Mount Etna, which stands at almost 11,000 feet, dominates the Sicilian skyline, a vague threat situated near the island's eastern coast. This is the most active volcano in the world. The ancient Greeks believed it to be the home of Vulcan, the god of fire—to them, Mount Etna erupting merely meant Vulcan was forging weapons for Mars, the god of war. Dating back to 1500 BC, the volcano has erupted around 200 times, and the 21st century saw Mount Etna erupting yet again in 2001, with lava flows reaching within mere miles of the nearby town of Nicolosi. But regardless of the history of Mount Etna, the people that live within the volcano"s destructive reach seem completely unfazed.
A map of Mount Etna shows a swirling tangle of dried lava and colorful forests. Near the foot of the volcano, there are a multitude of vineyards and olive groves. As you climb higher, the lowlands evolve into dense woods sheltering a surprisingly large number of animal species that call the mountainside home, until you are left at the third tier of the mountain, a spartan wasteland of historic lava flows and volcanic ash. Dotted with snow most of the year, some of the lava is dated at 300,000 years old. In the past, scientists have used this area to test robots before they send them to Mars, becasue the atmospheric and geological conditions are so similar.
The most violent eruption in the history of Mount Etna occurred in March of 1669. On the first day, lava flows cut a smoldering gash out of two mountain villages. The volcano did not stop there, however. It continued to spew forth-molten rock for days on end, and by the end of April, the city walls of Catania had succumbed and the western side of the city was demolished before the lava mercifully came to a stop.
Despite the daily threat of Mount Etna erupting, tours into the unsteady heart of the volcano are readily available for the intrepid hiker. A map of Mount Etna will show that the south side is free for all to traverse, but you"ll need a guide if you want to make it to look directly into the eye of the great volcano. This hike is well worth it, though—it allows you to see, smell and touch the turbulent history of Mount Etna. Before any climb, it is imperative to check into the tourist office in Catania to learn the present status of the volcano, hiking instructions and to get a map of Mount Etna, detailing all the viewpoints of Sicily's most explosive natural attraction.