domenica 30 agosto 2015

The Allure of Mount Etna

A look at life and adventure near Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe
The ancient Greeks called it the god of fire and the home of Cyclops, the one-eyed monster. In modern days, Mount Etna is known as the largest active volcano in Europe. At 3,350 metres above sea level, it dominates Catania, Sicily, and can be seen from just about every part of the island. “The volcano is so huge, both in a physical sense and in terms of its historic and cultural weight,” say Jürgen Horn and Michael Powell, two travelling companions who chronicled their Mount Etna adventures on the blog “For 91 Days.” And the volcano is also a treasure trove of gems.
“Its shape and system are quite complex,” points out Rocco Davide Federico, a tour guide with Continente Sicilia. “It has hundreds of craters – five active craters at the top plus more than 300 around the main ones.”
Beyond its unique system of craters, there are also caves, unusual landscapes, and all those darn lava flows. “The lava flows are frequent, but the lava itself is thick and sticky; therefore, it is very slow moving,” explains Giacomo Mazza, an associate at touring company Sicily TravelNet.
But there’s a darker side. The god of fire’s boiling lava and ash, which have been erupting on and off for thousands of years, are a constant threat of danger. This past June 2014, an eruption forced the local airport to close down. Despite this, the residents, who were born and raised near Mount Etna, take life near a volcano in stride.
Antonio Di Giovanni, the founder and co-CEO of Sicily Off-Road, which operates jeep tours to Mount Etna, was born and raised near the volcano and affectionately refers to it as “a muntagna” (the mountain).
“Every day when we wake up our first look is turned towards ‘her’ to know if it will be a quiet day,” he says. “We have no fear to live here. Even as children, we learn to live with the negative aspects of the eruptions like the rain of ash and sand, and so on.” Natalie Milano, a tour leader at Sicily Off-Road, has similar sentiments.
“It's amazing how little importance the local inhabitants give to the fact that they are living on an active volcano. They party, have dinners and laugh while Etna is giving a show, enjoying watching eruptions as if they were watching fireworks. They are theoretically aware that an entire village could be devoured by lava, but positive that nothing like that will ever happen to them.” As part of its dichotomy, Mount Etna has given beauty and life to the residents down below who live in its shadow. Oak trees and plants cover its sloped surface, and the nearby forest is home to frogs and squirrels.
Its eruptions have made the surrounding soil fertile and created a rich agriculture that abounds with vineyards and fruit orchards. Mazza explains: “Volcanoes often accumulate rain and melted snow in their depths, which reappear in the form of freshwater springs around the base, permiting the cultivation of highly-prized crops.”
From the perspective of the scientific community, Mount Etna is endlessly fascinating with its diverse range of volcanic features. And its scientific, educational and cultural aspects were officially given the nod by UNESCO in 2013 when it added the volcano to its list of world heritage sites.
The volcano’s allure continues to attract tourists from all over the world. Tourism, in fact, is the economic lifeblood of nearby towns like Adrano, Randazzo, Zafferana and Nicolosi, whose 5,000 inhabitants are mostly made up of tourists. These towns and their bustling restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, marketplaces and wineries are indebted to the volcano. And though it’s been said that life at the top can be lonely, Mount Etna seems to be in good company.

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