Hello From Sicily A Fantastic Driving Tour Around Mount Etna

Today was Italian Labour Day, a​ big national holiday that presented the perfect opportunity to​ do a​ little out of​ town excursion: a​ drive around Mount Etna. So together with Jill, a​ co-student of​ mine from England, we rented a​ little two-door Lancia to​ go on​ a​ country driving tour. at​ 50 Euros the rental was not exactly inexpensive, but we figured it​ would be worth it​ to​ be able to​ explore the countryside around Taormina.

First we had to​ deal with fuelling the car: our rental car was essentially empty and​ we were supposed to​ only put about as​ much fuel into the car as​ we thought we would use up so we’d be able to​ bring the car back empty as​ well. The gas stations were officially closed on​ this​ holiday, and​ unlike in​ North America, there was no option​ to​ use a​ credit card for​ payment at​ the pump. The pump, however, did have a​ little slot where you​ could feed in​ bills and​ one of​ the local drivers patiently took his time to​ explain​ the system to​ me.

With enough fuel to​ get us a​ couple of​ hundred kilometers we set off on​ our country excursion. at​ Giardini Naxos we turned inland​ towards our first destination: the “Gole di Alcantara”, the Gorge of​ the Alcantara River which is​ cut from black basaltic rock. The signs on​ the country road pointed towards the parking lot for​ the Alcantara Gorge, so we parked our vehicle and​ entered the complex. a​ simple 20 minute tour to​ see the river and​ the strange rock formations would cost 3 Euros, while longer tours and​ wading tours through the river are available also. We descended several sets of​ stairs to​ get down to​ the riverbed from where we got a​ good look at​ some of​ the interesting rock formations. Unless you​ wanted to​ walk through the river, there was no other place to​ go than back up through another set of​ stairs.

Once at​ the top we found out that if​ we had taken this​ entrance we would have been able to​ view the gorge for​ free. We were a​ couple of​ hundred meters away from our parked car and​ by the roadside there was a​ little stand​ which actually was the tourist information​ booth for​ this​ inland​ area. Two ladies supplied us with a​ range of​ brochures and​ information​ about the villages surrounding Mount Etna, and​ I have to​ admit that the service was better and​ more knowledgeable than the tourist office in​ Taormina, which happens to​ be a​ much bigger tourist centre.

We decided to​ explore a​ few of​ the gorgeous hilltop towns which are patched up against the rocky outcrops, providing an​ amazing vantage point of​ the surrounding countryside. Following a​ sign for​ a​ village called Motta Camastra we turned into a​ winding narrow road that was slowly taking us to​ the top of​ this​ crag. at​ the bottom of​ the town there was a​ public parking spot and​ we figured it​ was better to​ park our car there and​ walk up than to​ try to​ navigate the unimaginably narrow roads that were snaking through this​ little hilltop town.

Just as​ we had parked our car a​ local resident in​ his fifties started shouting at​ us in​ Italian from his balcony and​ waving at​ us. it​ took us some time to​ realize that he was actually inviting us up into his abode for​ a​ beer. We graciously declined, and​ continued our walk. Jill commented that local Sicilians had been showing a​ marked amount of​ interest in​ her and​ attributed it​ to​ her noticeably pale English complexion. After about a​ 10 minute walk through tiny cobble-stoned walkways we reached the main​ square which featured a​ bar with about 20 older men sitting outside. Most of​ them were wearing caps similar to​ French berets and​ they were engaged in​ a​ very spirited discussion. Not a​ woman was to​ be seen.

Our walk continued to​ the ancient church and​ from there we followed a​ walkway past narrow houses to​ a​ lookout point overlooking the entire mountain​ area. Sleepy cats were lounging lazily on​ the pavement, here and​ there women were watering flowers in​ front of​ their apartments. The vista towards Mount Etna, the Alcantara Valley and​ various mountaintop villages perched precariously against different rocky outcrops was breathtaking.

After Motta Camastra we decided to​ explore another one of​ these hilltop towns and​ following a​ beautiful drive through a​ countryside full of​ vineyards we reached a​ place called Rocella Valdemone about 45 minutes later. We parked the car right next to​ the old town church and​ strolled across the piazza. at​ the other end of​ this​ public square we saw the obligatory bar which again​ featured about 15 to​ 20 older gentlemen fully engrossed in​ an​ animated discussion. My guess was they were probably discussing soccer. We got the definite impression​ that tourists don’t come here very often because we certainly stuck out like a​ sore thumb and​ the locals were looking at​ us a​ bit as​ if​ we were a​ novelty. Again, women were conspicuously absent, with the occasional exception​ who was sweeping the pavement in​ front of​ the house and​ then disappeared inside again.

Nature was calling and​ we asked at​ the bar if​ we could use the bathroom. One thing about Italy is​ that there are very few public washrooms, but fortunately local bars are quite easy-going about their facilities being used by non-paying strangers. this​ particular facility was in​ rather abysmal shape, though, and​ when I came out of​ it​ I instructed Jill to​ make sure not to​ touch any of​ the surfaces for​ fear of​ contracting a​ horrible communicating disease. The facility did the job, but it​ certainly was everything but a​ shining example of​ hygiene and​ cleanliness.

Our driving tour continued with a​ drive into the mountain​ area. Tree cover got sparser and​ all of​ a​ sudden we were in​ a​ mountain​ area that must have been about 1500 to​ 2000 m high with a​ beautiful 360 degree view northwards and​ eastwards down to​ the sea and​ southwards and​ westwards towards Mount Etna. Hundreds of​ local Italian families had their cars parked in​ small side roads that were leading onto what looked like pasture lands for​ goats and​ they were having picnics. We didn’t seem to​ see any tourists at​ all, and​ we realized that this​ is​ what Italians do on​ a​ public holiday in​ Sicily: they go for​ a​ picnic in​ the high mountain​ areas surrounding Mount Etna….

We had come prepared – before our departure we had picked up some prosciutto, cheese, fresh buns, fruits and​ drinks at​ the local supermarket in​ Taormina and​ this​ was our time for​ our very own little picnic. Due to​ the chilly wind that was blowing on​ this​ high mountain​ plateau we actually stayed in​ the car to​ eat our lunch, but nevertheless our view out the windshield was simply gorgeous.

After a​ very satisfying improvised meal we drove back down from the mountains towards Mount Etna, past a​ large number of​ parked cars whose owners had gone hiking somewhere in​ this​ mountainous terrain. at​ an​ intersection​ a​ local woman was selling home-made cheeses and​ sausages, evidence of​ Italian culinary craftsmanship. We neared a​ town called Randazzo, with the volcano majestically draped in​ the background which impressed us with its Cathedral of​ Santa Maria, which was started in​ the 13th century and​ rebuilt several times. The bell tower dates from the 18th century, an​ example of​ the various different styles composing this​ imposing church.

We started our leisurely drive around Mount Etna, at​ times right next to​ the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a​ small-gauge railway that encircles Mount Etna for​ about 90 km between Catania and​ Riposto. Terraced vineyards spread far in​ front of​ our eyes, and​ the drive through little towns like Maletto, Bronte, Adrano and​ Paterno was enjoyably peaceful. Once we approached the coastal side east of​ Mount Etna things got a​ lot busier. We started realizing that this​ was indeed a​ public holiday and​ all the locals were out and​ about. The traffic was starting to​ get crazy. Continuing through Nicolosi, Trecastagni, Zafferana Etnea (where saffron​ used to​ be cultivated, introduced by the Arabs), we continued through Giarre and​ Fiumefreedo di Sicilia towards Gardini Naxos, located right on​ the Ionian Sea.

The traffic in​ the coastal areas was now enormous and​ beside the road along the shoreline stretching north of​ Giarre, thousands of​ cars were parked, belonging to​ people who had been enjoying a​ sunny day at​ the waterfront. We continued through Giardini Naxos at​ a​ crawling pace. this​ resort town south east of​ Taormina was founded in​ 735 BC by the Greeks and​ represents one of​ the oldest Greek settlements in​ Sicily. We drove past Isola Bella and​ Mazzaro and​ took the northern entrance into Taormina and​ got into a​ major traffic jam where we sat virtually without moving for​ about 45 minutes, a​ distance that should have taken us about 5 minutes under normal circumstances. No doubt everybody was on​ the road.

It was a​ relief to​ finally have reached Taormina when we drove through the tunnel underneath town to​ reach the rental company on​ the western side of​ town. Just like the roads had been full of​ people, the town of​ Taormina was now packed with people strolling. Thousands of​ people were milling up and​ down the main​ strip, Corso Umberto, and​ we were literally rubbing shoulders with the other walkers. We decided we would have dinner outside of​ the city gates on​ Via Pirandello, where the pedestrian traffic was not quite as​ crazy and​ grabbed a​ nice table on​ a​ terrace at​ Trattoria Da Lino’s, a​ little restaurant where I had already had a​ couple of​ chats with the owners who recognized me and​ gave me a​ friendly hello. From the terrace we had a​ great view over the northern part of​ town and​ the Ionian Sea below us. After a​ filling pasta dinner we received a​ little free treat: a​ tasting of​ Amandola liqueur (made from almonds) on​ the house – a​ great way to​ cap off an​ exciting day to​ catch a​ rest for​ another day of​ Italian lessons…

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