Tuesday, 30 April 2013

under the volcano

Another sad goodbye.  We part with Clara early on a Monday morning and head off clockwise around the lower slopes of Etna.  There’s been some more snow around the cone since we arrived in Catania and it looks more dramatic now we are getting closer to it.  We are in no rush and in some ways feel like we are going through the motions – we planned to circuit the volcano before we take the ferry to Napoli but after our time with Clara it feels a bit of an anti-climax.  This isn’t helped by the first few roads we take connecting small towns.  Many are lined with piles of garbage.  Not just odd bits of litter but bags and bags of rubbish brought and dumped here.  It’s the ugly side of Sicily which we had forgotten about.  A couple of days later we discover a comment in the guidebook about the litter in these specific areas – so nothing has changed here in the four years since it was researched.   We think this part of Sicily has the densest population – in every sense.  Thankfully we finally leave it all behind as our road climbs and gets further from Catania. 

The consumption of arancina, a classic Scicilian snack

On our second day we come to Bronte, famed across Italy for its pistachios.  But what appeals to us is the strange connection to Haworth just over the moors from where we live in West Yorkshire.  Back in the 1790’s Lord Nelson came along to Napoli and quashed a local rebellion against their Bourbon rulers – we’re not sure why Nelson got involved, but in thanks for his successful effort, the Bourbon king gave Nelson a large tract of land around Bronte and made him the Duchy of Bronte.   He never visited but his family kept the estate until the 1980s.  Sometime in the 1800s a Yorkshire minister called Prunty, who was an admirer of Nelson, decided to change his name to Bronte.  His three daughters then made the name famous in the literary world.  There’s an abandoned monastery which Nelson’s descendants converted into the family house and it’s now a quiet tourist attraction.  When we arrive late on a sunny Sunday afternoon there are plenty of people picnicking in the grounds and having a look around.  We then discover another strange connection – that Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk.  We’ve come off the main route around Etna and the surrounding countryside looks much better for it.  To the north are the Nebrodi hills which look unpopulated and enticing.  We camp in an overgrown olive grove and are awoken early next morning by two workers who have started to trim the trees at the other end.   The trees are so thick and leafy we don’t think they ever see us before we pack up and go.
Nelson's "castle" - which he never saw
The days are sunny and hot so we have been taking very long lunch breaks in the small towns we come across.  They always get that deserted look after one o’clock.  The mountain smokes away in the background and we are reminded of its presence in every town as the main streets are always unevenly cobbled in bone-shuddering black basalt.   We have reached the wine-producing region and the slopes are covered in vineyards and old abandoned mansions in amongst the huge terraces.  Now and again the road crosses a large and old lava flow.  Our last camp is on the north eastern face of the mountain in some woods.  During the night we can hear Etna rumbling loudly and in the morning the cloud is low and it rains.  We set off once the tent has dried out and traverse the volcano’s flanks on a high road giving great views out to sea.  The road is covered in black grit, like crunchy sand.  Ash from the volcano.  In some villages it looks like it has only just fallen.  There are road signs saying that if there is ash on the road then cyclists and motorbikes are not allowed.  We have no choice but to continue but it’s Saturday and the roads are fairly quiet.  In the afternoon we begin the very long descent back into the suburban madness on the coast around Catania.  We arrive back in the city at the end of the day and make our way to the port to cook our tea, buy our ticket and get on the ferry to Napoli.  

It’s just got dark as we eat and Gayle suddenly notices the glowing fire spuming upwards out of Etna.  The volcano is erupting.  After a while the fiery flow of lava can be seen crawling down the mountainside.  We are suitably awestruck and quite happy to be watching it all from the port.  It’s thrilling to watch and thrilling to think we were camped on this monster just last night.

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