The bleak lava wilderness around the summit of Etna is one of the most memorable landscapes Italy has to offer. The volcano’s height is constantly shifting, depending on whether eruptions are constructive or destructive, and over the last century it has ranged from 3263m to the present estimate of 3340m. Whatever its exact height, Etna is a substantial mountain, one of the world’s biggest active volcanoes, and on a clear day it can be seen from well over half of Sicily. Some of its eruptions have been disastrous: in 1169, 1329 and 1381 the lava reached the sea and in 1669 Catania was wrecked and its castle surrounded by molten rock. The Circumetnea railway line has been repeatedly ruptured by lava flows: nine people were killed on the edge of the main crater in 1979 and in 2001 military helicopters were called in to water-bomb blazing fires. This unpredictability means that it is no longer possible to get close to the main crater. An eruption in 1971 destroyed the observatory supposed to give warning of just such an event, and the volcano has been in an almost continual state of eruption since 1998, the most recent being in late 2002 when the resort of Piano Provenzana on the northern side was engulfed with lava. If you do attempt the summit, be sure to heed the warnings.
There are several approaches to the volcano. If you have a car, you can enjoy some of the best scenery on the north side of the volcano by taking the circular road that leads up from Linguaglossa to Piano Provenzana, a good place to bring the kids to learn to ski or toboggan. Note that the ski season on Etna lasts from around November to March.
On public transport, you’ll just see Etna from the southern side, though this does at least get you pretty near the summit. Although there are frequent buses to Nicolosi from Catania, only one (around 8am from outside Catania train station) continues to the Hotel/Rifugio Sapienza at the end of the negotiable road up the south side of Etna.
There are two ways up the volcano from the refuge, by foot or cable car. Now open again after being destroyed in the last eruption, cable cars run between 9am and sunset, weather permitting. The price includes a minibus from the top cable-car station to just below the main crater, though many people prefer to walk. Walking up from Rifugio Sapienza will take around four hours. Arriving on the early-morning bus, you should have enough time to make it to the top and get back for the return bus to Catania – it leaves around 4.30pm from the hotel.
However you go, at whatever time of year, take warm clothes, good shoes or boots and glasses to keep the flying grit out of your eyes. You can rent boots and jackets cheaply from the cable-car station. Food up the mountain is poor and overpriced.