes a perfect skiing destination for lovers of this sport, because of the absence of crevices and avalanches. There are two main sky resorts: Nicolosi Nord, with sky lifts, cable cars and chair lifts, and Piano Provenzana, near Linguaglossa, with four sky lifts.
The Etna also has a Perennial glacier, called “Grotta del gelo (Ice Cave)”.
The Etna is part of a park bearing its same name and founded in 1989, the first “green” park in Sicily. It extends for 59.000 hectares and its role is to protect and preserve the environment surrounding the volcano and to promote the eco-sustainable development of local communities and populations. Its woods, paths, landscapes, its local products and historic centres of its municipalities make of this Park a centre of attraction for travellers and lovers of nature, food and open air sports in magnificent landscapes, all year round. The territory of the Park of Etna includes twenty municipalities (Adrano, Belpasso, Biancavilla, Bronte, Castiglione di Sicilia, Santa Maria di Licodia, Sant’Alfio, Trecastagni, Viagrande, Zafferana Etnea) and a total population of 250000 inhabitants.
In compliance with the ideal to preserve and safeguard the natural values, the whole area is crossed by paths which allow the tourists, through explanations of naturalistic, scientific and cultural values to be involved and aware of the importance of this environment, and to understand the necessity to preserve the exceptional habitats of the territory even by means of recreational activities and excursions.
The Etna offers all sorts of research grounds, from the depths of the Earth, ground of expertise of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e vulcanologia (National Institute for Geophisics and Volcanology) in Catania, up to the stars; at the core of the Park of Mount Etna, in fact, there is the Osservatorio Astrofisico di Catania (Astro-Physical Observatory of Catania) lead by the INAF (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica- National Institute for Astro-Physics). At an altitude of 1752 metres, it hosts the “highest” professional astro-physical telescopes of Italy. Astronomy has been a major interest in the region ever since 1788, when the “Siculorum Gimnasium”, or the University of Catania, founded the Atronomy school.
Whomever chooses to climb Mount Etna will be surrounded by amazing sights and a vast choice of activities which will make this experience unforgettable.
Visitors of Mount Etna should not forget to include in their tour a stop in Catania, a city which was destroyed more than once but has always managed to be reborn from its own ashes, with its squares and large roads. Among the several sights to see are Via dei Cruciferi, the magnificent Baroque Duomo and Palazzo Senatorio, as well as the fantastic Liotro, the Elephant, true symbol of the city.
A few kilometres from Catania, the tourist can visit Taormina, the “pearl of the Ionian Sea”, a holiday destination internationally renowned. Twenty kilometres from Taormina, the amazing “Gole di Alcantara (Alcantara clefts)” reveal a marvellous natural spots, a complex of deep gorges excavated by the freezing waters of the river Alcantara.
For those who wish to know Sicily better, the region is rich in Unesco sites, as the Archaeological area of Agrigento, Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina, Val di Noto, Syracuse and the Rupestrian Necropolis of Pantalica and the Aeolian Islands.