In the shadow of a very active volcano

We quickly settled back into the rhythms of Sicilian life. Our intention to spend a couple of days near Cefalu quickly turned into a week as we waited for a backlog of post (just minor stuff like the van’s new tax disc) to arrive. It wasn’t difficult, though – the Rais Gerbi campsite is a busy one, and there were a whole raft of people who we soon became friendly with. A handful of daytrips all varied in their success. Our first foray into the Madonie mountains barely scratched the surface. We stopped at a Sanctuario at Gibilmanna to enjoy a fantastic view over the coastline, only to be greeted with a drip-sizzle-drip-sizzle sound from the back of the van. One of the engine’s cooling hoses had decided to spray water straight at the hot exhaust. If you’re going to have “issues”, they might as well be where there’s a great view, at lunchtime, immediately after stocking up on some good food, right?

Once the van had cooled down a bit, I could have an investigate and – hopefully – fix. Fortunately, a hose joint had just somehow started leaking, despite being well clamped up. Even more fortunately, it was one that was easy to get at. A quick dismantle showed everything to be in good order, so it all went back together – and, so far, has proved watertight again.

Our second foray into the mountains was MUCH more successful – Castelbuono is a gorgeous town, with an old centre dominated by a large fortified house (Castle’s a bit ambitious – but it’s lovely, whatever you want to call it). Even better, as we wandered towards the centre of town we were accosted by the proprietor of a very upmarket-looking small shop specialising in local food, and forced to taste lots of goodies – several of which were so good that we couldn’t escape without buying them… Once we got to the centre of town, we managed not only to find a very fresh pasta shop and a bakery that smelt so good you couldn’t stop your mouth watering, but another food shop offering tastings – this time Limoncello, Mandarini, and various other flavoured liquers, including Fico d’India (Barbary Fig, or the fruit of the ubiquitous cacti). It’s a hard life sometimes.

Castelbuono has a slightly different approach to most towns to bin day – big bin wagons don’t easily fit down narrow streets, and even small ones can clog traffic utterly. So what better solution than to bring in Valentina and her friends?

They might be rubbish donkeys, but they’re also very very good donkeys, and have no objections whatsoever to having a quick break from their working routine to have their noses scritched and photos taken by passing tourists.

The third foray was a planned bike ride up to the village of Pollina, high above the campsite – we’d driven up there in November, and marvelled at our French friends who had cycled up. In conversation with a couple of others at the site, it started to seem like I was the soft one for thinking it too hard, so maybe I should have a go. Unfortunately (no, really), when I checked my bike over prior to departure, I found that I’d got two broken spokes in the back wheel. Then, as I removed an intact one to take into a bike shop as an example, I managed to puncture the inner tube… One definitely hors-de-combat bike. I was offered loan of a spare bike by a friend at the site, but somehow it wouldn’t have been the same, so I reluctantly decided to abort the plan. Now we just need to find a bike shop, get the bits, and fix it.

The Madonie mountains are truly beautiful – it was the main peak of the range, Pizzo Carbonara, whose covering of snow we’d seen from the boat as we approached Palermo. Our route from Cefalu through towards Etna took us back through the natural park, rich in spring blossom, then through the neighbouring Nebrodie range, offering stunning views of both Pizzo Carbonara and Etna – sometimes simultaneously.

Etna’s not only Europe’s highest active Volcano, but it’s also Europe’s most active Volcano – and it’s even more active than normal so far this year. The morning we arrived back in Palermo, we saw a thick orangey-brown haze across the horizon, thanks to a sizable eruption that very morning. Our arrival to an Agriturismo on the northern slopes was a bit cloudy, but when we woke the following morning – wow. The mountain was RIGHT outside the door of the van, separated only by vines, with the perfect blue sky marred only by clouds around the peak. Oh, wait a sec – they’re not clouds. They’re smoke and steam from the active craters.

Unfortunately, it’s still not possible for us to head up to the top of Etna, via one of the 4×4 trips. There’s just too much snow. The campsite’s at about 750m altitude, the base stations for the cablecars and trips at about 1800m, and you should be able to get up to about 3000m – a bit short of the 3350m summit, but as far as it’s safe to go. As we drove around and up the lower slopes of the mountain, the snow seemed to start at about 1200m – and, by the time we got to the base stations, it was sitting two to three metres high at the sides of the road. In places, the surface of the snow was black with a covering of basalt rock, freshly thrown out by the recent eruptions.

At the northern base station, only skiers were doing anything much. At the southern base station, though, every coach in Germany seemed to have arrived simultaneously to unload their passengers onto the waiting souvenir shops… We briefly considered getting the cablecar up anyway, but as the big screen in the foyer of the station showed nothing but swirly mist and cloud enveloping the live camera, we decided not to bother and walked back out. Just in time for the clouds to start to batter us with icy rain and hail.

As they say – when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. So we headed back down to the big mall on the edge of Catania we’d visited in similarly dire weather in November. This time, though, we managed not to find anything we needed to buy. Combined with the heavy and aggressive traffic, we gave up completely, and headed back to our peaceful corner of a beautiful vineyard, where we felt it would be rude not to taste the local produce. Excellent it was too – not only the wine, but the other products. As well as the red wine-flavoured face cream, hand cream and soap, we couldn’t resist some of their Vino Cotto – a syrup made from the must of the grapes, the bit left after squishing for wine – a delicious cooking sauce, tasting of treacle toffee – it immediately made me think of November the 5th. In with a tomato-based pasta sauce, it gives a lovely richness and depth of flavour.

On the other side of the campsite, if you can bring yourself to turn your back on Etna for a minute, there’s more beautiful mountains – this time, carved out by the river Alcantara.

Our route away from Etna Wine took us through them, starting with the beautiful hilltown of Castiglione di Sicula.

As we rounded the western edge of the Volcano, and started to head across country towards Siracusa, though, the scenery not only turned flatter but our route more and more convoluted. No roads seemed to head quite where they should, with our confusion only partially resolved when we found a gigantic military airbase – seemingly partially Italian, partially US – in the middle of the plains. Our state of mind didn’t improve as we headed towards the coast north of Siracusa, and found the campsite we were aiming for was closed. We really didn’t want to head back to the miserable and overpriced field we’d stayed at previously (despite Rob & Sarah’s glowing opinion of it), so headed into the city centre for a car park that we’d heard about, offering the possibility to stay overnight.

Aires are a funny thing. Some motorhomers seem to swear by them, but we’ve always found that a bit baffling. Quite apart from our lack of loo & shower making the logistics harder, why stay in an urban car park, when there’s great views to be had from “proper” campsites? It turned out, though, that this one was really a bit of a gem. Yes, it was a car park, heavily used by coaches through the day.

Slap bang in the centre of the city, right next to the impressive landmark modern Sanctuario, it was also a large grassy area, under trees, with full facilities – and, most importantly, an excellent base to see the bits of Siracusa we’d missed. As we walked back on the first evening, we were passed by a very familiar van – our Canadian friends, Jacques and Simone, who we’d met in December in Palermo, then in February on Djerba. Our social whirl here also included a pleasant evening in the company of Danes, Kerstin & Knud – although we couldn’t for the life of us figure out the Brits (a couple seemingly in their 30s), who seemed to spend all their time at the site in their van with the curtains closed, hiding from the beautiful weather and ignoring everybody. <shrug>

Ortygia, the old town on a small island, had charmed us despite atrocious weather – and it certainly lost none of that allure in beautiful sunshine. It wasn’t why we’d returned, though – the archeological museum and park were the main reasons. The museum is huge, and very well organised – probably a bit too huge, since we quickly started to gloss over with impending cultural overload. There are some real highlights – the coin and jewellery collection in the basement, strangely, was one. We’ve never really enthused over the numismatic displays, but this seemed to capture our imagination. Perhaps it was the sheer quality of the exhibits – silver and gold sparkling under excellent lighting, showing off the incredible detail stamped into them. Perhaps it was the friendly guide, Rosalba, who kept popping up to point us at details we’d have missed otherwise.

The archeological park houses several ruins including a 15,000 seat Greek theatre (with temporary wooden seating being constructed for the summer’s live season), a small amphitheatre, and the Ear of Dionysius – a tall and S-shaped cave, curving back into the sheer rock face. It was busy with school trips, including one group of presumably drama students who were loudly staging a fully costumed 5th century BC protest against their colonists… By contrast to the various Italian groups, the British school group seemed to be dour and subdued, without any of the animation and loud chatter.

Finally, when we’d arrived at the car park, we’d been given a discount voucher for the catacombs just around the corner. In the middle of modern housing, there’s a ruined ancient church. Our immediate assumption – that the damage had been done when the area was bombed in the war – turned out to be false, and the church had lain in ruins since the 1693 earthquake which battered so much of south-east Sicily.

The catacombs underneath stretch for 10,000 square metres, heading off a main axis a kilometre in length, through the chambers of an ancient water supply system, decorated with the remains of 11th and 12th century frescoes. About 20,000 graves have been found, many having been used several times – so potentially the last resting place of upwards of 50,000 people.

And so we’re currently back at Etna Wine, our return greeted enthusiastically by the resident dog who seems to have adopted us as his very own campers. We’re now steeling ourselves for the short trip back to Messina and the ferry back to the mainland. It’s been a wonderful time here on Sicily, and we’re finding it very hard to leave – this place really has stolen a chunk of our hearts.

NB – The original title for this post was going to be “Puthering Heights” – but Ellie didn’t think anybody’d know what “Puthering” meant. Is it really a strange local dialect thing, or is she being overly dictionarycentric?

This entry was posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Italy, Food stuff, Travel stuff, Van stuff, Wildlife stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to In the shadow of a very active volcano

  1. John Stenhouse says:

    No she’s not, what is a “Puthering”?

  2. Mum & Red says:

    2 meanings of puther –your one re Etna -to smoke weakly, the other to potter or mess around fussily

  3. AdrianC says:

    I’ve always thought of it as smoking heavily, but there we go – and a quick google suggests that it’s also used in Nottinghamshire to mean “lashing down with rain”.

    Ellie says “Vindicated!”

  4. John Gallimore says:

    Puthering down with rain………

    Heard that in north Leics, Derby way,

    Loving the blog….Ellie you have a real travelogue writing talent, I’m not normally a fan of other peoples holiday snaps, but with you and the East European voyage on 80 90, well, frankly I’m counting down the days to liberty.



  5. HI ya Ellie. Great stories here. You are right – puthering, what the? In fact the automatic spell corrector made my puther into putter – so even it does not recognise the word. But I love new words and I looked it up. Puthering with rain – or I think a deluge of some sort – like smoke. So it was a perfect title for your volcanic reference. I remember using the word in my youth – had forgotten it.

    I really enjoy seeing the cultural art – the tiles, paintings, and love a ruin. No puthering here today – brilliant blue sky, clear from here to the city. Jen

  6. Pingback: A year in a red campervan – our lives, the road movie | Wherever the road goes…

  7. Pingback: Answers to some frequently asked questions | Wherever the road goes…

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