Etna dominates the sky here, always present yet so difficult to describe: a landmark, a myth, a natural wonder, a geology lab, physically close yet utterly transporting, dark and silent, fiery and smokey, at times an inconvenience but almost always a privilege.
Etna is not just for admiring from afar in all the changing lights of dawn to dusk, winter through summer. It has to be experienced. Its hill towns beckon to be explored, its trails need to be hiked, the wines and fruits and nuts cultivated on its soil have to be sampled in abundance, its slopes have to be navigated from densely populated urban sprawl at its base, green and wooded countryside up at the shoulder, and finally the ashy, rocky moonscape accented by puffs of steam and hidden pockets of snow at its summit.
My poetic daydreaming comes from the trip I recently took to the top of Mt. Etna with my brother, parents and visiting friends and their kids. My brother was a first time visitor, my parents had been here many times before but I had never taken them to visit the crater, and for the friends this was all new.
Down at the coast the weather was humid and smoldering.
I called ahead to check on hours and weather conditions. My exact words: "is it cold, do we need jackets?". "No the weather is very warm, no need". Accompanied by laughter. Which I took to mean that this was a silly question to be asking at the beginning of July. A few hours later I would question that whole conversation, my understanding of the Italian language, my interpretation of that laugh, and my decision not to check the weather forecast myself in my rush to get the group out of the house in order to reach the rifugio Sapienza in time to catch the last bus.
As we neared the top of Etna we noticed thick clouds swirling around the peak. We turned off the air conditioning, opened the windows and found the air to be wonderfully refreshing, sweetened by the scent of ginestra (broom), the wild bushy plant with fragrant yellow flowers growing in large clumps all along the road.
Once parked and out of the car, we discovered not only was the air refreshingly cool, but it was also quite windy. I already had goosebumps and we weren't even to the very top yet. Fortunately, the gondola you take from the base of the rifugio up to catch the bus that drives you to the crater is enclosed. The level of cold was still just cool and refreshing compared to the heat wave we had been experiencing down by the coast.
When you get off the gondola there is a little bar and souvenir shop that you must wait in until it is time to board the bus. Indoors we were able to remain delusional about staying warm, until the boys of our friends went outside and came back in with chattering teeth. The next thing we knew they were over at the souvenir stand trying on thick, overpriced but still cute Etna sweatshirts. My mom quickly followed suit. The rest of us remained in denial.
All aboard! We nestled in the bus, windows up, doors closed, crazy big bus takes you all the way up to the south crater, about a 15 minute ride of bumpiness yet astonishing landscape and views. I see a white mound in the distance and pray that it is not snow, but there is no doubt as we drive by that it is just that. My delusions are quickly dissipating.
We unload at the crater. Of course the wind is much stronger here and the temperature much colder. All the other tourists are dressed in layers of shirts, sweaters, jackets, even a few hats and gloves. I am utterly ashamed at my stupidity at having believed the over-the-phone forecast. It feels like it is in the 40s and we might as well be naked.
There is no turning back now so we brace ourselves with determination and head straight into the 40 something wind chill factor, following our guide along the trail. Who can turn down a chance to walk around the crater of an active volcano? Forget the cold!
We shiver along, ooing and aweing between clenched teeth. We learn that the fresh patches of black ash are from the Februrary eruptions and are actually covering and keeping frozen underlying winter snow. The larger balls of lava rock spread across the hills apparently were spewed out of the upper crater at the same time, making the top of the volcano unsafe for people for months. We rejoice in the steamy warmth that billows up from the bottom of the crater, which improves the temperature levels quite a bit. Patches of red are from concentrations of iron minerals. But as we round the corner and find ourselves completely exposed, not even the warmth of the lava rocks that the guide tells us to scoop up into our hands is a consolation.
A very kind English woman from our group generously offers me her son's extra sweater. She also gave us a little knit wrap which I handed over to my father, who used it like a scarf. Not knowing if we should laugh or cry, we managed to finish the trail and fast walk to the finish line. We couldn't get back on the bus fast enough.
Did I learn my lesson? Yes. Was it still worth it? Yes. Did any of us complain about the heat for the rest of the trip? No. In fact, my fingers are still thawing out.
On a more practical note, I would really recommend this tour to any visitors. The tickets are a bit expensive, but completely worth it for such a unique experience. People do walk or even mountain bike from the top of the gondola to the south crater, but you would have to be very athletic to do so. And, as you now well know, be prepared for cold weather, no matter what.