Mount Etna at sunset // © 2012 Thinkstock
The 4½-hour Exploring Mount Etna excursion is available through Crystal Cruises for $90 per person.
For residents on the east coast of Sicily, Mount Etna is more than just Europe’s tallest active volcano at an elevation of 10,990 feet. Etna is personified, referred to by locals as “Him,” and thought of as more of a neighbor than an ominous presence.
“Sicilians are fatalists who live in the moment,” explained Alessandro, my tour guide on Crystal Cruises’ Exploring Mount Etna excursion. “Ask us our stance on the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and we will answer ‘who cares?’ because it is in the past. There is no future tense in the Sicilian dialect.”
Alessandro, along with approximately 25 percent of Sicily’s population, lives on the slopes of Mount Etna and has little concern about the volcano’s series of eruptions, the most disastrous of which occurred in 1669 when more than 15,000 people in Catania died and about 27,000 people were left homeless.
Fast forward to 1928, when the lava flow reached the Ionian Sea and completely eliminated the town of Mascali. The Etna Observatory was destroyed by a lengthy eruption in 1971, and the well-documented eruption of 2001 posed a scare for tourism in the region when it partially destroyed the tourist area near the Rifugio Sapienza, one of Etna’s most visited tourist sites. In April, right before my visit, the volcano had already erupted seven times.
“While there are many eruptions, people living on Etna do not constantly have problems with the lava flow,” said my guide. “A normal eruption could take months to reach town.”
From the port town of Giardini Naxos — frequented by major cruise lines including — Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, MSC Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises — Mount Etna takes about an hour to reach by car. It’s a scenic, steep drive past chestnut trees and blooming pink oleanders that winds through the towns of Santa Venerina, Zafferana and Mascali, which was entirely rebuilt following the 1928 eruption. Because I didn’t want to dedicate my entire day to reaching the top of Etna, my final destination was the Silvestri Crater at an elevation of approximately 6,500 feet. Nearing the crater, I watched the scenery dramatically change from verdant pockets of cherry and peach trees to lava moonscapes in hues of black and gray. Newer lava fields were barren while older fields showed signs of regrowth, spotted with hardy yellow shrubs, known as the Mount Etna broom.
Silvestri, born during a violent flank eruption in 1892, was an easy climb offering a huge payoff — panoramic views of Etna as well as the cities of Catania and Taormina in the distance. It takes about 20 minutes to walk the circumference of the crater, and I recommend wearing hiking or athletic shoes to navigate loose lava rocks and the steeper sections of Silvestri. Also, despite how temperate it may be by the cruise ship dock, visitors will want to bring along a light jacket or sweater for this portion of the tour.
Those who want to get higher can book a jeep excursion, ride a cable car or take a guided hike once they are in the vicinity of Silvestri and Rifugio Sapienza. There are also several bars, restaurants and cafes where travelers can reward their efforts with a shot of limoncello or the region’s famous winter drink, Fuoco dell’ Etna (Fire of Etna). With an alcohol percentage ranging between 50 and 70 percent, the Fire of Etna will warm up the wariest of drinkers. Locals prefer to add the bright red liquor to a cup of hot tea in the winter or drizzle it over ice cream in the summer months.
Notably, the tourist area also features a number of pre-fabricated hotels and souvenir shops that can be dismantled within a day. After all, you never know when your “neighbor” will pay an unexpected visit.