At 3,350 metres, Mount Etna is not only Europe's largest active volcano, but one of the major volcanoes of the world.

  Together with the four summit craters, which are all open and act as safety-valves by constantly releasing gases and steam, there are hundreds of side craters on the slopes, which never erupt twice. Thought to have formed about 500,000 years ago, it is almost three times the size of Mt Vesuvius, which is over a million years old.

The frequent eruptions are usually more spectacular than damaging, but from time to time the slow-moving rivers of lava cover cultivated areas and sometimes even towns and villages. The inhabitants accept their situation with philosophy, and passionately defend from criticism their volcano, which they call simply 'a muntagna, the mountain. Now a national park, created to protect flora, fauna and the characteristic lava flows, the best approaches are from the villages of Nicolosi, Linguaglossa or Zafferana on the slopes. Skiing is possible in winter.

Poised on a cliff between Etna and the sea is the tiny city of Acireale, noted for its Baroque architecture, thermal springs, church bells, confectionery, lemons, and the proverbial stubbornness of the inhabitants. Magnificent carnival parades attract crowds of visitors, but it is sleepy throughout the rest of the year.