Fire and ice: Strap on your snow shoes and explore Mount Etna

 

There is one vital ingredient to every snowshoeing trip. And that's snow. Pulling back the curtains of my hotel room window, I gazed out at the sheer slopes of Mount Etna. There wasn't a flake to be seen. Did Luca, my guide, have some bad news? "Don't worry," he said, while loading our snowshoes into the van.

Leaving Ai Vecchi Crateri, the pleasant lava-stone farmhouse hotel in the small hamlet of Sant'Alfio, on the slopes of Etna itself, we drove past acres of rolling pasture as we travelled towards the 3,330m summit. Europe's highest active volcano dominates eastern Sicily.

Luca looked a little smug as the scenery was transformed by lashings of fresh snow with every turn of the twisting road. A chill hung in the air as we pulled up at the base of Monte Sartorio – a cinder cone at 1,700m on Etna's quieter northern side. Crisp layers of snow covered everything; only the very tops of the hills, dark, rounded and steep, were left exposed.

It was here, in 1865, that Europe's most active volcano blew her top in spectacular fashion, destroying the town of La Macchia. Etna has been spewing molten lava from her four summit craters regularly since at least 425BC – the most recent rumblings taking place just last month.

"Snowshoeing is a great way to see Etna's beauty," said Luca as he handed me the pair of plastic frames designed to distribute your weight evenly and, so, make it possible to trek across knee-deep snow. I strapped them to my boots, lurched forwards ungracefully and lost my balance.

Forced to take big, exaggerated steps, I must have looked like a circus clown in oversized shoes. Luca, meanwhile, strode confidently towards a dense birch forest. "These trees are always the first to recover following an eruption, but that can take anything up to a hundred years," he said.

Before long, I'd found my feet, easing into a rhythm that left me free to enjoy the hushed surroundings. When we reached a small hut standing lonely in a clearing deep in the woods, Luca announced that it was time for a refuelling stop. We left our snowshoes outside as Luca unlocked the door and ventured inside the dark room, floorboards creaking with every step. Picnic tables stood abandoned, waiting for the summer local hikers would once again return.

Luca retrieved a murky bottle and offered me a sip of the mysterious burgundy brew. "This will put a spring in your step," he said. "Come on, have a taste. We call it Vino Peohonele, which means 'Your Father's Wine'."

It may have only been 11am but a sip of Vino Peohonele was just the thing to warm me up as we set off across icy vistas strewn with car-sized boulders and bordered with charcoal lava deserts.

We heard the squealing children over the whispering wind as we neared the ski resort of Monte Conca. Cosy cabins stood at the bottom of the piste, the log fires within warming skiers as they tucked into fresh bruschetta and spicy sausage pasta.

Our ascent was arduous but rewarding thanks to the bird's-eye view of Taormina – a medieval town known for its Greco-Roman amphitheatre. Beyond, the Ionian Sea sparkled all the way to the verdant Italian mainland.

By this point the trees had thinned out. Luca pointed out clumps of spino santo, a shrub otherwise known as the "mother-in-law bush" (thanks, apparently, to its prickly disposition). Jutting up from the pristine powder in several places were piles of rugged black rocks the size of grapefruits. I paused to study the patterns and ripples etched on each one. "That's lava from the 1992 eruption," explained Luca. I held a heavy piece in my hand, the coarse fragments piercing my palm.

A roaring gale buffeted us along as we neared the summit. I struggled to remain upright while Luca's face turned a ruddy red, his words lost to the wind. Then the powdery snow beneath our feet started to thin, before vanishing completely to reveal an eerie lava field: a blackened desert.

Our snowshoes scraped on the parched lunar landscape as we negotiated the narrow rim of the 1992 crater, 2,350m above sea level. That eruption saw desperate locals scramble to save the town of Zafferana. It was touch and go. Vast earth barriers did little to contain the rivers of fire and Zafferana remained in the path of destruction until, mercifully, Etna's lava ground to a halt on 27 May 1992, less than a kilometre from the town. It left a dark scar across the lush Valle del Bove.

Large communities continue to live in Etna's volatile shadow. I wondered how they coped with such an angry and unpredictable neighbour. "We just don't think about it. Scientists are always monitoring her and they give us plenty of warning if anything suspicious is going on," said Luca.

Behind us stood Etna's waxy-looking summit. Smoke and steam oozed from isolated patches: a reminder of the power bubbling beneath. We descended into a deep valley, nearing the end of our hike and the fulfilment of Luca's promise of a Sicilian feast.

The Gambino Winery is a special place. Its terrace overlooks the medieval town of Linguaglossa and seemingly infinite ranks of vineyards.

"The grapes are indigenous to this area," said Francesco Racifi, whose grandfather opened the winery 50 years ago. He presented us with generous glasses of his fine and complex wines. My favourite was the Alicante red, with hints of oak.

Before us sat platters of cured meats, sun-dried tomatoes, wild olives, homemade bread, the largest lemons I had ever seen and countless rich cheeses. We tucked in – but not before raising a salute to mighty Etna, whose power will always dominate Sicilian life.

Travel essentials: Mount Etna

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Explore Tailormade (0844 875 1890; explore.co.uk/ tailormade), which offers a guided three-night snowshoeing itinerary from £985 per person including half-board, transfers, equipment and BA flights from Gatwick to Catania.

Visiting there

* Gambino Winery (00 39 095 227 2678; vinigambino.it)

More information

* Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk

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