Mt. Etna, called Mongibello, or “beautiful mountain” in Sicilian dialect, is one beaut of a lady. Albeit a very large and temperamental lady, but nevertheless, a beauty. At 3,330 meters high (10,925 ft.), she is Europe’s tallest volcano as well its most active. She’s been particularly lively the last 60+ years, with several eruptions from the late 1980’s on, with a few large belches every year but one since 2001. (The last one of this writing was March 16, 2017.) There are four active craters forming the summit, but more than 300 vents and fissures along her flanks, with some craters several hundred meters in diameter.
We spent several hours on and around Mt. Etna with local guide Alessio Patane, owner-operator of Sicily Grand Tour. He was a wealth of information about the mountain, its history of eruptions, its geology and lore. One story involved an extended eruption George Lucas filmed and was able to include in his Star Wars Revenge of the Siti. I asked Alessio about a picture I’d seen of a house buried in lava up to the eaves. Alessio promptly drove us to the house in question, pointing out that it was the second floor of that dwelling that had been covered to the eaves by the lava.
Another fascinating stop was to crawl into a lava tube, one of many that riddle the surface below the flanks of Mt. Etna. Without getting all geeky in explanation, a lava tube is formed when flows of molten lava push and burrow down under a heavy crust of hardened lava rock; the molten stone melts the softer rock underneath, creating tunnels called lava tubes.
Our last stop before leaving Mt. Etna was the town of Zafferana, on the southeast flank of the mountain. In a 14 month series of eruptions between 1991-3, Zafferana was threatened by a steady albeit slow progression of lava heading straight toward town. Italy’s best volcanologists and even the U.S.marines from a nearby base tried different tactics to divert the flow, using explosives and earth dams to redirect it. Nothing worked. But…the flow eventually stopped just a few meters from a house on the edge of town. The locals attributed this miracle to the intervention of Mother Mary and erected a statue nearby in her honor.
A last look at Mt. Etna from the northeast as we headed to Taormina.