The weather breaks fine at dawn; Mount Etna is out in all of her glory, smoking on the southern horizon in the sunshine. At 8:30 we board a double-decker tour bus and set off on our volcanic expedition. The ride, from Taormina down the hill to the sea, puts the “hair” in hair-pin curves. Our bus driver, the cautious Francesco, negotiates each corner skillfully and we do not plunge over the side into the ocean waiting below.
The journey from Taormina to Etna takes about ninety minutes. Our drive is enlivened by Santos, the tour guide, who occasionally points out items of interest en-route. We learn more than we might want to learn about Etna Red, the local grapes grown in the ash-rich soil of the slopes of the volcano. Some of the villages we pass through were devastated by the lava flows of 1991. The official Etna DVD (on sale at all of the better souvenir shops) has footage of the people trying to salvage anything movable—roof tiles, railroad tracks—as the slowly advancing lava grinds inexorably toward the villages. Life on the edge of an active volcano is a great trade-off: the fields are a rich, fertile green, but there is always the risk that everything you own, crops included, might be buried under molten lava or ash.
As we wind our way up the southeastern flank of the volcano, clouds tuck in around us. Francesco tells us to be of good cheer, for often the peak is clear of clouds even when the lower slopes are fogged in. The slopes are green with vegetation: ficus and magnolia trees, and the spiny tennis ball of horse chestnuts that rattle occasionally along the bus roof.
We park in the mountain's tourist center. In addition to being an active volcano, Mount Etna also serves as a ski resort several months each year. I would have thought we were too far south for significant snow, but we are surrounded by snowboard and ski rental shops (not to mention the ubiquitous Etna souvenir shops). In the 2001 eruption all of these shops and hotels were nearly wiped out by a great lava flow. An immense, loose pile of lava rings the parking lot. Today these stones are cold and silent now, resembling large piles of black gravel. It was a different story in 2001, and the video footage we have seen of that eruption shows how close the flow came. When the lava slows down, it moves like a coal fire that is slowly being pushed forward by a shovel. The leading edge of the coals cool, then fall forward as darker stones, pressed ahead by the mass behind. The flow sets fire to anything in its path, creeping slowly forward, several meters per day. One of the cable car stations was destroyed in 2001, and it is only recently that the cable car line has returned to service .
We file off the bus, into the clammy grip of the clouds. We've been warned to dress warmly. This was good advice. I've piled on every warm thing I have in my suitcase: my one pair of summer weight trousers, and on top, a thin cotton shirt, my Tyrolian mountain vest (a very good purchase) and my lightweight rain shell. It is cold. Fortunately the girls bought coats and sweatshirts. They are better prepared for this outing.
There are three basic options for travelers to the southern slope of Etna. Unfortunately, none of them involve lava. You can stay at the base camp (1900 meters of altitude) where the bus drops you off (or hike up the mountain from here), take a cable car up to 2300 meters, or, for a cool hundred euros per person, get chauffered even higher in a Uni-Mog. We elect option two and ride the cable car to the intermediate level. As predicted, the clouds clear as we ascend, and we are presented with a fine view of Etna, smoking above us.
The Uni-Mog crowd climb into their chunky vehicles and roar farther up the road. We snug our clothes about us, then step out into the icy wind. Winter is coming fast to the mid-slope of Etna, and I feel its arrival in my exposed ears. Perhaps it really does snow on the mountain.
We spend a few minutes hopping around on one of the lava flows. The rocks are loose beneath our feet, and the stones we dislodge clatter away with a sound of breaking glass. I suppose this is the closest we will ever get to walking on the moon or Mars. It is a vast wasteland populated only by orange lady bugs (for some reason they are swarming on the lava) and the occasional butterfly.
Francesco has told us that if we take a short walk up the hill, we will be able to see one of the craters from an older eruption. We decide to follow his advice and begin hiking. Walking is not easy on the black ash; it is a bit like scrambling across a sand dune at the beach. As we gain height we are exposed to the wind, which kicks up lava dust with every step. Eventually we reach the top of a small rise and are rewarded with a view to the north.
It is cold, and despite the view, we are not inclined to tarry. Back down to the upper cable car station where we sit through a screening of the Etna DVD. The power of the volcano is amazing. I would love to hike around to the north face of the mountain, where the lava is currently on the march. We have to settle for this still wasteland, which seven years ago was a great sea of orange fire. Truly amazing.
The clouds have thickened at the lower levels, and as we descend, the cars on the cable ahead of us vanish into the fog. We are alone in the mist, staring down the cable at nothing. Then the cars coming up the mountain begin to pass us with no one riding in them. The girls busy themselves constructing doomsday scenarios; perhaps vampires are snatching people trapped in the cars. All good things come to an end, however, and we reach the lower station where nothing nefarious seems to be afoot.
We have lunch in a small bar that offers reasonably priced fare. After lunch, the girls graze through the souvenir shops while I sit and watch the lava. The great piles of loose stone come right up to the road and the borders of the parking lot. Another few feet and the entire resort would have been turned to smoke and ash. It is amazing.
Back on the bus for the ride home under gray skies. We break out from under the pall as we leave the slopes of the mountain. Perhaps the smoke rising off Etna creates a micro-climate that is responsible for the shroud of clouds. We motor along the sea, taking in the fine views of water and Taormina as we approach. It has been a fine outing definitely one of the high points of the trip.