Our overnight stop was at Catania, a major provincial city lying in the shadow of Mount Etna. Bill and I are taking the excursion to the top. Our coach takes us to 1900metres, where we transfer to a cablecar to get us up to 2500 metres. The area is a moonscape of pebbles and snow, covered in grey-black ash. Our coach drives past an old molten flow, it looks as if someone has upset a pot of tar or road bitumin. Mount Etna – which is a ‘he’ according to Franco – is still very active, venting every few weeks. The last major eruptions were in 2001 and 2002. We transfer again, this time to a Mercedes Benz Unimog – a strange looking vehicle transporter which looks like something you would use in the snow, or even on the moon.
This gets us even closer to the top. The current height of Mt Etna is over 3300 metres. We see buildings that have been buried by the eruptions, and huge craters formed by explosions. Various nooks and crannies are letting off steam. Some people are doing the climb independently, either on foot or by bicycle. They are doing it tough, our vehicles kick up as much dust as on a country property in Australia, with the difference being this dust is dirty volcanic ash.
The temperature is dropping as we get closer to the top, and when we leave the vehicle and start climbing the last part under our own power, it gets vey cold, especially with the wind chill. I am glad of my red jacket, even though it became extremely dirty. The climb up is hard going, one needs to take it at a steady pace. We have a guide who explains what we are looking at, and when some of the craters were formed. Bill and I peer into one of them, then stand near the edge to have our photos taken. Loving Bill thought about pushing me in. He is so thoughtful.
We are glad we had the opportunity to make the climb. I don’t remember ever being this close to an active volcano. I don’t remember getting so close to any volcano, period. It is amazing, and desolate at the same time. It is like driving through a huge open cut mine of black silt and pebbles. Even though it is so perilous for people to live underneath Etna, it is actually the ash and lava that makes the land so fertile, which leads to the agriculture that provides a living. An age-old dilemma.
Nevertheless, I am quite happy to tick the climb up Mount Etna off the bucket list. The air is thin, the climb moderately strenuous and the descent slippery.
All the rest of the afternoon, whenever we could still catch a glimpse of him, Mount Etna was building up a head of steam. It had been only a small whiff when we were there in the morning. I wonder how many days that goes on before a small eruption of ash is forced out.
Leaving Etna, our coach wound around the base of its national park. The roads twisted and turned, so narrow that only one car could use it at a time. Our driver honked his horn constantly, but it did not stop some oncoming cars trying their luck. Of course, a tiny Fiat is no match for a large coach, and several times a line of cars had to reverse many metres to allow us to pass. It put me in mind of an Italian joke I heard a long time ago.
- Two cars approached a single lane bridge from opposite directions. Neither would wait for the other, and as a consequence both met head on in the middle of the bridge. They blasted horns for a while, and each ignored the other. After a while, one driver took out his newspaper, shook it out, perched it against the steering wheel, and commenced reading it methodically. The other driver got out of his car,slammed the door, and marched up to the first car. He indicated to the driver to wind down his window, which he did.
- “Tell me,” he said to the driver in the car, “when you have finished reading your paper – would you mind lending it to me, please?” Those crazy, stubborn Italians!
Plenty of crazy Italians were out and about at our last stop of the day. Crazy happy; the sun is shining, the holidays have commenced, and the tourists are swarming to the seaside town of Taormina. It is a touristy town, and a walk the length of the corso enables the visitor to buy any number of goods, from tacky souvenirs to upmarket labels, and local specialties and food as well. Taormina is a gorgeous town, overlooking the sea, with Mount Etna huffing away in the background.
As we strolled on through Taormina, we came across a white plastic “carpet” spread on the ground, leading to the steps of a nearby church. 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon we had stumbled across a wedding. We mingled with the elegant guests and assorted locals and tourists, and before too long we were rewarded with the sight of the beautiful bride emerging with her father. As she walked the short distance to the church along the white carpet, we cheered just as much as the invited guests.
Monday 10th June 2013, Garrulous Gwendoline, Catania, Sicily