Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano, but those who can look past its smoky peaks and red-hot eruptions can see why locals living in its shadows simply refer to it as Mongibello, or ‘beautiful mountain.’
Located on the east coast of Sicily, Mt. Etna is one of the most intimidating landmarks in all of Italy, but its ashy facade and mesmerizing golden eruptions are also a thing of incomparable beauty. If anything, Etna is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the people and places surrounding it: vibrant, intoxicating, and rugged in all of the best ways. Its eruptions are a hauntingly beautiful spectacle, but deciding when to visit or hike up its sloped hillside can be a guessing game which, for outsiders, may not seem worth the gamble.
Luckily, local guides are experts at reading the ever-changing landscape of their neighboring beast to decide when it’s best to brave an ash-trodden excursion to its pluming caldera, and when to instead wait for its pyroclastic flows to run their course. Daily tours are offered from Catania and from starting points near the base of the looming stratovolcano, and guides are recommended for all those eager to get an up-close look at Sicily’s most grandiose natural monument.
Whether hiking to Etna’s summit, circling its steep hillside, or racing through its gray desert of volcanic dust on a Jeep tour, the mountain’s high elevation grants visitors one of the best views in all of southern Italy. Though nearly every other landmark on the surrounding island rests calmly and quietly at sea level, Etna’s 3,357 meter elevation is a dramatic protrusion in the serene coastal landscape. From over 11,000 feet up, Catania’s shoreline is a miniature paradise, contrasting the volcano’s smoky, barren wasteland with sparkling blues, speckled pastel buildings, and a thick umbrella of lush green vegetation.
Part of Mt. Etna’s mystique comes from its constant evolution as new eruptions carve out its steep facade and push its peak ever-higher into the Sicilian sky. Etna’s first recorded eruption took place in 475 BCE, and despite heavily destructive eruptions in 1169 and 1669, killing roughly 15,000 and 20,000 nearby residents, respectively, the surrounding area has continued to blossom as a residential hotspot thanks to the volcano’s rich, fertile soil.
Over the last century and a half, over one million people have made the slopes of Etna their home, and the number of inhabitants on the eastern coast of Sicily has also increased three-fold despite its close proximity to the frequently active stratovolcano. To local Sicilians, an Etna eruption is simply another day on the island, but to visitors, the fiery display is a once-in-a-lifetime wonder to behold. Its most recent eruption lit up the sky all across the strait of Messina on February 10, spewing plumes of smoke over 8 kilometers high.
As the backdrop of Catania and perhaps the most dramatic natural landmark in all of Italy, Mt. Etna is a stunning example of Italy’s breathtaking contrasts and a true epitome of Sicilian grit and resilience. Who else would be brave enough to live on the side of an erupting volcano? A force to be reckoned with—those southern Italians and the volcano they call home.