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.
‘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.
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!