The God Volcano, the Pillar of Heaven
Most visitors’ first glimpse of Europe’s highest and most active volcano— the ancient Greeks called it the Pillar of Heaven—is from the gorgeously sited Greek Theater in the resort town of Taormina. As long as white smoke rises from Mount Etna’s snowcapped peak—visible from 150 miles away when not cloaked in mist—all is calm with the world.
But too frequently it turns black, stirring restlessness among the area’s 1 million residents. These locals continue the centuries-long love-hate relationship with a muntagna, as they call her in dialect, building and rebuilding their homes perversely close to the volatile mountain.
Etna has erupted 300 times since the first recordings 3,000 years ago, most recently in 2001. In one of the most violent eruptions, in 1667, rivers of lava destroyed much of Catania, 19 miles away. No other gardens in Sicily are as lush as the vineyards and groves of lemon, orange, almond, and olive trees that today cover the fertile lower slopes leading up to the volcano.
But a bus trip that passes through this green belt and continues up to the crater’s lip fast becomes a ride through a toasted lunar landscape—brooding, dark, and fascinating. A cable car carries visitors over pinnacles of frozen lava dunes, minor craters, smoke holes—this vision of petrified chaos makes the ascent to Etna’s 11,000-foot summit one of Italy’s most haunting day trips.