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Trip Report Eastern Sicily and Mount Etna

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It is the sheer scale of Etna that surprises the first time visitor to Eastern Sicily. It occupies 1200 square kilometres of ground, the descending terrain softening gradually from ash to boulders to pine forest and finally to fertile vineyards at its base near the sea.

Etna is only 3300 metres high which, though making it the highest volcano in continental Europe is lower than Mount Fuji (due to blow in 2015) and dwarfed by Kilimanjaro at 5800 metres (dormant). All three make an impression greater than those mountain peaks in the great chains of the world’s mega ranges.
You just stare and thrill at Mount Fuji whenever it appears behind a scrappy building or telegraph pole in Japan’s urban sprawl; and Kilimanjaro draws you nearer in its mystical power and snowy cap.
Etna is there all the time when you travel. And it is very active.

There is a good road up to the Refuge from where you can take a cable car up to a point where jeeps carry the visitor on to a high crater. We just stayed at the two thousand metre level and took a look at a small crater near the main car park. Just a few years ago the Refuge was threatened by a lava stream; but diverted at the last by the authorities.

As base camp for Etna we stayed insane Giovanni la Punta at Villa Paradiso dell’ Etna a converted mansion house that would have served well as a film set for an elegant thirties movie, with Bugattis and Vuitton cruise trunks as accessories. The view from the window forgave the hotel’s slightly run down maintenance. I thought the receptionist should have worn a blazer, cravat and a thin moustache to welcome his German tour groups. There is no restaurant near to the hotel and we made do with a gigantic Argentine steak in TreCastegni one night; and fresh swordfish the next on a busy road towards the motorway.

I had hired VW Golf from Avis at Catania airport and this is definitely the largest car you should take for a week in Sicily. Streets designed for horses are used today as town by-passes and your passage is usually impeded by double parking. Those responsible for bad parking stroll up to their motors when summoned by car horns; and without haste or apology move their cars to a new point in the street of equal hindrance to all. Only in Taormina did we see anything of organised paid parking.

Taormina did impress with the spectacular views, down to the coves and sea one way, and Etna the other with great splashes of bougainvillea as decoration. The well-preserved and lovely Greek theatre in the town centre must have inspired the early actors and choruses to great moments of tragedy and pathos. The main street is covered in modern luxury retail, strangely interrupted by ancient squares of Norman churches and military bastions.

Churches in the Baroque style do impress in the cities of Catania, Syracuse and Noto. It must have been a time of great Papal power and affluence back in the seventeenth century.

Less so today where the Sicilian towns are dusty and unloved compared to the modernity of those of Northern Italy. The coastal resorts on the east coast of Sicily have the geography of the Cote D’Azur but without its manicured opulence and didn’t tempt me to return to swim and tan there in the summer high season.

The warm May sunshine was a joy away from the dismal weather of countries to the north of us; as was the food in most of the city restaurants if you took the daily specials written untidily on a scrappy piece of paper or on a blackboard.

Outside India I think it was the worst road discipline I have ever encountered. Take the all-risks insurance when you rent a sporty Fiat 500 from Avis. And maybe Prozac for the town traffic scrum.

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