Taking inspiration from Wednesday's eruption, this blog is dedicated to the almighty and powerful presence of Mount Etna. A natural phenomena which is both fearful and yet at the same time almost considered by Sicilians as an 'amico' or an ever-present companion. It would be impossible to write about Sicily without mentioning the volcano as its presence is constantly felt, especially in the eastern and central parts of the island where the mountain reigns over the surrounding towns and villages.
We have a wonderful, uninterrupted view of Etna from our balcony in the province of Catania and, when we are there, it is the first thing that we see when we step outside with our morning espresso. It is fascinating to watch the changes on the mountain through the seasons - to see the thick snow on the summit melting away as the summer heat makes its appearance.
According to which town around the volcano is having its annual feast day we can watch the sky at different points around Etna light up with bright firework displays. Of course, the most dazzling display of all is when the volcano erupts - it is after all the most active volcano in Europe and volcanologists around the globe have often commented on the fact that the island's residents don't take the threat of Etna as seriously as they should. On the contrary, families take trips up the mountain when it is erupting to see the lava flowing right past them and I have even seen boys playing football nearby!
Every boxing day or 'il giorno di Santo Stefano' it is tradition to drive up the volcano to find some snow to play in and Sicilian 'bambini' relish the chance to put on their snowsuits and indulge in a rare snowball fight! There is even a place high up the mountain called Rifugio Sapienza where the thousands of tourists that visit the volcano every year can buy souvenirs - however in 2002 Mount Etna reminded us just how dangerous it really is when it erupted and destroyed parts of the 'rifugio', including the tourist office.
I shall never forget the fear that I felt when the volcano erupted in July 2001 and the island realised that it was truly in danger. It was an unforgettable experience to see the steps of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Guardia in Belpasso hidden under the hundreds of Sicilians praying to God to stop the lava. Almost 7000 devotees also attended a mass at the Sanctuary of the 'Madonna della Roccia di Belpasso' in the hope of saving their towns. In 1669 the city of Catania was almost completely destroyed by lava together with 14 other towns and almost 20,000 people were killed - the airport of Catania is still frequently closed due to the volcanic ash.
The mountain has also played its part in many legends over the years such as that of Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, riding out of the volcano on four black horses to capture the Roman goddess Proserpina from the lake of Pergusa. The paradox of this 'friendly volcano' is ever-present on the island and it is well deserving of its place in legends .... in my eyes Etna is in fact a legend in itself.