April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
A Day around Mount Etna
We had read tourist literature that suggested the wines made in a string of four villages on the north side of Etna were well worth the tasting, so we planned to combine a wine-tasting tour with a circumnavigation of the mountain, and a climb partway up. On the south side, one can go up in four stages: car, special jeep, cableway, and foot. We felt we had neither the time nor the energy for that, especially when for safety one cannot get closer to the main crater than a couple of km. So we went up the north side as far as the car road goes, which is through the 2002-3 lava flows. In the larger version of the picture, the level we reached is the top of a darker band just below the snowline.
Etna has lots of craters, many of them at quite low levels on the 11,000 ft mountain. Some of those lower craters have been active as recently as 2002-3, an eruption which destroyed the route up to the main crater from the north. To get to the north road up Etna, one takes a mostly narrow and often steep road to a town with the wondeful name of Linguaglossa. From there, a wider and better kept road goes up in a long series of hairpins through a thick forest, coniferous in the upper reaches.
When we were there, lots of families were picnicking in the forest. This picture was not taken there, but was in a small park lower down. The atmosphere was much the same in both places.
Near the end of the road, it cuts through a substantial field of jet black lava blocks and flows. The 2004 Michelin guide said that the lava still was hot enough to steam and smoke, but we didn't see that. The lava flow seems to have come from several craters well below the peak, to the west of the buildings at the end of the road (which is a big parking lot). The multiplicity of craters, high and low, is probably one reason why the slopes of Etna is so much shallower than that of Vesuvius. In one 20th century eruption craters opened along a line 14 km long! Another reason may be that the lava Etna emits is liquid lava than is that of Vesuvius (if it is).
While we were there, Etna was not erupting, but it was quite enthusiastically jetting out plumes of steam. Some of them for a few seconds jetted appreciably higher than the gentle steam cloud that wafted away downwind. Sometimes the steaming simmered down for a moment or two, but it never seemed to stop entirely. On this clear, sunny, day, we could see the steam cloud whenever we could see the top of the mountain, even from many kilometers away.
Here is a 360 degree Quicktime VR panorama of the heath, which incorporates a couple of the above pictures.
We wandered up from the parking lot. often through wet snowbanks, onto a vaguely flat heath dotted with larger and smaller craters, ribbed by lava dikes, and dotted with what were probably lava bombs. Judging from the vegetation, which included mature trees, it must have been many years since lava flowed there, even though it was only two years since it flowed a few hundred meters to the west.
The views from the heath are quite magnificent, as one might imagine from the height and the relative clarity of the atmosphere (though, as you can see in the picture at left, one can't escape city air pollution even here. What you can see comes from Messina or Reggio Calabria). On the heath, the lava dikes are ridges a couple of metres wide and one or two metres high, as if the lava had flowed in the form of a rugged rope a metre or two in diameter. It's rather strange, and hard to imagine the physics that allows this to happen. Lower down, we saw several lava walls of this type, rather larger than what we saw on the heath, some of them passing right beside houses. It looked in some cases as though the houses might have been older than the lava, and had been lucky that the stream passed them by.
After a pleasant while on the heath just below the snowline, we returned down to Linguaglossa and started our search for wineries along the circumetna road. The brochure named four villages of special interest. In the first three we found no sign of a winery (or of much else, for that matter, it being lunchtime, when everything was closed). We did see a sign to a "Bodega", and we followed the road to which it pointed, but found nothing. In the fourth town, we saw another such sign, and followed that road, which became narrower and bumpier, until we actually found the place.
At the winery, there were quite a few cars, and people were inside enjoying a meal. We thought it must be a family event, but it turned out to be a restaurant. We declined the invitation to eat, but were offered a taste of their wine, and of their olive oil. Both were excellent, and we bought some of each. A boy poured 1.5 litres of wine from a huge cask into a plastic water bottle, and we bought a glass bottle of a half litre of olive oil. Each cost 3 Euros. We haven't tried the oil yet, but the wine was excellent!
Continuing around the mountain, we had hoped to buy some pistachio cake at a town called Bronte, which the brochure said was the world centre for this delicacy. But Bronte was closed for the noon-time siesta, and we could find nowhere to buy it. The vista in the right-hand picture above was taken from the entrance to Bronte.
Shortly after Bronte, having come round to the southwest side of Etna, we departed from the mountain and went down the valley and across to the hills on the other side, to a town whose name I think I will always remember as "hundred-year urination". Its real name is Centuripe. We didn't know that's where we would be going on the road we took. At one point we looked up and said to each other: "We couldn't really be going up there, could we?" But we were.
In Centuripe, we experienced another instance of erroneously thinking we were following a highway sign. We found ourselves on a very steep downhill street, very narrow, between front steps of houses between which I wasn't sure the car would fit (and with people sitting on the steps watching!). It did fit, by dint of folding in the right-side mirror. There was about 2 cm to spare on the left, and not much more on the right. It wouldn't have been a good place to get the car jammed between those steps.
From Centuripe, we drove around the beautiful countryside a bit more, eventually looping back to Catania.
Over our four days in Sicily, we got very used to the Catania Tangentiale (bypass) highway and the toll road north to Giardini-Naxis, as we used it in at least one direction every day. The road passes quite close to Etna, between the mountain and the sea, and is cut through lava flows at some points. In the 17th century, an eruption more or less wiped out Catania, which is about 20-25 km from the main crater. Nothing like that was happening when we were there, but as we usually passed Etna near the time of sunset, we saw it in interesting lighting, with the sun lighting up the steam plume.
This was Mayday, May 1, which is Labour Day in much of the world, including Italy. In celebration, the street under our window was blocked off and a stage set up for a rock concert. It was a VERY loud concert, but luckily it stopped not long after midnight. I can't comment on the quality of the music as rock music — not my style. There was not much of a crowd enjoying it so I don't imagine that most of the holiday crowd thought it good, either. Even the otherwise ubiquitous motorbikes seemed to have found somewhere else to be. Eventually we were allowed some sleep, to prepare us for a long trip to Agrigento and the misnamed "Valley of the Temples".