Aug 21, 2015

Etna is a "she"

Locals refer to Mt Etna as a "she", and it doesn't surprise me since constantly active 'a muntagna is a goddess of fertility and energy. Its rich volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread all across the lower slopes.

During my recent stay in the Etna town of Linguaglossa I had a nearly constant view of the volcano. Every morning on our way to a granita breakfast we'd always peek uphill to look at "her", and punctually she'd greet us with white billowy plumes, or hide  in dark veiled clouds concealing her summit craters.

On our last day we decided to meet Etna face to face. We drove up in the late afternoon in order to see the volcanic landscapes at sunset. The twisting hairpin curves carved into the slopes winded in and out of thick pine forests, tall and dark, redolent of piney resin and clean mountain air.

At 1400 meters above sea level we switched off the AC and rolled down the windows. In the woods the sticky summer air quickly shifted to crisp, with an even more intoxicating woodsy aroma. Vegetation and surroundings abruptly changed as we turned a curve, finding ourselves cut off from the ancient forests and plunged into a jagged lunar landscape of more recent lava flows. It felt like someone had used a dimmer on the color dial in our vision: as we proceeded upward, it all became black and white. Shiny snow-colored birch trees replaced the pine trees, creating a bizarre contrast with the dark lava rock forest floor.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

And then more monochrome magic happened when in the silence of this powerful moonscape we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sheep herded by not a single human and a pack of Maremmano sheep dogs and mangy pups. These duly defended the herd that grazed on lichen and sparse tufts of dry mountain grass, chasing the car and barking loudly – even going at the tires if we dared to move. We waited patiently, showing the pack that we had no intention of harming the herd and the dogs eventually moved away allowing us to proceed.
When we stopped further ahead, we saw the herd slowly making its way into another birch forest. It was an incredible, surreal vision which I will never forget.

Grazing sheep on Etna, Sicily

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Grazing sheep in an Etna birch forest

Further up along the climb, past ski facilities with chairlifts and rental shacks at 1800 meters, we decided to get out of the car and walk up the 2002 eruption lava flow. Off the road we negotiated a leisurely climb up the lava fields with crunchy black pumice gravel underfoot and clouds so close above our heads we could actually reach up and touch them.

My child was giddy and – charged up by the electromagnetic energy the surroundings exuded – ran around bouncing like a little mountain goat.

my child on Etna, Sicily

I couldn't believe the silence.

No wind whistled among the lava rocks. Not a sound blew through the trees way, way below. No echoed voices came from the small group of hikers up at the Sartorius mound (the remnant of an 1865 eruption) three hundred yards from us on the flank. Nothing.
The silence was pneumatic and still. And it screamed in my unaccustomed ears.

Monte Sartorius, 1865 eruption Etna - Sicily

After a meditative moment, and a few captured stills, we gathered a handful of black volcanic gravel and filled our pockets with it to bring home some of the mountain's magic force.

Volcanic gravel and rocks, Etna Sicily

The drive down was quiet, each of us still pervaded with deep emotion. Under a crescent moon, a solemn promise was made to return here soon and climb up even further. The word "camping" was uttered as well as donkey trekking. I also am curious to meet Gianni, a seasoned guide who can take us to even more remote and unvisited locations, lending his geologic and botanical knowledge.
Therefore this is not good-bye, Etna.

This is the closest moment to when we shall meet again – this is only arrivederci.

More photos and media on my Sicilian vacation can be viewed on my Facebook profile, Twitter and Instagram feed, and on the Casa Mia Italy Food & Wine blog.


  1. I was lucky to go up there when I was 11. I haven't been there since. Etna has a way of making its presence felt even here. A couple of years ago we woke up and it was there on the horizon, and it seemed so close that we felt like we would reach out an touch it. The eruption of 2002 is still very clear in my memory because the soot travelled all the way here and our cars and homes were covered in very fine, black dust.

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