We’ve got the snow, now when can we ski?

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!

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Mad Exploding Mud

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).

If you’re looking for birds….

..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. IMG_0645

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. DSC_0240

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. Pink Flamingos in Vendicari 031

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.DSC_0329 (2)

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.

Descending into the Valle del Bove

‘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!Above the clouds

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.Black & Red

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.Angles It's all downhill from here The long way down

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.Cracked open

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.

Swimming with the ancients

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.

Noto

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.

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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.

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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.
cavadelcarosello

Migrants and Sicily

I was a little bit hesitant about going to Lampedusa this summer. The Sicilian island is hardly out of the news as a result of the desperate attempts by migrants to reach Europe and escape their war torn countries. Who can forget the terrible image of a migrant’s body lying on the beach while tourists sunned themselves nearby? How could I justify enjoying myself on holiday when so many were arriving after enduring terrible conditions at sea and probably even worse on land?

Yet, Lampedusa is an island that relies heavily on the tourist and fishing industries. It is a popular holiday destination that thousands of Italians flock to every summer. I was told that I would not even notice the arrival of migrants by boat as this all happened away from the main tourist area. It wasn’t that I was worried that it would spoil my holiday but more a case of was it right to go there? I’m still not sure if we should have, but we did and it is the plight of the migrants that has remained with me.

On our first day we hired a boat and as we were leaving the port we passed the coastguard towing a boat of migrants alongside them. I didn’t take any pictures out of respect. There were about a dozen migrants standing in the boat and the coastguards were beginning to remove their white forensic paper overalls and masks. I have always wondered how strange that must look to them after a long journey at sea. I have thought about them often, about where they are now, what they have been through, what kind of future they might have.

That evening, we saw their boat being towed away and learnt that the captain of a tourist boat had spotted them close to where they had been picked up, in front of the port. He couldn’t believe they had gotten so far with no-one spotting them and he had called the coastguard. I am not sure what I would have done in that situation, I am not sure I would have called the coastguard unless they looked as though they were in need of help. I wanted them to get where they were trying to get to. Maybe they would have voluntarily gone into the port but as many are sent straight back I doubt that. They are sent back if they have papers showing that they are from Tunisia, I think there is an agreement with their government. Otherwise they are ‘held’ in an immigration centre on the island before being processed. That is if they are ‘lucky’ as we heard stories of fishermen finding migrant women at sea and keeping them at home to serve their ‘needs’. I so hope this isn’t true but I would be naive to believe it isn’t. I can’t cope with how depraved humans can be.

There was, and probably still is, a lot of resentment on the island towards the migrants but how can this be? How can people abandon each other, not be empathetic and try to help their fellow man? All of us need to admit that if we found ourselves in the same awful situation that they do that we would try and do everything we could to escape it, to survive and to build a new life somewhere else.

In October 2013, 366 migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa. We came across a memorial garden so that this tragedy would never be forgotten. It wasn’t easy to spot and we stopped there by chance. For every one of the 366 who died they have planted a Mediterranean plant in their honour. It seemed a nice idea. Unfortunately, the plants were not in a very good state and I am unsure as to how many will survive the heat and battering wind that they get there. The weather on Lampedusa can be unforgiving just as the conditions at sea that led to their deaths were. For the plants that were put there in their memory to die as well is just too insulting.
Memorial Garden

Another, more poignant reminder of the migrants’ sea crossings, is to be found next to the new port. Here you will find what can only be described as a boat graveyard which you can’t fail to spot or be moved by. Hundreds of boats are grounded there, many in pieces or with giant holes, as a permanent reminder of those who have risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to reach the gateway of Europe.
boat graveyard

Thousands of migrants arrived when we were staying on Lampedusa, many at night. Italian TV crews were there filming their news reports. On the last day we visited a small cove where the water looked clean and inviting. Instead there was litter everywhere and more disturbingly, and the reason why we promptly left, washed up on the rocks there were clothes and a suitcase.

You can’t escape the migrant story at Lampedusa and nor should we ever try to. Society needs to open its eyes to this tragic situation and face the problems that cause people to become refugees head on. We need to open our arms and welcome them and give them the comfort and hope that they so desperately seek after such a perilous journey. We need to be selfless. We need to put ourselves in their shoes then we might begin to understand and show more compassion.

Concrete & rubbish – tales from my balcony

Haven’t blogged in a while but then that is because half way through August I decided, as most Sicilians do, that it was too hot to do anything. So hot, in fact, that I also decided to go on holiday to cooler climes.

Since I have been back, I have been too busy re-adapting and overcoming post-holiday blues to post anything here. There has been plenty going on to occupy my day. For one, I have had to clean more than usual due to the fact that they have been digging up the car park where we live and it is way too hot to keep the doors closed.

We live in a condominium. When I was younger I used to think living in a ‘condo’ was exotic as I had only ever heard the word condo mentioned when an American on a tv show referred to their ‘condo’ in the Bahamas. Little did I realise that it was just a group of apartments behind a fence – a gated community. Well, it is here anyway. We have a car park with some garages underneath (about 6). Water has started leaking into the garages so everyone has had to cough up to have the car park resurfaced and made watertight. Unbelievable when you consider that the apartment  building we are living in isn’t exactly watertight and bits of it are falling apart. But in this crazy world we live in the garages have been deemed more important. So for the past few weeks I have been amusing myself by watching two men, using one little concrete mixer, resurface the car park with a little trowel. One or two residents have gone up and told the men that they aren’t doing the job correctly and that it isn’t going to work, to which they replied ‘It’s too hot’. More men came and pointed a lot, I guess giving them instructions, to which the builder replied ‘I am not going to do that’. So the reality is that we will be left with an uneven car park that still leaks water into the garages below (when it does rain that is!) and the two builders will walk away with a massive sum of money which they obviously are not going to invest in new equipment so that they can do the job better next time they are called to do it.

Apparently, we live in a ‘really nice area’. This is what I am told when I tell people where I live, followed by ‘you lucky thing’.  Hmmm, well…. people in nice areas don’t always tend to be nice. We have a ‘portiere’ or caretaker who ‘takes care’ of people’s business ; he knows and sees everything. Dangerous! He also takes care of our post which is why we get most things sent to the in-laws. I try and avoid the other residents because I usually just get scowled at and I hate that. Most of them have cleaners even though they don’t work and I have heard a few racist comments that I don’t care for.

Our apartment has a great  view of the sea which means that we overlook the fact that the every time the wind catches and slams the door shut, a bit of the wall comes away. Not really sure anymore what is holding the door-frame in place. We also discovered that the gas boiler and the oven hood are connected which is obviously very dangerous. The plumber was so concerned about this that he forgot to come back and fix the problem. He just scared the hell out of us instead. I no longer use the oven extractor fan.

The other thing about where we live is that it can be incredibly noisy when it shouldn’t be. Every morning a rubbish truck parks in the car park outside the complex and makes the most horrific screeching noise. You see, they don’t collect rubbish here, they wait for you to bring it to them. We once suggested that they added a bit of oil to which they replied ‘We don’t have the money’. When they are not there they have a standard wheelie bin, that in the UK one household would have, to collect the rubbish for 100 households. Actually, there are four of them, but one is for paper, one for plastic etc etc. The recycling thing is for show but we try and fool ourselves that it actually happens. The one thing I am surprised and somewhat concerned about, since the car park it is in is for a nursery school, is that they have a really little bin that always stays in the car park where people can dispose of unused medicines, needles etc. We found it open once or twice. I wouldn’t park in that car park either. Smaller lorries go around other car parks and bring the rubbish back to the one near us. Therefore, it is more like a rubbish tip than a car park. They then tip the rubbish from the smaller truck into the larger one. In the meantime, we are told to throw our rubbish in as they are doing this. You wouldn’t dare question if this is safe or not. Once one of the bin men went off to do his shopping for a couple of hours instead of manning the truck, cue big argument with his colleague on his return. The guilty one didn’t seem to think he had done anything wrong. He justified it by saying ‘I have a family, my wife keeps breaking my balls, what should I do?’ Umm, your job?

So you see, there is always some free entertainment on offer where we live. It involves concrete and rubbish which must be what makes the area a ‘really nice area to live in, you lucky thing’.

La notte di San Lorenzo

There is a beautiful Italian film called ‘La Notte di San Lorenzo-The Night of the Shooting Stars’. According to Italian folklore the night of the shooting stars is when your dreams/wishes come true. It traditionally falls on the 9/10th August. This year there will be a supermoon but there is still a good chance of seeing a number of shooting stars. A number of events take place during this time to celebrate the event. Meteor showers over the next few nights extend the period with the peak period for San Lorenzo this year falling on 12th August and then on 18th August Jupiter and Venus will supposedly be shining brighter than normal. It means take your siesta on these hot August days and stay up longer during the night and observe the fabulous night skies. In Sicily lots of vineyards hold events which seems to be a good mix, a glass of wine whilst gazing at the stars and listening to music. To get the best views though I would head to the mountains, Etna, the Nebrodi or Madonie mountains are bound to provide you with the best views or there head to Castligione di Sicilia. We saw a number of shooting stars whilst on Mt Etna viewing the lastest eruption a few night ago so I can only imagine what the next few nights will bring.

Caretta Caretta – the turtles of Lampedusa

The turtle hospital at Lampedusa
The turtle hospital at Lampedusa

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?

Forever to remain in hospital?
Forever to remain in hospital?

"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything" Goethe

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