Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Visit Mt. Etna - The Top of Catania

Mt. Etna hovers over Catania, both literally and figuratively. Its eruptions have shaped the city’s past and influence the decisions about its future. The lava from it have given the area a very fertile soil. So, when you visit Catania, a trip to Mt. Etna is just about required.

At 3329 m (10,900 ft.), Mt. Etna is Europe’s tallest active volcano. It is also one of the most active volcanos, averaging at least one eruption a year for the past 20 years. It produces a large amount of lava every year, mostly through its three primary craters at its apex. I won’t bore you with more statistics, but you can read more about the volcano here.

Our trip to Etna is on a tour run by Traveler Services, which also runs the red hop-on/hop-off bus in town. Starting from the Piazza Duomo, the bus zigged and zagged through morning traffic, making its way towards the slopes of the volcano. Urban neighborhoods transformed into suburbs. The first stop on the tour is in the town of Nicolosi. I am not sure why the bus stops here, except that after over an hour of driving through Catanian traffic, everyone, including the driver, needs a break.

Our next stop is in the middle of the lava field. We stop here to see a house that has been mostly buried in one of Etna’s explosions. We also have a great view of the expanse of the lava field.

The buried house

Part of the lava field

Finally, the bus arrives at Rifugio Giovanni Sapienza, which is the base area for the cable car trip to the summit. There is a large parking area surrounded by restaurants and souvenir shops. During ski season (that’s right, Mt. Etna is a ski resort during the winter) this is the bottom of 14 ski runs. While there are 4 lifts in the winter, during the summer there is one cable car up the mountain, and for €30 you can ride up to an altitude of 2500 m. There are also ATV tours available, and a tram tour of the secondary craters that are near the parking area.

At the top of the cable car is a cafeteria and souvenir shop. From here I have a phenomenal view down to Catania and out to the Mediterranean Sea. For an additional €39 you can take a ride up to the top of the caldero. I have decided not to do this. I am not interested in hiking around with a group of 40 or more people. I really want to just enjoy my time up on the mountain.

I arrive at the café, buy a soda, and go to the outdoor patio. For about thirty minutes I sit a look out at the view, taking it all in. I am flooded with memories of the trips I took to the top of Sulfur Mountain in Banff, Alberta. I spent a year teaching in the area, and when friends would visit, a trip to the top of a Rocky Mountain was a must do. They would go and explore the walkways at the summit and I would sit in the café, enjoying a coffee or a beer. So, on trip to Etna I take the time to look out, enjoy the scenery, and contemplate life, the universe and everything.

Waiting for the bus to the caldera

Looking off to the horizen

The cafe is still a long way from the summit

The Upper terminal and Cafe

One difference between Etna and the Rockies is that at 2500 m, the café is in the midst of the lava field. It is the most barren place I have ever been. While I can see the trees down the slope, up here there is nothing but black stone. Everything sits on basalt. When I look up the slope, all I see are basalt rocks as the road curves around and out of sight. I have heard of volcanoes described as moonscapes, and now I really understand why.

When I return to the lower base of the cable car I join The Amazing Ms. D and our friend Marge, who had been enjoying lunch at Monte Gebel, one of several restaurants in the area. The food is good, and not expensive. In fact, the souvenir shops and cafes are all reasonably priced, especially for a high tourist area. The shops have a wide selection of goods, in many price ranges.

Whether you love heights, or are afraid of them, the top of Mt. Etna is a place that you must visit when you come to Catania.

Getting There:
There are several tours that will take you Mt. Etna. Some are part of a longer trip to other places in the area, others are just to the mountain. There is also a public bus that comes up from Catania, but there are some not good reviews of that on social media, so use at your own judgement.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Visiting Catania, the other Sicilian city

Piazza Duomo

The Amazing Ms. D, our friend Marge, and I arrived in Catania after spending a wonderful week in Palermo. We came in on the Sais Autolinee bus (€13.5). It was a nice way to travel, because we really had a chance to see Sicily, as the highway passed right through the middle of the island. We weren’t sure what to expect. Palermo had been a beautiful surprise, and we hoped for the same in Catania. Well, we found out that while Catania was not as beautiful as Palermo (in my opinion), it certainly had its own charms that made our stay there just as much fun.

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily, and is its economic, industrial and shipping center. It dates back to the 8th century BCE, but it is also considered a “new” city, an interesting dichotomy.

Mt. Etna

Catania’s history is tied to the fact that it sits at the foot Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. The volcanic eruptions have made the area around it one of the most fertile regions in Italy. On the other hand, Etna has also destroyed Catania and other near-by towns many times over the centuries. The largest modern eruption of Mt. Etna was in 1669. It destroyed 10 towns on the southern flank of the volcano and much of the city Catania over the course of five to six weeks. It also provided most of the land that today makes up the port of Catania. Being near a volcano also means that earthquakes are common, and in 1693 there was a massive one that wiped out most of the city of Catania and killed over 15,000 people (out of a population of around 20,000). The result of this devastation was the entire center of the city had to be rebuilt, and so it is still thought of as being the new part of town. The “new” buildings are mostly in the baroque style. These beautiful, opulent buildings use a mix of volcanic basalt and limestone to create wonderful patterns and designs.

At the heart of the historic center of Catania is the Piazza Duomo. The first thing that caught my eye was the Fontana dell’Elefanta. Sitting in the center of the piazza, this statue of a basalt elephant supporting a limestone obelisk was built in 1736. The elephant has been a symbol of Catania since Roman times. To quote the website www.italiannotes.com:

Why are there elephants in Catania?

Some claim there once lived flocks of dwarf elephants at the foot of Mount Etna. Others say it is in memory of the wizard Eliodoro from the 8th century, who could turn into an elephant, or at least shape a magical elephant out of clay to carry him back and forth between Catania and Constantinople. Still others argue that the elephant stands as a symbol of the victory Catania won over Libya, and Catania was known as elephant town already during the Arab occupation. And then there are those who believe that the local elephant myth comes from an antique circus, and that the people of Catania since the 1200s have used elephants as good-luck charm to protect them against outbreaks of Etna.
This statue is often described as “whimsical” because the elephant has his trunk raised and a smile on his face. I will let the reader draw thier own conclusions.

This piazza is also home to the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, the main cathedral of Catania. This is a beautiful baroque structure , built in 1711 and designed by Gian Battista Vaccarini, to replace the old cathedral, which had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. It is surrounded by other baroque buildings, most of which today are hotels.

The Amanzing Ms. D and I like to take a city tour when we get to a new city. It gives us a feel for the layout of the city and points us towards sights and neighborhoods that we might not have found in the guide books. We especially like hop-on/hop-off busses because, if something catches our eye, or if we just get hungry, we can get off, and then continue on when we are ready. We found a tour in Catania that went beyond the center of the city and took us to some sights out along the coast, north of the city. The bus took us past the marina of Ognino out to the suburb of Aci Castello. Here the Castello Norman sits on a rocky promontory along the Sicilian coast. The castle was built during the Norman Conquest out of basalt rock. Its square tower looks out over the water, helping to guard the entrance to Catania’s harbor. 


Castillo Normano

The tour continued on to its turnaround point in Aci Trezza. This lovely seaside town is best known for the Isoli dei Ciclopi. According to legend these are the rocks that the Cyclops threw at the fleeing Odysseus as told in Homer’s Odyssey. The tour stopped here for about 15 minutes, enough time take a couple of photos and grab some water before the trip back to Catania.  

Isoli di Ciclopi in the distance

Getting There:
The Piazza Duomo is in the historic center of Catania, at the southern end of Via Etnea, the main shopping street. Here you can find two different companies offering the Hop-on/Hop-off tour. We used Tourist Services (the red bus) which offered a two day ticket that included a tour of Mt.Etna for €40/person.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Visiting the Temples at Agrigento

Temple of Concordia

 When you visit Palermo, there is one trip out of town that is as close to a must see as anything, The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. But this trip takes a little planning because Agrigento is about a 3-hour drive across Sicily.

The easy way is to use one of the on-line companies that organizes group tours. For about $100 they will put you on a large bus with 50 other people. It will be comfortable, easy and not at all personal. Or you can rent a car for the day. For about $35 you can rent a car. But add in the taxes, insurance (because your home insurance probably doesn’t cover foreign rentals, and gas, which is was $7/gallon in Sept. 2017, and this can cost significantly more. You will control your trip, but not have any guidance other than what you can find on-line.

We opted for something in between these two. We hired an individual guide to take us. This cost us $90 each for our group of 3. Our guide was well worth the price. Francesco (fmtransfer94@gmail.com) is a 20-something Palermitano, and he provided personal service and crafted our day to provide the things that we wanted to do and see.

The trip to Agrigento starts early, because, without traffic, it is a 2.5-hour drive across Sicily. More if you hit traffic leaving Palermo, as we did. One nice thing about having our own driver was that we were able to stop when we needed to, rather than having to meet the schedule of a tour company. After spending an hour in traffic, this was very important. 

The drive across the center of Sicily was a look into the life of the island. We passed many working farms growing wheat, olives and grapes. While poor, none of the towns we saw seemed to suffer from the abject poverty that we sometimes see in the United States.

A farm along the highway

When we arrived at Agrigento, Francesco arranged for us to have lunch in the suburb of San Leone. This is a beach community south of the town. Francesco made reservations at a restaurant called Il Pescatore, which is across the street from the beach and a small amusement park. We were there on a cool and windy Monday, so we had the place to ourselves. In fact, the whole beach front seemed deserted. But the food was excellent, and we enjoyed our fresh seafood tremendously. Francesco had made an excellent recommendation.

The beach in San Leone

After lunch we went to the Valley of the Temples. Really a misnomer, the temples actually are on ridge just outside of the town of Agrigento. Here the remains of seven temples from the era of ancient Greece, sit overlooking to sea. They were placed here so that sailors entering the bay would see them and know that Greece was in power here.

We climbed the path from the entrance, listening to excellent audio guide, and arrived at the first temple – the Temple of Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). This temple has been pretty much torn apart and its stones are strewn over a large field. In one corner there is a recreation of part of the temple, built in the early 1800’s.

The Amazing Ms. D at Gate V of the Valley

You author and our friend Marge among the stones

The Amazing Ms. D in front of the temple of Dioscuri

The temples are situated along the top of a ridge, so it is easy to follow the main path from one to the next, and the next temple along is the Temple of Zeus. This temple has also been pretty much destroyed, but it known for the telamons that were part of the temple. Telamons are human figures that represent the gods holding up the universe. These large carvings were not just decorations, they were architectural support for the roof of the temple.

Temple of Zeus

A Tamelon in front of the Temple of Zeus

We crossed a footbridge over the main road from town and arrived at the Temple of Hercules. Here eight of the columns on one side of the temple are still standing. They make a wonderful backdrop for photos and selfies.

Temple of Hercules

Your Author

We continued up the path, past the museum at the House of Alexander Hardcastle, and we reached the jewel of this ancient collection, the Temple of Concordia. Don’t go to your mythology books looking for a god named Concordia, the temple was named after a plaque found nearby that spoke of building peace (concord) among the people of Agrigento. The plaque probably was made in the middle ages. This temple has survived in excellent shape. The reason is that it was consecrated as a church in the early Christian era, and it served this role until the late 1700’s. In 1810, archaeologist Domenico Pietrasanta received permission from the local religious authorities to restore it to the form it held as a temple, and so its columns and walls are mostly intact.

Which brings me to issue of the condition of the temples. For many years, the official story was that the temples were destroyed in an earthquake. However, the Temple of Concordia survived intact. Now you might believe it was a miracle, but most historians now accept that the temples were destroyed by the early Christian church, in an effort to do away with worship of older religions.

This is where my tour of the temples ended. It was already getting late, and we had a long drive home awaiting us. Francesco took great care of us on the trip home, and even though we found construction at almost every turn, we arrived in reasonable time. He even took the time for a much needed stop at an ATM.

We had a wonderful day. Having a private guide gave us a chance to see more of Sicily and talking to Francesco taught us more about the life of Sicilian people.

Getting There:
Agrigento is about 130 Km (80 miles) from Palermo, but traffic, construction and the general state of the highways make this a trip that takes over 2 hours. You can rent a car, take Italrail or take a tour. We highly recommend Francesco. His email is fmtransfer94@gmail.com. His phone - +39-391.721.4040 He is also available for airport transfers.