23rd & 24th October 2017
The sunrises at the campsite were spectacular streaming straight into our van over the sea, but the best thing about the place is the staff – Carmen and Isodora are incredibly helpful. The first morning they arranged a taxi to take us up to the train station in Acireale, the town at the top of the cliff above Santa Maria la Scala.
It was our first experience of Acireale’s narrow streets and convoluted one-way system which our driver Rosario navigated brilliantly. We bought our tickets at the bar as directed and before long were on our way to Taormina, Sicily’s most popular resort. The train hugged the coastline before depositing us at the foot of Monte Tauro at Taormina-Naxos, hundreds of feet below Taormina itself which clusters on the upper slopes. The station, for those who are interested, is the only location in Taormina used in The Godfather movie.
For €2 we were spared an tiring and dangerous walk up narrow, pavement free and traffic-heavy hairpins climbing up to the town. Instead a full-size coach hurtled us upwards, the driver chatting away on his mobile whilst forcing opposing traffic to veer or retreat. From the terminus we walked up to the old gates, already busy with tourists. July or August here don’t bear thinking about.
We followed the crowd uphill to the Teatro Greco on a ridge overlooking Taormina. The amphitheatre, with a diameter of 109m, is the 2nd largest ancient theatre in Italy and North Africa. Established by the Greeks (3rd century BC) and redeveloped by the Romans (1st & 2nd Centuries AD) who adapted it for gladiatorial combat it is in a really spectacular setting, quite magnificent and still used for performances and ceremonies today. A screen showing CGI of how it used to look really helped us interpret the remains.
Back down in the pedestrian zone, a lovely – and expensive – street lined with old palazzo, their balconies filled with flowers. Danny was horrified at the €74 price tag on a handkerchief tucked into a jacket pocket in a shop window (the jacket was €800). Halfway up, the street opens out into the Piazza IX Aprile with it’s large square and balcony and great views towards Etna and across the bay towards Catania.
Down a small side street we found a restaurant with reasonable prices where we shared a delicious Sicilian caponata for starter then defaulted to favourites – carbonara for Danny and olive oil, garlic & lots of chilli for Kate. We were the only customers and they closed just after we left but we couldn’t fault the food or the service.
We wandered the lanes away from the crowds before heading back onto the main street where at an old-fashioned barber-shop a nice man trimmed Kate’s fringe so she could see again. Taormina was, in our view, touristy and overpriced but the amphitheatre and it’s setting made it worth the visit.
The next day was the one we were really looking forward to. We had booked on an Etna tour the campsite had recommended which was a third of the price of the one we had been looking at. We expected a 4WD, a cable car and a ride to the summit on a 4WD bus (Unimog). Although warm and sunny at the campsite we put on long trousers and T-shirts and packed fleeces, windproof jackets and gloves just in case.
At the campsite entrance we met a Swiss couple in their late 60’s, our companions for the day, and at 9am on the dot our guide turned up. Marco, a 40 year old local with beard and glasses is a qualified Etna, caving & rock-climbing guide. He clearly knew his stuff but our transport was far from a 4WD – the family 7-seater that had seen better days. Fortunately, as Danny was in the front passenger seat, he turned out to be decent driver despite occasionally playing with his phone to show us photos and videos.
We started the drive up the flanks of Europe’s highest volcano, over 10,000 feet high, covering a huge area and dominating this part of Sicily when not hidden in clouds. One of the worlds biggest active volcanoes it has been in an almost constant state of eruption since 1998 but remains a busy tourist area with an active ski-season in the winter. The weather quickly changed with a spattering of rain hitting the car as we approached the town of Zafferana. Marco took us into a shop so we could pick up some lunch and we admired the local produce on offer – chestnuts from the slope of the volcano, malus fruits used in preserves, and prickly pear.
Next door we had hot coffee and a sweet Sicilian cake – oh how they love their cake! Marco told us that the first winter snow had fallen on Etna overnight so he needed to assess the weather conditions to decide the best and safest places to go. Sadly he decided the northern side – with the best views – would not be good so we explored the southern side. We stopped at a viewpoint for the Valle de Bove, once green and now a black wasteland where his grandparent’s farm was one of many obliterated by the 1982 lava flow.
The wind was bitingly cold and rain turned to snow. Further up we stopped at a lava tube and equipped with hard-hats and head-torches we went inside. A narrow entrance led us into a tunnel which ran uphill, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, and in places chunks of the basalt ceiling had fallen to the uneven floor. All formed by flowing lava cooling from the outside in. Absolutely fascinating.
Up into heavier snow and car park next to Hotel/Refugio Sapienza. It was really weird to think that earlier we had been basking in lovely warm sunshine and now were in the first snows of autumn. We were surprised to find a busy tourist area with coaches parked up – this is where the cable-car runs from when the weather is right. Getting to the top and it’s 5 main craters involves a very long walk, or for most people a cable-car and 4WD bus (Unimog). If the weather does not allow cable-car it’s all done in the Unimog. We weren’t doing any of that apparently, but we did get out and go for a walk round a couple of the small side-vents of the volcano, rewarded by the cloud clearing to show us the false-summit of La Montagnola. The contrast of black volcanic ash and white snow was dramatic and the flanks of the volcano awesome in their expanse.
Further round the southern flank we went walking away from the crowds to a spot where we could see the summit of the main crater if the weather cleared. It didn’t, but the walk in snow and bright sunshine was beautiful. We went to a stone-built refuge for lunch out of the wind :
and were really enjoying the tough Sicilian bread when crunch …. Kate’s cap on her front tooth shattered into pieces. Not her best look.
The weather closed in. On the way back down we saw a more recent lava flow which was punctuated by the roofs of buildings it had consumed and the shells of homes it had passed by or stopped at. Over 50 feet high it towered over deserted buildings and surviving trees and must have been terrifying when hot and on the move.
On the lower, wooded slopes we passed cars abandoned at the roadside, Italian stye, their drivers foraging for mushrooms and chestnuts.
Back at reception we asked Carmen for help. Although she speaks little English a smile from Kate was all she needed to understand the situation and within an hour she had whisked us away in her car to Doctore Camillo Figuera. She insisted on staying with us and Kate got expert treatment and a very good temporary cap that would allow her to eat – and smile – without problem. The bad news was that the new permanent cap would not be ready until Monday 30th so we would not be moving on to Cefalu after all. C’est la vie – or “è la vita” in Italian. Carmen took us back to camp before returning to Acireale for her well-deserved day off. What a star.