Even in May, when the temperature was soaring, there was snow on Etna. Lots of it, piled high by the side of the path and clustered around the edge of slippery glaciers. But the sun was shining, and we trudged on towards the volcano puffing gently in the distance, determined to make the most of the views and the scenery.
Even in May snow is piled up beside the path
Etna becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site
This is the mountain that dominates the landscape of Sicily, its snowy top visible almost wherever you go. In the winter its slopes become ski runs; at other times it is host to climbers and to those, like us, who let the cable car do most of the hard work.
Etna viewed from the town of Taormina: the mountain is visible all around Sicily
Last year Etna was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This was a recognition of its status as a “iconic site”, one with immense natural and geological significance.
Europe’s Most Active Volcano
The geological significance lies, of course, in the fact that Etna is Europe’s tallest and most active volcano. The last major eruption was in January of this year, a spectacle that lit up the sky and sent larva tumbling down the mountainside, causing major disruption to nearby Catania airport. But smaller emissions take place all the time, making it necessary for anyone who wants to peer over the edge of the crater to check the daily warnings before setting out, and to be accompanied by an experienced guide.
The volcanic landscape of Mount Etna
The effect of all this activity is apparent as you explore the mountain. It is a landscape of cones and craters, of ash and solidified larva, a landscape that shifts and changes with each eruption. Trees grow on the lower slopes and there are a few mountain flowers higher up, but no plants can survive the relentless assault upon the upper reaches.
A few plants manage to grow on the lower reaches of the mountain
When we emerged from the cable car the scenery was monochrome, black ash and larva rock against the white of the snow. We walked up the path, stopping short of the summit, and perched by the side of a glacier to eat our picnic. We could have taken a guide to the summit, and watched the steam rising from the very core of the earth, but we chose instead to keep the crater at a respectful distance. For us it was the other-worldly scenery and the spectacular views that were the main attractions of Etna.
Ice and larva combine to create a monochrome landscape…
…but there are spectacular views of the surrounding countryside