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!
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!
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).
I have just returned from Lampedusa. One of the many islands that make up Sicily and one that is actually closer to Tunisia than it is the Italian mainland. It is well-known among Italians as a holiday destination, especially those from the north of Italy but less so among other nationalities. I didn’t hear any other language spoken bar from Italian (and of course Sicilian) the whole time I was there although I was reliably informed that a few Canadians were on the island. And you know what? I loved the fact that this island has not succumbed to mass tourism! Although as RAI 24 were there reporting that tourism had suffered a significant fall in recent years it would be better for the island if more people knew about it. Of course, Lampedusa is never off the news due to the desperate plight and continuous arrival of migrants from Africa. Lampedusa is an island of tourists, fishermen, migrants, turtles and dogs. All of which will be covered in separate posts as this island left a lasting impression on me and I have so much to say about so many of the issues it faces.
So, where do I start when I have so much to say? I guess with tourism and what there is to do and see. Well, the main draw of Lampedusa HAS to be the sea and its coastline. That obviously includes the famous ‘Rabbit Beach’. The island itself is small, easy to get around but doesn’t really have anything of interest. It is hugely devoid of trees and gets blasted by the wind in winter so it looks desert like, a huge slab of flat rock floating on the sea.
The town is very small, most of the action is centered around Via Roma which is where you will find boutique shops, cafes and restaurants. There are the old and new ports which I loved just walking around at different times of the day. The island is geared towards to the tourist. You will find bike, jeep, scooter, car hire places in the new port and boat trips in both ports. Don’t expect the scooters to be top notch or for everything to work. This is an island after all and they are much more relaxed about everything. The speedometer on our scooter didn’t work and the brakes squeaked like mad but the price was reasonable and the island is small so it doesn’t really matter. Petrol is expensive and on the day we arrived the petrol station had run out. This meant HUGE queues the next day when the tankard arrived on the island so bear this in mind when choosing which type of vehicle you want to hire, also make sure you aren’t running on empty as you can’t guarantee the petrol stations will have fuel. The island is dotted with coves and small beaches.
To help you decide how to spend your time, here are my top ten things to do:
1. Hire a day boat
Ok, so we were a little anxious about this as we had never piloted a boat before but it is a great way to see the coastline at your own pace. Strong winds on the north of the island meant that we could only visit the south of the island but the best swimming spots are on the south so it really didn’t matter. Having your own boat means you can avoid or keep ahead of the crowds. If you are lucky, you’ll have a cove to yourself for an hour or two. Dropping anchor causes the most stress as in the coves if you anchor in sand you will drift, you’ll get thee hang of it but keep an eye out on the boat when you go for a swim. We had to return to our boat when someone else hadn’t anchored properly and were drifting towards our boat. There are a number of companies who hire boats. We used DAG and they gave us a little test run first to make sure we knew what we were doing. They provide a handy cooler for drinks. Cost depends on how much petrol you use. The hire of the boat is 50 Euro plus petrol. We ended up paying 80 Euro for a day’s hire.
2. Dolphin Watching
It is possible to see dolphins off the coast of Lampedusa. We took an organised tour and went on the lookout for dolphins. It was a memorable experience and the sunset on the way back unforgettable. We spent a good hour, perhaps more, watching the dolphins with La Perla del Mare. The cost of the trip was 20 Euros a head.
3. Round the Island Boat Trip
Yep, yet another boat trip but a nice, relaxing way to spend a day and meet some fellow tourists. There are loads of boat operators offering pretty much the same tour. We went with Perla del Mare and were not disappointed. We got to the most popular areas before the other boats and left when too many boats came. The food was excellent, plenty of it including some leftover for the fish. Giovanni was a gregarious host and although we had slightly more people on our boat than the max of 12, we didn’t really notice. At 40 Euro per head it was definitely money well spent.
4. Rabbit Beach
Most people would be surprised that Rabbit Beach, named best beach in the world in 2013 by travellers on the TripAdvisor website, would come so far down the list. Well, the thing is, it is too popular. We headed there early to beat the crowds but as the turtles are laying their eggs there at night you are not allowed down to the beach until 8.30am. By then, quite a few people had arrived. We were lucky to be among the first to lay out our towels and walk into the crystal clear sea but after an hour or so Italians being Italians we were surrounded. Now, this wasn’t just the inconvenience of having a family or couple close by, they were on top of us. Towel touching towel so to speak. One family plomped themselves in the shade of our parasol advising us that the shade would soon move. There was space further back, but everyone wanted to be as close to the sea as possible and they would have plonked themselves on our towels if they could have. Some Italians like to stand around in the shallow of the sea which also meant that I was staring at an old man’s bum for quite some time. We enjoyed the beach and the water is amazing BUT two hours after arriving we left. If you can’t beat them, leave them to it! Seriously, go early morning to make the most of it (8.30am) or outside of the months July and August.
5. A sunset aperitivo
An aperitivo at O’scia whilst watching the sun go down is a MUST. Drink a cocktail or two and take advantage of their buffet and you won’t need to eat out later.
6. Explore the island by scooter
The coastline is just as spectacular from above. The roads may be a bit bumpy now and again but you will get almost empty roads when you leave the town and stunning views out to sea.
7. Visit the turtle hospital
The turtle hospital is located in the old port and is open Mon to Fri in the evening. Informative volunteers are on hand to tell you about each turtle they have in their care.
8. Cocktails at Turkez
Another great place to have an aperitivo and close to town. You will find it at Cala Croce.
9. The Sanctuary of Our Lady
Worth a look as there are some old previously inhabited caves and a little church.
10. Archivio Storico Lampedusa Whilst the museum in being reconstructed there is a very interesting studio to visit with old photos and newspaper front pages which tell the story of the inhabitants of Lampedusa.
Aci Trezza and Aci Castello are seaside towns north of Catania that merge into each other but each have their own feel and stories. Towns where people drive to from Catania and around to go for a ‘passeggiata'(a stroll which in most places is more to be ‘seen’ than for exercise, undertaken quite often on a Sunday evening when people get dolled up in their Sunday best; people walk so slowly that they barely seem to be moving and stop often). They are also great places to have a granita or an aperitivo as the views over the sea are stunning.
Aci Castello is dominated by a Norman castle which sits on a large rock that seems to have come from no-where. At the base of the rock, people sunbathe or fish. Along the coastline of both towns you find people perched on the lava rocks, soaking up the sun; they rather remind me of seals basking. In the town square you will find Sicilian men passing away the hours, chatting and sitting in the shade beneath the trees whilst the women clean the house and prepare lunch or dinner. When we were there a couple arrived to film their pre-wedding video. It is customary to film a short video telling the story behind a couple’s romance. It is also a popular spot for wedding photographs with the castle and the sea as the backdrop. The castle is interesting to visit and contains a small museum.
You can sea Aci Trezza from Aci Castello but alas in the summer you can’t walk along the seafront from one town to the other due to a rather large, private lido commanding all of the available space and blocking any walkway. It is a shame as I think it would prove to be an added attraction and benefit for both towns. Aci Trezza is the busier of the two and in fact a borough belonging to Aci Castello. Instead of a castle it is dominated by – I Faraglioni dei Ciclopi – the rock of the Cyclops, as local legend would have it that these are the rocks that were thrown by Polythemus at Odysseus when the latter was making his escape. It is not difficult to understand the reasoning for this legend. You can see Mt Etna from the town and the lava basalt rocks do look like they landed there but in fact they rose up from beneath the sea due to volcanic activity. The rocks are an interesting feature on the seascape and provide a perfect place to dive into the sea from for fearless local boys. There are many other interesting volcanic features to see in Aci Trezza but my favourite activity here has to be people watching. In the harbour you will see fishermen tending their boats, bringing in their haul, selling their fish or just relaxing in the shade out of the glaring midday sun. Large yachts, big fishing boats and small wooden boats are moored next to each other. Giovanni Verga set his novel ‘The House by the Medlar Tree’ or ‘I Malavoglia’ here which Luchino Visconti based his film ‘La Terra Trema’ on. I haven’t read the book or watched the film – yet! It is a MUST do on my list as I completely understand how this tranquil but busy seaside town could inspire a writer.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, apart from the granita this is a great place to eat fish! Obviously!
On the third weekend in May, Noto holds a festival of flowers which it has been doing for a number of years. Every year they take on a new theme and cover a street called Via Nicolai in a carpet of flowers. This year the theme was ‘Incontro con la Russia’ or An Encounter with Russia which is interesting given the current political situation. Regardless of politics the carpet of flowers was extremely impressive, at 22 metres long it featured 16 different designs representing among others the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Yuri Gagrin, Matryoshka dolls and Russian ballerinas. In this fascinating cultural exchange you will also find Russian artists giving concerts, performances, exhibitions and working with Sicilian artists throughout the ‘Baroque Spring’.