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.
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.
‘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.
My favourite tipple has to be wine, the red variety the most but I am not adverse to a glass or two of white at lunchtime on a hot and sunny day. Therefore, when I discovered that on one weekend of the year vineyards throughout Italy open their wine cellars to the public and celebrate their wines with a host of activities I jumped at the chance of attending an event. As the one in Nicosia was closest to where we live and as we didn’t know much about their wines we decided to head there.
Upon arrival it was immediately noticeable that this was a big operation. I have been to other vineyards to buy wine before but this one looked huge and has a stunning view of Mt Etna in all her glory. A beautiful covered entrance leads you through the story of Cantine Nicosia with pictures and old wooden wine making equipment that has since been replaced with modern technology.Although this was a free event you had to pay 5 Euro for a glass which came in a handy pouch which you hung around your neck. You were then free to taste and drink as much wine as you wanted. We decided to start our experience with a free tour of the cellars. A very informative tour it turned out and a glimpse into a massive wine producing operation where technology means that they have a much reduced workforce. We were told about the whole wine-making process which included being taking into the lab where they had lots of bizarre looking equipment which they used to make sure the wine was top-notch. Seeing the bottles of chemicals actually put me off a bit. After that we headed for the mini wine tasting course.
I had expected the wine tasting course to be the highlight of the day. It wasn’t! Firstly, we had a too long and rather patronising rant, oops I mean sales pitch, from the National Organisation for Wine Tasting. The guy for one spoke way too fast and seemed way too smug. He appeared to inform the room, in one way or another, that he had a higher intelligence than the rest of us lower beings and that due to his enhanced receptors in his brain was able to understand and appreciate wine more than we would ever be able to – unless we took their full course that is! I am sure he would protest this but to me he definitely came across this way. So, we eventually (after about 30 mins) got to do some wine tasting. We were shown how to hold the glass, lift it to the light to check its translucence, sniff it ( a better person would have been able to smell the freshly toasted bread, I couldn’t) and then ultimately taste it. We started with a sparkling wine which was rather nice. We were told that the more bubbles it had the better quality. We moved on to a white, Etna Bianco which to me was very light and then a red, Etna Rosso. I didn’t really get the smell or taste that the man was telling me I should be tasting, smelling so I guess I failed the course. For the first time ever on a wine tasting I didn’t mind pouring the remainder of wine in my glass away either. This is not to say their wines are not good. I find wine to be a matter of personal taste much like art is. Furthermore, they make a cracking Zibbibo and Malvasia. Maybe I was off that day, maybe if I tried the wine again I would like it. Anyway, I couldn’t bear to listen to the expert go on any longer so we skipped the very last bit and probably missed out on a damn fine wine. Next we headed for the minibus which would take us to the vineyards. The view was gorgeous and the tour again very interesting and informative. The vineyards are on the slopes of Mt Etna at the foot of a very old crater. The soil here is very acidic and despite the heavy rain we had had in the morning, it was bone dry. At the vineyard we were also shown the old cellar and wine producing area. Seeing this made me realise just how much they have grown as a wine producing company. I am glad they keep these old buildings as a type of museum, old wooden barrels look so much more appealing than the modern metal wine vats and it seems so romantic to imagine the whole village crushing the grapes with their feet.
After the vineyard tour we headed to the ‘Art & Culture’ area. This was fascinating as local artists demonstrated their talents in Sicilian crafts. There was a guy tapping away at a bronze plate for one of his Sicilian puppets, a man carving a wooden post for a Sicilian cart, a man basket weaving, a painter and an incredibly interesting guy who makes sculptures from lava. All of them were friendly and welcoming and ready to explain their works. Around the corner there were further stalls selling local produce such as goats cheese, marmalade, olive oil and even a Zibbibo granite which was delicious.
What impressed me most about the day was how much effort had been put into it and how well attended it was. There was an abundance of wine to taste, the garden area was beautifully laid out with ornate tables and chairs and there was a whole host of tours and demonstrations. I must admit that out of all the cellars & vineyards in the Etna area this one seems to be better at publicising themselves. Their website and Facebook page is kept up to date which is not always the case with their competitors and they have fully embraced wine tourism, so hats off to them. I’ll be going back to check out their restaurant that’s for sure.