Sunday, November 4, 2007

Etna + Nicolosi

One of our original really-wanna-do things for this trip was to visit Mt. Etna. So even though by Thursday M, C & myself were all in various stages of head-cold hell (either that or the worst allergy attack of all time, which I'm actually not ruling out . . . apologies to any Catanians out there reading this, but the air quality in your city is pretty lousy), when we saw weather reports suggesting that Friday would be clear-ish, we decided to go for it.

The only direct, feasible non-driving means of getting to Etna from Catania is the single daily 8:15 a.m. AST bus to Etna via Nicolosi (click on the CATANIA-NICOLOSI-ETNA link for the schedule, if you care). Being sick, and having generally developed/maintained the habit of sleeping until mid-morning anyway (jetlag? No! vacation time!), the 8:15 bus was voted out immediately.

As CR was still recovering from his doubly-evil sinus doom attack, he wasn't going to be able to accompany us in his official capacity as Sicily Tour Guide, so we decided that our Sicily-survival short-course graduation exercise would be an overnight trip without CR.

So we took a different bus to Nicolosi on Thursday afternoon. Thursday being All Saints Day, and thus a Big Holiday, the bus schedule was screwy, so much so that nobody seemed to know exactly when said bus would be leaving. We'd had the devil's own time trying to catch our Taormina bus at the stop near our apartment, so in early afternoon we packed the tiniest of overnight bags (seriously: I toted everything I needed in the little green shoulder bag I carry all the time) and trundled ourselves down to the Catania bus terminal.

Teh Internets led us to believe that the festivo schedule bus time was 2:00 p.m, but that time came & went with no bus. We sat there at the Catania bus terminal (smellier even than the rest of the city) for a while, wondering whether the surly bus-ticket lady would've sold us tickets for a bus that wasn't running, until finally M walked over to a bench and asked an old lady, who said that she thought it was coming at 2:30. Which, in fact, it did.

Wednesday night CR had called the hotel we'd found on the internet and had gotten no answer, but then Thursday AM early they'd *69'd him ("you called us?" "who are you?" "no, who are YOU?") and assured him that they had plenty of rooms, so armed with the sketchiest of information on where to go ("get off a the i Pini stop"), off we went.

The bus wound slowly through the tight backstreets of the (newer, but still comparatively ancient) northern suburbs of Catania, which almost imperceptibly gave way to a series of nearly-connected villages en route to Nicolosi, which is the last major town on the southern shoulders of Etna. Nicolosi looked pretty big on the map, so when I saw the sign for the town limits, I walked up to the front of the bus & stammered through the rough Italian for "can you tell me when to get off for I Pini?" (I had copied it out of the guide book, and gone over it in my head like 40 times, but still managed to butcher it) and then like 20 seconds later the bus lurched to a halt and the bus driver told us to get off.

Out we stumbled, into a cool, clear, very identifiably autumnal afternoon. The air was clean! It actually felt like November.

I'd hand-drawn a rough map (I know, I know, I should've bought an iPhone, unlocked it, and then bought an Italian SIM so I could've used Google Maps on-the-fly . . . and I might've actually considered it, if the Triangle-area GSM network weren't so crappy compared to the Sprint/Verizon CDMA network), but as it turned out it wasn't really even necessary, as we were almost immediately confronted with a giant "Holiday Palace" sign and an arrow pointing uphill.

After some amount of hiking, past shuttered vacation homes populated only by angry-looking barking dogs, we arrived at the Holiday Palace, which was not only less-impressive than its website photos, but in fact appeared to be totally abandoned. Everything was locked up tight, and we couldn't even figure out how to get down to the level where the empty lobby was, behind a series of high fences.

Holiday Palace

We did get a gorgeous view of Etna from the Holiday Palace, our first decent view of it since arriving in Sicily, in fact. That wasn't enough to override the overpowering "Overlook Hotel" vibe we were getting, however, so we retreated back downhill to the center of town to assess our options.

Which didn't require much assessment, actually, as the bus had originally dropped us off immediately across the street from a hotel, the Hotel Alle Pendici, which was everything the Holiday Palace was not, namely, populated-looking and unlocked. The manager spoke about as much English as M spoke Italian, which is to say more than enough to get the job done.

C crashed out almost instantly upon entering her room, but M & I, not being dosed up on Italian Actifed, went out for a walk around Nicolosi. When we entered the hotel it had been sunny and relatively clear-looking, but within 5 minutes of setting out on our walk, it started raining, and we, temporarily raincoatless, retreated to the hotel. Once it stopped raining a few moments later, we were graced with a double rainbow, which we took as affirmation of our actions & decisions up to that point:

Double Rainbow

By this time it was around 5:30 p.m., and we were getting hungry, having only halfway lunched at the apartment before catching the bus from Catania. This being Sicily, of course, the proper restaurants don't really open until around 8:00, so we had the choice of dining on tavola calda (the wan assortments of pizzete, calzone & arancini that sit in glass cases all day in all the bars, waiting to be microwaved for your enjoyment), or having a proper snack to tide us over until dinner.

We opted for the latter; in M & C's case, that being hot chocolate, or as C says, "aka Liquid Crack":

Hot Chocolate in Nicolosi

Yes, that's a giant blob of whipped cream sitting there on the plate next to the chocolate and the assortment of tiny cookies.

Suitably fortified, we wandered around town for a while, before being drawn inexorably back towards a pizzeria we'd passed earlier, one emitting an irresistible odor of wood-smoke and hot bread & cheese. Due to an inevitable ordering confusion (ordering pasta and pizza at the same time Does Not Compute, so one of the two is simply ignored), we didn't actually get pizza, but we did get some really delicious pasta with (the apparently local) porcini mushrooms (restaurants all over town had signs advertising their specialization in funghi). And M had a Zuppa de Funghi which was basically a bowl of mushrooms with a tiny smear of tomatoey broth on them:

Funghi Zuppa

On our way back to the hotel, we walked past the town's semi-enclosed ice rink (it's in a big quonset hut, but the ends are basically open to the air, or are openable doors/windows) and watched some of the local kids skating in circles. We didn't feel up to strapping on skates ourselves (nevermind figuring out the Italian for renting ice skates), so we went to bed early instead. (C got photos of the ice skaters, so I'll insert them here once she posts them to flickr, or she can write her own blog post about it)

Ice Skaters in Nicolosi

The next morning we awoke to clear skies, and stumbled down to the town square in time to catch the daily Catania-Etna bus as it passed through town at the far-more-civilized hour of 9:30.

Mt. Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, and its current height is just under 11,000 feet, although that could change with the next eruption, obviously. At the moment, at least from where we were standing, most of the activity (lots of venting gasses) seems to be up near the very top, so the guided excursions all go to the [inactive] crater areas from the 2002-2003 eruptions, at around 2900 meters (around 9500 feet).

If you've ever been to a volcano or a lava field, you know what the weird jumbles of black rock look like. The past few eruptions have apparently been a mix of lava flows and geyser-type activity, so there are rivers of black rock, plus a ton of the crumbly-looking stuff that results when the magma cools in midair as it's falling back to earth after being launched skyward. I'm no volcano expert, however. Bottom line: it's a giant shallow cone, and the upper reaches of it are basically all-rock, with patches of the scrubby plants that are the first recolonizers after an eruption.

The regular bus goes to Rifugio Sapienza, which is a tiny tourist-trap outpost at the bottom end of the cable-car run. You can walk up from there, if you have like 4 hours and a lot of stamina to spare. We, being sick (and also not thrilled by the prospect of a 4-hour hike uphill through a moonscape of loose sharp lava rock), opted for the 40-euro cable-car and Mercedes Unimog trek.

For your 40 euro, you get a ride in a tiny 6-person cable-car up to the Snack Bar at the Top of the World, and then an entertainingly jostly bus-ride in a Unimog, which is the crazy specialized high-clearance 4WD Mercedes tour-bus from hell. It drops you next to a guide hut in a flat spot near some of the more recent craters, and then a hunky Italian guide walks you around for a while, demonstrating that the ground underfoot is still warm (the air, on the other hand, is not: it was about 40 degrees and windy). Rather than attempt to describe it, I'm going to pick and choose the best dozen-or-so photos from the 100+ I took:

Etna Cable Car View
The View From the Cable Car (this was on the way back down, I think -- it was much clearer on the way up, but I didn't take any pictures, apparently)

Parking Lot at Etna
The Parking Lot Behind the Snack Bar at the Top of the World

Scary at the Top of the World

View from Etna
People on the Rim of a Crater (the tour consists of walking the rim of this crater from 2002-3 or so)

View from Etna
Total Moonscape (if the moon had water & an atmosphere, that is)

View from Etna
Looking West from Etna (the weather up there is weird . . . there were clouds all around & below us, but for most of the morning we were in the clear, with blue skies . . . we just couldn't see much of Sicily, and couldn't see the Mediterranean at all, unfortunately)

Ice Grows Sideways on Etna
Ice (you can tell the direction of the prevailing winds . . .)

View from Etna
Limited Color Palette

The Moon as a Snowy Volcano
Black and White

View from Etna
The Summit Cones (taken from where the Unimogs dropped us off)

View from Etna
East From Etna

We had a couple of hours to kill back down at the base of the cable-car, since the once-a-day bus to Catania doesn't leave until 4:30. We ate some lunch:

Spaghetti Bolognese at Mt. Etna

And shopped for souvenirs:

Lava Dildos

And then, cold and tired, we rode the bus home, and M figured out how to get the driver to drop us off just a block from the apartment. After a quick trip to the pharmacy to stock up on OTC cold medications (which aren't OTC in Italy, meaning you have to try to figure out the Italian words to ask the pharmacist for things like Pseudoephedrine and Dextromethorphan), we made it home, ate dinner lovingly prepared by CR, and crashed for a few hours before our 4:45 cab ride to the airport.

Mission Accomplished!