Friday, November 18, 2016

Mounting the Heights of Etna and Zafferana

Friday, November 11, 2016
Mount Etna-Catania

     I earmarked today for a trip to Sicily's most famous mountain and active volcano, Mount Etna. In fact, Etna is all about the volcano and to get there from Catania, you need to take a bus. Trains are available as well, but they are apparently not as reliable as the bus service. At Hotel Gorizia in Catania, breakfast was included with my room tariff. Since the place was under major renovation, breakfast meant the dishing out of daily coupons to be exchanged for breakfast at a local 'bar'. There I received a croissant of my choice (plain, chocolate, creama) and a hot drink of my choice (I usually asked for a café con latte caldo, per favore). See? My Italian picked up by the day!!!
     Armed with breakfast that I decided to eat on the bus journey, I took a cab whicih it was still dark from Piazza del Duomo to the bus station (for 10 euros). From there, I bought a ticket on the local bus system to get to Etna. I was told that the driver would be passing through Milo, where I had made a reservation at a local B&B called Loriana. Mind you, I had made all these bookings in haste using only the internet as a guide as I have absolutely no idea of the geography of this region.
     When I boarded the bus, I managed to convey to the driver that I wished to get off at Milo--the hotel had instructed me to get off at the "Chiesa" (church). The bus journey was very pleasant indeed (along the highway, for the most part) with the last ten minutes of side roads that brought Mount Etna quite suddenly and excitingly into view. I took pictures from the bus.
     When I arrived at the "Chiesa" in Milo, at about 9.00 am, there was only a deserted square staring me in the face. I had absolutely no clue what to do. I made my way then towards a small bar where a cluster of elderly men seemed to be enjoying their first coffees and smokes of the day. I approached the barman who barely understood any English. Thrusting the address of my B&B under his nose, he got the idea--but he drew a blank. He had no idea where B&B Loriana was. He then boomed out to attract the attention of all the cranky hangers-on. Does anyone know where B&B Loriana is?--I guessed that was what he barked out. One chap came forward and rattled off something in Italian. He beckoned me to follow him to the end of a wide platform overlooking the spreading landscape below me--for the church was on a hill. He pointed out the general direction of B&B Loriana but I could see that it involved a climb down a winding road. I was deeply disappointed. I asked him if a taxi might be available. He shook his head vigorously to inform me that they were non-existent in these remote parts. I was, nowhere near Mount Etna, as far as I could see. Instead, he next beckoned me to follow him and I discovered that he was taking me to a private car. I soon got the idea: he was offering me a lift to the B&B in his own car!!! Now how kind and how unexpected was that? I did not have the language to express to him that it was most unnecessary. Muttering non-stop, he opened the door for me and suggested that I get in. I was still too dazed about the offer to contemplate the sagacity of getting into a car with a stranger in the middle of Milo! So in I got while hoping for the best and off we went.
     We were at the B&B in about five minutes. At the gate, I rang the bell. It was opened by a black man who  welcomed me in and when I explained in English that I had a reservation there, he grew warmer in his welcome. I thanked the stranger who helped me by saying 'Grazie Mille' about a mille times!!! Inside, I met a younger white man, the proprietor apparently, who also welcomed me in. He told me that my room was not ready yet as check-in time was 10.00 am. However, he permitted me to leave my backpack in the room where it would be safe. I did so, used the loo and then asked him for directions to get to Etna. And that's where it got seriously disheartening! When I informed him that I intended to spend the night at his establishment and take the bus tomorrow to Taormina, he discouraged me vigorously. He said that the bus service from Milo was very erratic and he advised me to return to Catania and take a bus from there! This seemed rather counter-productive to me. I did not wish to travel down south only to pass through this region when traveling north again. There had to be a better way!!! But, for the moment, I was focused on getting to Mount Etna.

Getting to Mount Etna:
     It turns out that in the off-season, Mount Etna is very poorly connected to the plains. I was much too late in the day, it appeared, to get the bus that usually took visitors from Zefferana, the nearest town. However, he suggested I take the local bus to Zefferana, from where, he said, there would be some form of transport available to me--he was not sure what that could be. When he tried to explain where the bus stop was, I discovered that I would need to climb the hill and get back to church where the bus-stop was located. To assist me, he sent the black worker who had opened the gate for me. En route to the bus stop, I discovered that the black worker was from Senegal and that he spoke French. We then began a very fruitful conversation in French and I felt somewhat reassured.  
     The bus rolled around soon enough. I boarded it, paid my fare on board (3 euros) and told the driver to tell me when to get off. It took about 15 minutes along a winding mountain road to get to Zefferana where I got off and looked for help. I felt hopelessly lost. In a large square overlooked by a church were a few shops. I inquired of someone for a Tourist Information Center and was directed to a small office that was locked. I tried another office next door and a woman there made a call, spoke to someone on the phone and then told me to return to the Information Center where someone would soon arrive to assist me. Thankfully, the young woman who materialized spoke fluent English. She gave me brochures and information about Zeffarana but nothing about Mount Etna (which lay outside her jurisdiction!). She did tell me that there was only one bus a day to Mount Etna (which left at 9.00 am daily). It was about 11.00 am by the time I was in her office. I asked if there was any other means of transport to get there and she told me only taxis could get me there. It would be a pricey ride (50 euros return fare with the driver waiting for me up there). I was loathe to spend 50 euros on transport when a bus would cost me 3 euros! Still, at the end of the day, I would feel like an idiot if I actually got to the foot of Mount Etna and did not climb it--I would have no option but to cab it up there. I asked her if the cabbie would consider reducing the fare- She called, inquired on my behalf and said he would take 40! Then began the search for a bank that would exchange my dollars into euros--for I did not have that much money on me. Though I tried at three banks, none was willing to exchange money. Finally, I did something I had never done before while traveling. I actually used my American ATM card from my bank--and lo and behold, it belched out 100 euros that filled me with the most exquisite relief and the deepest sense of security. So back, I went to the Tourist Office where the lady called the cabbie who arrived ten minutes later. He turned out to be the sweetest old Italian man. We could not speak a word to each other, but he knew his job. He would get me up the mountain and then wait until I was done and ready to make my way down. After what had seemed like a harrowing morning worming my way through a dark and lonely tunnel, I suddenly started to see the light at the end of it.  

Scaling Mount Etna:
     As you get closer to Mount Etna, the drive becomes visually more and more interesting. After you cross the tree line, you are on a sand-colored mountain with not a shred of vegetation. The city of Zeffarana spreading out at the base makes a pretty sight. The cabbie dropped me to the small town that comprises Mount Etna--which is no bigger than a single street really with a few shops scattered about. This is the base for boarding the cable car that takes visitors to the top of the mountain and its calderas or craters.
    I joined the line for the cable car and with just three people ahead of me, I got my ticket in minutes (it cost me 15 euros to get to the top) in the cable car that is known as the Funvia Dell'Etna. For another 15 euros, one can board a sand buggy that takes you to the very summit. I did not think it was prudent to spend so much when I had already incurred heavy expense on the cab. Getting to the first level would be more than enough for me.
     And that was how I got to the top of Mount Etna at about 12 noon. The cable car ride was swift (about 7 minutes) and the receding sight of the city and the Etna base was interesting. Once up there, I discovered that it was bitterly cold and I was very grateful for my warm, full-length down coat, scarf, gloves and hat.  There is really not much to do at the top except take in the stirring views and pose for pictures. Patches of snow were evident all around us and there were some rather slushy bits as well. I think I stayed up for about 15 minutes and when it got too uncomfortably cold, I made my way back to the cable car platform which took me past a series of shops that offered souvenirs and tastings of some of the local goodies for Zeffarana is the honey capital of Italy. Local chocolate is also well-praised.
     Ten minutes later, I was down again at Etna base. I bought a couple of postcards from a shop and a couple of pizzas for lunch--one for me and one for the cab driver. Forty-five minutes later, we were back in Zefferana and I was waiting in the square for the next bus. The Tourist Office had closed for the day but the lady had informed me that there was a bus at 2. 30 pm back to Milo. As I waited for it, I strolled a bit around the pretty town, entered the Baroque church overlooking the square and peered down at the lovely municipal gardens constructed in tiers on the opposite side of the hill. I l also ate my pizza while waiting.
     It was while I was on the bus that I made the lightning decision not to spend the night at B&B Loriana (technically, I had not even checked in), but to take the bus back to Catania and the Hotel Gorizia. If there was room for me, I would head there right away. I kept my fingers crossed and when I reached the B&B, I told the proprietor what I had decided to do. He thought it a very good idea, considered my reservation cancelled and found me a ride with a lady who was just leaving his B&B, back to the bus-stop to board the last bus of the day back for Catania. And so it was that I took the 3. 30 bus to Catania from Milo, having accomplished my mission--climbing to Mount Etna.

Back in Catania:
     I reached Catania by 4. 30 pm, but it was already getting dark by this time. The driver dropped me off at Via Vittorio Emanuelle which involved a 45 minutes slow walk to my hotel past exciting chain stores, fast food shops, etc. I popped into a McDs, picked up a delicious salad with apples and walnuts and by the time I got into my room, I was so exhausted, I could merely flop on the bed and get some rest.
     A little later, I showered, ate my salad, did some tourist reading for my journey to Taormina tomorrow and went off to sleep.
     It had been a day of mixed experiences. A great deal of disappointment, a trip up a volcanic mountain that offered nothing to rave about but for swatches of black lava and black sand all over  the place and a small town that was almost deserted.
     Until tomorrow, cheerio...             


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