The thousands of Sicilians who live in villages on the foothills of the volcano are constantly alert to Etna's moods and, from time to time, his grumblings shake heaven and earth as if to remind us all just who is in charge on the island. The ancient mound – site of the legendary workshop of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire - is around 500,000 years old. At an altitude of 3,340 metres, Etna's peak dominates the east of Sicily, and the fire-breathing mountain has sculpted the landscape and way of life around him as few other volcanoes have done anywhere in the world.
Written records of the devastation the volcano has wrought date back over two thousand years and the most recent eruptions grab international attention. Etna doesn't disappoint: back in 1669 the whole landscape of Sicily was changed, while in 1928 lava destroyed the village of Mascali. More recently, in 1971 even the Observatory set to monitor the volcano's activity was swept away, and in the summer of 2001, a ski station was lost. (Yes, strange as it may sound, it's actually possible to ski on the slopes of this colossus with a heart of fire.)
Despite the constant danger and uncertainty and the continual fight by generation after generation to tame the rivers of lava and divert them from the villages each time the monster roars, locals say that Etna is a 'good' volcano. Certainly the land of the lower slopes is fertile, rich with vineyards and olives groves, and almonds, pistachios and lemon trees dot the foothills. It's said that often the ogre stirs in February, the month dedicated to Saint Agueda, the patron saint of the island. When this happens, statues of the saint are carried in procession through the streets and she is believed to placate the monster's ire.
For over 20 years, the volcano and its surroundings – including over a hundred secondary cones among the lava fields – has been classified and protected as a Natural Park. When the weather is suitable and Etna isn't in a bad mood, it's relatively easy to reach the top and look over the edge of the crater where visitors can get a sight of the infernal regions. A road leads from the village of Nicolosi – miraculously saved from the 1983 eruption by the use of explosives to turn the tongues of magma that threatened to devour it – to the Sapienza Refuge. From here, transport is by chair lift up to an altitude of 2,500 meters and then the trip continues by off-road vehicle to just over 2,900 metres.
The last stage of the climb must be covered on foot and guides are available who will explain the secrets of the fumaroles (vents through which gases and steam escape) and calderas (circular depressions near the summit formed differently from craters), and of the petrified lava fields and channels along which glowing embers flow at the feet of any who dares peek into the mouth of Hell.