I love my job.
For those of you that don’t know, I’m a teacher. I am lucky enough to be able to see and explore the world within my job in the sense that we are taking our students on residential trips all over the world.
This year I was privileged enough to visit Sicily. And, to make it even more special, we’ve had the luxury of being guided through this beautiful island by a true Sicilian, one of my lovely colleagues who organised this wonderful trip.
We stayed in a beautiful hotel in Zafferana in the Province of Catania. From very early on it was incredibly hot! I always thought that I was alright with heat, being from South Africa and all, but I was very wrong. This is a whole different kind of heat all together. This is a wet kind of heat. The kind of heat that lets you get sticky and mucky without even trying. It is the kind of heat that doesn’t differ very much between night and day temperatures. And it is the kind of heat that makes Etnaland a raging success.
As we drove through the windy roads, I kept thinking how dry this country looks. There are trees, yes, but no green grass to complement their beauty. It reminds me of South Africa in the winter; only with loads of olive trees. Everywhere.
I’ve never heard of Etnaland before this trip, but now I cannot ignore its existence anymore. As we turned into Etnaland, the entrance reminded me so much of Groblersdal in South Africa. Dry, hot and dusty. But mostly due to the cacti and palm trees that just randomly grow everywhere!
After we paid for our tickets and bag search done (not easy when you’re looking after a group of bambini’s and carrying half a dozen epipens in your rucksack, I’ll tell you!) a paradise awaited! An oasis in the middle of nowhere, promising to cool you down in this unforsaken heat.
The blue water patiently waited for the hot and weary to dip their toes in. The stone hippo snorted a curve of fresh water through its nose…
The sound of laughter and children having a splashing good time was like music to my ears.
I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d come close to a volcano, let alone stay in a hotel that is about two thirds up an active volcanic mountain!
As we lazed around the pool in Etnaland, the sky turned a strange dusty dark colour. We heard a not too distant rumble and suddenly large black pieces of ash and soot is floating about everywhere. I started to panic as we have 32 children in our care and currently they are scattered about the park. Is the volcano erupting? It has been smoking since our arrival. Rumble. Gather the children. We need to get back to our hotel, but wait, isn’t our hotel two thirds up the mountain already? We’re going to get crispy! Children are gathered and we swiftly make our way towards the waiting coach. Rain. Thunderbolts and lightening. I’ve never been so glad that it is an actual thunderstorm (I don’t particularly like thunderstorms). Crisis averted!
The next day we travelled by coach along the Nicolosi route to the Southernside of Etna. This route was incredibly picturesque and as we snaked through the hairpin turns (our coach driver, Pietro, was awesome and very skilled!) we gradually see the landscape turn from vineyards to olive trees to broom trees, with their bright yellow flowers, to just black barren hills.
Once we reached Crateri Silvestri (1986 m above sea level) we parked up and went for a wander. These craters were formed after a massive eruption in 1892 and since they are no longer active it was the perfect playground for 12-14 year olds to get rid of their energy! The wind was extraordinarily strong and, at times, it felt like it will literally pick you up and blow you straight off the mountain! The views from here were totally spectacular and it really did feel out of this world. It is little wonder that the landscape here has been likened to that of Mars and several tests have been performed here before taking into space.
After our stroll in the crater we were taken by our guide to the La Capannina. A tiny little restaurant and gift shop with the most intriguing history! In 2001 Etna had a rather large eruption. The lava came down the southern side of the mountain and the little restaurant stood right in the middle of its flow. Instead of flattening it, the lava ‘kissed’ the window, causing it to crack. At the same time a cave has formed right next to the shop, and ever since this has turned into a shrine for Mother Mary as the Sicilians believe that she has saved the restaurant from being destroyed.
Our last stop was at one of the honey stands. Since the surrounding area of Etna is one of the most fertile due to the volcanic soil, it is of no surprise that there is such an array of local honey available. The kind honey seller eagerly wanted us to try a variety of honey and nut butters and, as a regular market browser and self-proclaimed foodie, this was one of the best honey tastings I’ve ever had. Hands down! We tried from fig blossom honey to peach honey to homemade almond butter. What an experience!
Upon leaving this barren land our (local) guide remarked that the Sicilians around Etna are not materialistic in any way. They live for the moment and make each day count since you never know when the mountain will take it all away. It is then little wonder that that the City of Catania’s emblem is a phoenix…