Etna, home of myth

"I’d heard tell of the stupendous iridescences of the aurora over the Ionian Sea, viewed from the peak of Etna. I decided to climb that mountain; we passed from the vineyards to the lava region, and then to the snow. The boy with the dancer’s legs ran up those steep slopes; the intellectuals who accompanied me rode on the backs of mules. There was a refuge at the top, where we could await dawn. The sun finally rose: an excellent cloak of prismatic light stretching from one horizon to the other; strange fiery lights blazed on the ice of the peak; the vastness of the land and sea unfolded before our eyes, as far as Africa, which was visible, and Greece, the position of which we could only guess at. This was one of the supreme moments of my life. Nothing was missing, neither the golden fringe of a cloud, nor the eagles, nor the cup of life."

In these words Margherite Yourcenar, in her "Memoirs of Hadrian", tells of the intense and unforgettable experience of the climb to Etna. Europe’s highest active volcano, standing 3323 metres above sea level, is imprinted in the collective memory of the island’s ancient and modern-day inhabitants and visitors, as a source of life and wellbeing, but also as a severe warning not to thwart the irrepressible force of nature. Its huge profile and spectacular volcanic activity have made Etna the star of myths and legends since ancient times.

In pre-Socratic Greece, the philosopher Empedocles used Etna as an example to demonstrate the perennial future of all natural forces, a tiny universe in which fire, air, water and earth were in constant transformation. Even Dante, in his "Divine Comedy", remembers the legend according to which Etna is said to have originated from the punishment inflicted by Zeus following the impudence of two Titans, Enceladus and Typhoeus, against whom the king of the gods hurled a heavy boulder, sentencing them to complain of their anger for all eternity.

The bowels of the mountain, according to Homer, housed the crucible of the god Vulcan, where the weapons of Achilles, hero of the Iliad and the destruction of Troy, were forged. Later, Theocritus and Ovid sang of the tragic and passionate love of Aci and Galatea, obstructed by Polyphemus who, jealous of the nymph, killed her lover and was then sentenced by Zeus to be transformed into a rumbling mountain with only one flaming eye: Mount Etna.

An essential leg of the Grand Tour destined to the European bourgeoisie, the climb of Etna was immortalised by the works of illustrious intellectuals and artists like Goethe and de Maupassant, contributing to the promotion of the discovery of the territory as a land of burning passions and extraordinary contrasts. Even today, it is unthinkable to visit Sicily without getting to know its most evocative and impressive symbol.

Made into a Regional Park in 1987, to defend a natural environment which is unique in terms of beauty, Etna offers a spectacular blend of shades of colour which vary from the foothills to the area near the craters, where it is possible to admire the most recent lava flows. Setting off on the climb to the volcano, long the various accessorised paths, it is possible to walk through vineyards, orchards, pistachio crops, hazel groves and fields filled with broom and then, near the craters, volcanic activity permitting, discover unique and unforgettable “lunar landscapes”.

Of particular interest is the pioneer flora which includes rare or endemic species: the yellow groundsel of Etna and Sicilian milk-vetch, typical of the desolate lava landscape, made up largely of black basalt.

The diversity of the fauna varies according to the altitude, including wildcats (an endangered species in Sicily) foxes, royal eagles, sparrow-hawks, buzzards, peregrine falcons and numerous other species of birds, the spectacular nature of which will involve you in an unforgettable experience.