Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Etna - memories of a volcano

I have visited Pompeii, at the base of another volcano, Mt Vesuvius. In March this year I was starring at another volcano, Mt Etna. The first glimpse of it was on the train from Catania to Taormina. The top of Mt. Etna was covered with snow. It was exciting when it came into view. It is a very active volcano, it has erupted many times in recent history with lava flowing out of it and down it's sides, which later cools and leave a landscape strewn with black blocks of lava rock.
Still there are lots of people living around Mt. Etna. It's hillsides are some of the most fertile in Sicily. On our way back from Taormina to Catania, we stopped at a little town called Acireale. From Sir Anthony Blunt's book 'Sicilian Baroque' he had a picture of the facade of the duomo in Acireale. I was in Sicily on a baroque odessy, so that necessitated a stop at Acireale. We walked the mile from the train station to the duomo. It did not disappoint. On the way back to the train station we stopped at this fruit and vegetable stand, bought some mandarin oranges and pears, all grown in the surrounding area. It was the most luscious pear I've ever eaten and throughout our whole trip we were eating mandarin oranges and pears.
The towns around Mt. Etna produces some of the most delicious stuff. The pistachio from Bronte are famous- they are used in making ice cream (gelato) and pastries. In the pasticerria in Sicily, one can see lots of little cakes with green icing made from pistachio and often filled with a sweet ricotta filling. The list of produce that come out of these towns around Mt. Etna is long - apples, pears, almonds, pistacchio, strawberries, lemons,oranges, olives, grapes, mushrooms, tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables. The sheep raised around here produces ricotta and pecorino cheese.
There is a little narrow gauge train that runs from Catania, round the west side of Mt. Etna to the north, ending in Riposto and stops at all the little towns that dot the sides of Mt. Etna. We didn't have time to see all the towns, we picked Randazzo, some 70 km away for our stop. It rained the whole day and the snow line had fallen. So as we approached the higher towns there was an accumulation of snow. It was a terrific sight to behold. Sicily is a small island surrounded by sea, at the coast palm trees sway and in the hills, snow falls and accumulates. Mt. Etna is an active volcano and has had eruptions frequently in the past. One can see lava fields all over and it is very evident that it is active. It is so wonderful to see the snow on top of lava rock strewn all over the hillside. Each time Mt. Etna erupts, it wipes out some parts of the railway tracks and it has to be rebuilt. It is a part of life, to coexist with Mt. Etna.
Later, back in the hotel in Catania, we talked with our hotel owner about the palazzo that is now the hotel where we stayed in, the Hotel Gresi. It took up the upper 3 floors of the palazzo and was equipped with an exterior elevator and interior staircases. He took us up all the floors, we saw the salon with its original baroque moldings and painted ceilings, really beautiful. Then we went up to the rooftop garden and looked on Via Etna, the main drag in Catania, very impressive. But the creme de la creme was a little raised platform to one corner of the rooftop, from where we saw Mt. Etna, all covered in snow, rising up in the distance. Wow! A view of Mt. Etna, that was incredible. 'Molto bella', I told the hotel owner. I can imagine, as the days get warmer, the snow will melt, the snow line will recede up the mountain. I can also imagine, sitting there, watching the sun set behind Mt. Etna, laying about, sipping some lemoncello and dreaming or dunking a cantucci into a glass of vin santo and dreaming.....
I left Catania and Sicily and brought home with me incredible memories of a beautiful place with incredible food and some of the world's friendliest people.

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