|Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy.|
There's something tired about the appropriately named Fontanarossa Airport
on the outskirts of Catania. It looks worn out, a big uncomfortable lump
in the thick evening heat. As we emerged from its grey concrete belly,
we saw for the first time Sicily's most prominent landmark. A thin fumarole
stretched away to the East from the summit of Mt Etna (3323m).
We slid away from the airport on the ring road. Night quickly
descended and the city limits were lit up by bright neon signs, but nothing
could lift the air of shabbiness that surrounds the city of Catania. The road
surface was terrible, the driving even worse and the road signs difficult to
followi, although the most helpful of these simply read "Etna".
We arrived in
Nicolosi and after driving down a road, which in the dark appears to lead
onto lonely wasteland, we found the Camping Etna. A very accommodating
woman showed us our pitch, then proceeded to rush off and magic a couple
of beers, a pasta and a salad for us. All this at around 10:00 p.m. Sleep
came quite easily after the long day on a ground which appeared to be
a mixture of pine needles and a crunchy black dust like a million crushed
A beautiful morning, cloudless June sky and a campsite apparently
overrun with Jays, but still very quiet in terms of tourists. The temperature
rises to around 30 C in June and the prize much to my joy is a dry fly
sheet in the morning. We drove from Nicolosi up the mountain road towards
the Rifugio Sapienza. Even in the light of day Nicolosi is not a beautiful
town, although it does boast a hotel called Titanic adorned with a picture
of Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio in mid-embrace! I am guessing that's
not what Goethe had in mind when he wrote "without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is."
Above Nicolosi, the landscape changes. Black lava fields populated
lower down by some bright yellow, flowering, lush green bushes. Higher up,
clusters of small flowers add spots of colour to an otherwise barren
As we neared Rifugio Sapienza, a ski station and a collection of small shops
selling gaudy painted Madonnas and lava ashtrays, I came to realise that
the incessant thumping and crashing audible in the valley was a barrage
of eruptions emanating from the summit craters of the volcano. A stream
of smoke, sometimes grey, sometimes darker, and clouds of rocks were being
thrown out onto the upper slopes. The ski lifts were out of action, but the
four wheel drive alternative was running, although it is also possible
to make the 3.5 km walk up to the end of the road.
One of a small fleet of large 4x4 buses crawled up a steep, dusty,
winding track towards the summit, finally stopping at around 2900m.
Around us a fantastic landscape spread out, dark rivers of rock folded,
rolled or just dumped clumsily on the flanks of Etna. Chunks of rock,
once thrown out of the mouth of hell, are now the temporary home of hundreds
of tiny red ladybirds, one of the few signs of life in a baked wilderness.
Within sight of the battered and pock marked
Rifugio Torre del Filosofo,
victim of many eruptions, the bus emptied our group onto a path. Here a
guide led us up for a few metres before we came to a thin rope and bright
yellow warning signs barring us from going any further. We were told
curtly that this was a good spot for us to take photographs and all duly
did so. As much as I wanted to go further, reason and the will of the
guides was against me. The volcano was stunning, constantly exploding
small showers of dark molten rock and clouds of smoke. Dutch, American,
and French families snapped away capturing each other in front of
"Europe's largest live volcano".
Then, pretty much on cue, Etna decided
to put on a show. The banging and crashing got louder, fountains of
red hot lava started spuing and huge bombs landed on the summit slopes
creating clouds of hot dust on impact. The air around the craters darkened,
another crater to the right threw up a jet of burning liquid and thick
yellow and white smoke. One or two people seemed a little concerned at
the intensifying eruption, but they were local guides, so what did they know?
We were having fun! Nevertheless, we were all shepherded back down to the
bus and from there swiftly back down the track, stopping a couple of times
for a quick photographic break, but on each occasion soon told to get back in.
Clouds had begun to form above us and a light precipitation of ash could be
heard tick-tocking on the roof of the vehicle. Looking back at the ever
increasing eruptions, there was a thread of excitement running through the bus,
a few looked concerned, but most gasped, oohed and aahed with every jet of lava.
The cinic in me could't help thinking that the urgency of our return had been
more to do with busy schedules than dangerous volcanoes, nevertheless it
made for a memorable day.
At the Rifugio Sapienza the noise from Etna was as loud as we had heard it.
Our driver informed me that the lower you go the louder it gets. The windows
shake in his house at times like these, but he assured me that "non e
sempre cosi" (its not always like this) and that we were
fortunate that the
volcano was quite active at the moment. During this period, the larger
eruptions apparently took place approximately every 50 hours. In all honesty, he didn't seem too impressed. But then again he has lived
in these parts for a few years and you only have to look around the southern
slopes of Etna to see what damage really can be done by this imposing mountain.
Broken pylons here and buried houses there, nothing can survive forever on
the sides of "Europe's largest live volcano". Even without the obvious
effects of a large scale eruption, the perils are very real. Dark clouds
coloured by ash, which subsequently fall as rain or snow, can end the skiing
season by trapping heat and causing the snow to melt. In a good year, the
season may run from December to March, but it can be cut short virtually
Round the Eastern flank a different Etna is apparent. No longer at
altitude, in the early afternoon, the air was hot and dead, hanging
like a curtain over the slick Mediterranean. Praise be for air conditioned
cars and a girlfriend who enjoys driving. We sped through attractive
lanes flanked by orange trees and dark stone walls to Zafferana Etnea.
It was quiet in the mid-afternoon sun. A stark white church is the
centrepiece of this town which was threatened by lava flows in 1992, but
averted major catastrophe.
Further round the mountain is Milo, a pleasant
little town clinging to the hillside overlooking the sea. Then on
to Linguaglossa. With two churches, oregano growing in pots along the street,
excellent coffee and particularly good cornetti alla mandorla
filled with almond paste), Linguaglossa is an excellent place to sit down
and watch Sicilian life pass by, in a leisurely fashion, of course.
From here, we drove up the northern slopes of the volcano. Rich, beautiful
pine forests covered the mountain sides. It was immediately greener,
cooler, more abundant in vegetation and wildlife. From time to time, there
appears an old stream of black lava which has burnt a path through the trees
but it is on a much smaller scale to the featureless expanse of the
southern side. We wound our way up through Maraneve to the
and back down.
Drinking a beer by our tent in a campsite in Milo, I realised for
the first time that Mount Etna was not dominating the moment. There was a
conspicous silence. There is no doubt it was still erupting, but we were
unable to hear it and, due to a steep slope, it was also out of our view.
However, Etna doesn't give up so easily and it wasn't long before it showed
up again in the form of a fine grey dust which I first noticed on the car
and subsequenbtly on the tent. I wiped it off only for it to return within
minutes. It didn't continue to fall for any length of time, just enough to
remind us who was boss in this part of Sicily.
We waved goodbye to Etna and moved up the coast to the stunning,
if overcrowded, tourist resort of Taormina.
It is flourishing now as it was when the
Greeks built a theatre there in the 3rd century BC. Its steep streets and rich
cascades of flowers and trees hold on as the hillside plunges into the
turquoise Mediterranean. From the seats of the Teatro Greco, one thing
stands out. Mt Etna raises beyond all the ancient and medieval architecture
and the slick
tourist shops, high above Mt Tauro on which the town is
perched. The Greeks, we are told, had it in mind to keep it in view from
their theatre. Over the centuries, time and again, it has made its
presence felt, from a recorded eruption in 475 BC to the most recent
activity in 2001.
To say that Etna dominates the Eastern coast is an understatment.
Most of the time it is taken for granted. The people living by it seem
immune to its terrifying splendour, but it is never out of their lives.
It provides fertile soil and building materials, a thousand different
postcards for the tourists, it is visible at the end of streets that run
east to west in Linguaglossa, its the ominous backdrop to Catania and the
finishing touch to the picturesque beauty of Taormina. So many people rely
on this volcano, from souvenir sellers to winemakers. Alot of the time it
gives, but every now and then it takes away.