What follows is the story of how I ended up on an active volcano during a snowstorm.
After spending a few wine and cannolli filled days in Palermo, my friends and I found ourselves in need of adventure. So, on a whim, we asked our Airbnb host about a trip to Mt. Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, which also happened to be a mere three hours away by car. Our host, Alberto, was kind enough to land us a guide and a ride for the following morning.
Now, getting up at six in the morning to go to a mountain on a Friday morning was not easy. The normally balmy Palermo air was particularly frigid that morning, although it proved to be a mere harbinger of the winter that was coming for us later that day. Not that I was particularly well equipped for it either. My arctic hiking gear for the day consisted of a pair of leather Doc Marten’s, thick socks, jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, a light sweatshirt, a leather coat, a beanie, and to top it off, fingerless, knitted gloves.
Outfitted like a Portland indie-rock band reject, I was ready for the trip. My friends and I were later joined by a Romanian (or was it Bulgarian?) couple and a Portuguese mother-daughter duo for the trip. Saddled up, I spent the next three hours listening to music in a cramped van, whilst watching the jagged, surprisingly mountainous countryside of Sicily roll by. To be honest, watching green hills, cracked mountains, and villages (and accompanying vineyards) built on cliffs almost made up for the horrifically long trip in even more terrifying traffic.
I still remember the ominous sight of Mt. Etna as our tiny, white van approached it. In stark contrast to the bright, Mediterranean day, the volcano was shrouded by dark clouds and somber rock, looking for all the world like a veritable Mt. Doom. I remember winding through a small mountain village on the way to the apocalyptic geological formation and staring up at the monster. It absolutely dominated the view, exacerbated by the cloud cover that clung to it like the smoke from a blaze.
We eventually made our way up the behemoth, all the while being pounded first by rain, then by hail, and then finally, blissfully, by snow. We even stopped to look at the wreckage of a home, destroyed by the last eruption. We didn’t stay long however — mother nature was causing havoc.
Still, we ventured farther up the mountain, eventually landing at the 1900 m checkpoint, which happened to be just under the clouds. There, we could have disembarked and taken an expensive gondola to 2500 m, and then to the belching maw of the volcano itself through the power of German volcanic trucks. However, being a cheap college student on an absolutely horrific day for seeing anything from the top, I decided against it.
Instead, I had the joy of climbing some of the craters around it, all the while being battered by an unholy mixture of hail and snow. It was a truly hellish sort of landscape, framed by a contrast of red rock and white ice. To be more apt, it felt absolutely extraterrestrial, like I was on one of the poles of Mars. Eventually, we descended, after gaining an absolutely breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside and azure coast.
At the checkpoint, I found something special called Fuoco dell’Etna, by a Sicilian company called Fichera. It’s this type of pink liqueur distilled on the volcano, and it tastes like it too. One sip of it was like tasting sweet, alcoholic fire. Oh, and did I mention it was 140 proof? It rivaled the strength of Everclear, a type of vodka only fit for stripping paint off of boats. Naturally, I had to get at least one souvenir from the mountain.
After being both completely frozen and soaked to the bone, I met back up with my driver and descended the mountain. To dry off, we went to the ancient, coastal town of Taormina. This gorgeous city was built right into the cliff of the damn island. You could even see mainland Italy from the city. Suffice it to say, it was absolutely stunning, and above all else, warm. The ability to go from a cold, volcanic hell to a balmy beach within an hour was a curious opportunity to say the least.
I spent most of my time there chilling, eating, and having a photoshoot courtesy of my friend, Robert. He’s to thank for most of the magnificent photos on this site, not to mention feeding my ego on a pictorial basis. Regardless, spending the evening in Taormina made for a glorious respite from the wonderful chaos of Palermo and the frigid confines of Mt. Etna.
There’s just one thing I found particularly bizarre. The Germans. They were everywhere in Taormina. I couldn’t take five steps without hearing Danke and bitte. Were the French there? Nah. Americans besides us? Ha, like Americans even take vacation! But the Germans? Everywhere. Like how Asian tourists are stereotypical in the U.S., I suppose the Germans are the same in Sicily. Go figure.
We took the less scenic way home, plowing our way through tunnel after tunnel, driving directly under the rolling hills of Sicily. Winter darkness had set in quickly, regardless of the beautiful climate. Regardless, the Sicilian towns that dotted the coast lit up the night, brilliant and haphazard at the same time. I finally made it back to Palermo around 9:30 p.m, exhausted. Which meant, by Sicilian standards, it was time to have dinner. With bread and wine, as is tradition.