Catania: football fireworks and massive Mt Etna

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Monday, May 29, 2006

The mood was on the mend now that I could resume my journey as planned and head to Sicily - one of those places with a long and chequered history and a dubious contemporary reputation as well, due to its infamous mafioso exports of the last century. As truth is often different from general perceptions however it would be good to visit and meet some of the apparently cagey population as well as see some of the renowned sights like Mt Etna.

On top of all that it's a great launch point for other places like Malta and Tunisia. How could I refuse? A late-night train got me down the foot of Italy and across the straits on a giant train ferry. Instead of heading to the capital Palermo I took the left fork at Messina and headed down the east coast to the second largest city called Catania.

Toward the end of the journey I'd met a couple of local lads who explained that in the afternoon there would be a huge football match in which Catania would be playing for re-entry into the Italian Premier League after 23 long years in the wilderness. The result would ensure either jubilant celebrations or riots in the streets that very day so, as with Montenegro, I'd displayed my impeccable timing yet again.

As the scenes above show Catania did win (2-1) that day, meaning new horizons for the local team next season and a increased rivalry with the recently re-admitted capital. Celebrations in the Piazza Duomo started not long after the final whistle and continued well into the evening as locals rushed into the centre of town piled on cars and mopeds waving red and blue flags, honking air horns, igniting file crackers and smoke bombs and generally revelling in their success. Music blared, women jiggled and the police wisely took a low profile in the milling masses. It was great to see and I will keep an eye out for Catania now that I'll have to pay more attention to European football over the next few years. I hope they do well.

The main reason to come to Catania is to see Mt Etna so next morning, nursing a mildly sore head, I went to meet the group I'd be going up with but found myself in the middle of a giant fish market instead. Ooooer. Still, it's another main attraction here so despite a slightly woozy stomach I gave it a go and saw some bizarre sights indeed like giant swordfish heads, curly silver fish rolled up like alfoil and huge purple piles of spiny sea urchins that I didn't want to brush up against at that time of the morning. Most was absolutely fresh and the market runs every day so I wonder how this patch of the Mediterranean stands such a voracious seafood appetite. I left them to the charming bouquet.

This is what I came to see. 3323 metres of Europe's largest active volcano - Mt Etna. It actually has half a dozen live vents as well as a number of extinct craters and fissures dotting a sizable chunk of the north eastern corner of the island.

It has been active since recorded history, erupting regularly and often pushing lava flows through local villages and all the way to the sea. As you could expect with such a powerful natural force, it has been a focus of superstition and religious worship mst notably the Greeks believed it was one of Vulcan's Forges. One of the first experimental scientists, Empedocles, had an observatory up there and in 433BC threw himself into a live crater in order to prove that the eminating gases would support his body weight which quickly ended his career.

There have been scores of eruptions since then, all accurately recorded to the exact year somehow. The 1971 eruption destroyed the oservatory that was being used to monitor them and the last major eruption occured in summer of 2001, where lava and other remorselessly hot (1100 centigrade) pieces of goo shot, burbled and oozed out of all six vents, demolishing the cable car that serviced the top. And since nine hapless tourist became victims of an unpredicted explosion the peaks have been closed to visitors.

Finally out of interest, despite the unusually hot landscape and summer temperatures, snow remains on some faces of the mountain year round. Until recently this used to be cut out as giant ice blocks, covered in ash and exported as refrigerant to markets as far afield as Malta. Well I never...

Enough of the history lesson however. After a long trip in a 4WD and then being warned not to introduce any kangaroos or other 'special animalis' into the area, we wandered out onto a finger of land to view some of the fields blackened by lava flows in 1792. It's a massive area and you wonder what it would have been like to stand in this place watching pulsing, glowing lava pushing down the hillsides towards the villages below. Would have been awesome even if a little uncomfortable.

Next stop was some caves created by lava flows and with remnants of molten lava that had dripped off the roof or popped air bubbles along the walls. Interesting but let's get up there hey buddy!

Which we eventually did. Two of the most accessible craters are at the 2000 metre mark so after lunch we walked to the higher one. Despite being almost blown from this minor summit it did give commanding views of the higher peaks, the surrounding plains and the bizarre moonscape covering it all. You can also see the old and new chairlifts from here - one mangled, one whizzing people further up the face. So can we go up it huh? Please?

But it wasn't meant to be. 2000 metres is all we made it to before heading back down to lower levels. The 4WD was unnecessary so in the end we didn't actually get much for the 35 euros (although people from other hotels had to pay 55 so that was a consolation at least). Doing it by yourself on a bus will cost almost the same after a 24 euro fare up the chairlift but it's a longer day and whether you get to see much more from up there is a different matter. Still, as I love a good volcano and as I didn't have to think too much it was a decent day trip to a sight that just has to be seen (it's hard to miss) if visiting Sicily.

Next entry -> modern (and hopefully ancient) Syracuse

Old Rossian Proverb

People living on volcano slopes shouldn't build stone houses.
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