The good volcano

Etna is an absolute monster, a living, breathing part of the Sicilian landscape. Its sixty by forty-kilometre base is the heart of the island. The three thousand three hundred meters tall shadow has given birth to the fertile Sicilian land, rich in mythology.

The volcano is different things to different people. For the ancient Greeks, it was the forge of Vulcan, the god of earth and fire. It was the home of the Cyclopes who terrorised the island by throwing pieces of stone into the sky, their appetites subdued by regular animal sacrifices.

It is the resting place of the giant Enceladus, upon whom the god Jupiter placed the mountain during the war between the giants and the gods. Each eruption is the giant’s motion pinned down by the mountainous weight of Etna.

A portable television inside one of the bakeries in the mountain town of Floresta reports Etna has opened up three new mouths down from its central crater.

During a series of nighttime, tremors and tonnes of ash are pouring out of them. I marvel at the sight of the dense smoke endlessly billowing from these voracious mouths. It makes me wonder if Etna could ever block out the sun; she is full of endless fury.

Sicilian’s talk of the volcano as a feminine entity, as a kind of a nature god that gives birth to their land and who can also destroy and revive the landscape in an explosion of unstoppable force.

She is a permanent and irrepressible presence at the heart of the island. Compared to other active volcanos around the world, Etna is not threateningly inactive; instead, she is persistently erupting. Her lava flows are slow and steady; in time, her magma solidifies and breaks down to create fertile terrain unique to Sicilia.

The ash coming from Etna makes people recall old stories about her. The people who live nearby towns say the volcano is their friend. How the lava once arrived on the doorsteps of the houses, but the townspeople refused to be evacuated. The people gathered around the statue of their beloved patron saint and prayed for the lava to stop. The miracle was that the Saint heard the prayers and kindly obliged.

The stories of Etna spin around in our minds, and small pieces of hot bread dissolve in our mouths as we continue towards Villa Pillera. Etna is always in our sights until we turn down a road which puts her at our backs. She disappears behind the tightly closed mountains, and we almost forget she is there beyond the horizon.

The landscape changes once again; as we move onto a mountain plateau, everything levels into open pastures and wide roads.

The air is fresh and biting; the higher altitude gives it a different quality. Here the atmosphere is more robust, harsher and savage, it becomes as tangible as a natural person, and you need to overpower it before it devours you.

We cut through the pine woods and hit a bumpy road full of potholes and stones, which suddenly tilts downwards and ends at a tall rusty gate.

Climbing out of the car, we file through a gap between the gate and a decaying stone wall.

Feeling hot in the sunshine, I want to take off my long sleeve jacket, but the rough tongue of the icy air licks at my skin.