Day 19: Mt. Etna, Glad We Met ‘Ya

Today was a big day and we had a lot of ground to cover.  We had decided to hit up Mt. Etna and then head to the town of Milazzo on the northeastern coast, from where we’d take a ferry to the Aeolian Islands.  I had read about the Aeolian Islands and was fixated on making sure they were a stop on our itinerary; Jim was amenable so off we went.

Mt. Etna's diverse terrain

Mt. Etna’s diverse terrain

There are a couple different ways that have been set up for tourists to pay a visit to Mt. Etna’s craters, either by approaching it from the south (at Rifugio Sapienza) or from the north (at Piano Provenzana).  Approaching it from the north not only made the most geographic sense for our day’s itinerary, but it was also billed as being more picturesque and less busy because you need your own car transport to get there.  Then once you get to one of the base starting points, north or south, you can then either engage the services of a 4WD company or you can hike a steep ascent to the craters.  Hiking + steep ascent + volcano is simply not in our vocabulary.

The hour-long drive to Piano Provenzana took us from sea level to 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), and was, indeed, beautiful.  The weather was sunny, the sky was blue, and the lush forests we passed on our way up eventually gave way to a black, rocky, moon-like terrain.  It was like nothing we’d ever seen.

Jim by our Unimog transport

Jim by our Unimog transport

We arrived at 10:00 and were able to sign up for the first STAR excursion going up (€55/each), which was to leave around 10:45.  Sure enough, a large group of us boarded the Mercedes Unimog all-terrain vehicle at 10:45, ready to not hike up the crater.  However, the driver and guide ran into much confusion because there were 26 of us reporting for duty – but we were only supposed to be 24 strong.  This caused quite an Italian stir, first with the driver coming back for a head count and to check everyone’s tickets, then the guide counted and checked tickets, and then the driver counted again with the guide chirping in his ear to make sure he counted properly, which caused him to lose count and have to start over.  Hands were gesticulating wildly, rapid Italian was spoken in impassioned tones, the ticket-seller lady was brought on board to do her own head count and ticket check, and much head scratching commenced before everyone shrugged their shoulders, threw up their hands, and we were off.

Now, Italians have an endearing way of communicating with one another, and a main component of any conversation is using your hands for emphasis.  We also noticed, without fully comprehending what was ever being said, that some Italians had a tendency to be excitable when talking about what we envisioned to be mundane, everyday conversation topics.  For instance, a non-Italian might offhandedly say “we should fill the car up with gas today.”  But it seems like, to us, an Italian might be prone to saying, “WENEEDGASINTHECAR!  TODAY!!  DIDYOUHEARME??  WENEEDGASINTHECARTODAY!!!  AAAHHHHHHHHHH!!,” while slicing through the air with cupped hands for accentuation.

It looks like the moon

It looks like the moon

So after the count, recount, miscount, and oh-what-the-heck count, we found ourselves in this behemoth of a vehicle being driven up steep, narrow, switchback, and crumbly black lava roads that plunged down the volcano on one side, by an animated driver with the guide in the front seat.  They hashed and rehashed every moment of the counting situation while looking at each other incredulously most of the time, their conversation growing with intensity in both audibility and hand animation.  I spent the ride up desperately trying to recall the Italian words for “hands on the wheel” and “eyes on the road,” meanwhile Jim was all smiles with volcanic anticipation.

Man vs. Wind

Man vs. Wind

Without incident we reached 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) and disembarked to wind like we’ve never known wind before.  It was powerful, so powerful that young children had to be gripped tightly and we could lean into it without fear of falling over.  The views all the way over to the sea were breathtaking and made the lava rock sandblasting worthwhile.  This was just cool.

See the people walking the crater's ridge?

See the people walking the crater’s ridge?

Everyone piled back into the Unimog and we were driven back down the volcano a short distance, stopping to peer into a smoking crater.  Mt. Etna is very much an active volcano; in fact it’s one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the sputtering steam was evidence it still had anger management issues.  Then it was back into the Unimog to view another crater, and this one we had to hike to a little ways in more pounding wind.  The ridge of this crater was narrow, the ground was gravelly and would give way a little when stepped on, and the wind was so fierce the guide stopped us from going any farther in fear we would only come back with 24 people, although that would have solved the previous accounting discrepancy.

After our third stop it was time to descend back to the base camp, and on this steep ride down I spent most of the time wondering if anyone had checked the hydraulic fluid in the brakes lately.  It’s a valid concern, you know, because it was the end of their tour-giving season.  Jim just thought I was nuts and continued to be all smiles, having thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the 2 hour experience.

Hydrofoil wings in action

Hydrofoil wings in action

Once back at base camp we hopped into the car, switch-backed our way down the rest of the volcano, and sped off to the port town of Milazzo.  We parked the car in the secure Garage delle Isole #1 (€10/day), their shuttle drove us to the docks, and we took the 16:00 Siremar hydrofoil to the Aeolian island of Lipari (€16.20/each, one-way).  Because one of the islands, Panarea, is a magnet for the jet-set we felt just like Beyonce and Jay-Z, if only they took the public hydrofoil.

The Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie in Italian) are comprised of 8 islands, with Lipari being the largest.  We figured we had our best chance of lodging there and had mapped out a few possibilities prior to our arrival on the island.  As such, we headed straight to Residence Hotel La Giara and were able to secure a room for the night.  There was even a little white/gray kitty to welcome us, solidifying the choice.

After dropping our gear we walked 2 minutes to the town’s main drag to check it out and suss out an island boat tour for the following day.  We found a company we liked and told the kid out front we’d be back the following morning.  By this point we’d screwed around in town so long that it was almost 19:30 and we were really hungry.  We walked up and down the main drag, down a few side streets, back to the main drag, and just couldn’t find a restaurant “we” (read: Jim) felt like going into.  We were on the precipice of marital discord when we passed by a place called Ristorante 25…  and they had a beautiful garden patio out back.  Done.  Let’s eat.

Picture perfect streets of Lipari

Picture perfect streets of Lipari

This restaurant choice turned out to be serendipitous.  We were met by the owner, Luciano, who made us immediately feel welcome.  Given we are English speakers, and given Luciano speaks excellent English, he came out to the garden patio to check up on us.  Well, we got to chatting with him and our conversation ended up lasting a few hours.  In the meantime, we feasted on what we found to be the absolute best pizza we had during our entire trip.  Luciano is deeply passionate about his restaurant, and it shows in the quality of his ingredients and care he takes with them.  It was such an enjoyable evening.

We eventually had to say good night to Luciano and leave his peaceful outdoor dining oasis, but we had a feeling we’d be seeing him around.  Lipari, after all, isn’t all that big.

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