Sicily

Sicily is located at the toe of Italy’s boot and is the largest island in the Mediterranean and home to the highest active volcano in the world. Its strategic post between Europe and Africa is key to its turbulent past as most ancient empires flexed their muscles here including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Traces of these cultures are deliciously reflected in the varied cuisine across the island. Getting around is easy if you hire a car. The toll road is wide with many tunnels as it was carved through the mountains but beware in the villages where the roads are narrow and aggressive drivers abound using their indicators and full beam to pressurise you to move out of the way so that they can overtake on impossibly dangerous corners. There is much to see and do from swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters along the rugged coastline to exploring ancient ruins and archaeological sites to gourmet restaurants for fine food and wine and of course, not forgetting the dramatic excitement of a visit to Mount Etna. There will never be a dull moment.

landed at the small airport after a very quiet and reasonably priced Easy Jet flight on the August Bank Holiday weekend. We were relieved to remove our masks after collecting our Fiat Panda hire car from Alamo. We only had two days on the island as we were heading off to explore the Aeolian Islands as part of the trip away to belatedly celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary which was in May and which had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. Time was short but we had our bucket list items to tick off: First – Mount Etna: Etna means ‘I burn’.

We were astonished to see smoke billowing from the pent up volcano – we decided to check whether it was actually open for us to visit as it looked pretty active to us. The local advice was that if the mountain is smoking then it is safe … it is when it stops that you need to worry! Feeling uncertainly reassured we headed off on the convoluted and mostly unsigned drive to the volcano hoping we were heading in the right direction. We were horrified by the amount of litter and black rubbish bin bags which lay strewn across the roads leading to the volcano. However, on the positive the drive was spectacular with ever changing landscape as we approached. We stopped to admire the lava fields and lava tubes and I collected a small piece of volcanic pumice as a momento.

We were amazed to see the car park almost empty – thanks to Covid-19. We opted against the hike due to limited time and purchased our tickets for the cable car and from Rufugio Sapienza to the mountain hut at the top which is also a cafeteria. We then took the large 4×4 bus to Torre Del Filosfo where we were met by a guide who provided interesting information while we walked around the rim of the most recent crater. The cost was 30EUR return per person for the cable PLUS another 30EUR per person for the 4×4 bus. Spenny!! You can buy a combo ticket for EUR57 but we only discovered that afterwards. Was it worth it? Yes, every penny. The vast lunar landscape is magnificent and awe-inspiring. The Mungibeddu (as called by Sicilians) erupts on average once a year thus the topography is ever-changing due to this constant volcanic activity and lava flow. This explains the myth that Vulcan, the god of fire lived on Mt Etna and had his metal works workshop at its base.

Fun Fact: Mount Etna is depicted in Star Wars as a fiery planet with actual footage of it in the movie.

Top Tip: Wear sturdy shoes and take a fleece! On arrival at the top the lady insisted that I hire shoes as I was wearing flip flops … I thought it was over the top, but ended up being so pleased that she was adamant. The ground was so hot that it was melting the base of my hired shoes! The volcano is massive with a basal diameter of 40Km and is 3,327m high – altitude equals windy and COLD at the top! I never realised that people actually ski here in winter!

Alcantara Gorge
This MUST SEE gorge is situated just outside of Taormina and is made up of canyons of black lava walls up to 50m high in the shape of a prism which formed when the rocks were cooling down after the path of the Alcantara River was blocked by a large lava flow from the slopes of Mount Etna several thousand years ago. Crystal clear cold water runs through the base and provids a perfect haven to cool down during a hot day. Fauna and flora abound on the numerous hiking paths: prickly pears, olive trees, willows as well as wild flowers such as as violets, orchids, poppies and anemones. If you ae lucky you may spot kingfishers, plovers or even catch sight of a weasel or Marten. There is plentiful parking outside and entry costs 8EUR per person which includes an elevator ride down 50m to the river and ‘beach. There is a Gorge Trail that follows the river upstream from the gorge with fantastic views down the gorge.

Fun Fact: Sicilian legends attribute the creation of the gorge to volcanic eruptions caused by the anger of the gods directed at a farmer’s dishonesty.


Top Tip: Do the Venus Trail – you will need a helmet and a wetsuit as you will be body rafting and spending most of your time in the cold water. Body Rafting costs EUR30.

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