Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mount Etna puts on a show


We got off to an early start on another bright sunny day. As we left the city of Siracusa we passed a couple of kilometres of cars, many double parked. There were several flower stalls with lots of irises, canna lilies, tiger lilies, freesias and roses. Our first thought was a Sunday market but it was friends and family visiting a huge cemetery.

Off in the distance we could see the snow capped Mount Etna, which stands currently at 3329 metres high and is more than twice the size of Mount Vesuvius. There was a large dark cloud above the mountain that became fluffier at the top and then spread out for miles. As we moved even closer there was a huge, wide plume of dark smoke and ash shooting into the sky. Later we found out that it was a seven-kilometre high plume, and that lava was sent down into the uninhabited Valley del Bove. It was an amazing sight. We could also see two other vents shooting white steam into the sky. As we travelled around the mountain the vent spewing ash stopped for a while and then started up again. Finally, it was over and there were three areas of white steam vents. Of course at the time we didn't realise that we were seeing something extra special.

We travelled west around the volcano Where there were a few olive trees, stone pines, birch and oak trees scattered about an inhospitable landscape that was covered with volcanic rocks. Eventually, we arrived in Bronte, the Greek name for thunder, and stopped at a bar-pasticerria for coffee and a small cannelloni with pistachios. Heavenly! Bronte is the pistachio capital of Italy. We went in search of a place selling all things pistachio but it was shut. We followed this street, which was in an industrial area, until it brought us to the edge of a huge lava field. We followed a path through the dark brown rocks, large and small. You could plainly see how the molten lava piled up on itself Like swirls of brown whipping cream. I picked up a small rock, which was surprisingly heavy. It was as if we were on the moon. All this with the backdrop of Etna steaming away. We think Bronte has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once over the years; we certainly didn't see any old buildings.

As we left Bronte we did look for Nelson's castle but couldn't find it. Ferdinand III gave Admiral Nelson the title of Duke of Bronte, and estates that went along with it as part of his reward for helping put down an uprising in Naples. Now the countryside became much greener. Still the ferns of the wild fennel lined the road but now there were many olive groves, vineyards, almond trees in bloom and pistachio trees. There were still volcanic rocks in the fields but most had been cleared.

Our drive through the Nebrodi mountains was quite lovely. As we drove higher and higher snow was still lying in the woods by the road. Then all of a sudden each side of the road was piled with snow and the piles eventually grew to a metre and a half high. We were hopeful that we would find lunch and luckily out in the middle of nowhere was Muta, a tiny village with a hotel and restaurant. It was a good sign that a few Italian families were already eating when we arrived. We had some vino de casa, red, which I expect was homemade. Excellent. We ordered two pastas. One sauce was made with pistachios while the other was made with meat from small black pig common to the area. The pistachio pasta was one of the most amazing things I have ever tasted and I will be trying to make it when we return home. The small black pig, which was like wild boar, needed a bit more meat in it. It was still very good. Horse meat with mushrooms and tomatoes pasta was also on the menu but neither of us was tempted! Then I had pork, which was a plate of pieces of pork, slow cooked. I ate one piece but it was too much. Seamus had a mixed grill of sausage, lamb, pork and a thick, really thick, slab of bacon. He ate bits and pieces of his. Again too much. Finally, we finished with a small piece of very moist pistachio cake topped with pistachios. Mmmmmmmm good. As we left the restaurant some people came back from snowshoeing. I was very tempted to stay overnight and go snowshoeing but we decided to keep going.

As we drove down the mountain the road was wet with the melting snow. Soon we were out of the mountains and driving along the rugged north coast towards Cefalu. It was a beautiful drive with the water on one side and olive trees and vineyards on the other.

As the sun was going down we arrived in Cefalu and followed signs to the waterfront. Very quickly we found ourselves in a tangle of narrow streets filled with masses of people. We seemed to be in a pedestrian zone. We turned up some streets to get out of this mess and followed a narrow street barely squeezing by parked cars and motorbikes only to end up in a dead end with no way to turn around. There was only one thing to do, reverse up the entire150 metres back past those same vehicles on one side and the widow ledges, drain pipes and door steps on the other. Try it sometime! One lady leaned out her window to see what was going on. At that moment the driver side car window was exactly opposite this window and about three inches away so Seamus and this lady were able to share a comradely moment together. The lady offered what she presumably thought was helpful advice, but more importantly, there was something encouraging in her expression and Seamus says he took strength from that. In any case, after this hopefully never to be repeated hell, we extracted ourselves from the lane and got the car turned. Of course that only meant that we had to retrace our steps through the throngs of pedestrians, who fortunately were very understanding. Final result: no injured pedestrians, no scrapes to any vehicles, and only one very bad Italian swear word.

We are now recovering in a very nice hotel on the edge of town. Armed with new directions, we will attempt to visit Cefalu tomorrow.

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