In the summer, Sicily is the color of flax. Roll down the windows and, as you approach the mountain, the oppressive heat of the island’s dry interior provides way to the dubious, dank sensation of a forest.
” If you go to the top of Mount Etna it will feel like northern Europe,” stated Bernardo Scammacca del Murgo, among eight siblings who own Tenuta San Michele, a vineyard and agriturismo on the eastern side of the mountain. “When you are at the bottom, it is summer in the desert.”
Mount Etna, the 10,922-foot-high active volcano that claims a huge piece of the eastern side of Sicily, has a storied past. And the people who live in the ancient towns that surround the volcano– Randazzo and Zafferana Etnea, Trecastagni and Bronte– have an unique connection to the mountain.
” I have a love-hate relationship with Etna,” one local female told me. “It’s beautiful. However the other night it was radiant red. This afraid me.”
Sicily is known for a couple of things– its large orange groves, its beach culture, its North African-tinged food. Up on the flanks of this sometimes-fiery green giant, it’s a different world. The views, the red wine, the food, the towns made nearly totally of black volcanic rock– these are the reasons to come to Mount Etna. And for some, to never leave.
” My family has actually been here because … I do not know,” Mr. Scammacca del Murgo said. “Let’s state 1,400 years. Around.”
Spend enough time on this island, and you will be told that Sicily is not Italy. Invest enough time on the volcano, and you will start to hear that Mount Etna is not Sicily. For me, it happened practically as quickly as I showed up.
” This is a microclima,” said Michele Scammacca del Murgo, the sibling in charge of white wine production at Tenuta San Michele. “Etna soil has an unique minerality. It is something extremely unique here that you can not find anywhere else.”
There were six people on the terrace that evening: my travel companions, Lisa and Raffaele; the vintner; his sibling; the oenologist Vito Giovinco and me.
Under a muslin tarp, the warm night air seeping through, we saw the last sunlight of the day painting the peaks of Mount Etna a dreamy, golden color. The journey here– the countless miles on an airplane, the many hours in a vehicle, the weariness, the exhaustion– silently disappeared. We munched on salted aged parmigiano and sweet sun-dried tomatoes as we worked our way through the vineyard’s lineup: the Murgo brut, the Etna white, the Etna red, and somewhere therein, the Murgo brut rosé.
Inevitably, jet lag discovered us. As soon as we had finished off a plate of penne alla Norma– with its earthy tang of tomatoes, salty slivers of ricotta and meaty pieces of eggplant– we strolled up the hill to our rooms. The smell of burning ash and the ribbons of steam drifting out of the crater served as a tip that Etna had actually erupted just a couple of days previously. Strolling up the side of the volcano in the dusky night had an ethereal sensation– as if we were walking closer to history.
The next day we headed to the town of Zafferana Etnea, near the top. Zafferana has actually been harmed by lava streams off the eastern crater of Mount Etna, and as just recently as 2013, was covered in a layer of ash.
On that crisp spring day, sitting in Piazza Umberto I, all I could see was green above and clouds below. The flag of Sicily– called the Trinacria, with its image of Medusa’s head and 3 disembodied legs– was whipping in the air.
It’s practically difficult not to be swept up in Mount Etna’s love. As we drove away from Zafferana, I was creating methods to convince my other half to uproot our family and move here. That’s when I saw graffiti painted on a hillside boulder: “NO MAFIA”. Organized crime, Cosa Nostra, is a continuous threat even if the tourists can’t see it.