A Week in Sicily: Mount Etna

We awoke on Friday feeling refreshed and healthy, had an big, early breakfast, and headed up the coast to Mt Etna.

Actually there was some packing in there too…we had lots of decisions to make about packing our day sacks and what to wear. In the end I think we both ended up with full-on walking gear, including hiking boots, several layers, hats, gloves and waterproofs. The Rough Guide said it could get pretty chilly up at 2500 metres, so we prepared for the worst.

The drive to Nicolosi, a large town in the southern foothills of the volcano, took about 2 hours. The Rough Guide had made this out to be a small town but it seemed pretty big. We’d punched the address of the Tourist Office into the SatNav but it lead us to a random back street with no shops or offices in sight.

Nicolosi is at 700m and already the temperature had dropped to about 14 degrees – but it was a fine day with great views up to the top of Etna.

Encouraged by the size of Nicolosi and the big road signs to “Etna Sud” we decided to skip the information office and head up the mountain.

The impression in my head, gleaded from both the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet we’d borrowed, was of a narrow dirt track leading from Nicolosi to a tiny out post, “Refugia Sapienza”. But the road, though steep and windy, was great and had fantastic views back over the Sicilian scenery. And Refugia Sapienza was a thriving toursit spot with lots of little gift shops, huge car parks, and several large hotels and restaurants. Oh, and quite importantly, a cable car station and lots of large 4×4 buses to take you higher up.

We parked up, and wrapped up. The temperature had dropped further to about 12 degrees and a chill wind was blowing. We were beginning to appreciate having brought fleeces with us.

We considered our options – a 4-hour-each-way hike, an “Excursion” with a load of old people on a bus, or the swift cable-car ascent. The cable car was expensive, but worth it. As the tracks and paths opened up beneath us we realised that it was actually a LONG way to the top, and not a hike that we had time for.

The whole place is set up for excursions and getting you to pay to have an easy ride. There are no maps, or directions or guides for walkers. The guide books are mostly photographic.

Having said that, we appreciated the facilites at the top of the cable car, with a good cafe and toilets.

We headed out into the now-very-cold air with the aim of following whoever else was walking. We got a little way and the wind picked up and blew some snow in! Yes, Sicily in September and it’s snowing. Well, we were at quite an altitude at this point and very much in the clouds.

We retreat to the cafe to discuss our options over a cappucino. I was accosted at the bar by some hilarious Russian guys who’d obviously had a vodka too many and were buying more alcohol to warm them up. After escaping them, the weather had cleared slightly, so we decided to head back out and brave the elements with the aim of reaching a crater higher up.
We nervously started following the bus tracks. It would be easy to get lost in such a stark and barren landscape, but the bus tracks and the posts that marked their route up made it easy really.

It’s a weird place. Quite lunar with just a vast expanse of black lava heading up into the distance for miles. It’s bleak and barren. Disappointingly unspectacular and yet, intriguing and captivating.

The cold, mist and wind prevailed on our walk up. It occasionally cleared with views to the coast but not to the summit. We had no idea how far up we had to go and the scenery was, frankly, quite dull.

As the weather closed in again, we were getting cold and weary and decided to give up. It could have been several kilometres to the crater. It could have been 100yards, but we couldn’t see, and we were cold and bored. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great experience, but we were worn out and had a cable car to get back before closing time.

We headed back down and reached the cable-car station. It had turned from thriving to almost deserted in the couple of hours that we’d been gone so we chose not to hang around and went straight back down to the car.
It was an awesome place. I’d recommend going. I’d recommend starting earlier than we did and heading up the mountain in the morning to give you plenty of time. I’d recommend taking FAR MORE warm, outdoor clothes than you’d expect, and if you’re up for a hike then go for it!

We fought our way past some CRAZY motorway driving and called in at Syracuse on the way back for an excellent pizza in an Ortigian restaurant, only ruined by the fact that we over-ordered and had to send half of it back because we were so full.

Anyone know how to say “The eyes are bigger than the stomach” in Italian?

Link: Part Eight