Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Driving Etna

“Why don’t you go up Etna?”

“What? Climb it?” I asked. “It’s a bit big.”

“Nah, you can drive up to the top. Well almost. Not all the way of course.”

Etna is huge. My first view of it was out of the aircraft window and I was totally disorientated: we had descended out of cloud and immediately saw an ice-capped, smoking crater. Along the profile of the mountain, smaller cones and domes were peppered on the flanks. As far as volcanoes go, this was the real deal. What also struck me was how seemingly close the towns of the region where stuck to the flanks of the not-so-sleeping giant.

I arrived on a Sunday and had to drive straight to the rig site and start work. The job was on-going however and soon finished. After completing the rig-down the equipment the next day, I ferried my friend Big Vinnie to the airport back at Catania. With a good part of the afternoon still left, I had time to see the mountain up close. Starting from the airport, I soon picked up the brown tourists signs for Etna South. Once off the autostrada though, the narrow roads rapidly became clogged with traffic. If it had been any later in the day, I would have surely got disheartened and turned back.

Now some of my friends from northern Italy are a bit sniffy about the standards of driving here. With near-empty road the previous day, I had had a gentle introduction but now was undergoing the authentic Sicilian experience. After the initial shock, there is logic to it. Drivers here can be divided into two camps: the older generation who still have not got used to the novel luxury of driving a motor car (many seem to be still behind the wheel of the first car they owned) and the rest, who naturally want to get to their destination as soon as possible. There is no in-between. So if one is sticking roughly to the speed limits and keeping distance between ones vehicle and the next one ahead, then one is obviously old-school and demand to be overtaken. Whenever the opportunity arises: just before roundabouts, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings; all are fair game. It’s craziness but even open stretches of road can be used for overtaking.

Sicilian drivers do tend to respect pedestrian crossings though. It would be foolhardy to bet one’s life on it on every occasion but in the north of the country the white stripes are regarded as nothing more than road decoration. Once in Ravenna, I remember stopping for a mother pushing her child in a pram at a crossing and for my trouble being beeped at by the cars behind. Even the weaving bikes and scooters, who know no concept of lane discipline, stop at the crossings here. In Sicily they are very tolerant of drivers edging into the busy roads. It is expected that if there is a long column of traffic, somebody coming in from a side road will attempt to cross it. Why should they be expected to wait for a gap that may be ten or so minutes away? Use of the horn is only for when traffic was snarled to a complete halt. In other places, the horn would be instantly applied with neither mercy nor hesitation whenever the fool driving the mediocre hire car stalls the damned thing for the second time. Not so in Sicily.

In fact, the whole experience reminds me of the “shared roads” experiments where all road signs, markings, pavements etc. are removed completely. Except here it is done at high speed. The main criticism I can make though is that I have never seem so many dead cats, dogs and other road-kill lining the highways. Nor, for that matter, flowers and other memorials marking the fate of loved ones who did not make it safely home.

The road ascending Etna is a real feat of engineering. Well marked and maintained, it carves up the increasingly naked slopes hairpin by hairpin.

At the very top is a small community of shops and restaurants. Nobody lives here; the hut that sold me an americano and some doubtless-overpriced nut bar had been almost completely buried by ash in 2000. It nestles tightly into its would-be grave maker, a two-hundred foot-tall cone of dark ash. Upon my arrival, this peak was populated by a class of senior
high-school students and their teachers. As I started up, they were coming down. At first I smiled at the hesitant descend of the staff and the squeals of the girls but soon came to understand their caution. Walking across new ash is a bit like scree: unstable but grippy. But this rubble was not as strong as most scree: countless feet had churned it into the texture of loose garden soil. Now imagine trying to either climb or descend across freshly-tilled earth on a one-in-three gradient slope. In the past I have done my share of hills but never across such a surface. One of the girls had shouted “bueno fortuna” to me on the way up and once I reached the summit it was clear why. The wind was whipping across the top of the cone at what felt like was fifty or sixty knots. On the loose surface I was nearly blown off my feet several times. Down at sea level, the temperature was a pleasant eighteen degrees Celsius. Here it was plus six. Despite the geologist in me wanting to stay to examine the splatter crust formed by lava bubbling only twelve years previously, noting the yellow of fresh sulphur, the red of iron oxidation, the gleam of fools’ gold in the dust, it really wasn’t the time. Even as I took a few pictures with my telephone, the wind was desperately trying to claw the device from my fingers.

After a coffee had got some heat back into me, I called it a day. There was still a hotel to find and an early morning flight to catch. Still, I had been glad to see Etna and that night enjoyed a fine bottle of wine that came from a vineyard situated on the mountain’s flank. Sweetness can indeed come from ice and fire.

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