My sister, brother, and I used to chant a silly rhyme when one of us was the last at anything: First, the worst; second, the same; last, the best of all the game! And that’s how it was in Sicilia. Our last day, December 1, was the best of many wonderful days that week. I’ll never forget it.
I woke up early Thursday morning and peeked breathlessly out my window to find just what I was looking for: Mt. Etna! The sun wasn’t up yet, but Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, was already smoking, as it does all day, every day. I was SO excited to see it and a cloudless sky that I pulled my fleece over my nightgown and sneaked out to my deck to snap some pictures. Fortunately, I was the only nut outdoors at that hour, at least that I saw.
When we signed up for our tour, Kate and I debated about adding the optional tour of Mt. Etna. We would be there in December, and I was afraid I’d get too cold (sissy!). Kate sort of wanted to see it, but we decided to wait until the end of our time in Sicilia and add the tour if we wanted, if we could, and if the weather was good. The day we went to Syracuse, we learned that space was available on the Mt. Etna tour. I was nervous about walking, since I was doing so poorly, but Giuseppina believed that walking was minimal (she was wrong!) and convinced us that we’d always regret not seeing Mt. Etna if we didn’t go, so off we went. If you ever go to Sicilia, add this tour to your list of things to do.
Mt. Etna began its volcanic life about 600,000 years ago. It hovers around 11,000 feet tall, depending upon the effects of its most recent eruption, and it erupts constantly, including on November 15, two weeks before our tour. In some of its eruptions, fire bursts from the top of the mountain; in others lava, ash, and smoke explode from the mountain as it forms new lava cones, tubes, and craters (Mt. Etna has more than 300 craters, with the four largest on the top). Mt. Etna’s longest eruption began in 1979 and lasted for 13 years; the latest eruption began in March 2002 and is ongoing.
Our guide, Alfeo, was terrific, both for his knowledge of the mountain and for his mastery of the English language. Alfeo’s specialty is French, and although he usually leads the French tours, he led ours because the English-speaking guide was sick. Alfeo drove a fairly new but well-worn Land Rover that drove over ANYTHING! We bumped up one skinny dirt and lava road that had a steep crevice on the driver’s side. We said, “No way.” Alfeo said, “You watch,” and up we went—no problem! The mountain is monitored constantly, and if observers see any danger, they close the mountain or parts of it. When we were there, no one could go closer than 2,000 feet from the top.
We entered Mt. Etna from the east and drove north through the park for about four hours. Lava here, lava there, lava everywhere—various ages, shapes, colors, and densities. We hiked to a lookout to see a huge inactive caldera full of plants (and lava), including broom TREES (on the Oregon Coast, broom is only a bush). We hiked into a fairly recent collection of lava cones with gorgeous white birches dotting the landscape. We marveled at new lava from a November 15 eruption (it wasn’t still warm!). We off-roaded to a short stretch of the former main highway that lava had blocked at both ends. We visited a ski resort that was demolished by an eruption and its accompanying earthquakes.
Mountains make their own weather, and Mt. Etna did just that all day long. At times it was sunny and clear, and just minutes later it was cloudy and overcast (briefly, mercifully!). I was never cold, and all I had was my black fleece—in December!
After the driving tour, Alfea took us to a local farm—Azienda Agrituristica San Marco in Rovittello—for my favorite “light” lunch of the week. Mr. Kim was elated to see risotto for the first time on our tour, saying with a big smile, “We like rice in Korea.” When the owner came out to remove our plates before dessert, we gave him a round of applause and a bravi for the kitchen, and he was so shocked that he blushed and raced back to the kitchen, forgetting to gather our dishware. Six of us drank two large pitchers of the farm’s delicious Etna Rosso wine (which they were willing to sell for 2 euro for a plastic liter!) and were sorry to leave. Visitors can stay at the farm—if only we’d known! By the way, if you ever see Etna Rosso in your local wine store, snap it up! You’ll thank me.
We drove back to Taormina through blood orange orchards in the fertile farmland in the valley north of Mt. Etna, stopping to see the guide’s hometown, Castiglione di Sicilia, on the way. We asked Alfeo if he ever worried about lava smothering his town, and he said no, because his town is a hill town and lava, like all liquids, takes the course of least resistance—around the hill.
Weather = perfect! Company = outstanding! Food and drink = the best! Mt. Etna = fantastico! Guide = superb! Total score = 10 of 5