Oh yeah, baby, it was as good as it sounds! At the risk of sounding like I am objectifying these highly trained and experienced mountain men, I was talking about the parmigiana!
Thanks to their expert guiding and good company, Angelo, Lorenzo and Guliano made this one of our favorite travel experiences of all time...right up their with stalking lions and polar bears in their native habitat. However, this time, we were stalking a volcano and it was proving elusive. With some excellent guiding, delicious food and a little bit of luck...we spotted that volcano, and had an incredible day doing it!
When we arrived near the summit of Etna, she was hiding behind the clouds, but she would show herself eventually!
We arrived in Sicily (Taormina) on the cruise ship, Azamara Quest, after a solid week of visiting walled cities, medieval churches and stone forts. We had hit the literal and figurative wall...any more stone and we were just DONE. Luckily, our Travel Agent in Italy, Matteo of Fuoritinerio had arranged for us to meet a guide and driver and hike Mt Etna. A few weeks before our trip, Matteo confirmed and asked, if we had our hiking boots. Check. He also asked if given the limited time in port, if we would mind having a "picnic" on the mountain instead of the stop at a local restaurant. We said that sounded delightful and it was the first in a string of excellent decisions!
When we arrived in Taormina, where we were met by Angelo, an English speaking guide, and former fire fighter, who currently assists the US Navy with training at their facility in Sicily. Angelo introduced us to our driver, Lorenzo. who is also a professional mountain rescue guide and partner in Etnahiking.it, Lorenzo apologized for his English, but in fact, it was far better than my limited Italian and we had no trouble making conversation! Guide and Driver were anxious to get us out of town and off to the trail head for our hike to Etna. Most of the other cruisers were headed to the side of the volcano where they could view the active Etna and take a scenic cable car trip.
Lorenzo and Angelo planned to take us to a quieter spot where we would use our own two feet and the provided hiking poles to make our way from midway up the mountain to within 1000 meters of the summit.
We started on our way, and immediately noticed the volcanic nature of the island during our ride up to the small town of Giarre, where we stopped for a fortifying cappuccino and delicious local pastry! While enjoying our coffee, we officially joined the EtnaHiking Association, which was formed to preserve Etna and promote sustainable tourism. The membership fees were included in the cost of our tour, and we received nifty membership cards (click on any image below to expand)
Hiking Mt Etna
When we arrived at the trail head, we were introduced to Guliano, another gregarious mountain rescue professional and partner in EtnaHiking.IT. He equipped us with hiking poles, hard hats (is it time to worry yet?) and showed us his heavy back pack which he said held our picnic. After hefting the bag, I wondered how a few sandwiches could be so heavy? I'd learn later why it was so heavy!
We headed out onto the trail, Lorenzo leading the way, Angelo hiking with us, describing everything we were seeing in English with Guliano bringing up the rear with his heavy pack! We could see many lava fields where flank eruptions had happened on the mountain. Angelo explained that the guides check the geological forecasts in the same way we would check the weather forecasts in New England before hiking, making sure they are bringing guests up only in the safest conditions.
Exploring a Lava Cave on Etna
Carrying a helmet made me wonder what dangerous mission we were embarking on, but about midway up the mountain, we learned they were to protect our heads so we could enter a lava cave!
So this is why we needed the hard hats! Especially Jeff, well over 6 feet tall, had to duck and crouch quite a bit to get into the narrow lava cave! This video is inside the cave, it's obviously dark, but towards the end of the video you can see the hole out to the top. We were told that these caves go on for a long way inside the mountain, but because they could collapse without notice, we were only able to visit the front part of the caves for safety reasons. (click on photo below to see video of inside the cave)
After exploring the cave, we hit the steepest part of our hike, we could feel the altitude after being at sea level for over a week, as we followed the crumbly black lava trail. We got above the tree line and the environment became more and more sparse and desolate. The weather changed dramatically too; going from a nice fall day in the mid 60's, to windy and low 40s.
We got to a spot where we could see the summit of Etna, and decided this would be a good spot to have our picnic and wait out the clouds to see if we could get a clear view of Etna and see stream escaping from the volcano.
What was in that heavy backpack?!
Etna was completely obscured by clouds, the winds blowing them past the mountain but Guliano was ready to unpack his heavy pack with our lunch. I was curious about what he had carried up the hill that could be so heavy! I saw him pull out two bottles of Sicilian wine and thought " well, that would be heavy!". He followed this with 3 kinds of cheese, 2 kinds of olives, 2 loafs of olive bread and dessert!! Then I saw him pull out a cast iron pan full of still warm eggplant parmigiana!
I jokingly asked Guliano if his mother had made this eggplant, and he said she did! After teasing him that he would never want leave home and find a wife with a mother who cooked such delicious food, he admitted that his true love was Etna, as he spread his arms expansively! After a just a few hours on the mountain, I can see the appeal!
Between bites of Guliano's mama's parmigiana we waited for Etna to reveal herself from behind the clouds. After a while, there was a brief break in the clouds and we could see Etna 's summit and notice the vertical puff of steam escaping from the caldera. (If you look carefully at the video, you can see clouds parted and small puff escaping from and the volcano rising from the top.)
While we feasted on local Sicilian specialties, Etna revealed herself!
Full of wine and food, we were ready to return on the same route we came up. There are longer hikes and circular hikes, but our day in Sicily was too short to spend more time. As we made our way back down to the ship, we marveled at the incredible sight of a volcano, but we didn't know it would not be the last volcano we saw that day!
Back to Taormina
Lorenzo proved to be as expert at driving the twisting roads of Sicily as he was navigating the lava fields of Etna!
Sailing Away from Sicily
We said our goodbyes to Angelo and thanked him for the amazing day! His knowledge of the volcano and the geological and natural history was impressive, but his warm hospitality, including sharing some delicious Sicilian dessert wines on our way down the mountain is what really made our day special. As we sailed away the sun set over Sicily and we turned our attention to the mianland of Italy, heading to the Amalfi coast.
There was one last surprise in store for us...the Captain of the Azamara Quest promised to make a stop in the Straits of Messina within site of Stromboli, another active volcano in Italy. Stomboli has the typical conical shape and very dramatic, fiery vapors escaping from the mountain. But the conditions need to be perfect; clear night, with no clouds, the volcano has to be active during the short time the captain can stay within site of the volcano. All of the passengers waited by the railing staring into the dark, struggling to see a slight orange glow coming off the top of the volcano. Then every few minutes, it would erupt, like an exciting fireworks display, with passengers "oohing" and "aahing" during the display. When it was over the Captain sounded the ship's horn several times, and everyone cheered!
As we stood by the rail of our cruise ship seeing our second active volcano in one day, we were thankful for the beautiful scenery and for the generous men who shared their passion for Etna with us!