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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
I was in hospital the other day waiting patiently with everyone else for the slow receptionist to call my partner’s number. I am not exaggerating when I say slow either, this lady took an hour to check that two people had appointments. On her third outpatient she suddenly upped and left, not saying a word to the guy who was being booked in and accompanied a tearful woman to a room next to where I was sitting. She gave the lady a ticket for the car park and proceeded to give her the following advice: “Don’t eat cheese for a month and you’ll be fine”. Now, this lady had obviously just come from the cardiac ward. The receptionist trivialised her problem and sent her on her way. The lady was upset. The receptionist dismissive. The lady stood there for a moment, repeated what the receptionist had said and shed another tear. The receptionist went back to making sure that no-one would be on time for their appointments.
I wonder how the lady is getting on with no cheese. She might be thinking “But how can this be so? I live in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right? and cheese is part of that diet”. She has probably decided that the ricotta she puts on her Pasta alla Norma doesn’t count, nor the parmesan for that matter. One thing is for certain, she will have got advice from everyone she knows, solicited or not.
I have piled on the pounds since coming here. I too have thought “but how can this be so? I am living in the Mediterranean, everyone knows that they follow the healthiest diet on the planet, right?” I, too, have been advised to stay off the cheese and somehow I have managed it but I am not convinced that this is the problem. The truth is, Italians consume vast amounts of pasta and white bread. Most of them have a sweet tooth. The sweets that they have here are amazing. If you have a drink, you get given all sort of mini pizzas, salted peanuts and small arancini to go with it. The ice-cream here is the best ever. Lots of tavola calda is consumed. Tavola calda translates as ‘hot tables’, they are essentially savoury snacks, usually made of bread or pastry or deep fried. There is temptation at every corner. Cheese is only part of the problem.
As I am trying to lose the weight that I have gained, I am avoiding temptation. This means not entering bars and averting my eyes when I walk past them. It means, not eating out. I am walking more to work but as everyone drives here I am breathing in fumes the whole way. I stare at skinny people stuffing their faces. I drool if someone puts a cake in front of me as I explain that I just can’t have any, not even a tiny mouthful. I’ve sat and watched my partner and our dog eat a pizza together.
And you know what? It’s working!
I’m still a little, robust, shall we say, but last week I had to buy a new belt.Pulling your jeans up every two seconds is not a good look. I ventured into a little shop and a kind lady helped me choose one before putting it around my waist to work out where her husband should punch the holes. She squeezed it a little tighter than I had and asked if that would be better. I replied that it would as I hope to lose more weight. At that moment, her husband chortled and said “hope is the last to die”. He obviously had no faith in me but when I go back in another few weeks to get more holes punched because I am already on the last one, it’ll be me who is chortling.
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).
..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.
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.
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.
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.
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.