Dominating the landscape of eastern Sicily, Mt Etna is a massive brooding presence. At 3329m it is Italy's highest mountain south of the Alps and the largest active volcano in Europe. It's in an almost constant state of activity and eruptions occur frequently, most spectacularly from the four summit craters, but more often, and more dangerously, from the fissures and old craters on the mountain's flanks. This activity, which is closely monitored by 120 seismic activity stations and satellites, means that it is occasionally closed to visitors.
The volcano, known locally as Mongibello (derived from the Latin (mons) and Arabic (gibel) words for mountain), emerged out of volcanic activity about 35,000 years ago. Not surprisingly, the ancients viewed it with awe. The Greeks believed that Vulcan, god of fire and metalwork, had his workshop here, and that Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, lived in a cave on its slopes. Another legend held that Typhon, a 100-headed monster, was trapped under the mountain by Zeus and has been spitting out flames ever since.
The first recorded eruption took place in about 1500 BC; since then it has erupted more than 200 times. The most devastating eruption was in 1669 when a massive river of lava poured down the southern slope, destroying 16 towns, engulfing a good part of Catania and killing up to 12,000 people. More recently, spectacular eruptions in 2002 caused immense damage to the infrastructure on the southern side of the mountain and a violent eruption in September 2007 threw up a 400m-high cloud of ash causing the temporary closure of Catania airport.
Since 1987 the volcano and its slopes have been part of a national park, the Parco dell'Etna. Encompassing 590 sq km and some 21 towns, the park's varied landscape ranges from the severe, snowcapped mountaintop to lunar deserts of barren black lava, beech woods and lush vineyards where the area's highly rated DOC wine is produced.