Torrential rain, hail, thunder and lightning, blizzards – welcome to Sicily! This was the weather on day one!
I had spent lots of time prior to leaving, trying to work out what to pack for a trip in April and most sites had mentioned warm sunshine and maybe some showers. Be warned that you will need more than T-shirts and an umbrella if you are planning to visit Mount Etna!
Initially, I had packed mainly for summer with a light coat for chilly evenings. My saving grace had been a news report that I saw just before leaving. Mount Etna had had a violent eruption just a couple of weeks before and a BBC news team and some tourists had a narrow escape running away from burning boulders and steam. In the film of the event, there was snow and everyone had been wearing down jackets.
Snow?! For the first time I realised that this was a possibility. It seems silly now that I hadn’t considered that there might well be snow on a mountain. I think it was because, I had already decided that for this trip I wasn’t going to go to the expense of going to the summit, but would hike at a lower level and on all of the pictures I saw, there was no snow in sight.
Fortunately, after seeing the news report I decided to pack some warmer clothes for this excursion as well as gloves and a woolly hat.
Mount Etna is Europe’s highest active volcano at 3329m. It dominates the landscape and was visible, looming above me on the drive from the airport the night before. Red lava could be seen glowing at one of the summit craters which served as a reminder that Etna is in an almost constant state of activity, erupting on a regular basis.
Many people live on the slopes of Etna which seems counterintuitive. Why would you choose to build your home close to an active volcano? My guide for the hike told me that first of all as Etna erupts slowly, when eruptions occur there is plenty of time to escape. The people that live there do not see it as a dangerous volcano as although the lava destroys all that it touches, it rarely kills as it moves so slowly. Secondly, the volcanic ash is rich in minerals and so once incorporated into the soil it makes it rich and fertile which is ideal for farming.
The slopes of Etna are home to many vineyards and I recommend trying some of the wines produced in this region if you visit.
I left the hotel at 9.00 with our guide who owned a farm and a restaurant in Catania on the slopes of Etna in the shadow of an extinct crater.
Most people in the group, had not brought appropriate clothing for a walk of 2000m above sea level and I feared that our walk would be curtailed because of them. I was so relieved that I had brought plenty of warm clothing!
On the journey, we stopped at a little town for supplies. We were taken to a deli where they made us a mega sarnie from a whole ciabatta. In hindsight, I should have used the word ‘piccolo’! The ciabatta was filled with copious amounts of parma ham and a sheep cheese with veins of black peppercorns called pepato.
Our journey now took us on an ascent of Etna. The landscape suddenly changed to barren black lava fields. On the way, we passed huge rivers of lava from eruptions that happened in the 70’s and it was seeing these fresh lava flows as a child that had inspired the guide to study geology.
The weather wasn’t great, the forecast was for heavy rain so the guide chose a side of the mountain where he hoped the weather might be better. There were no tourists on this side at all and we had the slopes to ourselves!
The landscape was amazing! As far as the eye could see, there was pure black volcanic shale with green pines dotted around and bonsai like birch trees emerging from the ash giving a monochrome vista. Here and there patches of snow lay and needed to be navigated. It was pretty cold, no more than 5°C and I was so glad to be wearing lots of layers! It rained steadily as we walked.
We were taken on a hike to see a crater. We climbed up to the top of it where the wind was so strong; I felt it might blow me away! The rain eased a little and I saw lovely views of a snow capped Etna. The surroundings were desolate, but there was life in the landscape. I was worried about the descent, but the ground was so soft with the volcanic shale that it was fairly easy to walk.
By the time we headed back to the bus, the rain was coming down quite heavily. The bus took us to a Refugio, where we were able to buy hot drinks and we were able to eat our ‘loaves’ of bread in there.
On arrival, a thunderstorm began which continued for an hour bringing with it a hailstorm! I was glad to be in the warm and the couple running the Refugio, said that we were welcome to stay for as long as we wanted. I had my first Italian hot chocolate, which was so thick that you could eat it with a spoon! Just what I wanted to warm me through. My huge sandwich was also delicious and I managed to eat about three quarters of it. It was warm and cosy in the Refugio and we were all quite content sitting there.
We sat watching the thunderstorm, which continued all the while that we sat there. The guide was suddenly very anxious for us to leave. None of us could understand what the rush was. We were enjoying being in the warm – that is until we got outside where a surprise awaited us… a thick covering of snow! The torrential rain had become a blizzard and all that was black was now white – amazing!
We scurried back to the bus, taking a couple of photos on the way. The guide was obviously keen that our driver drove us down the windy roads sooner rather than later or we may actually have become stranded! We peeled off our wet layers and the bus steamed up. Now full of food and feeling warm, the movement of the bus had a soporific effect.
At around 2.00, we stopped at the Gambino Vineyards for wine tasting. We were provided with plates of food that we were too full to eat after those huge sandwiches! Triangles of sheep cheeses: one pepato, one spicy, a hard mature yellow cheese and a pecorino along with bread, ham, salami, olives, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes. The perfect lunch really!
We tasted 4 wines – one white and three reds. The first red was very young, the second red was more full bodied and my favourite of the four and the third was quite sharp – apparently needing longer to mature.
Top Tips for Visiting Etna
- Take warm clothes. In Spring snow is very likely and even in summer being at that sort of elevation means that it will be cold.
- Wear appropriate footwear, preferably walking boots. Some of the people on my tour had really inappropriate footwear and consequently found the walk very tricky.
- If you are hiking, go with a guide. The weather changes very rapidly in the mountains and you can easily be caught out.
- Do go wine tasting. It is well worth trying the wines grown in the area.