Monday, 5 September 2011

Ascending Mount Etna and dipping in the Med

Visiting Sicily’s highest point and highest volcano in Europe is always dependent on the weather and mood of the volcano. We knew there had been an explosion a few days earlier and there could be another at any time so it was with relief we found ourselves sitting in the bus heading from Pedara to the gondola.

The gondola takes you from the lower slopes of Etna until the four-wheel drive section. We were then split into smaller groups to go up the ash fields. There’s not much to see other than a bumpy landscape in shades of dark grey and black with sinuous trails picked out with long sticks.

We posed in front of a 3 story complex that had been destroyed after a recent eruption. These eruptions can destroy all the tourism infrastructure on the mountain including the gondolas. I don't know how they manage to get insurance.

The sticks are essential as the contours of the mountain are constantly changing. The trip up is bone-shaking. The summit is3,300m high and consists of four main craters. There would have been a lovely view of the surrounding countryside and the Mediterranean but for the dust clouds obscuring most of that.

 Beware of the dust if you are asthmatic. It’s really hard to wash out of your clothes. I had to wash my trousers by hand and my tops in the washing machine deposited black, sticky dust all over the washing machine filter. My sneakers were washed in the washing machine later but never came really clean. It’s easy to understand the problem for airplanes flying in the area.

The vehicles deposited us further up the mountain and then we had to walk the rest of way, surveying the lava fields and ash fields, crunching dust and ash under our feet, checking out fumaroles and the heat of the ground. We had a mountain guide with us who was multilingual. He kindly repeated the basics of what he was saying in French into English for me.

The walk takes a bit of care and effort and would not suit the elderly or those with breathing or heart conditions. I picked up a piece of Etna lava and tucked it away in my pocket. We all did. Those that forgot to could buy some at shops halfway up the mountain.

This is a memorable trip. In winter people ski here. It’s not picturesque or even very interesting, especially if you’re like me and come from a volcanically active country but it’s still special to do it and fun.

By this time I was well and truly churched-out but our guide was determined we would visit Taormina on the coast with its cathedral. Taorimina is a pretty spot established by the Greeks. It was colonised by the Romans 3rdC BC and had its ups and downs but mostly ups. It’s a very popular tourist spot all year. I found it unremarkable and was disappointed we couldn’t visit the Greek Theatre which is the key monument there. The queue to get in was so long we couldn’t wait as we had to meet our guide at a specific time. Plan B was executed. For me this meant taking the only opportunity on the trip to have a swim in the Mediterranean.

To Europeans this is no big thing but for a Kiwi this is rather special. It’s a very long time (years) since I swam in any sea. A gondola is necessary to travel down the cliff faces and back from the beach. This beach isn’t comfy. It’s made up of large and small stones which bake in the sun burning your feet and are very difficult to walk on. It’s not much better in the water as the stones continue but at least your feet don’t burn there.

I’m glad I made the effort. The water was the warmest I’ve swum in. Warmer than Queensland Australia, warmer than New Caledonia or Hawaii. Most definitely warmer than any sea New Zealand can offer. I surrendered to the movement of the water as I lay and relaxed on my back. I closed my eyes, feeling the warm sun on my front and let the gentle waves nudge me. It was easy to relax into it all. Delicious. However when I decided to find my feet and climb onto a rock I discovered that relaxing like that in movement made me dreadfully dizzy and motion sick when I tried to haul myself onto land. Odd and unpleasant new sensation.

I forgot about that when one of group decided I needed to be hosed off with cold water. Yoww! Back we trudged in the heat, up hill, up gondola, past the interminable kitchy tourist shops to find a shuttle bus back to the tour bus and back past Etna to Pedara.


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