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The Red Fountain
by Tom Smallwood

Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy.
Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy.

There's something tired about the appropriately named Fontanarossa Airport on the outskirts of Catania. It looks worn out, a big uncomfortable lump in the thick evening heat. As we emerged from its grey concrete belly, we saw for the first time Sicily's most prominent landmark. A thin fumarole stretched away to the East from the summit of Mt Etna (3323m).

We slid away from the airport on the ring road. Night quickly descended and the city limits were lit up by bright neon signs, but nothing could lift the air of shabbiness that surrounds the city of Catania. The road surface was terrible, the driving even worse and the road signs difficult to followi, although the most helpful of these simply read "Etna". We arrived in Nicolosi and after driving down a road, which in the dark appears to lead onto lonely wasteland, we found the Camping Etna. A very accommodating woman showed us our pitch, then proceeded to rush off and magic a couple of beers, a pasta and a salad for us. All this at around 10:00 p.m. Sleep came quite easily after the long day on a ground which appeared to be a mixture of pine needles and a crunchy black dust like a million crushed pumice stones.

A beautiful morning, cloudless June sky and a campsite apparently overrun with Jays, but still very quiet in terms of tourists. The temperature rises to around 30 C in June and the prize much to my joy is a dry fly sheet in the morning. We drove from Nicolosi up the mountain road towards the Rifugio Sapienza. Even in the light of day Nicolosi is not a beautiful town, although it does boast a hotel called Titanic adorned with a picture of Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio in mid-embrace! I am guessing that's not what Goethe had in mind when he wrote "without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is."

Above Nicolosi, the landscape changes. Black lava fields populated lower down by some bright yellow, flowering, lush green bushes. Higher up, clusters of small flowers add spots of colour to an otherwise barren terrain. As we neared Rifugio Sapienza, a ski station and a collection of small shops selling gaudy painted Madonnas and lava ashtrays, I came to realise that the incessant thumping and crashing audible in the valley was a barrage of eruptions emanating from the summit craters of the volcano. A stream of smoke, sometimes grey, sometimes darker, and clouds of rocks were being thrown out onto the upper slopes. The ski lifts were out of action, but the four wheel drive alternative was running, although it is also possible to make the 3.5 km walk up to the end of the road.

One of a small fleet of large 4x4 buses crawled up a steep, dusty, winding track towards the summit, finally stopping at around 2900m. Around us a fantastic landscape spread out, dark rivers of rock folded, rolled or just dumped clumsily on the flanks of Etna. Chunks of rock, once thrown out of the mouth of hell, are now the temporary home of hundreds of tiny red ladybirds, one of the few signs of life in a baked wilderness.

Within sight of the battered and pock marked Rifugio Torre del Filosofo, victim of many eruptions, the bus emptied our group onto a path. Here a guide led us up for a few metres before we came to a thin rope and bright yellow warning signs barring us from going any further. We were told curtly that this was a good spot for us to take photographs and all duly did so. As much as I wanted to go further, reason and the will of the guides was against me. The volcano was stunning, constantly exploding small showers of dark molten rock and clouds of smoke. Dutch, American, and French families snapped away capturing each other in front of "Europe's largest live volcano".

Then, pretty much on cue, Etna decided to put on a show. The banging and crashing got louder, fountains of red hot lava started spuing and huge bombs landed on the summit slopes creating clouds of hot dust on impact. The air around the craters darkened, another crater to the right threw up a jet of burning liquid and thick yellow and white smoke. One or two people seemed a little concerned at the intensifying eruption, but they were local guides, so what did they know? We were having fun! Nevertheless, we were all shepherded back down to the bus and from there swiftly back down the track, stopping a couple of times for a quick photographic break, but on each occasion soon told to get back in. Clouds had begun to form above us and a light precipitation of ash could be heard tick-tocking on the roof of the vehicle. Looking back at the ever increasing eruptions, there was a thread of excitement running through the bus, a few looked concerned, but most gasped, oohed and aahed with every jet of lava. The cinic in me could't help thinking that the urgency of our return had been more to do with busy schedules than dangerous volcanoes, nevertheless it made for a memorable day.

At the Rifugio Sapienza the noise from Etna was as loud as we had heard it. Our driver informed me that the lower you go the louder it gets. The windows shake in his house at times like these, but he assured me that "non e sempre cosi" (its not always like this) and that we were fortunate that the volcano was quite active at the moment. During this period, the larger eruptions apparently took place approximately every 50 hours. In all honesty, he didn't seem too impressed. But then again he has lived in these parts for a few years and you only have to look around the southern slopes of Etna to see what damage really can be done by this imposing mountain. Broken pylons here and buried houses there, nothing can survive forever on the sides of "Europe's largest live volcano". Even without the obvious effects of a large scale eruption, the perils are very real. Dark clouds coloured by ash, which subsequently fall as rain or snow, can end the skiing season by trapping heat and causing the snow to melt. In a good year, the season may run from December to March, but it can be cut short virtually overnight.

Round the Eastern flank a different Etna is apparent. No longer at altitude, in the early afternoon, the air was hot and dead, hanging like a curtain over the slick Mediterranean. Praise be for air conditioned cars and a girlfriend who enjoys driving. We sped through attractive lanes flanked by orange trees and dark stone walls to Zafferana Etnea. It was quiet in the mid-afternoon sun. A stark white church is the centrepiece of this town which was threatened by lava flows in 1992, but averted major catastrophe.

Further round the mountain is Milo, a pleasant little town clinging to the hillside overlooking the sea. Then on to Linguaglossa. With two churches, oregano growing in pots along the street, excellent coffee and particularly good cornetti alla mandorla (croissants filled with almond paste), Linguaglossa is an excellent place to sit down and watch Sicilian life pass by, in a leisurely fashion, of course.

From here, we drove up the northern slopes of the volcano. Rich, beautiful pine forests covered the mountain sides. It was immediately greener, cooler, more abundant in vegetation and wildlife. From time to time, there appears an old stream of black lava which has burnt a path through the trees but it is on a much smaller scale to the featureless expanse of the southern side. We wound our way up through Maraneve to the Rifugio Citelli and back down.

Drinking a beer by our tent in a campsite in Milo, I realised for the first time that Mount Etna was not dominating the moment. There was a conspicous silence. There is no doubt it was still erupting, but we were unable to hear it and, due to a steep slope, it was also out of our view. However, Etna doesn't give up so easily and it wasn't long before it showed up again in the form of a fine grey dust which I first noticed on the car and subsequenbtly on the tent. I wiped it off only for it to return within minutes. It didn't continue to fall for any length of time, just enough to remind us who was boss in this part of Sicily.

We waved goodbye to Etna and moved up the coast to the stunning, if overcrowded, tourist resort of Taormina. It is flourishing now as it was when the Greeks built a theatre there in the 3rd century BC. Its steep streets and rich cascades of flowers and trees hold on as the hillside plunges into the turquoise Mediterranean. From the seats of the Teatro Greco, one thing stands out. Mt Etna raises beyond all the ancient and medieval architecture and the slick tourist shops, high above Mt Tauro on which the town is perched. The Greeks, we are told, had it in mind to keep it in view from their theatre. Over the centuries, time and again, it has made its presence felt, from a recorded eruption in 475 BC to the most recent activity in 2001.

To say that Etna dominates the Eastern coast is an understatment. Most of the time it is taken for granted. The people living by it seem immune to its terrifying splendour, but it is never out of their lives. It provides fertile soil and building materials, a thousand different postcards for the tourists, it is visible at the end of streets that run east to west in Linguaglossa, its the ominous backdrop to Catania and the finishing touch to the picturesque beauty of Taormina. So many people rely on this volcano, from souvenir sellers to winemakers. Alot of the time it gives, but every now and then it takes away.

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