In less than a month, I’ll be travelling to Naples for a week of holidays. But what about the last time I was in Italy? I visited this country many times in the early 2010’s: I spent a few days in Rome, Florence, Milan and Turin for example, and my last trip was to Sicily, during the summer of 2014. I stayed there for a week, visiting friends who lived in a village called Rocca di Capri Leone, in the North-East of the island. Two days of this great trip remain particularly unforgettable for me: it’s the story of these days that I’d like to share with this article.
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Day 1: on top of Mount Etna and in the lanes of Taormina
Usually when I travel, I like to read a lot of things about the places that I’m visiting: what I shouldn’t miss, where I should definitely go, what I should try… But this trip to Sicily was different. I completely relied on my friends to guide me on their island. There was only one exception: I absolutely wanted to go to Mount Etna and see one of the most active volcanoes in the world. So, on the 1st of August 2014, we decided to get up very early for a 2-hour drive on a very winding road through the countryside of Sicily, between their village and the volcano.
When we first saw Mount Etna, it didn’t look much different from a regular mountain. But when we got closer, we realised that there was no grass, no trees, or anything else on its slopes: only black rocks of solidified magma. We arrived from the North, and in order to get to the foot of the volcano, we had to drive through a vast solidified lava field, remains of the recent eruption of 2002.
Our goal was the ski resort of Piano Provenzano. Apart from one hotel which miraculously survived, everything here was completely destroyed by this eruption. New buildings have been built since, but how long will they survive? No one can predict when the next one will be… Before 2002, the resort was at the edge of a beautiful pine forest, which has also been partially burnt by the lava. The contrast between the black rocks and the green trees directly next to it was striking.
We decided to book a tour to the summit of the Etna. A rough track only accessible with a 4WD vehicle lead to the top, close to the main crater. During the bumpy and winding journey, we briefly stopped next to a smaller crater that appeared during the 2002 eruption, called Monte Barbagallo. That’s where the lava flow that destroyed Piano Provenzano came from.
We finally arrived at the end of the track. The cold was biting, even if it was a beautiful summer day: a reminder that we were high above the sea level (the top of Mount Etna is 3,330m high). But the sight was so incredible that we barely noticed the cold. We were right in front of the South-East crater, the main one of Mount Etna. Slightly lower to the left, dark-grey smoke was coming from a smaller crater. Every few seconds, the sound of an explosion was echoing around us, while melted lava was projected in the air.
I never thought that someday in my life, I would stand so close to an erupting volcano and actually see lava! It was not very effusive, which means that there was no visible lava flow below the crater, but seeing these explosions was enough for me to be left completely speechless. We knew that it was safe, as Mount Etna is very strictly monitored (in case of any danger, climbing to the top would have been forbidden), but all of us felt the same way: a mix of excitement and apprehension, as well as great respect for this so powerful natural strength.
After staring for a while at this fantastic sight, we drove back to the valley and headed to our second destination: the village of Taormina, North-East of Mount Etna on the Mediterranean coast. This little city was created during the 4th century before our era during the Greek colonisation of Sicily. It’s probably one of the most beautiful towns of Italy, partly because of its extraordinary location 300m above the sea, with the worrying silhouette of Mount Etna constantly in the background, and partly because of its many gorgeous monuments, such as the extraordinary antic theatre. It was a real pleasure to meander in the streets and lanes of Taormina!
After such a beautiful but exhausting day, many of us slept in the car during the drive back to our home… luckily not the driver!
Day 2: cruising around the Aeolian Islands
During this week in Sicily, we spent a few days at the beach, close to the village of Rocca di Capri Leone where my friends lived or in the nearby city of Capo d’Orlando. Over the horizon, we could make out the silhouette of a few massive islands, especially at sunset: the Aeolian Islands.
It is a volcanic archipelago of seven islands, close to the North-East extremity of Sicily: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi, Panarea and Stromboli. Just before the end of our holidays, we decided to take part in a day-cruise around the islands. It was a busy schedule: our boat left the harbour of Milazzo near Capo d’Orlando early in the morning with a first stop on Lipari for a couple of hours, followed by another couple of hours on Vulcano for lunch and the beginning of the afternoon. The third stop was Panarea, for the rest of the afternoon and the beginning of the evening, before heading to our last destination: the active volcano of Stromboli by night (and finally come back to Milazzo quite late at night).
Before landing on Lipari, we sailed around the beautiful rugged coast of the island. The landscape of the Aeolian Islands has been entirely sculpted by volcanic activity: impressive cliffs, natural arches, caves, basaltic columns… You have to be a very experienced pilot to bring your boat so close to the coast.
I really liked the couple of hours we spent on Lipari. It wasn’t as exceptional as Taormina, but I particularly enjoyed walking in the tiny lanes of the village, while the view from the castle over the coast and the gorgeous colour of the water were stunning.
Huge change of scenery on Vulcano. There is still volcanic activity on this island (although the last eruption was in the 19th century), and you can see it (and smell it!) as soon as you land. We were welcomed by an odour of sulphur, and many rocks close to the pier where we disembarked had a yellow colour characteristic of this element.
Vulcano is popular for its hot water sources. A lot of people come here to relax in a famous mud bath next to the beach, which is supposedly very good for the skin (but very bad for the clothes: swimsuits used here remain smelly even after many washes). We didn’t want to pay for that so we decided to go the beach instead, where we looked for bubbles at the surface of the water: it meant that there was a hot source just below. Just like a natural hot tub!
After a quick lunch of delicious arancinis (fried bowls of rice, peas, ham and mozzarella), we went to a second beach, on the other side of the village: “La Baia Negra”, the black sand beach of Vulcano. We swam there again but I unfortunately got stung by a jellyfish. As you can imagine with the picture to the right, the sting was super painful, and it took days before the blisters eventually vanished!
The third island was the smallest we visited, but also my favourite: Panarea. Even the name sounds lovely! From the little harbour, we took the Via Drautto to the left until the beach of “Cala Zimmari”. It was gorgeous: on one side, the deep-blue colour of the Mediterranean Sea, and on the other side, white immaculate houses and tall palm trees.
We left at dusk, while the last lights of the day played with the clouds to create a beautiful sky. By the time we arrived at Stromboli further North, it was completely dark. We didn’t land on this island; when we were close enough from the coast, the captain turned off the engine and let the boat slowly and carefully drift, while we were staring at the crater from the volcano high above us. The sight was incredible: every few seconds, an explosion projected melted lava high in the air, like blazing red geysers reflecting on the sea below. Unfortunately, the camera I had back then wasn’t as good as the one I have now, and the quality of the pictures below is very poor. But the memories of this incredible experience and of this fabulous trip to Sicily will remain forever!
By a very sad coincidence, as I was writing this article, I received a message from a friend telling me that Luca, the guy who hosted me in his family in Sicily, had very serious health issues. I dedicate this article to him and all my thoughts are going to his family and friends, with the hope that everything will be ok and that he will soon recover.
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