Etna is Sicily’s tallest peak. Although capped with snow for
much of the winter, it is one of Europe’s most famous active
volcanoes. Its actual height has been repeatedly modified by eruptions
throughout time; it currently (1998) stands at 3350 m above sea
VOLCANO AND ITS STORY
evolved as a result of submarine eruption during the Quaternary
Period (circa 500,000 years ago), at the same time that the plain
of Catania was formed, originally as a broad bay. Etna is known
to have erupted regularly during Antiquity, as documented at least
135 times. In the Middle Ages, eruptions were recorded in 1329 and
1381 disseminating terror amongst the people of the region. It was
in 1669, however, that the most catastrophic quake occurred; a great
river of lava flowed down to the sea, devastating part of Catania
on the way. In the 20th century, the most violent eruption were
recorded in 1910 – leading to 23 additional craters being
formed –, in 1917 – when a fountain of lava spurted
800m into the air from its base – and in 1923 – when
outpouring of molten lava stayed hot for more than 18 months after
the eruption. In 1928, a lava flow destroyed the village of Mascali
and other eruptions followed in 1954, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1978, 1979,
1981, 1983, 1985 and 1991 that continued to grumble for a further
plume of smoke always hangs above Etna and it could burst into activity
at any moment. The black lava around the craters dates from recent
eruptions as compared with the older grey lava on which lichens
are beginning to grow. The presence of both and, sometimes, their
distressing effects (blocked roads and ruined buildings) are evidence
for the volcano’s constant activity.
the slopes of the central crater, at about 3000 m height, in the
vicinity of the Torre del Filosofo – where a refuge was destroyed
by lava in 1971 – are three more craters: the north-eastern
crater – that began suppurating in 1978 – the north-eastern
crater – at the highest point and dormant since 1971 –
and the Bocca Nuova (literally the “New Mouth”) which,
in recent times has been the most active.
The protected area designated a
National Park in 1987 covers some 59,000 hectares.
The mountain consists of an enourmous
black cone, visible from a distance of up to 250km away. The extremely
fertile slopes are cultivated with dense groves of oranges, mandarins,
lemons, olives, agaves and prickly pears, as well as bananas, eucalyptus,
palm trees, maritime pines and vines from which the excellent Etna
wine is produced. Probably, the most common of the wild plants is
Euphorbia dendroides (tree spurge).
Above 500m, plantations of hazelnuts,
almonds, pistachio and chestnuts give way to oaks, beeches, birches,
and pines higher up, especially around Linguaglossa (see below).
The landscape at this altitude is also characterized by a local
variety of broom. At 2100m, the desolate landscape sustains desert-like
plants like Astragalus aetnensis (a local variety of milk-vetch),
a small prickly bush often found alongside colorful endemic varieties
of violet, groundsel and other flowers which populate the slopes
of the secondary craters. Higher up, snow and, for a lot time after
an eruption, hot lava prevent any type of macroscopic vegetation
protected areas of Etna harbour a large variety of small mammals
(porcupine, fox, wild cat, weasel, marten and dormouse), birds (kestrel,
buzzard, chaffinch, woodpecker and hoopoe), a few reptiles, such
as the asp viper, and a large variety of butterflies, including
the Eastern orange tip (Anthocharis damone, which is more commonly
known in Italy as the Aurora dell’Etna).
Opportunities abound when it comes
to walking into the park, with facilities both for short and long
excursions (the longest and most complex being the Grande Traversata
Etnea involving 5 days of trekking, with daily 12km-15km hikes).
There are also nature trails and,
for the less agile, the circumnavigation of Etna by car (see below)
or train: the latter option uses the section of railway that leaving
from Catania goes around the mountain and stops at Riposto; onward
services to Catania are by bus. For more information, contact the
Ferrovia Circumetnea (ph. 095/541246)
For detailed information about routes
enquire at the following:
Provinciale di Catania, ph. 095/317722; Azienda di Soggiorno e Turismo
di Nicolosi, ph. 095/911505; Pro Loco information centres of Linguaglossa,
ph. 095/643094, and Zafferana Etnea, ph. 095/70 82825; the Gruppo
Guide Alpine Etna Sud at Nicolosi, ph. 095/7914755.
Ascent to the top – Unpredictable ad ongoing
eruptions of the volcano undermine any permanent tourist amenity
infrastructure (roads, ski-runs, ropeways, refuges); favorite haunts
and recommended itineraries, therefore, should be considered as
temporary and subject to being closed at short notice following
any recent eruption.
Excursions across the higher slopes of the volcano, in particular,
may be cancelled due to forecas ts of bad weather (rain or mist).
It is as well to bear in mind that, especially on the northeast
side of the mountain, the period during which it is possible to
go hiking varies each year according to the snowfall. At the start
of the season (normally in May), shorter walks that stop well below
the top are organized. When there is no snow – or if there
is, only after the snowcat has cleared the roads through the highest
section – is it possible to reach 3,000m. The best time for
hiking on Etna is normally high summer, especially in the early
– Whether aiming for high (see below) or low altitudes, it
is important to remember that termperatures can plummet even here
in Sicily. It is therefore advisable to carry a thick sweater, a
wind-cheater and appropriate footwear (preferably hiking boots suitable
for walking through snow higher up). Those arriving without suitable
attire can, however, hire jackets and boots locally. It is also
advisable to have sun glasses and sun screen to hand for the sunlight
can be dazzling when reflected off the snow and the ultra-violet
can be deceptively powerful in the clear mountain air.
TO THE TOP
A climb up the volcano can be approached
from the south or the north, both routes offering different views
and contrasting qualities.
route from Nicolosi to Rifugio Sapienza is through a barren, black
and desert-like environment when compared to the lushly green section
up via Piano Provenzana.
the coast to the southern slopes – 45km drive from
Acireale; allow half a day.
are various ways of approaching the southern slopes of the volcano,
which is the bleaker side, where concentrations of black lava form
a lunar-like landscape. All along the edge runs a ring of little
towns, where dark lava stone has been largely used to pave streets,
to ornament the doorways and windows of the houses, to fashion awesome
black masks with exaggerated menace and to articulate the lines
of the churches.
Sant’Antonio – Several of the town’s
major monuments are collected around the Piazza Maggiore, most notably
the Duomo with its imposing façade, rebuilt after the terrible
earthquake of 1693. Opposite stands the 1500’s church of St.
Michael the Archangel. From the piazza, begins the via Vittorio
Emanuele that terminates at the ruined Palazzo Riggio.
– The centre of the village is paved with huge slabs of lava.
The front elevation of the 18th century Mother Church is of the
same dark stone, used here to emphasize the strong verticals of
the doorways and windows above.
– Literally, the name of this town translates as Threechestnuts.
However, contrary to what it might sound, its name actually derives
from tre casti agni (short for “agnelli”, lambs) which
refers to the three chaste lambs that are worshipped here, Alfio,
Filadelfio and Cirino. A festival in their honour is annually celefrated
on 9 and 10 May, the highlight coming with the procession of the
wax effigies, some immensely heavy, borne by bare-chested ignudi
through the city streets to the Santuario di Sant’Alfio on
the outskirts of town. Via Vittorio Emanuele, lined with fine buildings,
leads to the foot of the Chiesa madre di San Nicola with its great
central campanile. The front towers above a steep flight of steps
that is flanked on the right by a projecting recess which rises
to become a series of asymmetrical ramps above. The terrace at the
top provides marvellous views over the plain below.
cooking and folklore – The Villa Taverna restaurant at 42
Corso Colombo is cluttered with an unusual assemblage of artefacts
in an attempt to recreate something of the historic centre of Catania.
The menu offers a range of typical Sicilian dishes at fixed prices.
– Piazza Don Diego is graced with the Duomo, which has an
unusual spire covered in brightly-coored maiolica tiles.
– It is often regarded as the gateway to Etna. It is here
that the official guides (Alpine Etna Sud ph. 095/7914755) are centred
and it is from here that the road winds its way up to Rifugio Sapienza,
the starting point for all expeditions to the crater.
to the summit of Etna – The route lies through a
strangely unnerving landscape with
black lava below and blue sky above, relieved occasionally by a
white patch of snow or lonely cloud as if for dramatic effect. Before
getting to the refuge, a sign points to the Crateri Silvestri, moonlike
craters a short walk away, at a height of 1886 m.
from the south side – The section up to 1923m can
be made by cable-car (from Rifugio Sapienza); to 2608m by four-wheel
drive vehicle, leaving a short distance to cover on foot.
For safety reasons, it is not possible
to get close to the central vent.
excursion by vehicle includes a stop near the Valle del Bove, a
vast sunken area (hence the description as a valley) enclosed by
1000m high walls of lava, split with great crevasses and chasms.
This zone has been the scene of violent eruptions, with flows of
lava that succeeded in reaching the towns below (1852, 1950, 1979
northeast flank – 62km drive from Linguaglossa: allow
a full day
nearly 6,000 inhabitants and lying at 550m a.s.l., is especially
renowned as a ski resort. Its name, literally translating as “tongue”
both in Italian (lingua) and in Greek (glossa), refers, according
to an intriguing hypothesis, to its hot position on the slopes of
the volcano, many times invaded by its lava. It was supposedly founded
by survivors of Naxos as apparently attest some Greek relics unearthed
by the Ficheri creek. In the central piazza is the Mother Church
dedicated to the Madonna delle Grazie. Its façade combines
lava and sand stone. Inside it has three naves adorned with two
beautiful paintings attributed to Olivo Sozzi and a 1700’s
carved wooden choir where are illustrated scenes from the life of
The Pro Loco’s office, in
the town’s main street, serves as the main reference point
for planning excursions up Etna. Information and explanatory boards
provide details about the park and the volcano that can be useful
when organising walks in the area.
the road to Mareneve, which is bordered by a nice pine-wood, you
reach Piano Provenzana, where you can park your car and undertake
the climb up to the craters. Following a highly scenic route, a
4x4 mini-bus can take you up to 3000m altitude, where a new observatory
has been built, replacing the one destroyed by lava during the 1971’s
eruption (lasting 69 days). This affected both the southern (wiping
out both the observatory and the ropeway) and the eastern slopes,
where the lava flow threatened some of the towns below (Fornazzo
and Milo), before stopping about 7km short of the sea. From the
observatory, at 2,750m, there is a magnificent vista. At 3,000m,
the more intrepid can undertake a walk to the awesome vents. The
route may vary according to the latest outward signs given by the
volcano. On the downward return journey, you can stop at 2,440m
and examine the craters that were the cause of the 1809 eruption.
Route – From Piano Provenzana, follow the scenic
Mareneve road skirting the eastern side of the mountain. Many farming
villages has grown on the lower slopes exploiting the fertile volcanic
soil by cultivating vines and citrus fruits.
Near Randazzo, just before taking
the road connecting Linguaglossa and Zafferana Etnea, it passes
the lava flow which incredibly spared the little Cappella del Sacro
Cuore (on the left), only sligthly penetrating it. Regarded as having
been preserved by a miracle, the chapel is a favorite goal of believers,
who come here to give thanks, bearing ex-voto offerings.
Fornazzo a road down to the left leads to Sant’Alfio.
– Its Mother Church is of 1600’s origin, although it
was refurbished in the 19th century and graced with a fine lava-stone
façade and campanile. Across the square is a terrace with
a splendid view over the Ionian coast. The Castagno dei 100 Cavalli
(literally 100 horses’ chestnut), on the provincial road to
Linguaglossa, is a major attraction for tourists. It is a fabulous
specimen of over two-thousand years, comprising three distinct trunks
with a combined circumference of 60m. According to a legend, during
a storm, many centuries ago, a queen and her one-hundred knights,
took refuge under the branches of this majestic tree, hence its
back in the direction of Fornazzo and continue towards Milo.
– This small farming community tenuously survives, as it has
over the years, against all
odds given the unpredictable, blind advances of lava which have
so far spared it. Indeed, on many
occasions, the lava has come to within a few metres before, at the
last minute, changing direction.
in the direction of Zafferana Etnea as far as Trecastagni and Nicolosi,
then continue along the southern slope or towards Catania.
TOUR OF ETNA
round trip: allow a full day
road running around the circumference of Mount Etna provide a kaleidoscope
of different views of the volcano, while passing through various
picturesque little villages.
– The imposing 1700’s church dedicated to Santa Maria
delle Grazie rises tall above the town roof tops, its elegant façade
visible from miles away. In the south apse, nestles a Madonna and
Child attributed to Antonello Gagini.
– In 1072, Roger II built a castle here on top of a crag.
Its square form is
on one side by a series of two-light windows. The black lava stone
provides a strong contrast for highlighting the white stone ornamental
features. Clustered around the castle are the main religious buildings:
the Chiesa Madre, founded in Norman times and rebuilt in the 14th
century, and the Chiesa di San Francesco. Below these, developed
the town’s other buildings, predominantly in the 17th century.
Maria di Licodia – At the heart of this little town
is Piazza Umberto; this slightly raised square stretches before
a former Benedictine monastery (now Town Hall) and the Chiesa del
Crocifisso. Down the left side of the church stands its attractive
bell-tower (1100’s-1300’s) built in stone of two colors.
– This is one of the oldest settlements on the slopes of Mount
Etna (the earliest traces found date from Neolithic times), founded,
it is alleged, by the tyrant Dionysius in the 5th century BC under
the name of Adranon. Evidence of the massive walls built of square
blocks of lava are still clearly visible (follow Via Catania and
turn right at the yellow sign).
Its castle was built during the
Norman occupation and still overlooks the main Piazza Umberto. This
unmistakable square edifice of dark lava stone owes its form to
the Swabian era. Inside, it houses three museums.
The Museo Etnoantropologico collects
objects made by local craftsmen.
On three floors, the Museo Archeologico
Regionale, displays artefacts relating to the history of the area
– and from other parts of the Eastern sicily – from
the Neolithic age until the Byzantine period. Of particular note
(on the second floor), are a banchettante, (which translates as
the banqueting guest), an early bronze figurine, of Samina workmanship
(second half of the 6th century BC), which probably adorned a bronze
bowl of chest, the terracotta bust of a female Siculian deity found
in the Primosole district (5th century BC), a clay Locrian female
bust (5th century BC), a clay figurative froup of Eros and Psyche,
and a splendid Attic vase with small columns (5th century BC).
The top floor is devoted to the
picture gallery, showing paintings on canvas (by the so-called Zoppo
di Gangi, Filippo Paladino and Vito D’Anna), glass and metal;
sculptures in wood, alabaster and bronze dating from the early 17th
to the early 20th century, and a series of contemporary works by
artists from Adrano and beyond.
piazza stretches eastwards into the delightful garden of the Villa
Comunale, onto which face the church and monastery of Santa Lucia.
The 18th century church’s façade, in two colors, is
by Stefano Ittar.
Solare Eurelios – This experimental power plant lies
few kilometres from Adrano and was built within the framework of
a European Community research project on solar energy sponsered
by Italy, France and Germany. Following a brief period of trial
and experimentation from 1981 to 1987, tests were halted (it had
succeeded in generating 1MW). Currently, attempts are being made
to generate electric power with solar energy using photovoltaic
panels (composed of silivon cells).
Saraceno – The Saracen bridge is located off town,
beside the Simeto River.
was first erected by the Romans, rebuilt under Roger II and altered
through the successive centuries. The pointed arches spanning the
water are articulated with contrasting colored stone. A short walk
north along the river bank leads to the amazing Simeto Gorge, formed,
like Alcantara’s (see Gole dell’Alcantara) by a lava
flow and then polished clean by water bearing away great blocks
– Pride of place in the centre of town, stands the Collegio
Capizzi, a prestigious 18th century boarding-school housed in a
fine palazzo. A few kilometres away, near Maniace, although still
falling within the Bronte district, is the lovely Benedictine Abbey
of Maniace, later converted into “Nelson’s Castle”.
– Follow the signs from Bronte. The castle is situated by
the entrance to the village of Maniace. The Benedictine Abbey, founded
in the 12th century at the behest of Queen Margareth wife of William
the Bad, was situated on an important route of communication into
the Sicilian hinterland. The adjacent chapel is graced with an elegant
doorway with figurative capitals. Inside, it houses a 13th century
Byzantine icon, which is more popularly believed to be the original
one carried by the Byzantine condottiere George Maniakes who inflicted
a crushing defeat on the Saracens. The prosperous monastery was
subjected to various modifications before, finally, being given
by Ferdinand III to the British naval hero Admiral Nelson in 1799.
– see RANDAZZO
for the coast, taking the turning to Marina di Cottone.
Naturale del fiume Fiumefreddo – The Fiumefreddo
river rushes down from the north-eastern slopes of Etna mount, flowing
underground and emerging on the plain where
there is an impermeable layer of gray.
The river rises from two springs,
both 10-12 metres deep, known as Testa dell’Acqua e le Quadare
(“paioli” in Sicilian dialect). It is well worth arranging
a visit to the springs when the sun is at its height; this allows
the depth and clarity of the water to be appreciated in full. The
Ph of the water in the river, never exceeding 10-15° C, even
in summer, and flowing remarkably slowly, provides the right conditions
for an unusual range of water-loving plants more often associated
with Central Europe (certain members of the Ranunculus family) or
Africa (as are papyrus). Other species include the white willow,
aquatic iris, European aspen and horsetail. The springs also attract
a veriety of birds on migration such as herons, oystercatchers,
golden orioles and many species of duck.
the nature reserve, stands the 1700’s Castello degli Schiavi,
a private building, hence not open to the public, designed by architects
Vaccarini and Ittar.
– This little town was once part of the feudal estate belonging
to the Mascalis, having
been bestowed upon the Bishop of Catania by Roger II in 1124. Its
name is taken from the jars in which the tithes on the harvest due
to the bishop were collected. The Duomo is an imposing neo-Classical
building with twin square-set towers. The town’s main street
is Via Callipoli, lined with elegant shops and noble houses including
the Liberty-style, as is Palazzo Bonaventura at no. 170. At no.
154 is palazzo Quattrocchi, ornamented with Moorish designs.
Giarre, head for the coast in the direction of Riposto.
– It was to Riposto that the tithes from the Mascali estates
were brought before
being shipped by sea. The village itself developed around a colony
founded by people from Messina (hence the popularity of the cult
of the Madonna della Lettera) who established their warehouses here
before it became an important depot for wine destined for the export
market in the 19th century. Indeed, the vestiges of a number of
commercial buildings survive from the 1800’s.
The charming Santuario della Madonna
della Lettera, with its face turned towards the sea, was built in
1710, although a church probably existed on the site in Norman times.
Four excavations undertaken beneath the shrine have revealed the
existence of cryptis containing funerary chambers dating from the
Paleo-Christian period, coins dating from the Arab-Norman era and
architectural remains from Aragonese times. The painting of the
Virgin and Child on the 18th century altar is of uncertain date.
The choir has an interesting set of recently carved-wooden stalls
and an unusual Baroque lamp set with mother-of-pearl, probably made