If only I were a goat!

I am  not really sure if I agree with the grading of some of the walking trails in Sicily – they definitely do not take people with average fitness levels into consideration and neither do they factor in the effects of the temperature. Just the other day a group of us took what was deemed an easy trail only to find ourselves on all fours for the final part of the ascent; the wind was not helping us feel secure on our feet and the trail was now a steep piece of rock and although one of us had a carabiner, none of us had any rope (ok, I might just have exaggerated the steepness here). It would seem that every time we go walking we start off by having to climb uphill – we almost always consider turning back (due to the lactic acid building up) but the desire to see what is beyond keeps us motivated just enough to continue (I know, anyone would think we were attempting to climb K2).

This time we had gone to Francavilla di Sicilia to take a circular walk which skirts part of the Alcantara river. When we got to its medieval centre we noticed straight away that we could also reach the ruins of a castle high on a hill overlooking the town. The route was marked as easy but we immediately sensed that it would not be when we looked up and saw how steep the hill was. We pressed on anyway, attracted the attention of some goats and stopped often to admire the view, or if I am to be honest, to catch our breath. When we neared the top and the trail has disappeared I nearly turned back. I blame the wind and the wobbly legs that by that point I had for momentarily turning me into a bit of a woose. I was encouraged to continue by ‘I have conquered the mountain’ shouts and the promise of a spectacular view together with some ruins to explore so I steadied my legs and crawled up the last bit.

The view was worth it!

On the way back down which by the way, killed my knees, we saw some goats high on a craggy rock face – easy for them and their nifty trotters, just not easy for us hefty two-legged folk. Back in the medieval heart of Francavilla di Sicilia we nosed around a derelict building which still had old jars of sauce on its now rather exposed shelves before taking the circular walk we had originally intended to do.Derelict house FrancavillaWe immediately passed some old ruins of a Greek settlement which seem to have been left to decline into further ruin (if that is possible). Covered by a now rather shabby shelter which is falling apart the ruins seemed to be inaccessible to the public but are proudly marked by a sign on the route.  Nevertheless, the rest of the walk didn’t disappoint and we were taken to some beautiful spots on the Alcantara river. Two snakes were spotted, one ‘good’ snake attempting to exit the water and another ‘bad’ one which had been warming up its body on the wall. Slightly freaked out by the viper we walked much more heavily through a section of path which was almost completely overgrown just in case there were more snakes around. After the old mill the trail started to go uphill again – easy for the goat and maybe a goat herder but not so easy for the average Joe in the now hot midday sun but don’t let me put you off as this is a beautiful walk and it is relatively easy – I’m just a little unfit and the climb to the castle finished me off. If you want to try the walk yourself click on this helpful link here.

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Exploring Mt Etna

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.Etna craters Sapienza side

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.Cableway

Etna Guides
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.Etna Lava

Hiking
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.Ferrovia Circumetnea

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.

Primavera in Fiore – Spring in Flower

Spring is my favourite season and in Sicily it doesn’t disappoint. Probably one of the best times to visit archaeological sites and go hiking as temperatures are in the 20s and there is an abundance of wild flowers, everywhere! Never have I seen so many, although you could say this can also be a slight problem as I have seen (and felt) thistles as tall as, even taller than, I am and some paths are completely overgrown. Yet to see and smell the giant blooms of Ginestra (Broom) as you climb up through the lower slopes of Mt Etna and to see the land so green before it turns brown due to the scorching summer sun is something else.

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Hannibal Lecter Eats Ricotta – no added salt!

It was a beautiful day when we left our apartment but by the time we reached the Hyblean Mountains the sky had already started to turn grey and a fine drizzle had started to fall. Not to be put off and despite not having the right clothes on for getting drenched we decided that we would stick to our plan and visit the ‘Sagra della Ricotta’ – a ricotta festival in Vizzini that had already been taking place for two days. Now, I don’t mind a little bit of rain but it would seem that for everyone else this was too much and we arrived to an almost deserted centre with a lot of closed stalls or, if not closed,  in the process of closing. Also when I say almost deserted there was, in fact, a crowd of old men gathered under the canopy of the nearest bar, staring at the obvious foreigner who had come to their town in summer attire and who by now had rather wet feet. Maybe it is me and food festivals, maybe someone is trying to tell me that I should be doing a little less celebrating of food and more time hitting the gym, but this was not the first time a food festival that I have been too has been a complete wash-out. The last time was at the Pistachio Festival in Bronte when it rained buckets.

So, there were only a handful of stalls open but they were, and had started the process, of making  ricotta. Therefore, we stuck around. There were at least 6 caldrons on the go heating up the sheep’s milk for the first stage of the ricotta making process but only one of these groups were at the stage of slicing up the newly formed cheese so that they could recook it again hence why it is called ricotta – recooked. This meant that we had quite a wait until we were able to try the freshly made warm cheese with a bread roll (as standard). This was also confirmed when on asking when the ricotta would be ready we were told ‘at midday we can talk about when the ricotta will be ready’. With time on our hands and drizzle turning to rain we decided to  check out Vizzini.

Once home to Giovanni Verga for part of his life and a setting for one of his short stories which was later turned into a play, Vizzini is littered with brown UNESCO signs, I expect all related to Verga but then there are also some fine examples of baroque architecture. However, this was not the day to be looking down alleyways for his family house, so we instead headed to the church we had seen earlier. Churches always have their doors open, right? Wrong! Turns out it would not offer us shelter after all. Looking rather worse for wear and like the whole town, with weeds and plants growing in its cracks and from its spire, it didn’t look like it had opened its doors for ages; although I am sure that this can’t be the case. So we headed back up the hill towards the main square again, passing tractors parked outside houses and climbing up overgrown stairways, we even spotted cacti plants growing out of one person’s roof.

Now thoroughly soaked through (and a little out of breath) we hung around one of the few stalls that were open. It offered us some shelter and it wasn’t long before the stall holder was passing around bits of salami for us to try too. Except, I don’t eat salami. On refusing said salami with ‘Sono vegetariana’ and a slight shrug I was met with a flabbergasted response from one of the customers ( note – not the stallholder). With a stern face, as if I had mortally offended him, he said ‘What do you mean a vegetarian? What, like the cow?’. Then to top it off and with that same stern, serious stare  ‘Then I should eat you as you would surely taste good’. So in his opinion because I was vegetarian like cows and sheep are, I am ripe for eating. If he had had a bottle of Chianti with him I would have scarpered but instead I watched in disbelief as he finished buying his cheese and salami and then fortunately left without seeing if I did indeed taste good!

Anyway, it was at this point that we decided to buy fresh ricotta from the previous day and leave the increasingly  deserted Vizzini. It was just too wet and we were beginning to feel damp and cold and I was worried I had come across a town of cannibals. We bought some fresh garlic to ensure a good aroma for the journey (at least it cancelled out our damp smelling clothes) and switched on the sat-nav which promptly took us the wrong way. Finally on the right road we passed the most gorgeous cluster of poppies  and discovered some wild fennel and artichokes growing nearby, After collecting some fennel (as the artichokes weren’t ready) and taking some photographs we headed back to Catania discussing what we could make from the ricotta.

In the end we gave the ricotta to the mother-in-law who promptly gave us a long list of what she could possibly make (Sicilian ‘mammas’ are the best cooks). The next night everyone came round to our place to make ‘Frittelle di Ricotta’. Everyone got involved under the direction and strict supervision of ‘mamma’, except ‘mamma’ didn’t supervise too closely when her son ground down the sugar to dust over the ricotta parcels. Instead of picking up the sugar my beloved partner had picked up the salt. He didn’t lightly dust the parcels either. His, slightly ravenous by this stage, brother was the one to discover the mistake. As he bit into the supposed sweet his face turned to disbelief and he uttered ‘No, e sale?’ (No -it’s salt?) Now I would have instantly removed the offending dessert from my mouth and would have made a big spectacle of doing so but he didn’t. He carried on looking confused, shocked, disappointed even but continued to eat the now savoury, sweet dessert whilst the rest of us did our best to brush of the salt and save the other ricotta parcels.That is how hungry he was. However, this mistake led to so much laughter and they still tasted good so although I am not sure I will go back to the ‘Sagra delle Ricotta’ next year, I am definitely glad we made the effort this time (and I have since labelled the salt in the cupboard to avert future disaster).

 

Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari

Vendicari is a nature reserve in the South East of Sicily, near to Noto and Siracusa, which was created in 1984 and is well looked after, although tread carefully on the wooden walkways as the wooden planks can sometimes be a little loose or rotting away. The reserve is tranquil and a nature lovers delight. It offers many activities throughout the year and so attracts many visitors, especially in the summer months when the majority of people go there for the beaches. Although, beware the summer months as you have to walk a wee while to get to them and there is little shade once you are there. At Calamosche, my favourite beach in the reserve, the water is so clear that you can see the fish swimming around your ankles. Set in a cove it is a great place to soak up the sun then cool off with a swim or you can take a gentle stroll out in the sea as it is relatively shallow for quite some distance.
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If you are more of an active person and want to do more than merely sunbathe then there is a nice coastal path that will take you from one end of the reserve to the other.Trails in VendicariThis path takes you past archaeological sites; old salt pans which now act as an important wetland site for a variety of birds including flamingos and the common spoonbill; and an old tuna processing factory. There are a number of bird observation points along the way, although you are more likely to see flamingos in the autumn months.Torre SvevaBird Observation CabinCoastal pathThe nature reserve is open all year round; go outside of the popular summer months and it is possible that you will have the reserve to yourself. In spring there are an abundance of wild flowers, herbs and sand-loving plants including wild orchids, poppies, thyme, juniper and rosemary.Wild OrchidMediterranean vegetation

Il Mercato di Ognina – Ognina Market

Men gather on the harbour wall watching the scenes below. Fishermen shout over one another in deep Sicilian voices waving their cleavers around in the air as they advertise their catch of the day. A group crowd around a bucket of fish, jostling for a good position as they start their bargaining. An octopus tries to makes its escape from the plastic bag it has been flung in to as it is unceremoniously plonked on the scales. A fish which has been desperately flapping around in a crate full of apparently lifeless fish is thrown back into a pail of seawater as another one is pulled out in its place; the fisherman’s attempt at showing how fresh his fish are. A man selling parsley pushes through the crowd shouting ‘Prezzemolo, prezzemolo’ over and over again. Another seller cuts a piece of tuna and eats it in front of an interested customer in an attempt to persuade her that his tuna is freshly caught that day whilst a new boat arrives bringing its fresh catch straight from the Mediterranean sea. Next to the fishermen are fruit and vegetable stalls, cockerels and live rabbits are also for sale along with cheese and bread. The smell from the oranges ripening in the sun is intoxicating.

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This is the Sunday market in Ognina, Catania; the one day of the week when the fishermen forgo the middlemen and sell directly to the customer. The market is like an open-air theatre as the fishermen throw their voices and dramatically wave their hands around in the air fighting for attention. Their Sicilian customers are shrewd and know what to look out for and are fully aware that some of the fish will not be fresh and might have come from the freezer of a truck instead. They know to look through the fruit and vegetables that have been placed in punnets and check carefully those at the back where the bruised and old ones are usually hidden and they enjoy the experience knowing  when they are done that they will return home with the freshest fish and cook up a feast for all of the family.

Carciofi at Ognina Market

"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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