Even in May, when the temperature was soaring, there was snow on the ground. 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 the volcano was puffing gently in the distance. This was Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Sicily, and we were determined to make the most of our visit, to enjoy the views and the scenery of one of the island’s most spectacular places.
Mount Etna: 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.
In 2013 Mount Etna was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This was a recognition of its status as an “iconic site”, one with immense natural and geological significance. It is one of seven World Heritage Sites in Sicily.
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The Most Active Volcano In Europe
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 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.
In fact, the effects of Etna’s volcanic activity can be seen across the island, as past eruptions have given rise to dramatic features such as the Alcantara Gorge.
Mountain Of Ice And Fire
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 of the surrounding countryside that were the main attractions of Etna.