Thursday, 19 November 2015

Around Etna

Wednesday, 18th November

The famous Ferrovia Circumetnea narrow gauge railway almost circumnavigates the Etna massif. We did not take it, but the road we followed ran parallel to it much of the way. A fertile valley full of vineyards and fruit farms continues until you reach the town of Randazzo. All the time as the road twists and turns you get sudden glimpses of the cone of Etna towering above We were lucky with the weather, the clear skies continued, at least on the western edge of the mountain.

The road south towards Bronte and Andrano cuts through more mountainous territory, a fractured and broken landscape of larva fields, volcanic craggy outcrops and the occasional spectacular basalt plug. The towns themselves were larger than we expected. The streets were narrow and needed some care as cars were double parked and pedestrians seemingly unfazed by a few tons of metal heading towards them. The stress of driving was made all the more challenging by streets paved with black cobbles of volcanic stone. We juddered along, cutlery clattering, wine bottles clanking and the odd mysterious thud coming from the garage. This area looks much more unkempt compared to the neat vineyards around Etna wine; the laybys and verges are litter strewn and the buildings often somewhat dilapidated.

Volcanic plug (and map in the sky!)

A larva cobbled road in Bronte
The suburbs of Catania sprawl towards Paterno; civilisation approaches with signs announcing IKEA and an enormous glass walled shopping mall called Etnopolis. We hopped onto the motorway to by-pass Catania; the plan was to have lunch at a car park 6500 feet up Etna, walk a bit, then decide if we wanted to stay overnight, as overnight camping by motorhomes is allowed. 

From larva fields to a giant shopping mall in a matter of minutes.
Gill loves volcanic landscapes, and has always had interest in geology ever since she studied geography at college. So I had someone sitting beside me on a mission to find a crater. One road up Etna runs from the motorway through the town of Gravina up to Nicolosi. On the map these look like country towns, in reality they are busy suburbs of Catania whose traffic chaos is made all the more challenging by the fact that all of the roads are built on a gradient of 15% - 20%. 

The first section of the road up Etna is decidedly suburban
Suddenly the lunchtime rush hour disappears and you find yourself alone on a road climbing higher and higher around a series of hairpin bends. We climbed for 30 minutes in second gear. I kept glancing nervously at the temperature gauge, impressively it did not budge at all.

From town squares with palm trees you pass into a landscape of small deciduous trees, at this time of year with bright yellow and russet brown leaves; the foliage glowed against the black rocks and bright blue sky; the effect was breathtaking. Slowly all vegetation disappears and you enter a stark world of black larva fields and brown mineral streaked cones. We did not pass one other vehicle, it was silent. cloud banks had formed on the seaward side of the mountain, but we were far above them. After these moments of isolation the car park comers as a shock, with hotels, restaurants, a cable car station and the usual souvenir shacks.

then it looks like Scotland

Empty roads

Gill acts out an eruption...

Joyous amongst the larva fields....

Brilliant van, its the rear wheel drive and double wheels at the back that makes short work of steep mountain roads.
We had lunch, then took a short walk up to a nearby crater. What to do? Stay here for the night? Certainly if the summit stayed above the clouds, then sunset promised to be something special. On the other hand, we have been travelling, on the whole none-stop, for weeks. We fancied staying somewhere with a bit of life, and cafes with a sea view. I wanted a break from driving everyday. Though the days are long gone since Italian drivers actually scared me, still, driving is hardly relaxing here, and I feel like I need a bit of R&R. So in the end we decided to head for Guardini Naxos for a few days where there is a choice of camperstops with good facilities.

retail opportunities among the craters

Sometimes the view looks  extra-terrestial

Queuing up to walk around the crater

At over 6500 feet we were above the clouds
Maisy, Pete and Etna
The trip down the mountain was as spectacular as the drive up, more so perhaps, for we hit the bank of cloud just as we entered the wooded lower slopes. Suddenly we were driving through a spectral landscape of grey mist, yellow trees and clumps of gnarled leafless oaks. It was like being back in the Peak District.

Heading down into the clouds

There was only going to be one result - fog lights on!

Further down, the deciduous zone looked very like an English mid-November day.
By the time we reached sea level the sun was breaking through. We found a garage that would fill our refillable gas cylinder - all was good! Right now I am sitting having a late afternoon coffee in Parking Lantini,munching the Lidl Pain Chocolat we forgot to eat at lunchtime; time to put my feet up for a few days and enjoy the more convivial side of Italy - gelato and a meal out is definitely part of the plan, we deserve it!

Back at sea level in Giardini Naxos - settled-in by mis afternoon, another amazing day.

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