…and it was exactly as awesome as it sounds.
This weekend was quite an adventure. Volcano exploring aside, it was my first solo trip and my first trip by airplane. I’m happy to report that both of those went incredibly smoothly. And what a weekend it was!
I landed in Sicily on Friday morning, leaving the rest of the day open to explore Catania. Catania is a large-ish city (approx. 300,000 residents) on the southern coast of Sicily. It’s a city that’s lived through lots of change. It’s been a part of Greece, the Roman Empire, Spain, and (now, of course) Italy. It’s endured the mafia, bombings in WWII, and a constantly evolving – and sometimes fiery – landscape.
Its residents have learned to adapt.
The result is a completely unique culture, the likes of which I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
Another interesting thing about Sicily (and the Etna region, specifically) is that it’s not really on the Eurasian tectonic plate, but not really on the African one, either. It belongs to neither – it’s on the fault line. It belongs only to itself, in that sense.
My host father was born in Catania. He still loves it just as much as he did then. (Note: He loves my host mother more – that’s why he lives in Florence now.) He was so happy to hear that I’d be visiting the place he grew up, so he made me a list of places to go and things to do. It was like having a local guide show me the way.
Here are some photos from my first day in Catania, all recommended activities by my host father:
I ended the night with a ricotta canoli (a Sicilian specialty) and an early bedtime. After all, the next day was going to be a big one!
I ate breakfast with the two owners of the hostel/B&B I was staying at. They were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met! We chatted about where we were all from (one of them was from Rome, the other, born and raised in Catania) and about Mt. Etna. Turns out they are both in the process of getting certified as guides to lead tours like the one I’d be going on that day. They were very interested to hear about it when I got back.
Then, at 8:50, a sturdy-looking off-roading vehicle came to the hostel to pick me up. We drove to another hotel where we picked up the other two adventurers – making us a nice and small group of four. The other two travelers were from a little town between Venice and Verona.
Our first stop was a little village just outside of Etna Park where we picked up lunch supplies for the day. We’d be picnicking somewhere on the volcano when the time came. My travel companions helped me pick what to put on my panino before we got back in the car and headed for the park.
Our first stop was a volcanic crater on the southeast side. It was formed so long ago that trees had grown over it – a process that can take more than 1,000 years. Our guide told us all about the area’s geology and history, and that there was once a small village living in the crater. We learned about some of the plants that can grow in volcanic soil, and how the volcano has changed and continues to change the landscape.
Then, we got back in the car for a bit of off-roading. Turns out you can, in fact, drive a vehicle both up and down a trail that I normally would have deemed “for advanced hikers only.” At first, I was a little scared. The car was bouncing and tipping and shaking like it was only minutes from falling apart. Then I remembered that the driver, our guide, did this every day for a living, and he was calm as he could be. Once I relaxed a little, it turned out to be one of the most fun parts of the day.
Then, we stopped in one of the 200-year-old paths created by the 1792 eruption. Only lichens and smaller plants had begun to grow around here. We ran into some thick fog here, too, introducing us to Etna’s ever-changing micro-climates. The weather at the top of the volcano is almost always different from the weather below. The weather on the south side is almost always different from the north. And the east – you guessed it – is always different from the west.
With the clouds moving so quickly, our guide predicted that we’d have better weather if we headed west. In small tour groups, he said, it’s easy to adjust the itineraries to suit the weather. That was fine by me. This way, we’d actually end up seeing more of the volcano than we’d originally planned. Off we went!
Our next stop was easily one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen.
Then, we headed a little farther west in the car. We were making our way to a designated point where we’d meet a new guide who would take us for a longer hike and into some lava caves. After introductions, we were given trekking poles and we set off on our way. Our new guide was just as friendly and informative as the first. It was like they personally knew every rock in the park.
Then came the real adventure. We got back in the car and drove a little farther west, stopping on what appeared to be a very random spot in the road. Turns out it wasn’t random at all. Our guide pulled out our helmets, taught us how to put them on, and headed toward a meadow. First, we learned about a few of the plants and the geology of the area. Then, we headed in.
Once we were back outside, it was time to head into town. What a full and exciting day! What a full and exciting weekend!
That night, I had dessert for dinner (had to try all the Sicilian almond-flavored pastries!) and explored the city when it was lit up by sparkling streetlights. Pretty good end to the day, I’d say.
On Sunday, I headed straight to the airport and back to Florence. I’m so thankful for the luck I ran into with the buses, airplanes, and connecting flights – I truly could not have asked for it all to run more smoothly. I’m also grateful for all of the people I met in Sicily. Every single one of them was easily one of the nicest, friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. And, I was able to talk to them all in Italian. Who says you don’t study on the weekends when you’re abroad?
All in all, it was a great experience. I’ve heard that you should travel alone at least once when you’re abroad, and after having done it, I fully support that. I feel so much more confident and capable, and it was definitely one of the most fun and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.
Gelato Count: 36