As part of our efforts to see more of Sicily this winter we headed off along with the Wandering Dragons (Stephen and Anne) for a three day road trip. We were extremely lucky with the weather – blue skies, light winds and warm temperatures contrasted sharply with the Medicane (a type of hurricane that forms in the Med) that threatened Sicily this time last year.
Driving away from MdR we left the coast behind and ambled our way through the scenic countryside of southern Sicily. Drystone walls and fields and cows were replaced by regimented rows of grapevines marching across the rolling hills as well as more unusual crops such as pricky pear cactus (It can’t be a pleasant job picking those). Caramel coloured abandoned farm buildings dot the fields and ancient tractors puttered about. We passed woodlands with deciduous trees which were putting on their autumn colour show and wound our way up and down the narrow streets of towns perched high up on hills.
Driving anywhere in Sicily you need to add on extra time as the roads aren’t always in the best condition. Some of the driving on display is also interesting; overtaking on blind bends and reversing along dual carriageways when they’ve missed a junction were just two of the sights we were treated to. Thankfully no one is going that fast because of the state of the road!
A Roman Mosaic Wonderland
Near the town of Piazza Armerina lie the remains of a Roman villa set in a sunny meadow next to a burbling stream. Built in the 4th century and modified over the next few centuries by different settlers, the buildings suffered a collapse in the 12th century, were abandoned and during the next centuries crops were grown over the top as well as regular flooding until eventually layers of mud covered and protected the mosaics. It wasn’t until the 19th century that artifacts were uncovered and excavations begun.
The villa must have been stunning if the mosaics are anything to go by. Room after room reveals another amazing tableaux made of millions of tiny colouring tiles. And not just fragments, but whole scenes cover the entire floor of each room depicting Roman gods, girls in bikinis, cheeky lovers’ clinches, strange sea monsters, a 300m long hunting scene, comical animals (although I’m not sure that was quite the look the designer was going for) and a duck powered chariot race. I’ve made a few mosaics, the largest decorates Emerald’s heads door and took me months to do so the villa ones must have taken years, although they would have had a lot of slaves to do the work I guess.
Walkways above the rooms provide the perfect vantage point for viewing the mosaics with descriptions of the room’s use and what the images mean in both Italian and English. A couple of coach tours were there at the same time as us, but as they were on a much tighter schedule we let them file past before meandering on our relaxed way.
As well as the mosaics it is possible to see much of the structure of the villa too with baths and hypocausts, grand courtyards, private apartments and a basilica. on the walls are the faint remains of painted scenes, the Roman version of wallpaper. All in all an amazing insight into the life of an important Roman family, well worth the €10 entry fee.
We continued our drive, this time heading east towards Etna. The first part of the drive was through a forest that gave us tantalising glimpses of the volcano through gaps in the trees, then as we zigzagged down the high plateau we had just crossed it dominated all we could see. Down below us were miles and miles of flat, fertile farmland separating us from the smoking peak.
Etna is huge. 40 miles wide and over 3000m high, there are hundreds of cones dotting its flanks. Towns and cities perch on the lower slopes, then a band of trees before the grey and black volcanic ash takes over.
The road up to the lift at Rifugio Sapienza is nice and new having been rebuilt after an eruption in 2002 when lava flowed several km down the mountain reaching within 500m of the town where we stayed last night. A few abandoned buildings lie amongst the black, jaggedy lava flow and stands of trees that somehow survived as the lava flowed around them.
Etna is almost constantly active giving off ash and smoke, however activity had increased over the last few days with rumblings and gas emissions indicating a bigger eruption was imminent. Might we get the chance to see lava? I was like a kid on Christmas Eve as kitted out with hard hats and walking poles we joined the group of 14 others to head up on the ski lift. At the top it was into the 4WD trucks for the next section up to the snowline.
The weather was glorious for our trip – clear blue skies, a light breeze and fairly warm. We could see for miles around as we got higher and higher. We set off in a line following the footprints of a previous group as we walked through the thin covering of snow. Every so often the guide would stop and explain what we were seeing and about the different eruptions. If I had to get a job I would love to be a volcano tour guide.
Although snow covered most of the area we were walking across, every so often we would come to cleared areas where the heat of Etna had melted away the snow. Steam was coming out of vents and we were able to stick our hands close to the steam to find it was nice and toasty warm. On top of the snow sat pebble sized and fist sized rocks which we were told were lava bombs thrown out with the occasional Etna burps, then the guide pointed out a huge rock, nearly 1m wide. That too had been thrown out at some point! Our hard hats probably wouldn’t be much use against that.
We zigzagged our way gently upwards for a while, until the terrain got steeper and we turned almost straight up. There was also more sulphurous gas in the air catching in the back of our throats and leaving a funny taste. The gas was billowing out of the crater off to our right and the easterly winds were blowing it right over us. As we neared the top the wind increased and it did then get chilly enough for another layer of clothing to go on. The snow became more and more streaked with ash and rocks as we got closer to the crater opening and right at the top there was no snow at all, having being melted away by the steam and gases. We were able to stand close to the edge of the Voragine crater looking down into a huge hole, the sides of the crater went pretty much straight down to a pit of roiling smoke.
Steam and gases were pouring out and as we watched there was a sudden rumble like thunder and a pouf of black smoke and ash gushed upwards from the opposite side of the hole to where we were standing. Wowsers!!! There was a bit of frantic radio traffic amongst the various guides up top and ours decided to take us a different route to avoid the worst of the noxious gasses which were starting to make us cough a bit. We headed on up a bit higher around the western edge of the crater for another view into the hole and from here we could also see an amazing vista all around: north to Vulcano on the Aeolian Islands, the sea glittering away along the south coast of Sicily, the mainland boot of Italy to the east and way into the middle of Sicily to the west. Properly wow.
Sadly it was soon time to descend but there was still fun to be had. We tried a bit of sliding down on our boot heels in the snow and maybe not quite so fun was trying to dodge the large falling rocks that people higher up had knocked loose and then rolled down towards us in a mini volcanic avalanche. Once off the top and out of the wind it was pleasantly warm again and we sat down in a warm patch of ash to eat our sarnies. It was great having the snow as well as the lava, I loved the contrast of black and white and the strange jaggedy lava shapes poking out.
We looked into a few other craters and slide-ran down a long path of ash (I ended up with half the volcano in my boots by the time I got to the bottom) down the side of a cone as we made our way past the lava flows from more recent eruptions.
Very sadly we were then back at the top of the lift, directed to view the tourist tat of gaudy objects made from lava and given a sample taste of fruity liqueurs. After four hours walking on the volcano we were feeling pleasantly worn out and in need of a celebration beer to survive not being blown up by a volcano. The fee of €85 per person for lift, 4WD and guided walk was definitely worth it for me, it was the best adventure I’ve had in a long time. The guides provided the hard hats and poles and also had walking boots and jackets for use. We got a nice certificate too to prove we’d been up top!
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Our walking route up Etna
Noto and Marzamemi
Our third day was spent wandering around the architecture of Noto and the sleepy, pretty fishing village of Marzamemi.