Sicily does not automatically spring to mind as an adventure destination. But it’s home to Europe’s tallest – and most active – volcano: Mount Etna, a 3,295m-high mountain that still regularly spews hot ash, lava and gases. Locals refer to the volcano as “mother mountain”; Etna formed the coastline and is responsible for the rich soil that makes Sicily’s olive oil, tomatoes and wine so sought after. Climbing to the top crater is an arduous challenge, but one that offers incredible views across the island and Mediterranean.
Etna is a volatile character, however, and summiting it is no ordinary mountaineering mission – the hazards include exploding gases along with precipitous falls and treacherous weather. But the chance to stand on the crater rim and gaze down into the abyss? As they’ve been known to say over here, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I disembark in Catania. At three hours, the flight from Gatwick was perfect for delving into a book – Pompeii by Robert Harris, the story of the Vesuvius eruption in AD79 that buried the famous town near Naples along with all its inhabitants. Just the thing to get one in the mood.
A Mercedes E-Class is waiting; the driver zooms north along Sicily’s spectacular coastline, and within an hour we reach the historic hillside town of Taormina, beloved by artists and writers from Bertrand Russell to Truman Capote. Its signature slice of history is an ancient Greek theatre dating from the third century BC. My stop is the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, right next door –its gardens are where DH Lawrence apparently got the inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s horticultural escapades. Beyond them, the object of my fancy dominates the horizon, its snow-capped summit glistening like a gelato. Tomorrow is going to be a big day; I turn in early after a delicious dinner.
Spending the whole day on foot needs a lot of slow-burning calories; I find just the thing at the breakfast buffet – thick slices of fatty donkey salami. I meet my guide, Lorenzo Motta, whose passion for volcanology is contagious as we drive.
The usual time for hiking up Etna is over the summer months, starting from the southern side, where a cable car and 4x4 can take all but the most sedentary individuals to within a 40-minute walk of the topmost crater (Etna boasts around 252 extinct craters to its four active ones). I, however, am going up the northern side, which is wilder and less frequented – even more so out of season. In early spring, a few days before I arrive, a large snowfall blankets the black volcanic rock. “Ascending in winter is very extreme,” says Lorenzo. “Etna is an active volcano. With snow it’s even more complicated.” The reason why will become all too apparent.
We come to a stop at a small mountain hut at 1,800m, stopping to hire snowshoes and ski poles and have an espresso. Then we’re on our way, picking a path through a forest of silver birch trees that have adapted to their volcanic surroundings by growing up like bushes, rather than single-trunked trees. The snowshoes are cumbersome at first but I soon get the hang of it.
An hour into our ascent we come to a halt. Lorenzo hands me a helmet and torch, and tells me to take off the snowshoes – we’re going into a cave formed by lava from the eruption of 1971. I duck as we shuffle in, crawling under a low roof for several metres until it ascends. A shaft of light enters from above, creating an eerie atmosphere. We then navigate a low-roofed tunnel that leads down into the mountain. Stalactites of ice hang from above; sharp-edged lava claws at my clothing. We venture 50m into the deep.
“How far does this tunnel go?” I ask.
“For 350m,” he replies.
We turn around well before that – our mission is to go up, not in.
The snow has obscured the path and for several metres we have to fight our way through thickets of bushes, but above 2,000m we clear the snowline and the going becomes somewhat easier. Lorenzo keeps a close eye on the summit, which is letting off ominous steam through swirling banks of cloud.
“The last big eruption was in December 2002,” he tells me. “The worst was in 1669. It almost completely destroyed Catania and extended the coastline by a mile.” But it also took 122 days to reach the sea, and caused no fatalities. “On Etna, lava travels slowly – you can have lunch, a siesta and still escape.” But it can be a different story for those too close to the action, as a BBC crew discovered in March 2017; they were among 10 people injured when a surprise eruption showered them with red-hot rocks. “The problem was the snow,” Lorenzo explains. “It melted and turned to steam, causing the sudden explosion. They forgot to respect Mother Nature.”
The view is incredible – and so is the cold. By now we’re on the ridge that leads all the way to the top, being blasted by a crosswind that throws us off balance and whips through to the bone. The landscape – all black basalt rock and snow – is not of this world. I glance over my shoulder at the coast and Ionian Sea beyond, and picture the tourists wandering Taormina’s cobbled streets in sandals and tees. I pull up the hood on my jacket and march on.
The clouds are rolling in; Lorenzo is not happy. “It can be a very dangerous situation,” he says. It’s not just about being caught out with zero visibility; the strong winds are pushing the sulphurous gases in our direction. “You shouldn’t breathe them in.” At a high point of 2,500m, he makes the call – we will climb no further. I know he’s right but it’s hugely disappointing. We don’t have to turn back straight away, however; we can make for the second largest extinct crater. “But we need to hurry,” Lorenzo says.
Snowshoes abandoned, we dash across the mountain, traversing lava fields and patches of icy snow, glancing frequently over our shoulders at the threatening clouds. Breathless, we reach a steep wall of volcanic rock and begin to climb, but the ground is so loose it’s two steps up and one step back. It’s 100m of hard ascent; when we reach the top we’re blasted by the wind once again. We crouch down, trying to shelter from its fury. It’s no place to hang around, but we stop for something to eat and drink; I’m famished and exhausted. Conversation is out of the question. With our flasks back in our rucksacks, a nod is all that’s required to agree on our next move – down.
We hurl ourselves down the mountain. The speediness of our descent is partly about urgency, but it’s also a lot of fun – glissading down snow and scree until we’re off the mountain proper and out of the wind. Suddenly, in the comparative shelter of the woods, the world feels a better place. We enjoy the hike back to the hut, whose warmth – and coffee – exert a magnetic pull.
At the Timeo’s bar, with Etna in the distance, I’m presented with the hotel’s signature cocktail, the Etna Spritz. I may not have gazed into the molten belly of the volcano, but the Campari/Sicilian orange liqueur/prosecco concoction certainly fires my insides. At dinner I entrust all decisions to the maître d’. “So the journey begins,” smiles the sommelier, as she pours the first of several Sicilian wines.
That Sicily has hosted stages of the Giro d’Italia for the past two years isn’t surprising: its twisting windswept roads and steep climbs offer perfect riding. My legs are far from fresh, but a half-day in the saddle is just the panacea for my heavy head. My guide and bike are waiting for me in the lobby. Soon we’re beginning the first climb out of Taormina, breathing hard already.
A 350m ascent takes us to Castelmola, which offers beautiful views of the coast and an inviting café in the middle of its piazza. But it’s too early for coffee and cornetti, so we cycle on, venturing north via back roads into Sicily’s interior, past villages that haven’t changed in centuries.
Halfway up another steep climb of endless switchbacks, a horrible half-vision hits me – was I singing in the bar last night? I flick the gears, stand up in the pedals and crank it to the top, punishing away the thought. Sweat pours, my lungs heave, my legs flame with pain. But it’s all worth it, because the ride back down the other side is the stuff of dreams – if you like your descents fast, furious and a bit scary. We pass Forza d’Agrò, where Francis Ford Coppola filmed several Godfather scenes; then it’s back to Taormina, following the stunning, winding coast.
After a four-hour ride I think I’ve earned my lunch, and devour the most perfectly simple spaghetti al pomodoro. Then I’m back in the Mercedes and whisked to the airport to catch the 16.30 back to London. As if by personal request, the pilot banks directly over Etna on the ascent; I get my view into the volcano at last. I sit back and close my eyes. There will be no reading on this flight – I’m fast asleep before we reach mainland Europe.