The thing about living in Sicily is that there is so much to discover, yet only a few people seem to be ‘in the know’. So much potential, tourism-wise, is just wasted, ruined even. Take the Salinelle di Paterno, for example! Little exploding mud volcanoes in other countries are made into tourist attractions. They are nature’s little wonders. They are to there to be seen, admired and wondered at. You don’t have to be a vulcanologist to be excited by them. In Paterno, on the slopes on Etna, their beauty, their fascination is lost on the locals who seem to view it as a place to dump their rubbish. People have tried to make it an attraction. The Inner Wheel Club of Paterno erected a detailed information sign in 2014. However, if you went there today you would see rubbish strewn around it. It is located next to an abandoned and vandalised stadium which probably should never have been built there in the first place. You can peer through the fence and glimpse the mud spurting from the ground like we did but the rubbish is off-putting and you really feel let down by the whole experience. Many of my students are unaware of their existence even though they made the local news the other day with new explosions splashing mud all over cars and a mud river running, or should I say, slowly moving down the street (see link to article here).
..then head to Vendicari Nature Reserve, preferably in the winter months. Obviously, I am talking about the winged variety here and you don’t have to be an avid bird watcher to get excited about seeing herons, cormorants, spoonbills and flamingos. If you are like me, you will come away not knowing half of the birds that you have seen but feeling that you have seen something special and watching the starlings swarm through the sky as the sun sets adds to the experience.
We headed there one glorious afternoon in December. As we hadn’t yet been to Marianelli beach we decided to park there and walk along the coast to the bird observation points. It was 17c so we had hoped to have a winter dip in the ocean but it was a little too rough to do that, plus there was a little too much seaweed in the water at Calamosche. Instead, we searched among the driftwood and enjoyed the sound of the sea battering against the shore.
We arrived at the first bird hide as the sun was starting to set but because I was able to see some flamingos in the distance we carried on walking to the next bird observation point despite the setting sun. We were not disappointed. As light faded, cormorants and starlings flew above our heads. We saw countless herons of many types, spoonbills, hundreds of cormorants and flamingos. We marvelled at the number of birds including those we knew nothing of, completely forgetting that we had a fair distance to cover to get back to the car. Eventually, we pulled ourselves away and started to walk back.
It was then that we realised just how low the sun had sunk and how little time we had to get back to the car. So we marched as fast as we could back, with each step it became darker until the dusk had turned into night and we were half way back and in complete darkness. The bright moon of previous nights had yet to make an appearance. The path was rocky with plant roots ready to trip you up at any moment. I used the light of my phone to find our way. Every now and then we would hear the sound of some small mammal or reptile in the bushes which together with the sea bashing against the rocks added to the spookiness and fueled my ever vivid imagination. The hardest part was locating the entrance to the path from the beach but we eventually made it in record time for we had not once dropped our fast pace.
Next time, we’ll go back in the morning when we will have a full day of sunlight and more time to appreciate the birds that migrate there and perhaps, without the low light we will be able to take better photos.
‘Hmmm….’ the Parco Del Etna guide looked us up and down, ‘…………..they are walking shoes, not boots and have you got anything warmer it can get cold up there’. My partner and I looked at each other and promptly decided we would be fine as we had used the same shoes in Iceland where there are far more volcanoes, we had warm clothes in our backpacks (which in the end we didn’t need anyway) and that the guide had just felt the need to say something as tends to be the case here in Sicily. Someone is always there with some unwanted advice and this was no different. This was confirmed when others joined us and the guide said nothing about their ‘inappropriate footwear’.
Every now and again, the Parco Dell Etna organise walking tours at the weekend. You pay a very small and reasonable fee and you get to discover new walks on Etna whilst learning titbits of information along the way. Finding out about these walks is down to luck as they are not advertised very well and you therefore often come across them by chance, as I did. This one particulary intrigued me as it was a walk into the Valle de Bove or Valley of the Bulls. I have stood at various points and looked down into the Valle del Bove but never have I actually ventured into it, mainly because I had no idea how to get there.
The Valle del Bove is a massive, wide valley that was thought to be created from a collapsed crater. It hugely important as the majority of lava flows from eruptions end up here and the basin is so large that it is able to take all this lava thereby protecting the towns on the lower slopes of Etna – most of the time anyway. When you see it you can’t quite take in how big it is but what you definitely notice is that it is one vast, black expanse of lava. For more information on its formation, click here, it is quite an interesting read!
The weather was perfect on the morning of the walk. Clear blue skies gave us the best view of Etna that we have ever had as we made our way up the winding roads to Rifugio Sapienza. A group of about 20 of us took the cable cars up to a height of 2,500 m. The view of distant mountain peaks and the occasional lake was quite a breathtaking sight. We walked uphill for a short distance before veering away from the main craters and walking to a ridge which overlooked the Valle del Bove. Here, the panorama was something else. Yes, we could see the mainland of Italy to our left but on our right we were also able to make out the Scogliera at Aci Trezza. As we marvelled at the view a cloud of ash blew out of one of the craters behind us.
As we stood on the ridge, I kept looking at the angle of the slope we were about to go down. A steep slope which consisted of volcanic sand. As we started to descend my legs felt a bit wobbly and I nearly lost my bottle but I soon learnt to lean back slightly to steady myself and before I knew it I was taking bigger and more confident steps. The sand was so soft that it went up to almost knee height. Little by little people grew in confidence and soon one or two of them went flying past me. It didn’t matter that we were only wearing walking shoes and not boots as everyone had to stop now and then to empty the sand from their shoes. The changing landscape and views as we made out way down continued to impress as we snapped away with our cameras and phones. Several stops to empty shoes (and boots, I gleefully add) later we arrived at the bottom of the valley where we pearched on some lava rocks and ate something, lamented how we should have brought some wine with us and emptied our shoes again.
The next part of the walk was equally as fascinating as we meandered through the valley past different lava formations, jumping over large cracks and finding a new route around a large rockfall.
After a brief respite we started the climb out of the valley. We had to climb over a few trees which had fallen across the path and the climb was steep. Most of us stopped to take photos of a particulary poisonous mushroom which glowed bright red against the black earth. For me, it was a great excuse to catch my ever dwindling breath. Once we got to the top, we were again met by beautiful views of one of the craters and the Valle de Bove. I managed to appreciate it despite my now wobbling legs.
We then completed our walk passing through a familiar trail and all feeling tired but satisfied with the day’s walk. The only downside was the large amount of litter we encountered at the car park. All those ignorant people who picnic there and dump their rubbish should be hanging their heads in the shame as they are destroying the very nature that the flock to visit.
Most souvenirs on Lampedusa are based on the Caretta Caretta turtles, or as they are otherwise known, loggerhead turtles. They visit Lampedusa to lay their eggs on Rabbit Beach during July/August. Living in the over-fished Mediterranean does however have its perils and as a result many of them end up caught in nets & bits of rubbish in the sea. They mistakenly eat plastic bags or swallow fish hooks. If they are lucky they are taken to the turtle hospital in Lampedusa where the majority recover and are eventually returned to the sea. The turtle hospital on the island is staffed by volunteers who also safeguard the beach where they lay their eggs, predominately during the night. There is heaps of information on turtles around the world, the dangers they face and what they do at the hospital to help them. X-rays are shown of turtles found with fish hooks inside them among other things. The hospital is located in the old port and is open for a few hours in the evening, Mon – Friday. It is your best chance of seeing a loggerhead turtle as they are notoriously shy of humans and rightly so. Staff/volunteers are on hand to talk about their ‘patients’ and their recovery period.
As I have already mentioned, most return to sea. One will definitely not. This turtle occupies the middle of the ‘ward’ in a square, shallow pool. It is the first turtle that most people see. It was the biggest there when we visited. This turtle will never return to the sea, its natural habitat, because its back legs are paralysed. It would never have the strength to swim to the surface for air. This turtle has been there for 7 years already. For me, it is just as cruel keeping it in a small pool where its movement and experience is limited, where people come and gawp and take pictures, just like I did, everyday than it is to let it die. Loggerhead turtles can live up to 67 years, it has already spent enough time in captivity. I admire the work this hospital does but when it can’t fix them, wouldn’t it be better to put them out of their misery? My family once had a cat who lost the movement of its back legs. The vet put her down. This turtle barely moves, just up and down for air. I can only think they are keeping it alive as they are endangered but in the end, if it doesn’t have any quality of life, is it fair?
I have been waiting for Etna to erupt ever since moving back to Sicily, she has been so quiet lately, yet in 2013 she didn’t seem to stop erupting. My partner came out here before me and kept ringing me to tell me about her activity in December 2013 and January 2014. At one point he said that the windows were shaking and his mother was praying and that she had never sounded so loud. Back in England I felt like I was missing out.
Why would I want the volcano that I live at the foot of to erupt? Well, that’s a good question and one that years ago I would have asked myself. When I did my Geography degree and studied disaster zone management I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live in a disaster prone area but here I am living beneath (actually sort of on) a volcano and in an area that experiences earthquakes.
I have seen Mt Etna erupt before and each time I have to blink and check that it’s real. You can’t fail to be impressed by a display of nature’s great power. Volcanoes create and destroy, whilst their lava flows can claim land and houses they in turn create rich fertile land. Etna has vineyards on its lower slopes and orchards of apples and pears higher up. Etna makes you aware of your own mortality and makes you appreciate your very existence here on earth. I think living with an active volcano explains why many people here seem to live dangerously and without a care. They have a saying ‘In bocca al lupo’ which means in the mouth of the wolf – our fate lies in the hands of others.
On Sunday night, June 15th, after slight strombolian activity from it’s new south east crater in the preceding days, Etna’s activity increased and she put on one hell of a show. In fact, she is still erupting. Our in-laws called us as they have a great view of the top of Etna from their house and we drove straight over there. A block of flats annoyingly blocks the view from our place, go up or down the hill a bit and you can see her clearly. Huge rivers of lava streamed down her side and into the Valle del Bove, an expansive valley on the volcano which contains the lava flow and naturally protects the villages below. It seems to be bottomless holding the lava from eruption after eruption but it is going to have to fill up one day, surely? We watched, transfixed as lava, gases and rocks shot up into the air again and again reaching what seemed from below, astonishing heights. We thought about driving a bit further up the mountain to get even closer but decided we were both too tired and that we would do that another night, we could see the flashes of cameras high up the volcano. I am not sure how long we sat there eating ice-cream whilst watching her erupt but we saw her again last night and she was still going strong. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from an eruption.
No visit to Sicily would be complete without exploring Mt Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano which is sometimes known as Mungibeddu in Sicilian or Mongibello in Italian, well the top of it is anyway. It is about 3350 metres high, covering an area of 459 sq miles, in other words it is huge and dominates the landscape of the east and north-east of Sicily. At the height of its activity you can often see lava flows snaking their way down its slopes from Catania or Taormina at night and fine ash from eruptions has often fallen on the city’s streets – a crazy sight when people have umbrellas up on a beautiful sunny day and not good for asthma sufferers. Towns closer to its summit such as Zaffarena Etnea are often continuously hit with larger pieces of pumice stone during an eruption resulting in a costly and time-consuming clean up operation. Bags filled with the ash are left outside shop fronts ready for collection and some people pick them up to use in their gardens.
Etna really should be on every tourist’s itinerary. The beauty of Mt Etna is that she is always changing, through the seasons, with each eruption and even from morning to night as the clouds build, so that no visit is the same. Snow covers the mountain in winter and then in summer alpine flowers start to colonize old lava flows and the slopes are covered in broom. In autumn locals go there to collect chestnuts and look for mushrooms. It is so easy to reach the top and visit the many craters that have been left from various eruptions. If you look at a map of Etna it depicts lava flows from countless different eruptions over the centuries, some of the fields of lava are immense and are really a sight to behold. Indeed, there are so many ways to explore this UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and experience all that Etna has to offer that one visit can never be enough. So, here are some of my favourite ways to explore Etna with links for further information:
Explore the craters at Rifugio Sapenzia
A winding road takes you from Zaffarena Etnea through extraordinary lava fields and up to the Rifugio Sapenzia. It is a fascinating drive and the excitement and wonder as you get nearer to the Rifugio just builds and builds whilst the temperature drops. It is always prudent to carry a few layers of clothing because of the falling temperature as you climb higher but also because the windchill can make you feel even colder, especially if you visit outside of summer. Weather here can change abruptly! Mind you, I have witnessed a mad local sunbathing topless in the snow so it is a case of how much you feel the cold I guess. Morning seems to be the best time to go before the clouds build up in the afternoon but then the clouds can just as easily clear away again. The Rifugio Sapenzia has cafes, restaurants and a lot of tourist shops but it is also the easiest place to explore some of the many craters on Mt Etna whilst taking in spectacular views of the coastline. Just a few steps away from your car and you could be looking into the Silvestri Craters without having to hike or spend any more money than getting there in the first place.
Funivia dell’Etna – Etna’s Cableway
Perhaps the most popular way to visit the main craters of Etna but also very expensive and not one for those who are scared of heights. Etna’s cableway is located at Rifugio Sapenzia. €30 will currently get you a ride on the cableway, taking you from 1900m to 2500m. Instead, €60 includes the cableway, a jeep ride and a short guided tour of the main crater area. Where you get to go on the tour and how much you get to see depends on how volatile the area is at that moment. Many people balk at the price but you have to put it into perspective and ask yourself ‘How often do you get to explore an active volcano?’. Furthermore, you have to remember that they have already had to rebuild the cableway once after the 2002 eruption so with that much risk costs are bound to be high! I don’t think you could ever be disappointed, the view is amazing. Some people only choose the cableway and try to make the rest of the way on foot – smokers don’t often get very far and then if you do get to the main craters you might not learn very much. Whatever you do, just don’t go beyond the roped of areas.
My favourite way to get up close and personal with Mt Etna. The Etna guides are very informative and will take you on a 5-6 hour tour. They know the safest routes, where to see lava, the volcanic features, the history of eruptions, all of it. There are the Etna Sud Guides or the Etna Nord Guides, both offer a variety of excursions on Etna and if you don’t want to pack a heavy jacket they have lots of warm weather clothing to loan you if necessary. Take some lunch, plenty of water and wear some good hiking shoes. The ground can get hot enough to melt the rubber but you need sturdy shoes as the terrain demands it. You will see and understand Mt Etna better than most after this type of trip and you won’t stop smiling for hours after.
People usually head straight for the top, or walk around the old craters at the Rifugio Sapienza and for some people that is enough of an experience for them. However, there are lots of beautiful walking trails on Mt Etna, taking you to various craters, through woods, to caves and to some of the best panoramic views the mountain has too offer. Two that stand out for me, are Mt Zoccolaro and the Sartorius Mounts but there are many more and I have only walked a few of them. Sometimes, signposting in the area can be a real pain but if you look out for lava blocks with Sentiero written on them, then after that the way is often marked by paint on stones or piece of tape tied to branches of trees or small vegetation. Parco dell’Etna is a good website for information but I have also found Etna Tracking to be useful. When you go hiking you get closer to nature and if you are lucky, like I have been, you might see a fox or mountain cat. It allows you to experience a different side to the volcano that few tourists get to experience. Walks take you past farms of apples and pears, and abandoned farmhouses. On some trails you won’t meet another soul making you feel as if you have the mountain all to yourself and allowing you to absorb the beauty and serenity of nature at its best. There are lots of trails of varying lengths and for a range of abilities, and it is also possible to stay overnight at one of the refuges that are run by the Forestale (Foresty Commission).
Take the train – Ferrovia Circumetnea
Not the most user-friendly website but at least it has the timetable available. This train ride goes around the base of Mt Etna and therefore takes you through some really scenic countryside. You will go past small towns, vineyards, olive groves, orchards and you will get a great view of Etna of course. Unless you take a good guidebook or map you won’t really learn much about the places you pass but it is a nice way to sit back and relax and take in the majestic scenery.
Of course, there are many other experiences to enjoy that I haven’t covered such as mountain biking, skiing, a plane trip or helicopter ride over the volcano, caving, the obligatory picnic on a bank holiday; and you will watch in awe as you see cyclists on road bikes making their way to the Rifugio Sapenzia not just because of the level of fitness such an excursion requires but also because you need to be very brave to cycle anywhere in Sicily, never mind a road with countless sharp bends and very distracted drivers. Etna never disappoints even when she is not putting on a show.