Let’s Go See Momma!

Monday – May 1

We were up early and out the door to start our day! Salvo would be relaxing today, and a new method of transportation would carry the group to their destination. Out front of the Roman House was a line of vehicles that could operate in challenging conditions. There was a driver standing by each one of these cars. The posse would split into groups of two couples per vehicle and then head in a convoy towards the “Mother of Sicily”, Mount Etna. Sicilians treat this volcano almost as if it is a person. The mountain is sometimes referred to as “momma” because it gives so much to the island. The unique soils for agriculture and of course tourism offer a wide array of employment. However, she does have a temper – and when momma gets mad… it very ungood!

Loading up in our vehicle, we discovered that each one was equipped with a radio. Marco, a volcanologist and our tour guide was in the lead car. With the vehicles connected by radios, he was able to begin our tour while we drove to Etna. It did not take long after leaving Catania before we left the major road and began our ascent.

The higher we climbed the drizzle became light rain and the roads got smaller. The black surface on the road is lapilli, which is small fragments of rock that have been spit out of an erupting volcano.

On Marco’s lead, the convoy pulled off the road so he could explain to us about lava, and how it flows and hardens. The cutaway portion of this hill was a dramatic example of this process. The lava on the bottom when cool is extremely hard and tightly compressed, whereas the top layer had air pockets and could be chipped off with little effort. The one thing that Marco kept emphasizing was that there is no man-made way to stop lava once it begins to flow. Only Momma knows when and where it will stop.

Once back in our vehicles, we were glad to see the rain had ended but a fog was moving in. The climb continued and the road continued to get smaller. It was really freaky from the back seat knowing that we were high on a mountain with no reference of how far down it was… if…

Right before reaching our destination, we popped out on a hard surface road. It was comforting to know that there was a good road for the return trip. The trail head stop was at an elevation of 1667 meters (5495 feet) when we pulled off to begin our hike. Some chose not to hike and were transported further up the hill to a small café to await our return.

We had only started down the trail when Marco stopped us for a quick Mt Etna nature lesson. He pointed out the plants and critters we should not touch on our hike today. If we did come in contact with them, the rest of our day would probably be a little unpleasant. Considering we were at 5500 feet, in the fog, and on an active volcano… unpleasant is something no one wanted to experience.

Looking down at the trail before us, there was a large stand of what appeared to be white birch trees. Marco explained that these trees are unique to Mt Etna. They are in the birch family but have adapted to the extreme cold and heat that one encounters on Mount Etna. Basically, they thrive in volcanic soils at this altitude. It did look a little creepy as we went forward. You got the feeling that you were part of a cheap horror film, and something was watching you!!!!!

There was something watching us, you could feel it. Sure enough, there were hundreds of eyes watching our every step. Once we got close to the trees these peering eyes became visible.

The landscape made us think that we were on the moon. Black rocks everywhere, sparce vegetation, and random stands of birch or pine trees. No real sign of life but the other tourists on the trail.

Up, Up, Up, we climbed. Like the roads on our way up to the trail head, the higher we went the trail seemed steeper and became narrower with every step. On some parts of the trail, you could see how far down a misstep would take you. Fearing heights, Tom did not feel that these portions warranted the risk to stop and take pictures. 😉

Reaching the top of the trail, Marco showed us a hole in the mountain. This cavity was one of the locations of a strombolian eruption about 20 years ago. A strombolian eruption is named after another active volcano in Italy that is known for its intermittent explosive bursts which ejects fire and rocks as high as hundreds of feet into the air in a fireworks like show. So now you know a stromboli is much more than a sandwich. In retrospect, we guess it seems pretty stupid to look into a hole which was known to spit out molten lava. We were very glad that momma did not get mad while we were peeking into her soul.

Of course, reaching the end of the trail called for a group picture, while gathered on a ledge with heavy fog behind us for the shot. We could not tell how far the drop off behind us fell off because of the fog, but rest assured, Tom was going to have a good cushion of people between him and ledge.

The walk down was much easier than the walk up, but there were times when it too was a little precarious.

Back safely in our vehicles, we continued to climb up the hill to meet up with those who waited at the café for us. Marco pointed out on a map that was hanging on the café wall exactly where we had been. The different colors indicate lava flows from previous eruptions.

With the group now back together, we began heading down the mountain. The scenery out of the window was still captivating. It was like you were on the moon! So, it is now May and there was still snow on the ground!

We had a quick stop at a small souvenir shop that sold everything “Momma”. There were t-shirts, jewelry made of lava rock, local jellies, and books on past eruptions. In the back room, there were all types of hiking shoes, rain clothing, and camping gear. It was definitely a one stop shop where anyone’s needs could be filled. The one thing we had heard a lot about was “Fire of Etna”. This fiery red concoction of herbs and alcohol packs a sweet punch. Unfortunately, we forgot the alcohol percentage, but trust us it is plenty. Marco poured shots into little paper cuts for us to try. We were stunned it did not burn through the cup! A very interesting libation, but it was not for us.

Over the day’s adventure we truly enjoyed chatting to our driver, Gianluca. He was the youngest and the newest driver of the bunch and he had a great personality. He seemed like he had a lot of ambition and was excited to start school in the fall. Best of luck to him, but now he had a very important task to complete. Gianluca would take us to lunch and a wine tasting!

Arriving at the Barone Di Villagrande Winery we found the fog thicker than we had seen it all day. We were now at an altitude of 2300 feet and the temperature was noticeably warmer. The view was supposedly beautiful, but all we could see was fog. Going inside the winery’s dining room, Tom’s smile was beaming.

There were multiple wine glasses on each table. The meal began and food kept coming. Each course paired perfectly with the wine served. Three forks, one spoon, and four glasses – Now we are talking! Before each course the wines were explained and questions were answered about the pairing. Those who love food and wine could not be happier with lunch at Barone Di Villagrande Winery.

Following lunch, we had a tour of the winery’s cellar. Our tour was provided by Marco Nicolosi, who is the Wine Maker and Production Manager. The Nicolosi family has been farming this harsh land for ten generations. He explained some of the challenges of winemaking on an active volcano and why these soils create such amazing wines. A wine cellar can put a person into sensory overload. Once entering the cellar, the low light, a humid chill, and the wooden craftmanship seen in each barrel or cask set the stage for the wonderful smells which fill the air.

The day had slipped away quickly as we ended our visit to the “Mother of Sicily”. When we arrived back at the Romano House, we said thank you and goodbye to Marco and Gianluca and quickly made a turnaround for the next adventure.

Just a short walk from the hotel, we stopped in front of the ruins located in Piazza Stesicoro. Danilo had arranged for a walking tour of Catania.

Rendezvousing with our guide, Maria Rosa, we learned about what used to be a part of a Roman Amphitheatre. Both Greek and Roman ruins can be found in Catania, but excavation of these sites are very challenging because they are covered in lava rock which is very hard.

There was no doubt that something big was happening today. The streets were flooded with people to celebrate Sicily’s Labor Day. It made it very difficult to stay together as we ventured into the heart of the city.

Many of the buildings that we saw walking the streets had been built in the Sicilian Baroque style we had seen earlier in Siracusa. This style of architecture is known for their grotesque masks that surround the buildings and balconies with intricate wrought iron work. An amalgamation of Norman and Spanish influence the craftmanship of Sicilian Baroque is extremely detailed without being too gaudy.

We did get to sneak into the cathedral right before it closed. Another example of architecture and art creating an environment of peace. The sanctuary is the resting place of the opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini. It is Bellini’s opera, Norma, that inspired the dish we enjoyed throughout this tour, Pasta alla Norma. Albeit, we are sure he would have wanted to be known for his operas versus an eggplant dish. 😊

The tour ended with a very normal occurrence in Catania. Maria Rosa took us to a small outdoor café, where we enjoyed a granita and brioche roll together. For Tom it was a simple choice - Pistachio Please! It was an interesting combination of flavors and textures, but the Granita was the star.

It was on our way back to the hotel when Danilo made a command decision. To walk from downtown back to the hotel and then back downtown to a restaurant in 90 minutes did not make sense. The meal had already been ordered for the evening, so Danilo decided he would go get the meal and bring the food back where we could eat together in the breakfast room of the hotel. Sounds like a plan! It had been a long day and we had covered a lot of ground. Not sure the restaurant was very happy with Danilo’s plan, and it was further complicated when the hotel manager would not let us use the breakfast room. Leave it to Danilo – Plan B Guys!

Danilo served a three (plastic) fork dinner with a wonderful wine for dinner. Trying to get a seat in this unique dining environment was tough, but we all survived. Not sure we ever had such a lovely dinner in a bedroom. Everyone was in good spirits and there were lots of laughs. Our bet is that the hotel manager never thought dinner for 19 would be served in one of his rooms.

Danilo’s room had a unique ceiling! Sitting under it while we enjoyed our meal it was a reminder of how blessed we were to be on this trip.

Good Night and until tomorrow – Ciao!

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