Stores under a volcano? The dangerous entice of Mount Etna

Tourists queue to take cable cars up Sicilys fiery mountain, blithely risking lava bombs. Morwenna Ferrier joins them

The best position of Mount Etna is from the gods of the ancient Greek amphitheatre in Taormina. From here it looms over this coastal township, famous for its pistachios and hosting the G7 summit, swallowing up the landscape. The snow stripes the sides, even in early summertime. Smoke plumes rise up. It seems virtually fake. At nearby Fanaberia Gelateria, though, they say that to them the volcano is always alive.

No kidding. Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, is also its most lively. Sitting on the eastern coast of Sicily, encompassing 459 square miles and comprising rocks, woodland and farmland, it erupts all the time, letting off steam with lesbian abandon, or “burping”, laughs Giuseppe, our tour guide, attempting to induce the noise.

Since destroying part of the port of Catania in 1669, Etna’s had a good running of low-key eruptions, although it returned to the press in March following an eruption which left 10 people, including a BBC crew, injured when lava mixed with snowfall, spewing out boiling rocks from a crater on the south-eastern side.

It erupts several times a year. The last one, three days before we arrive, means we cannot travel above 2,500 m. The drive up from Zafferana( historic, functioning) or Nicolosi( smaller, quainter) is looping, but an excellent way to view the changing land: it starts with woodland and small shepherd refuges. Then come the broom trees with their amber, jasmine-scented blooms and butterflies. Vineyards follow, then everything goes black, save the lichen. Lava craters dot the landscape.

On a good day … Etna seen from afar. The mountain covers 459 square miles. Photograph: Oscar Rickett

The Sapienza refuge acts as a base camp, and looks like a small ski resort. A wooden coffeehouse serving panini also sells postcards of the lava flow that flattened the previous cafe which stood on the very same place.” The volcano erupts, the lava comes, and it just destroys everything very, very slowly and they have to start again ,” explains Giuseppe, who takes tourists up most days. Why do they keep opening stores? He shrugs.” There is a lot of money to be made .”

It’s the start of summer and soon Etna’s cable cars will rival Venetian vaporetti. Today it’s Americans, Canadians and a group of German cyclists up here with us. We queue for half an hour and can’t help observe that the 20 -minute cable car to the upper crater zones rises at quite an angle. Below, huge black boulders and small green shrubs, known as mother-in-law’s cushion because of the spikes, line the incline. The clouds are low and the air feels thin.

At the summit we are bused to a crater and allowed to wander freely, within reason. There are guards barking in orange padded jackets as we march along trails of hard, still-warm lava which we chip off and steal.

Selfie moment: the author at the summit. Photo: Oscar Rickett

Volcano tourism, says renowned vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, is” a natural repercussion of an active volcano”, and a type of geotourism- new grammar for vacations with a focus on conserving and promoting a sense of “place”. Another instance is Cornwall’s tin mines, which are also filling up, he says, but volcanoes have the monopoly- an estimated 100 million people visit volcanic sites worldwide each year.

You can see the appeal. At 3,350 m high, Etna looks like a burnt moonscape. The skiing is excellent too. But there are drawbacks. Globally, injuries and demises at volcanoes are on the increase, driven by the rise in popularity of these holidays. Awarded, Etna isn’t too dangerous but it’s not without risk.

Sicilians respond to Etna in different ways. Religious locals used to fear it, rushing at the lava with crucifixes. There was a hour when they guessed Etna was home to a cyclops blindly hurling lava bombs. During the last few eruptions, families would barbecue meat and fish over the slow-moving lava. They also know that without Etna, Sicilian tourism might fight, and thanks to the microclimate Etna is the third most important wine-producing area in Italy. The nerello grape, which produces wine like a sort of lighter Burgundy, is pretty great.

Meals on wheels: a van selling local delicacies such as pistachio cream and honey. Photo: Oscar Rickett

To Guido Alessandro Coffa, who runs Monaci delle Terre Nere hotel just south of Zafferana, Etna is a backdrop. His hotel is one of the closest to the volcano, sitting softly in its foothills. Coffa, a former technologist, turned this 19 th-century millennial-pink monastery into a hotel with a pond: it was once home to clergymen who used it to store wine. Over the past few decades he has bought up various outhouses and turned them into rooms. Floors are made from cocciopesto- brick and lime mortar- and various motifs have been retained.

Room seven, a former wine press, has a bed built over the press itself. On top of terraced farmland it is right in Etna’s shadow. Other rooms have walls built from its volcanic stone. The food served is grown in nutrient-rich soil with a focus on nuts, oranges, Ragusano cheese and honey. Organic is a key topic at the hotel, where they grow peaches, vines and figs in terraces around the 16 -hectare farm. The grounds are discreetly mapped out so that you scarcely assure a soul, and the pond is a geometric dream; all is silent, bar the steady hum of bees. Coffa has plans for the valley, with a keen eye on the need( and trend) for sustainability. In the next few years he will restore an amphitheatre and build a spa.

But always there is the uncertainty of the next eruption, when the landscape is likely to be shuffled and reshaped. Lava moves at a glacial pace, like squeezed toothpaste down hillsides, swallowing trees, homes, entire villages.

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