Monday, January 27, 2014

Under the Volcano

by Musetta Joyce   © 2014

Except for the strong currents cooling the Straits of Messina, in July and August the seas around Sicily are practically lukewarm. Our guests are happy to lounge on the quiet beach and swim in the transparent water most days, but when my son, on a visit from Madrid with his family, feels like doing something different, I suggest an excursion to Mount Etna, starting with the Gole Alcantara, and offer to be their guide. The volcano isn't visible from our town, but it makes itself felt whenever it erupts, for the wind carries minute grains of lava dust to prickle our eyes. When we last went past it on our way to the airport in May it had just erupted. It looked spectacular, as it was half black, where the lava had just spread, and half white, where the snows still lingered.
We decide to avoid the coastal route of the motorways and to shortcut across country.
As we head up through the Nebrodi Mountains the temperature, which at sea level was well over 30 degrees, drops dramatically. The dense vegetation is amazingly green, in spite of the lack of rain for months now; the steep slopes are full of wild oak and pine trees, while the more rocky areas sprout Mediterranean scrub, broom and tall willowy grasses. Every now and then a levelling of the slopes allows for the cultivation of olive and citrus groves and clusters of dull dwellings with doors opening onto the roadway, sometimes framing housewives sitting shelling peas or beans.
At Polverello we stop to let my small grand daughters run about while we stock up on the pure water that gushes from a spring at the side of the road. A couple of lorry drivers are queuing up to douse their sweaty faces in the icy water and fill a few bottles for their journey. The cool water is wonderfully refreshing - better than wine any day when the sun is scorching, and we drink thirstily. We have brought a few dozen empty bottles, because this particular spring is renowned.  In fact, although city dwellers in Sicily make do with cheap bottled 'mineral' water rather than drink from the taps, I have heard country folk argue about where to find the best water. They can distinguish between the different tastes and will travel miles to find their favourite source where they fill several ten-litre plastic containers. 
Since I last came here many wind farms have sprung up across the higher slopes; but there is hardly any breeze today and many are almost still. All along the roadside now there are poles to measure the height of the winter snowfalls. Friends have recently opened an agriturismo nearby, for tourists who seek to commune with nature.
Soon we cross the border between the provinces of Messina and Catania, divided by the Alcantara River. It was merely a quarter of a century ago that some of the waters of this swift flowing river began to be used to bring decent supplies of drinking water to the city of Messina. Before that, water would arrive in dribbles during the small hours of the morning and had to be stored, outside in rooftop tanks and indoors in sinks and bathtubs. The lack of precious running water during the day used to be a serious challenge to zealous housewives.
Soon the road swings downwards and Mount Etna looms ahead, smoking peacefully today. 
'Look!' I say, pointing to the dark town huddled at the foot of the volcano. 'That's Randazzo. It was built out of lava back in the Middle Ages. Even the streets are paved with lava, which is why it's so dark. Only the roofs are terracotta red. Well, back in 1981, Etna suddenly exploded through a new mouth overlooking Randazzo and the lava was creeping down the mountainside threatening to engulf the town. The terrified inhabitants packed all they could, fled for their lives and prayed. And they must have prayed hard, because, shortly before reaching the outskirts of the town, the lava mysteriously turned aside and spread its glowing embers over the deserted countryside way beyond the inhabited area.'
'Come on, that's just another old wives tale!' laughs my son.
'No, really, it's true. In fact, if you drive along the lower slopes of Etna you can see lots of little wooden signs giving thanks to the Madonna or some favourite saint for having spared their particular little cottage lying in the path of the lava that destroyed everything else before it. I once saw a tiny chapel, intact inside, with a wave of lava solidified outside the window, with one of these thankyou notices. We can try and find it if you like.'
My son shakes his head in disbelief. 'The girls will get bored with too much driving around; let's find somewhere they can play.'  
I first came to Randazzo a year after the eruption and walked on the black lava embers, some of which were still warm. Many years later I saw small plants beginning to grow there. Now, as we drive across the same area, there is no sign any more of the devastation. The dark desert has become fertile ground once more. There are even many nurseries established growing thousands of baby palm trees, taking advantage of the recent transformation.
By the time we reach our destination it is lunchtime, so we stop off at a small trattoria with a terrace overlooking the old railway line, which once encircled Etna, but is now defunct. The girls have fun scooping up spaghetti swamped in tomato sauce, while I regret ordering grilled scampi, a messy choice as they are still in their shells and too hot to handle. Lunch over; we cross the road to the free entrance to the Gole. This means we have to descend (and climb back up) hundreds of steps instead of paying to use the lift. At the roadside a large poster nearby announces that 'The magician Mago Merlino will solve even the most impossible problems of love!' while another depicts a photo of a mysterious lady called Madame Sahara who would be willing to reveal your future and share her wisdom – for a small fee.
At the foot of the steps we discover that the rapidly flowing stream is flanked by rocks and shingle on which entire families have spread themselves upon rugs and towels to picnic and sunbathe under the now scorching sun. 
'I need shade!' I complain. 'This heat is too much for me!'
'Look, let's cross over. There's more shade on the far side.' The river at this point is shallow but too stony to walk barefoot, and the water is icy.
I hadn't thought to bring my swimsuit, but the others have; soon they are all splashing about in the cool stream and the girls are clambering over the rocks. Well used to rock-climbing back home, these little girls are as agile as monkeys. It looks like they don't want to leave and I'm going to be left sitting on the rocks with nothing to do. I have even neglected to bring a book to read.
'Don't you want to go up to Zafferia and drive farther up the volcano?' I say. 'You could climb up and down the old craters, and run about on the lava. And, there are usually thousands of ladybirds and white and yellow butterflies flying around.'
No response.
'Or we could visit Etnaland and enjoy the water funfair, hmm? Or go back around the south slopes to Bronte to eat pistachios with everything – Pasta with Pistachio pesto, biscuits made of pistachios, and lovely green pistachio ice-cream?'
Only the idea of green ice-cream meets with a glimmer of interest, and is promised as a grand finale to the outing, on our way home – later. 
I gaze up at the cliffs enclosing the narrow gorge, over fifty feet high here, but much higher farther along the gorge, sprouting all kinds of wild flowering plants and prickly pears. The place is crowded with people of all ages, but it is mostly the younger ones who tramp upstream clad in hip-high boots bound for the deeper waters. As I am wondering why things have changed so much since I last visited the Gole, I spy a colourful leaflet lying by a rock pool which explains the reason for the transformation. It tells how the park was developed in 2001 and since then has become a popular resort for local tourism. It explains how some 8000 years ago the lava from Etna met the cold waters of the river; the rapid cooling caused the extraordinary lava rock formations that flank the river, and that nowadays all kinds of equipment for wading and trekking and body rafting and canyoning can be hired and guides provided for adventure sports.
When I see a group of young men and girls in wetsuits, red helmets and yellow life-jackets plunging from the top of a waterfall into deep pools whose gushing waters batter them against the rocks, I wonder why their guide is taking photographs of them,
I find the explanation in the leaflet.
Seemingly, legend has it that the god Vulcan loved the goddess Venus and kept the waters of this river warm, as she loved to bathe here. But, when they broke up, in a fit of rage Vulcan, to punish Venus, stopped heating the river water. Since then however,  the waters are believed to have a magical power to restore virility to the men and virginity to the women who are brave enough to immerse themselves in the icy rapids.
Hence the smug expressions on the faces of the body rafters as they emerge from the swirling pool. 
As I read on I find that there are far too many interesting things to see in one day. For instance, above the canyon, there is now a 250-acre park where olives, citrus fruits, herbs and prickly pears are cultivated organically and used to make liquors, preserves and jams, sold on the spot. There is a museum and ancient villages that have been renovated and larger houses that have been converted into accommodation centres. So much to see and savour!
I'll just have to come back another day. 


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