Sicily #8

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Today was Etna day! We'd booked the trip a couple of days before through 'Etna Experience' who offer a variety of excursions. We were originally going to book in for the 'Etna and Wine Tour', but since half of the day would have been spent at a vineyard, we decided to go for the 'Classic Experience' instead – a full day tour, starting with a hike up some of Mount Etna's craters, a little cave exploration, a traditional Sicilian lunch, and an afternoon swimming in the Alcantara Gorge. The tour cost €58 each, and that included pick up, insurance and lunch as well as the tour.

When we booked the tour, we'd agreed to meet our guide just down the street from the hostel at nine, so we woke up at seven and went out to the common room for a breakfast of bread with marmalade, donut peaches, coffee and orange juice, which was provided by the hostel. Once we were fuelled up and ready to go, we walked down to our agreed meeting point and waited.

After about ten minutes, a white Land Rover pulled up and our guide, Paolo, greeted us with a big smile and firm handshakes. We were the first to be picked up, so we sat in the back while we went to pick up the other three couples who would be joining us. The first was a lovely young Australian couple who were coming to the end of a two week tour around Europe, the second an older British couple who were stopping in Catania before heading off to Syracuse, and lastly a young couple from Milan who were in Sicily for a week.

Once we'd all been introduced we started the 45 minute drive towards Etna. Along the way Paolo told us lots about Etna, like the fact she has one main crater and over three hundred smaller craters; when the most significant eruptions were; and the fact that the pavements and building foundations in Catania aren't cemented to allow them to move during one of the 25 daily eruptions, which can't be felt but are enough to potentially shake and crack buildings and roads.

After driving for a while we stopped off in Milo, one of the towns at the foot of Etna, to take a toilet break and get some gelato. This time I decided to try something different and go for cherry flavour – it was so sweet and fruity yet so creamy; the perfect refresher on a hot day! There was a large terrace outside the cafĂ© we'd stopped at, so we stopped for a while to take in the view of the Sicilian coastline, with Taormina to our left and Etna behind us.

Once we'd all had a little chat and gotten to know each other better, we piled back into the Land Rover and drove a little further North, coming to a stop to look at an area where lava had flown many years ago, leaving behind a trail of volcanic rock in the middle of a lush, verdant forest. After listening to Paolo talk about how the lava cools and how life eventually starts to grow over it, we walked further down the road to see a house that had been completely swallowed by lava.

We then got back in the car and took a rather bumpy ride through the forest to get to our start point. Paolo parked the Land Rover, and we all jumped out ready to start hiking. We walked through a white birch forest and Paolo told us a lot of interesting things about the trees and how they've adapted to survive the Sicilian heat. He also pointed out woodpecker nests, ladybugs, and volcanic 'bombs' (large volcanic rocks that fly out of volcanoes during eruptions).

We then came to the base of a crater, and Paolo asked if we'd rather do a shorter trail with two craters or a longer trail with six – of course, we all chose the longer trail, so off we went. Along the way, Paolo pointed out the lava trail that was left after a major eruption twelve years ago that wiped out a set of ski slopes; the different types and colours of lava; deep holes that had formed in the craters; and he explained what type of volcano Etna is and what her eruption pattern is like.

After two hours of walking and breath-taking scenery, we went back to the car and drove to another forest, which we walked through to find the entrance of the cave – a set of rocky steps that led down into a dark cavern. The cave had been made by lava flow which had passed through and melted the rock, causing it to re-form and re-shape. We then came out the other side, thankful for our helmets and torches (I may or may not have bumped my head on the ceiling), and got back into the car once again. By this point we were all pretty hungry, so we were delighted when Paolo told us that it was lunch time.

According to the 'Etna Experience' website, the lunch is a picnic in the woods, but we were lucky enough to be taken to a beautiful little hotel on Etna where a table outside was ready for us. As soon as we sat down we were greeted and offered bruschetta, olives, fresh bread with local olive oil, water, and wine which had been made with grapes grown at the hotel. Once we'd cleared our plates we were brought the most incredible pasta I've ever tasted – the pasta itself was a cross between spaghetti and udon noodles, and the sauce, which was made with locally-grown tomatoes, onion and aubergine, was so smokey and sweet, and the cheese that was served with it, oh my. It was smooth, creamy, and just a little salty, and so well suited to the pasta dish. After we'd eaten we sat and chatted for a while about some really interesting things while we let our food go down, and when we were all ready we got back in the car and started the drive towards the gorge.

On the way we stopped near the top of the Alcantara river, which would eventually lead into the gorge, to take in the beautiful, tranquil scenery.

Now, remember a couple of posts back when I talked about the mythology in Sicily, and I said I would talk more about one particular myth later? Well, now is the time. Most people know Medusa, the Gorgon with the face of a woman and snakes for hair, who could turn men into stone if they looked into her eyes. But, according to Paolo, Medusa is actually Mount Etna. I'd never heard this interpretation before, but Paolo made it make a lot of sense – when men came to Sicily many many years ago and saw Etna erupt, they would see lava snake down the mountain and turn anything in its path into stone - but, to anyone who'd never heard of a volcano, this would have made no sense and they might not have believed what they were being told, so the men who had seen it told the story as if Etna was a woman – Medusa.

After a little bit of driving we arrived at the gorge, which are actually right by the town where 'The Godfather' was filmed. We had to walk down quite a few steps to actually get down to the gorge, but goodness was it worth it.

The gorge was formed when lava flow from Mount Etna passed through the river, and the water cooled the lava quickly, forming amazing hexagonal and pentagonal columns of rock.

By this point it was already somewhere between five and six in the evening, and although it was still plenty warm outside, the water in the gorge was unbelievably cold, so to begin with we only paddled, very hesitantly, but after braving it and going as far as knee-deep, we decided to take the plunge and go for a proper swim. The current was quite strong in parts and the floor felt quite rough against cold feet (although eventually the cold numbed them somewhat), but we carried on wading through, and the views as we went further down the gorge were incredible. At the end we found a powerful waterfall, and with the dreamy evening light, the euphoria of being in such an incredibly beautiful place and the adrenaline rush brought on by the baltic water, it was a truly magical experience, and one I won't forget for a long time.

After pushing against the current on the way up, we were able to ride it on the way back. Since I'd decided to take my (non-waterproof) camera with me, I couldn't just relax and let the current carry me, so instead I floated back with my camera held above my head, looking a bit like Rafiki when he lifts Simba above his head in that classic Lion King scene.

Once we'd dried off we drove back, dropping everyone off along the way. Once the boy and I had dropped our bags off at the hostel, we went out into the square and shared some gelato while we looked through the pictures we'd taken.

We ended up going for dinner quite late again, and as we were pretty tired from all of the hiking and excitement of the day, we decided to grab something quick and easy – Mama Pizza. We didn't order an enormous pizza this time, instead we had a small pizza each, which we ate half of before walking back to Piazza del Duomo and sitting on the floor, eating the rest of our pizzas and watching the football.

We then went back into the hostel and settled down for the night, still slightly elated from our Etna adventure.

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