Dr. Dawg

Italian notes: Etna

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In a volcanic land where villages and towns are built upon hilltops, the presence of Etna is something altogether new—a vast, brooding, malevolent presence, shown above from a rooftop in Taormina.

Just a few days ago, a small eruption scattered cinders on the roof of a fine restaurant where yesterday Ms Mew and I partook of pigeon, swordfish, cocoa-flavoured gnocchetti in a Sicilian cheese fondue and some local wine.

Today was Etna day. I discovered what driving was like in Sicily. Narrow, twisty mountain roads and aggressive drivers are something best told of—believe me, you don’t want to be in the thick of that action. But our trusty Italian-speaking GPS got us to the jumping-off point, as it were, well up the slopes.

Ms Mew had to remain there—a retinal condition does not permit her to venture as far above sea level as I was planning to go. Leaving her in a bar in Il Rifugio Sapienza, I hopped onto a funicular and was transported much, much further upwards, where tough-looking buses awaited. These took passengers to nearly 3,000 metres above sea level—not an abstraction, as the Mediterranean was clearly visible.

The air is noticeably thinner up there, and the group I found myself with moved slowly—it was easy to get out of breath, even on flat land.

The first thing one learns about a volcano is that it is in fact several volcanoes. The crater that we partially circumnavigated was one of three hundred or so. It appeared in 2002 and cooled (relatively speaking) in 2003. We could see no magma, but there was steam, some rising at our very feet—in various places the earth we walked on was warm to the touch.


An exceedingly active volcano, Etna has a considerable history. One lava-flow made it all the way to the sea: part of the coastal city of Catania was destroyed in an eruption in 1669. More recently, in 1992, the village of Zafferana was threatened with destruction, catastrophe averted by the use of explosives to shatter a lava tube that was sending hot and fluid lava directly towards it. In 2001, another flow made it within 6 or 7 kilometres of the village of Nicolosi.

The peaks shown just below—the true summit, another 400 metres from our position—are off-limits. They tend to spit without warning. The rounded peak on the far right was created by a series of eruptions in 2011; there have been several eruptions this year as well.


As if visiting this hot-spot wasn’t enough, we dared the devil on our return by taking another narrow road above Taormina to Castelmola, perched on the top of a steep hill.


We were looking for a legendary bar, Le Pene dell’Inferno, whose decor reflects a pun that will be obvious to some. We didn’t find it, but did discover a fortified mediaeval town, almost worth the hair-raising drive to get there—and to return.


Basta! Safely back at the hotel, a meal of spaghetti colle vongole is planned, with a very large beer or two. I’m just beginning to relax!

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 11, 2012 2:15 PM.

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