Another very early start saw me and a half-asleep Claire waiting outside a nearby hotel for our only planned activity of this holiday – a day trip to the nearby island of Sicily. After a little confusion due to miscommunication between the company’s London office (whom we booked with) and Malta, we were soon aboard the catamaran ‘Jean de la Vallette’ and ready for the 90 minute crossing to Pozzallo on the south-east coast of Sicily (our geography of the region was greatly improved by our visit to the War Rooms yesterday).
Following a relatively smooth journey across the Mediterranean, we arrived in Pozzallo and boarded bus number 2, meeting our guide for the day, Anna. She spoke excellent English outlining our itinerary for the day & then repeated her introductions in Russian. Travelling up the east coast of Sicily, we passed Catania and got out first real look at the target for today coming out of the haze: Mt Etna, towering 3340 m above us. We were reassured that the volcano was not erupting today (with two months since the last eruption!) but there was still a white vapour above the crater (Anna said this was ‘normal’!).
After a little snooze on the coach, we awoke to find we were soon coming to our first stop – the little town of Taormina. It was set on the cliffs of the eastern coast of Sicily and as we wound our way up the coastal road we had some beautiful views of the coast below. Anna was extremely informative though a little funny at times with her pronunciation – cm became cen-tim-mit-er. Her other classic phrases included: “my dearest tourists” and “possible and impossible electronic devices.” After being given a map of the town and a return time we headed off to see the Greek Amphitheatre. There were yet more outstanding views and I resumed my panorama picture taking! The amphitheatre itself was immense and they had maintained some of the original structure whilst adding to it to enable shows to continue on its stage. Walking to the far side we were also able to see mainland Italy though exactly what part we were not sure.
A few postcards were purchased on exiting the amphitheatre and then we headed for the Bella Blu restaurant which was recommended by our guide. A lunch of pizza, fries, mixed salad and bread was consumed against a backdrop of the coast. Given our increasing altitude and proximity to Mt Etna, the weather was somewhat changeable with rain falling for the majority of the last hour in Taormina – this didn’t phase us though as we dipped in and out of a number of local shops en route to our waiting coach in the bus terminal.
Reunited aboard the coach again, we set off for the next leg of our trip towards our prime destination: Mount Etna. After approximately one hour we arrived at the small town of Nicoloso, wedged below an extinct crater of a historic Etna eruption on the slopes of the volcano itself. Here we sampled a range of local produce including two liquors (La Cremole Pistacchio and Limoncino) and some almond biscuits. Given that neither of us are great drinkers, the thimble sized samples were more than enough for us!
Back on the coach again, we continued our ascent towards the central crater of Mount Etna. As we passed the lava fields across which the road we travelled snaked, we were reminded time and time again of the ferocity that Etna can and does possess and the counterpoint of her destructive force (with buried and destroyed houses) and gift of fertility (with giant fauna and forests abounding) which sit alongside each other and keep the local residents there, in spite of the obvious risks. Our coach journey ceased on arrival at the resort area which serves a dual purpose of Etna tourist centre by Summer and ski resort by winter.
Claire and I decided that since we had already made the trip to a point taller than Mount Snowden, we may as well make the extra effort to reach 2500 m and get as close to the central crater as either of us were prepared (or equipped!) to go. The final phase of our journey was therefore by cable car whose appearance did nothing to assuage Claire’s fear of falling! We made our way steadily to the volcano with breathtaking views of the slopes and passed through the clouds ever closer to the central crater. On reaching the end of the cable car route, we were greeted by a decidedly colder and damper environment (some 12 degrees cooler than the Malta we had left at 5 am that morning) and spent some time briskly moving around the slope area we occupied. Even at this level, we were some 900 short of the top of the central crater and had a spectacular view of the many craters that mark the current and historic eruptions of Etna and it’s impact on Sicilian life. I managed to collect some keepsake samples from this level (all above board, we were assured) before we made our way back down the cable car route to the resort.
Following a light meal to keep us going for the rest of the day and a visit to some of the tourist shops, we boarded the coach for the final time. We left the resort and began our descent from Etna before rejoining the Autostrade for our non-stop journey back to Pozallo where our catarmaran awaited to return us to Malta. A short documentary on the eruptions of Etna played aboard the coach and reinforced the power of the volcano and its importance on the life of those around it before we settled in for a snooze in preparation for the night’s journey.
Parting company with Anna for the last time, Claire and I boarded the catarmaran and relaxed aboard whilst waiting for it to depart. The crossing was smoother than that we had faced in the morning but the ceaseless travelling and early start had taken the better of Claire and she felt a little under the weather for much of the journey back. Arriving back in Malta a little after 1130 pm, we again boarded a minibus to return us to the starting point and from there we rapidly made it to bed, 19 hours later but far more wiser having witnessed for ourselves the contradiction of the one of natures most powerful forces for change: the volcano.
Anthony & Claire