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).
About one week after Etna’s last eruption we decided to hike up Mount Zoccolaro to get a good view of the Valle del Bove into which the lava rivers were flowing. This was our third attempt at the trail. The first time, we had had to turn around near to the top as it was lunchtime and you don’t keep the ‘in-laws’ waiting. The second time, we were both recovering from the flu and had tried to hike too soon.
It is not that the trail is particularly long, it is only about 1.5km. It is more a case of it all being uphill and quite steep at times. It is a beautiful walk and fortunately there is lots of shade at the start which was definitely needed this time round. It starts off along an apple orchard before entering into a wooded area of beech trees. There are two noticeably large trees which countless people have carved their names into. The trail can be slippery at times especially if there is a fresh covering of ash from an eruption and you do have to watch out for tree roots. As it was summer there was quite a lot of undergrowth that was quite tall in places and there were plenty of wildflowers to see along the way.
There are plenty of viewpoints along the way to spur you on and to give you an excuse for a pit-stop. On the last part of the trail we had to scramble up a bit of rock as the path wasn’t very clear but this time we got to the top and the view was breathtaking.
We could make out the lava flows from the recent eruption and we could see the whole of the Valle del Bove, a black, lava strewn expanse (in fact, it is 37sq km). Just as my partner was saying that Etna had gone quite again she started grumbling rather loudly and I felt a little bit too close to danger. She continued to grumble the whole time we were up there and from time to time we could see plumes of smoke being blown out of the New South East Crater. I am not sure how long they will call it the New South East Crater. It was formed a few years ago when does it lose its ‘new’ status?
When you look down into the Valle de Bove you see so many different shapes and cracks made by different lava flows. Nothing seems to be growing there and it is difficult to gauge the size of the cracks that you see. I have looked down into the Valle de Bove from above but this view far outstrips that one and really enforces the magnificence of Etna. After looking at the view for ages and nervously jumping every time we heard a boom from the grumpy one we took advantage of a nearby platform and sat and had a picnic of chicken and chips which we had picked up in nearby Zafferana Etnea. Although I didn’t really eat much despite being rather famished, probably because I kept looking in awe around me.
It would seem that we weren’t the only hungry ones on the mountain. Not long after we had finished our picnic, I saw a fox appear from the bushes. It ignored us at first. It had spotted something living in a hole nearby and it set about furiously digging until it had managed to get the small reptile. It then noticed us, or at least smelt our chicken, and started to come closer. Not sure why but I didn’t feel comfortable with this, foxes can look quite menacing and I am not used to one coming so close, so fearless. Therefore, we took our smelly chicken and headed off back down the mountain. On our way we met a German family who we warned about the fox as they had young children who were looking rather hot and bothered. It turns out that was one of the reasons they had taken the trail. It appears that they had been told of a ‘friendly’ fox who lived on the trail by the owner of their B&B. The fact that the fox was up there spurred them on.
It is not the first wild animal that we have seen on that trail. Previously we had encountered a mountain cat which had quietly but calmly walked right past us. Not sure if the cat would ever attack the fox or vice versa if hungry, would definitely be concerned for any cubs.
The way back down is harsh on the knees but it is definitely a walk that I will do again, especially next time Etna erupts!
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.We 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.