Mt Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe
We awoke, in the little complex developed beside the Sicilian town of Giardini-Naxos, to the endless scrabbling of mice in the terracotta tiled roof. After vain attempts to block the noise by pulling the covers over our heads, we were forced to emerge into the breaking dawn.
Strewn over everything, millions of black pitted particles astonished us. Mt Etna had erupted overnight. It hadn’t been mice, but lava raining down on the villa’s roof!
I drove our rented Fiat 500, with some crunching under the tyres, into the town for croissants. The street-sweepers were out, their big brooms brushing lava particles into tidy heaps. A sweeping machine trundled along, scooping them into its bowels. It was all very matter-of-fact, so I assumed that today was not, perhaps, the end of time. It was, however, long past the end of the normal tourist season.
We decided to postpone our visit to the Circumetnea, the little railway encircling Mt Etna, for a few days, not feeling entirely confident about venturing too close. That night, the sky was lit up with flames issuing from the mountain top, eliciting some nervous shivers in the otherwise pleasant villa.
The villa’s owner, a charming duke, dropped by to chat with us. In his very diligent English, he was his persuasive best indicating that the eruption was nothing to worry about, and that he could recommend a perfect little trattoria run by his aunt, that night for our dinner. It’ll be just what you want, good food, for a very reasonable price, he said. Of course, he hazarded, don’t expect any fancy — he searched for the right word — any fancy preparation. It was honest food, prepared con amore. He smiled at us — he seemed to know we were well acquainted with amore.
After thanking him for his advice, and tiring of reading on the veranda, in the early evening we gathered ourselves together for the short drive. I pointed out the remaining piles of lava, how they resembled shovelled snow in our North Pennines village. Black though.
It took several forays through the town before we discovered the goose-neck turn the duke had mentioned, and just down that unexplored alley was the trattoria ‘Al Gatto Nero’ with parking right outside. It was an unprepossessing establishment.
Without understanding a word blaring from the television mounted on the wall, we were able, nevertheless, to ask the lovely aunt for the meal of the day, with which wine came without ceremony. The duke was right, Sebastiana’s food was wonderful, the service kind and gentle, and it was a real family atmosphere while the local men argued about the football on-screen.
Next morning, feeling more confident, checking the timetable for the train, we left in plenty of time to catch the 11 o’clock service from a station two towns back towards Catania. Clocking the large, no-frills black lettering that announced the Ferrovia Circumetnea, we twirled into a parking lot. The station was apparently through the underpass, just beyond a few piles of doggy do.
In fact, the place seemed abandoned, but for a posted timetable. Although it wasn’t anywhere near salubrious, the wait for the appointed time was not long; the tiny double carriage came trundling along and stopped with a squeal of brakes. Proffering the correct change, we sat ourselves down to look out over the back gardens on the way forward.
We climbed through almond and citrus groves, with scatterings of olive trees, interspersed with huge banks of ancient lava flows, until it started to drizzle. Water, something of a relief to see, not solid lava chunks. The next few station stops seemed very similar: abandoned platforms. It was something of a surprise to arrive at Randazzo, a hub in the network, to find half a dozen identical trains ready for passengers. The schedule on up around the mountain meant changing trains, but the next departure was ninety minutes hence. We walked across the tracks into the town.
The streets were paved with hewn lava, and the buildings too were built of black lava blocks. Arriving at the central square, in front of an open coffee shop, we gazed at the huge lava walls of the forbidding cathedral. Refreshed after a creamy mocha coffee and a shared granita, it seemed de rigueur to venture into the dark bowels of the church.
Having never before been inside a sacred space quite so gloomy, by the time we’d read about the saint in one painting who’d suffered the indignity of having her breast sliced off, it felt like enough.
So it was a relief to get back on the train for the return journey, and then suddenly, the little carriage filled with excitable teenagers returning home from their Istruzione Secondaria Superiore. The cockiest lad was eager to engage us in English. I didn’t dare note that I was a supply teacher on holiday with my beloved, but rather we pretended to be just who we were, a couple of a certain age with grown-up children on a cheaper off-season adventure. The time passed quickly and most companionably, and after waving the kids off when they left, it seemed so quiet.
The next day, feeling even more adventurous, we took a quiet drive up and up towards the top of the mountain, beyond the snow line. Look there, I exclaimed, the lava is larger here, and on top of the snow too! It’s from the same eruption we slept through!
It was an easy matter to pick up rather a large chunk, and it’s safely ensconced now, a black pitted grapefruit under glass in our living room coffee table.
It all seemed so plain and ordinary, that adventure, if you thought about it, and yet we remember it as one of the most interesting tourist experiences of our lives together. But it’s fair to note that we have no burning desire to visit Pompeii.