Tag Archives: heritage

Into the danger zone

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.

This is going to be easy
Getting a little more difficult
Forever Climbing

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.

Walking into the unknown

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.

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Cartwheeling in Bronte

Bronte is synonymous with pistachio nuts which were brought to Sicily by the Arabs. It is also home to Nelson’s castle, although it isn’t really a castle (more like an English coutry house); Nelson never set foot in Bronte (not sure why); and it is located in Maniace which is now an independent municipality (but people will tell you it is in Bronte). Bronte is also home to a Sicilian Cart Museum and last Sunday the town held a celebration of the Sicilian Cart due to its inclusion as a candidate for recognition by UNESCO for its intangible cultural heritage.  I found about this event at the last minute and by chance, which is normal for events in Sicily. At least I didn’t find out about it after the event, which is again, the norm.

I have seen Sicilian carts before, with horses attached and everything. I have been to Bronte before too, but it rained and I didn’t stay long. When we first arrived, I saw a cart all on its own. A little further along, another cart, and so on. My first thoughts were ‘is this it?’ and, ‘where are the horses?’. There were a few people milling around, a lot of old men mainly, it felt a bit surreal. Soon, however, more people arrived (still lots of old men and few women) and then more carts. There was even a horse, although it was made of plastic. We also passed a very interesting photographic exhibition on a wall. Then, we arrived in the main square and saw more carts than I could ever have imagined. So many carts that it was hard to take it all in. There were even a few women milling around but these were still outnumbered by old men who I have noticed are very good at sitting or standing around doing nothing.

A lone cart

You could spend hours looking at a Sicilian cart. Richly decorated, full of intricate details, they are each an example of amazing craftmanship and are themselves a sort of storybook. They depict religious scenes (less keen on those ones) and historical scenes. Think, knights in shining amour! They are a wooden, cart version of a pop-up picture book. They have been cleverly thought out too, there is a place for a wine jug, an umbrella, a bag and an oil lamp underneath. They are a feast for the eyes but your eyes won’t be able to take everything in, they are moving works of art and are definitely part of Sicily’s cultural heritage. They scream ‘Look at me! Aren’t I beautiful!’ Actually, they were the Ferraris of their day, which means you had to have had money to have them. Yes, there would have been more simple carts around but those highly decorated ones must have cost something. Who knows how much those on show today are worth. As I later sat in traffic, I wished they could be the main means of transport today, I wouldn’t care if it meant being exposed to the elements and going slow, it would be far more extravagant and romantic. However, I soon came to my senses and realised that it is far better to speed past the vast amount of rubbish which is strewn along the roads all around Bronte, I even saw a back brace at the side of the road.  If only people took as much pride in their surroundings as they do in their carts! Time will tell if they make the UNESCO list. They sure impressed me!

Noto: Blooming Lovely!

Around every third Sunday in May, Noto holds a flower festival. Now, I am familiar with Cities in Bloom in the UK but this festival is something else. It would knock every city I know out of the competition. I first went two years ago and was taken aback by how colourful the display was and amazed by how creative the designs were. This year was even better. There were flower displays everywhere! Noto is a pretty city anyway but the festival really brings it alive. I would go as far as saying that it is the best festival in Sicily and that says a lot as there are many.

We arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds. I am so glad that we did as we were the first up through a narrow and winding staircase to get a bird’s eye view of this year’s main display. The theme changes every year and this year it was ‘Ospiti il Mondo’ or ‘The world is our guest’ (or close enough). The displays are made up of soil, petals, flower heads and even vegetables. I have posted a photo which shows the damage a bit of wind can do but these ‘temporary works of art’ are taken care of and any dying flowers are quickly replaced. The main display takes up a whole street, there are churches either end where for a small fee you can admire the displays from their rooftops (worth it) and withoutany fee whatsoever you can walk alongside the flower displays but patience is a must as everyone wants to stop to take photos and who can blame them? First time visitors should take note and not forget to look up from the eye-catching art as the baroque balconies are outstanding. This year there were further displays near to a church and along another street further along. There were also lots of craft stalls, some traditional entertainment and lots of refreshments on offer, including some lovely craft beer which was I could go on and describe in detail what I saw but as a picture says a thousand words, I will post a lot of pictures instead. Although if you can get here and see it for yourself next year, even better!