Following on from last month’s familiarisation (FAM) trip to Italy, I got invited to another… This time in the south, to Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean. It’s also home to lots of smaller islands, an archipelago. (I know this as I swam around the north west in the Aegean sea some 10 years ago and stayed in my first Airbnb, thinking it was some kind of quirky hotel chain… oh how travel has changed!) Anyway, I left vowing to hike Mount Etna one day…
Flying into Catania (pronounced “Kat-anya”) in the south east I realised I would be at the foot of Mount Etna (3350m) – Europe’s largest active volcano and not really a mountain. In fact it’s a range of volcanoes with ever changing/morphing craters and weather conditions. And as this complex system changes, so does access. In fact we were only permitted to 2,750m (with a Volcanological Alpine Guide) due to the seismic activity 3 weeks previously. They assured us that the ongoing scientific analysis ensures its safety and also makes each experience naturally, different.
And what a treat – I didn’t know there would be SNOW and a glacier on the volcano! Hard to believe as after wandering around at sea level in summer clothes the previous day and driving through fertile green valleys to 1900m. Going above the snow line in the cable car and into the midst of atmospheric cloud, steam and fresh snow on a lava-scape we were spat out at 2500m. Our 5 hour crater hike was off the planet!
Back down to Catania (7m), (via cable car and transfer van) where the outskirts had looked a little gritty – and not in a volcanic kinda way… (to be fair I do live the in perfectly manicured French Alps) I wondered if tales of the Cosa Nostra were true (The word mafia originated in Sicily.) We were on the right side of the island to avoid its less appealing mafioso history. Covid may be the thing on people’s minds nowadays but I heard that the ongoing Refugee crisis is still evident on the island of Lampedusa and this is a port town so I didn’t know what to expect.
Once in the centre, I was smacked in the face by its beauty! Smattered with white baroque palaces and churches and stunning architecture made from basalt (the dark volcanic lava-rock, omnipresent after the city was destroyed for the 7th time in 1669). Climbing the spiral tower in the Benedictine Monastery (rebuilt after the earthquake in 1693) gave 360° panoramic views across the city, from the sea to the summit. Inside the adjacent church I was admiring the procession candle sculptures when I stumbled on the legend of Saint Agatha who is believed to have saved the city from destruction across the centuries. She is still paid homage to via bread or dessert…
Pausing at Spinella (Catania’s most famous pasticceria) to admire these delights, I treated myself to Arancini with pistachio & speck (fried rice ball with a creamy green interior), a Don Carmelo gelato and drank a refreshing mandarin spremute.
Luckily I know my passata from my passeggiata! It’s not only Sicilian orange and lemon granita thats worth chasing, here’s a list of things to taste – lots of it deceptively green coloured but sweet:
Ricotta filled cannoli – check out how to eat it here:
Cassata cake – sugar breasts
Dolci di mandorle – almond cake
Fico d’india – prickly pear, cactus flower fruit
Propolis/eucalyptus honey – great up the mountain
Pistachio nutella – again this is green coloured
Panazonella – salad
Pesto de pistachio – savoury
And of course the various liquors made from these Sicilian ingredients – great with an aforementioned handmade cannolo filled with pistachio, ricotta or chocolate!
As I’m sure you can tell, I lava Sicily! Post-pandemic, I don’t think people don’t want capital/big cities and crowds anymore, they want walks in undiscovered cities, with time in nature, space to breathe and real connection. Mamma Etna (like a Sicilian mother) changes with the seasons – it’s landscape and weather fronts, yet stays firm/strong and giving – offering something new as it evolves. I already want to go back to ski it in Winter (yes really!) and again to witness its beauty in Spring.
For more information, check out our Sicily trip page: (coming soon) or take a look at our other offerings in Italy.
Ciao for now