As it happened, I was with vulcanologist Giuseppe Patanè just three days after Sicily’s Mount Etna—at 10,902 feet, the tallest active volcano in Europe—erupted in October 2002. As Patanè, who teaches at the University of Catania and has spent nearly four decades clambering over Etna, stepped out of his green Renault to confer with civil defense officials, thunderous booms cracked from the erupting crater just half a mile away.
From This Story
“Let’s track down the front of this lava stream,” he said, leaping back into the driver’s seat with boyish enthusiasm. On the way downhill, we spied carabinieri (police) jeeps hurtling out of the oak and chestnut forest. Patanè pulled over to chat briefly with one of the drivers. “We better hustle down the mountain fast,” he said to me when he had finished. “There’s a risk that a new crater could open.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Under our feet,” he replied with a fiendish grin.
As it turned out, the eruptions continued for weeks. Earthquake tremors nearly leveled the nearby town of Santa Venerina, leaving more than 1,000 people homeless. So much ash fell on Catania, 20 miles south, that the sky was black even at noon. Driving was dangerous in the slick, halfinch- deep volcanic dust. Even the streets of Syracuse, 50 miles south, were covered in ash.
Of course, eruptions of one sort or another have been rocking Sicily for millennia. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek poet Pindar alluded to Etna’s volcanic temper, marveling that its “inmost caves belch forth the purest streams of unapproachable fire.”
Poised about two miles off the toe of Italy, of which it is an autonomous region, Sicily is about the size of Vermont. It has seen waves of invaders, who left behind impressive monuments: Greek and Roman temples, Saracen citrus groves and gardens, Norman churches with glittering Byzantine mosaics, 17th- and 18th-century cathedrals erected by Spanish and Bourbon rulers. As a result, the island possesses one of the greatest concentrations of historical and archaeological landmarks in the Mediterranean.
Tourists flock to an island regarded as a sort of alternative Tuscany, a place that compensates for its dearth of Michelangelos and Botticellis with an exotic cultural identity that has one foot in Europe and the other in North Africa. Although films such as The Godfather convey the impression that the island is all blood, revenge and omertà (the code of silence), others such as 1989’s Cinema Paradiso, 1994’s Il Postino and 1950’s Stromboli, starring Ingrid Bergman, portray a gentler, more picturesque way of life closer to reality.
Compared with the rest of Europe, even mainland Italy, time here is divided less by minutes and hours than by mealtimes, when regional food, lovingly prepared, is served. Pasta with squid and mussels at the Santandrea restaurant in the capital city of Palermo; fish carpaccio at the Ostaria del Duomo restaurant in Cefalù; and roast pork glazed with the local Nero d’Avola wine at the Fattoria delle Torri in Modica are among the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
After Etna, the biggest eruptions in recent decades were the assassinations in Palermo of anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone, in May 1992, and Paolo Borsellino two months later—brutal wake-up calls galvanizing the island to fight the Mafia and enact reforms. “When we heard the explosion from the enormous bomb that killed Borsellino, we stopped everything,” recalls Giovanni Sollima, 42, a composer. “After that point, it was like we all saw a new movie—Palermo rebuilding. We got drunk on Palermo, discovering the historic center for the first time—churches, paintings, buildings, new food, different cultures, dialects—as if we were tourists in our own city.” In 1996, Palermo’s airport was renamed Falcone- Borsellino in honor of the martyred judges.