I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger. Yes, I love nature but I wouldn’t think of hugging trees normally. However, mother nature is majestic and in Sicily she continues to surprise me. There are some massive, ancient trees in Sicily. They have survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and corruption. I have visited a number around Etna, such as the chestnut tree in Sant Alfio which has been imprisoned for its own sake; and also, the ‘Ilice di Carrinu’-Oak tree near Milo. The latter impressing me the most until I ventured into the Bosco di Santo Pietro near Catalgirone. In this nature reserve there are grand, ancient cork trees, many of which are around 100 years old and one in particular which is about 300 years old and which was the one I felt the need to hug.
When you arrive at the nature reserve you feel almost as if you are in the outback of Australia due to red soil and eucalyptus trees. Instead of koalas there are apparently wild porcupines. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t see any but then we hardly saw any humans either. On the way to the nature walk, we had passed some cyclists but after that we blissfully had the park to ourselves, not encountering another soul for the many hours we spent there. As it is still spring ( but that day it was hot like in summer) there were an abundance of wild flowers and butterflies dancing around us. It really is a place where you can escape everything and everyone. There are lots of tracks in the reserve but a well signposted nature walk takes you to a small cascade and past some water fountains for refreshment. Wooded areas provide welcome shade and there is a rather large picnic area which was fortunately without humans as they usually leave rubbish behind.
The oldest cork tree is on a little track off the main trail and is truly inspiring. I defy you to go there and not be impressed by its sheer magnificence. Massive branches stretch out from its main trunk which seemed to be home to a couple of inquisitive lizards. There is a quiet beauty to it and immediately I felt serene. After marvelling at it for some time it was time to leave and see the other cork trees but at that moment I felt an urge to hug one of its giant branches. It felt good, I might now be a tree hugger for life.
By now most people will have read about the BBC journalists, the German tourists and the vulcanologists who got caught up in one of Etna’s explosions yesterday. I found out when my partner called me to tell me the news. Quite frankly, I was a little surprised that they were there and so close because I had seen grey smoke rising into the sky early that morning and had seen that the alarm was yellow which is the pre-alarm warning. I also couldn’t believe that they weren’t wearing protective head gear as I was recently made to do when I visited the craters a few months ago. Anyway, it could’ve been worse and fortunately, there were no serious injuries. The streets of Catania pose far more danger due to the bullies who drive like maniacs and the phone addicted who send texts while driving.
I can also understand the allure. Etna has always fascinated me and I spend a great deal of my free time there. I get excited every time it erupts and usually take a trip to see the lava flow up closer (although not as close as these guys went). I have watched its form change with every eruption and if it hasn’t been active for a while I start to complain. I have taken the funivia to the top a number of purse-string breaking times but it was my recent trip to the crater zone that excited me the most.
When we booked the excursion we were told that we should arrive early at Rifugio Sapenzia and the guides would determine if it was safe to go up. It was quite windy and weather conditions can deteriorate quite quickly there so it is never guaranteed that a trip will go ahead. We were lucky that day and the guided walk to the top was given permission to proceed. However, first we had to sign our lives away. When you read the declaration that you take full responsibility and that you are aware of the dangers it does make you think twice but obviously not enough. We were given hard hats and my first thought was that they wouldn’t protect us much if she decided to blow, but now, in light of recent events, at least they would have prevented a head injury. Our guide told us that he was always slightly afraid of the volcano because being a vulcanologist he was aware of her power and unpredictability, but that he noticed that, often tourists showed no fear at all and that, he thought, was more dangerous.
We were quite a large mixed bunch with a few people standing out. Two eldery French tourists looked the most professional and were probably the fittest, each one using walking sticks which would later cause me much annoyance. There were a group of friends from Palermo who had decided to go at the last minute and had had to hire boots and later bemoaned how lightly dressed they were. Two German guys on the last day of their holiday saved the guide from having to translate in 3 languages by showing no interest in the scientific stuff; I was presumed to know enough Italian to follow and thankfully I kind of did.
We took the cable car up and then the large 4×4 buses which take you to the Torre del Filosofo or what used to be the Torre del Filosofo as a previous eruption had destroyed that landmark. Then it was a long, difficult climb to the top. The steepness of the path was quite deceptive and the high altitude meant I went from the front to the back of the pack in no time. Every time I needed to stop to catch my now somewhat laboured breath, I would pretend that I just wanted to take a picture, but as we drew closer to the summit craters I didn’t even have the energy for that. The incredible views spurred me on. One slow step after another and finally, we had reached the top and my energy came back in leaps and bounds as I was refueled by excitement.
You haven’t experienced Etna until you have visited the crater zone. Hours could be spent staring at the different coloured rocks, marvelling at the active fumaroles and knowing that just beneath the crust under your very feet magma was creeping its way up. Up there photo opportunities are galore and our group completely forgot where they were and the dangers that were abundant and we all, more often than not, would find ourselves far from the guide who would patiently wait for us to catch up because he probably experienced this frequently. We stared into Voragine and Bocca Nuova in awe for some time then walked on towards a small pit crater.
As we got closer to the pit crater which we had seen emitting grey smoke from the other side of the larger crater, the ground grew more bright yellow and we could see the smoke from the pit and other gases moving across the ground. Our guide deemed it safe to continue and off we trotted but the wind changed and soon we were all standing around, somewhat unsure, gasping for air as our throats tightened, our heads got dizzy and our noses burned as we breathed in the toxic gases coming from the volcano. There had been that putrid smell of sulphur most of the morning but the intense concentration of gases at that spot meant that most of us were overwhelmed by it. The guide in the meantime had been drawn to something and disappeared for only a minute but for what seemed like forever towards the NE crater. We stood motionless, covering our mouths with our scarves but the gas would still catch the back of our throats and soon our chests also felt like they were burning. As the guide came back towards us we suddenly became aware that one girl was having a panic attack. The guide rushed to her aid and took her off back down the mountain and away from the danger zone. The rest of us followed a bit more slowly as we were all a little disorientated.
As the group gathered together once more we saw a cloud of grey smoke rise from the New SE crater but it was a mere puff and nothing too dangerous. After that, the pace back down increased, a few of us stumbled as if slightly intoxicated and when we were at a safer distance we sat and ate lunch. I was so tired and hungry that I sat on the snow and didn’t care until much later when my trousers were wet and my bum numb from the cold. I had also sat in the shade opposite from the Sicilians who were soaking up the sun.
Rejuvenated after a picnic lunch we continued on down the mountain past big boulders that had been spewed out in previous eruptions. At times, the slope was steep and the rocks large and the French lady’s stick kept dislodging large stones that hurled down the slope like an avalanche only stopping when they hit my ankle. I cursed loudly and waited for her to pass so that I wasn’t injured further but I am not even sure she noticed. We passed different lava formations and craters and stuck our hands into a hole in a crater which was still warm. My legs at this stage were rather wobbly but there was no let up in the pace so I did my best to keep up whilst staying upright. Despite the thrill of the morning and my enormous excitement, I was relieved to reach the cable car station and head back to Rifugio Sapienza for a glass of well deserved local red wine and a bit of warmth. Would I do it again? Absolutely, the recent eruption means that all has changed and there will be something new to see. Might just wait until it has calmed down a bit though and for now just watch the lava flow from my balcony.
One thing I love about walking on Mt Etna is that even during the height of summer you can find a walking trail all to yourself. Yet, last Sunday, it seemed that everyone had forgone the beach and headed up Etna. At this time of the year, if it rains on Etna, porcini mushrooms can be found amongst the fallen leaves, in the damp and humid earth, in the woods on the slopes of Etna. I, however, had thought it was too early in the season for there to be many mushrooms but then I can be a bit clueless about these things. As a result, after an early start with no-one in sight, we soon found ourselves surrounded by people looking for mushrooms. The sight of mushroom hunters resembled something of a search party. They were spread out equally in a line with their baskets and sticks, searching through the undergrowth, moving slowly. I had earlier found a mushroom but as I had only found one by chance and as it was small, I had left it where I found it. I am also not too hot on my mushroom knowledge so I often leave mushrooms where I find them unless I have someone who knows their mushrooms with me. Anyway, there were way too many people for me so we headed off to find a less busy woods to walk our dog.
One of the best things about Etna is the amount and range of ‘free’ food to be found at different times of the year. I would say that this is true for many parts of Sicily. On Etna you can find chestnuts, hazelnuts, cherries, mulberries, blackberries, strawberries, mushrooms, apples (but be sure these aren’t on private land), pears (again take note that they are not on private land) and herbs. In the rest of Sicily, look out for all of the above and wild rocket, capers, wild fennel, asparagus, strawberries, prickly pear, carruba, almonds, figs, thyme, wild mint and borage. Know what borage is? I didn’t either until my partner’s late uncle stopped to collect some he had seen growing next to the roadside when we were out getting water one day. It is a herb of which the flowers can be used to garnish desserts and whose leaves are often boiled and eaten with garlic and oil or used in soups. These are some of the foods that you will find in the wild but there are a whole load more that are ‘free’ if you are lucky enough. For example, branches that overhang onto the road or come through the farmer’s fence are deemed ‘free for all’ and you will often see people stop their cars to claim this fruit. Natural reserves which were once agricultural terraces and have been left to nature are often good places to forage but be warned,for some wild fruit trees, such as orange trees, produce inedible fruit!
Apparently, they are quite rare with only 350 thought to still be in existence. If that is true then we were lucky to have encountered a fair few whilst walking on Mt Etna and three are missing! We had met the goat herder sans goats earlier on, he had the rosiest cheeks and spoke in a confusing mix of Italian and Sicilian. Then he was searching for his goats, but it took us a while to figure that out. At almost the end of our walk we met him again, this time with about 6 dogs who scared the wits out of ours and 100 goats, some girgentana (the rare ones I mentioned) and others a different breed of goat I guess but I am no expert. He was still searching for 3 of them. The goats were the most beautiful I have ever seen. Their white goats were gleaming so much that we asked if he had recently washed them. A storm the night before was the reason they looked so clean and probably why there were 3 missing.Whilst some of them ignored us munching their way up the mountain, others stared at us curiously, especially ‘curly top’ who had a delightful mane of golden curls. I managed to get a few photos but I was too busy staring at them to take any good ones as some of the horns of the girgentana were spectacular but they had already trotted past.
Last week, I was in shorts. It is fair to say I got a few strange looks from the locals. A few old people shivered and drew their coats up around their necks as they passed me, but it was 22c and for me that’s summer.
That was last week though. The temperature has dropped significantly and winter has rocked up, shocking us to the core. Most Sicilians now look like they are about to go on an expedition to the Artic. It surprises me how many winter clothes they have, considering they get such a relatively short winter. Like it or not, old ladies are wearing fur which has passed down generations, mind you, I have seen fur coats being worn when it is 20c.
The best thing about this cold snap? Snow. Snow has turned parts of Sicily into a winter wonderland, especially in the Madonie mountians and on Mt Etna. Schools have closed and everyone is grappling with snow chains or rushing to buy them. Avid skiers are looking for news as to when the ski runs will open. It is exciting that you can ski on an active volcano while marvelling at views of the sea in the distance. It is also quite scary, not just that the volcano could erupt at any time but also when you are up there it looks as though you are going to ski right off the edge into oblivion! But if that’s not for you then there are other places to ski in Sicily, such as the Madonie Mountains at Piano Battaglia. If you want to know when the slopes are open then you can check out www.pianobattaglia.it and Etnasci.it.
And if skiing isn’t your thing, then you can partake in the popular pastime of Catanese and drive up to Etna, pile a load of snow onto your car bonnet and drive down the mountain and see how long it takes for it to melt!
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.
Not so long ago I was in a lovely little agriturismo looking at a rather tired and messy looking noticeboard. There wasn’t actually much ‘up-to-date’ information on it but I did spot an excursion to a place called ‘Cava dell Carosello’ and it mentioned swimming! Now, I love a bit of – what do they call it nowadays? – wild swimming, that’s it. So, the moment I got home I googled Cava del Carosello and decided that I had to go there while the weather was still hot. Last weekend, I did exactly that and I found a little bit of paradise which for most of the day, my partner and I had all to ourselves.
We started with a granita and brioche in Noto, obviously. I love Noto and I love granita. Not only that, it was Sunday so I could justify treating myself. I think the bar we visited had the longest list of granita that I have ever seen. I had limone (lemon) and mandarino (mandarin) and my partner had fig with nuts and prickly pear. We had a little walk around and took pictures even though we take pictures everytime we go there and must now have hundreds stored on our laptops. Our hunger satisfied, we headed back to the car.
Cava del Carosello is located in the area of Noto Antica. Somehow, I had forgotten there even was an old Noto seeing as the current Noto is pretty old. It is a short drive away from Noto further up the hill and the roads are more than a little bumpy and narrow. The first thing you notice from the car are the ruins of a castle, then you see hundreds of grottoes. It is an impressive site and there appears to be a number of walks in this area, although one walk around the grottoes was closed. We pulled up at the entrance to Noto Antica which is now an archeological site but which is currently completely free to enter. Situated on Monte Alveria, Noto Antica used to be a large walled town until an earthquake in 1693 flattened it and the inhabitants wisely decided to rebuild a little further away. It is a beautiful, peaceful place to walk around and some buildings or parts of buildings still stand amongst the ruins. We didn’t have time to visit it all due to my overwhelming urge to have a swim.
The trail to Cava dell Carosello is signposted off what used to be the main square of Noto Antica. The walk down into the valley is fascinating as some of it is hewed out of the rock. It is rocky and you do really need to watch your footing. There are plenty of good viewpoints into the valley below and scents of wild mint and rocket drifted up to meet us. At the foot of the trail just before the first swimming spot is a cave which might have been a former home of someone or a necropolis, it is the first cave of many. The whole valley is teaming with caves which house former tanneries from the time the Arabs occupied the island. Think, the tanneries of Fes in Morroco, in a series of caves.You can safely visit them and wonder at their construction. They are a little spooky too if you possess an overactive imagination such as I do and enter the darkness of one alone. Further along the valley there is an old mill. This evidently, was an important economic area in the past which until recently was all but forgotten.
The river which flows through this valley was probably once filled with different colours from the dyes used in the tanneries. Now the water is crystal clear and runs into a series of small pools, some of which are large enough to swim in. I must admit it took me quite a while to brave the water initially. This was not because I thought it was going to be cold, I was rather hot after all from the walk and needed to cool off, it was more because I had spotted some crabs and possibly something else crustacean in there. I didn’t mind the black dragonflies which were fluttering around me or the pondskaters on the surface of the water, I just didn’t fancy my toes getting nipped.
I would like to say that when I did finally pluck up the courage, that I gracefully dove in. I did no such thing. More like a bum slide in then sheer panic when I touch something at the bottom which moved (it was just a small rock). The water was certainly fresh but definitely invigorating. We were all alone with the dragonflies, crabs and who knows what else, oh, and an abandoned doll that creeped me out and I am afraid to say I left there. We were later joined by an older couple who told us there was a large waterfall somewhere along the river so we set off to find it. Along the way we encountered yet more dragonflies but this time coloured orange, pink and light blue. We walked past more caves and eucalyptus trees and came across another pool and promptly took a dip. This one was much warmer as it was in full sun, had a few more crabs and some type of fish which must have freaked out when we got in the water.
Lunchtime came and went. Luckily, we had had a granita in Noto because stupidly, we had forgotten to bring anything to eat. Anyway, we were too excited and enjoying ourselves way too much to even think about being hungry. A little further on again we came to another pool. Beyond this, but fenced off, was the large waterfall we had been told about. Although we couldn’t really see it very well. It was fenced off I guess because there was an enormous drop into another valley below. This pool was deeper than the others and not as easy to get out off. It took a bit of bum sliding and more than one attempt. Another couple had got there before us but we hardly noticed them. We enjoyed a swim and some figs off a nearby tree before the wind started to pick up and we decided that it was time to make our way back. The trail we had followed continued on and might be worth exploring but we really didn’t have enough time and as we were in a valley the sun was setting fast. Somehow, we got back up and out of the gorge, faster than when we had come down but I put that down to stopping less to admire the view.
I love it when you find a little bit of paradise that you never knew existed. We left with smiles on our faces and a determination to revisit, this time with a picnic and a better camera.