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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 8

Taormina to Palermo (Sicily) – 280 miles

8th Map

5th July

Mount Etna. 70 miles

When we were planning this phase of our trip we weren’t sure whether to just ride all the way up Italy or use ferries to jump around a bit. Seeing on the map the magic words ‘Mount Etna’, the largest active volcano in Europe, we decided to go there as we’re rather fond of volcanoes (previous readers may remember our helicopter trip to White Island in New Zealand, ride round to Palermo then jump on a ferry to Naples. We found ourselves in this lovely hotel in Taormina with a grand view of Etna. Looking at it from a distance is not the same as being on it though so we got on the bike to have a closer look.

Riding towards it, the effect Etna has had on the surrounding countryside is obvious. Whilst there are acres and acres of land that are still just covered in lava, it was surprising how much of the land has recovered to the extent that it looks very green and in places yellow.

Etna

Etna letting off steam in the background and Kevin steaming up in the front!

Far from the sulphur smell we expected, we were treated to the glorious scent of the thousands of brooms that were in full blossom. Further up the mountain, as we passed the lava from the more recent eruptions, it became very barren but even there we noticed there are colonies of alpine plants starting the regeneration. We learned that it usually takes about 20 years for the desert to start to support plants but it depends on how much sand is included in the lava.

We got as far as we could by road and then rode in a cable car up to 2000m. After that, the closest you can get to the top is by a guided tour via a 4×4 mini bus which will go another 1000m.

Whilst we waited for the trip to the summit we wandered around and it was just like walking on a fireplace – the lava is like coke.

Etna

The ground is very rocky and slippery

There are guides at the top who, following a defined route, explain the terrain and point out interesting features. There are lots of new craters as a result of the 2002 eruption. Etna is a ski resort in the winter and they’ve obviously moved a lot of the lava around to accommodate the ski lifts and runs and it’s very slippery underfoot. We saw small pockets of snow which were covered in black volcanic dust – apparently this insulates the snow and keeps it cold enough not to melt. We saw where the 2002 eruption had overcome a refuge which really brought home how much lava can come out when it gets going.

Refuge

One ex-refuge

There is a plume of steam coming out of the top which is visible from a distance. Closer up it’s possible to see that some of the plume is blue which is gas rather than just steam. The guide told us that as it was such a hot day and therefore high pressure there was not too much gas coming out, had it been a low pressure day we’ d have seen a lot more. The steam must contain tons of dust as there is a pinkish haze that is visible all round in the direction of the wind. When we got back to the hotel our faces felt rough with the grit and our clothes made the washing water black and left behind a very fine black soot.

Lyn

On top of the world, where it was very windy!

When we stepped out of the vehicle there was a smell of sulphur but it was quite mild as we were the other side of the mountain from the eruption which started sometime in May and has created a rupture half-way down the North side. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to go round to see the lava flow but at night we could see the red scar from the hotel.

Lyn

Kevin being a gentleman and staying windward of me

We had been warned that the temperature at the top would be quite cold so took our jeans and microfleeces. We were really glad of them when the wind started. One of the other tourists was wearing a flimsy tee shirt and shorts – she looked really cold. Kevin was pleased that he wasn’t a gentleman otherwise he’d have felt obliged to lend her his fleece! We knew it was bad when the guide pulled up his scarf to keep his hat on. Every so often we could hear explosions from the the volcano.

Etna

Steam still issuing from this fracture from the 2002 eruption

Apart from the steam and gas the air is really clear and the view from the top was terrific. We were able to see right across to Palermo in one direction, the main Italian coast in the other and the sweep of the bay was clearly visible. The guide told us we were lucky to be able to see so much as the morning visitors had seen mostly haze.

Etna

The view was fantastic, but you could see the effects of the dust

Etna

Finally, we rode back down the lovely twisty road.

6th July

Taormina to Palermo. 210 miles

Here’s a photo for the IOM folk. This isn’t exactly the same as the the legs of Man but it must have some relationship in the dim and distant past. These cropped up a lot in the town but this one was on the side of the hotel.

3 legs

Three legs

After a nice relaxed breakfast during which we could quite clearly hear explosions from the volcano – like a large gun going off in the distance – we wandered into Taormina to look at their Greek/Roman Theatre. It was fairly small, probably about the same size as the Odeon at Ephesus and had lots of modern additions such as wooden staging, lights and plastic seats. It’s obviously still in use after all this time. The Romans made extensive alterations to the original Greek architecture to accommodate their gladiatorial events. We’re not sure whether the ‘windows’ to Etna were original but they certainly added something special to the place.

View

A room with a view

We then wandered through a lovely park which looks like a memorial park to the war victims. It has a poignant statue of two angels who look like ordinary people going about their daily lives. There were also some Roman-looking buildings that we couldn’t decide whether they were completely new or renovated. Either way, they were pretty buildings and well done. There was also a small collection of war items, including a mini-sub.

Subs

These were ridden into action – brave men indeed

We then got back onto the bike for our ride to Palermo. The route we chose did a circle round Etna (there’s something about the place that keeps drawing you back) then through the centre of Sicily along some twisty roads to a place the Rough Guide puts as one of the top 10 Roman sites in Italy – the Roman villa mosaics at Piazza Armerina.

Once we left the immediate environs of Etna the land looked very dry and brown. Most of the fields were empty having been harvested recently. Something we’ve noticed in Italy is that they still burn the stubble so there are quite a few patches of burnt straw.

It was many miles before we couldn’t see Etna any more, it really does dominate the landscape.

Last view

Last view of Etna

We stopped in a town called Troina for a quick drink and croissant (we’ve become fond of the cream-filled ones available here) and sat outside the cafe where another 3 people were already sitting. A few minutes later the cafe shut, the people moved off and we were left there to finish on our own. The entire town was deserted; it was very strange, like a scene out of a zombie film – everything was there except the people! Perhaps it’s true what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen, it was rather warm.

We were reminded of the Sopranos (a TV series about the Mafia in the US) when we saw a series of political posters and every one of the men looked like they could have been extras. Another reminder was it would appear the dustmen are on strike as there were tons of rubbish piled up on street corners – it looked bad and smelled worse.

Posters

Don’t know who won but his name would have ended in a vowel!

The mosaics at Piazza Armerina were saved for posterity by a land-slide hundreds of years ago and they’ve been discovered and worked on for the last 50 years. They have built lots of greenhouses to cover the buildings but, so far, have not put a lot of investment into ‘tourist information’. They are still working on large parts of the site and we’re not sure we’d put it in our ‘top 10’, yet.

Mosaics

The detail in the mosaics was incredible (they’re under glass, hence the reflections)

Mosaics

This one showed women in bikinis – nothing’s new!

We then did a quick hop to Palermo, where we got stuck in a traffic jam. All the other bikes were just riding down the hard shoulder so ‘when in Rome’… There were police at the end so a quick zoom back into a proper lane. We never did see what all the delay was about – just one of those things!

Once again the ferry has escalators. That’s a great innovation especially when they are 9 or 10 stories tall.

Overnight we’ll be sailing north – homeward bound…

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