Mount Aetna, September 18, 2013

On the flanks of Mt. Aetna at about 6,000 feet, looking at the 2001-2002 lava flows.  The poles for the old funicular have been abandoned, and a new one built alongside to take people up to about 9,000 feet (the mountain is over 10,000 feet, how much over depends on its more recent eruption). [Regina’s photo.]
Why — and how– do people live on the slopes of one of the most active volcanoes in the world? Since humans have lived in Sicily, they have found it worth their while to accommodate the volcano’s whims and wrath in order to take advantage of the gifts that it offers. The climate is excellent, and the soil unmatched for orchard, vineyards, and farming of all sorts. I’ve showed the photos of the terrain with recent lava flows, but nothing of the areas that we drove through with lush farms, orchards and vineyards.
Riana and Carmelo picked us up this morning in a late model seven-seat van, and spent close to six hours driving us up and down the mountain (Carmelo), and telling us about its history and environment (Riana). Riana is from Prague, speaks five languages fluently, and has been doing this for about five years. Carmelo is local, and speaks no English, so Riana translated for him at times.
Some clouds, some sun, some fog – but no rain and only a pleasant breeze when needed accompanied us on the tour. We started in the heart of Catania and drove up and up through suburbs, and then the town of Nicolosi, which came close to being inundated with lava in 2001. A little further up, we stopped on a lower trail in the national park (at about 1200 meters, or about 3,600 feet) and walked for a while. Riana pointed out the flows from the early 1980s, where lichens have grown, compared to the black rough rocks from 2001 and 2002 which are still bare. Along the edges of the flows, valerian, yellow hawkweed, and other wildflowers grow, and lizards and ladybugs sun themselves.
Further up, we stopped at the big tourist area that had to be rebuilt after the 2001-2002 eruptions. A new funicular runs parallel to the old gray poles that no longer stand straight. New parking lots and facilities stand on leveled lava beds; a few of the older structures escaped. We started up a steepish slope to one of the more recent craters. I gave out first — we were at 6,000 feet+, and I decided that even if I got to the top, I’d still have to get back down. So Jim and I went back, and walked around another crater that had a mostly flat path around the rim. Peg and Tom returned after about three-quarters of the climb, and Regina and Riana got to the top.
The craters in this are were created only ten years ago, with few plants as yet. Fog and clouds hung here and there, adding to the surreal scene. People bundled up — it was 85 degrees in Catania by the ocean, but at that altitude, it was more like mid-50s. We bought overpriced coffee and sat in the sun at a table on the tourist restaurant’s patio. Lunch was breads and a small pizza from the bakery near our hotel, plus the 3 euro coffee and cokes from the bar.
We started down the mountain and made three more stops — one to photograph the remains of a house caught in one of the earlier (1980s?) lava flows; the second to explore a lava tube, and the third to sample honey and wine from the farms that thrive on the volcano’s rich soil.
After a rest, Jim and I explored for a while, and then I joined Tom in the hotel family’s open air living room for a chat with them about Anchorage and Sicily, Iowa and Italy. Dinner was at an excellent restaurant (Regina’s been responsible for finding good food, and she’s done fabulously well). We ate local food — the dark red wine from Etna’s Nero d’Avola grapes with the restaurant’s own label, mussels from the morning fish market, pistachios and walnuts from the area made into pesto for homemade tagliatelle, and more. Then we went along the street, just as the bars were putting out all of the sofas and chairs and tables and big TV screens for the evening’s parties. Simpsons were on the screen at the bar closest to home, while everyone waited for the soccer match.
Craters (they look more like cones to me) on the slopes of Mt. Etna. The mountain erupts from several craters at the top; these eruptions are spectacular but usually do little damage to anything. More importantly, magma breaks through weak spots on the flanks of the mountain, and those 300+ lava flows often cover fields, homes, roads, and forests. Catania is in the far distance. It has 400,000 people (a little larger than Anchorage), and the area has 800,000 (more than the entire state of Alaska). That’s a lot of people who find themselves living within spitting distance of the mountain’s whims.
People climb up to see one of the six Silvestri craters that erupted within recent years on the south side of the mountain. Below is one of the tourist spots.
Regina at the top of one of the craters, with the tourist area and numerous other craters below. Many of them have been created on the south side where we spent much of our times. The clouds closed in around 5,000 feet, but opened up above 6,000 feet. [Riana’s photo of Regina.]
The mouth of a lava tube created when the basalt flow cools (if you want to know the physics/geology, just ask). We put on helmets and took flashlights to explore.
Carmelo crowning Regina queen of the spelumkers.
Riana in charge.
Tom and Jim contemplating life in a rock-floored cave. People have lived in the lava tubes, and used them as refrigerators, as well as to store ice during the winter so they could sell it in the summer.
Back in Catania, a glimpse of today’s wedding. We missed the bride and groom, but saw some of the preparations going on at the church in one of the plazas. The flower girl and ring boy showed up in the cafe next to the church where Jim and I had stopped for coffee. I presume that their handlers brought them over for lollipops and water because the marriage service was much too long for them. By the time we left the cafe, a dozen other wedding attendees from dress-suited men to chiffon-clad matrons were sighted in the piazza, unwilling to wait it out to the end.
Peg and Tom with their pre-dinner gelati. We decided to eat dessert first, because so many of the restaurants didn’t open until 7:00 or 7:30.
Yellow hawkweed at the edge of a lava bed; fly included.
Our hotel room balcony and red awning. The gated entrance is to the left. The hotel Mele is also in this building, with the rooms on the floors above those belonging to the Hotel Trieste. The graffiti is everywhere — on buses, trains, building walls. The thing is — you can find 2,000-year-old graffiti almost as easily as the recent stuff.
Spotted in the piazza where we were eating gelato: this man with numerous large dogs, on the steps of a building from which half-a-dozen very well-dressed men and women were exiting at 7:00 in the evening. The scene belongs in a movie full of symbolism, or maybe just surrealism.


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