Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Up the Etna: A Road Trip to Sicily

 Rover on its way up Mt Etna. (Photo Simon Raven)
The Raven brothers spark up their Rover 214 and head for Sicily in their quest to drive to the top of Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

By Chris Raven
Photography Simon Raven

Italy is a country famous for the anise-flavoured ‘blow-your-eyeballs-out-of-your-face’ Sambuca, the Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and the Fiat, the Roman Empire, the Vatican (Pope), Pasta, Pizza, Spaghetti, the Mafia, the sinking city of Venice, fashion designers (Armani, Versace, Moschino, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci & Pucci), the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Sicily, the Dolomites, Mt Vesuvius, Pompeii, Mt Etna, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pavarotti, well-groomed men with colourful jumpers tied around their necks, sexy women (Elisabetta Canalis), footballers (Roberto Baggio), and a country famous for their fiery temperament, hand waving and the need to drive really, really fast.

Our Mission: To drive up Mount Etna to Refugio Sapienza, elevation 6,500 feet. 

Distance: UK-Sicily: 1908.95 km. 

Vehicle: Rover 214 GSi, silver, bought for €200 in cash on eBay. Assembled at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham in the year the Iraqi forces invaded and conquered Kuwait. Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady, resigned as UK Prime Minister. The movie Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner was a big hit and ‘I Wish It Would Rain Down’ by Phil Collins was blaring out of every Pioneer LP turntable/record player music station around the world. Yep, the car was born in the year 1990. OK, so it was a rather old (almost a classic) vehicle, with fake wooden upholstery and a well thought out coin tray for your loose change, genius idea. The seats were comfy, music came out of the radio, it had an electric sunroof, electric windows, and the brakes worked, which was important, the engine looked like a proper engine and all of the four wheels rolled. What more did we need? 
Mt Etna (Photo Simon Raven)
Nothing was going to stop us from driving up Mt Etna, the highest volcano in Europe (10,922 ft) and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Maybe we were both being a couple of unrealistic clowns with a laissez-faire attitude. I mean, Mt Etna had already blown its top five months before, and an another eruption threw up a huge column of ash that could easily be seen from space and fell as far away as Libya, 600 km south across the Mediterranean Sea. To the ancient Greeks Mt Etna was the realm of Vulcan, god of fire, and the home of the one-eyed monster known as the Cyclops; to us, it was a big beautiful smoking lump of rock, a challenge, and a great way to blow your gasket and set fire to your brakes.

Zipping through the protest-free streets of Reggio de Calabria - a town on the heel of Italy and home to the ‘Ndrangheta criminal organization’, who make money from drug trafficking, extortion and money laundering activities, we skidded onto the docks and purchased a ticket for the last ferry to Messina. With more staff than passengers aboard the vessel, we stepped out onto the deck and watched the sunset paint glorious flames across the Sicilian sky. Boats bound for Malta were silhouetted in the distance and to our right we could see Mt Etna and a trail of smoke bellowing out of the crater and streaking above the ocean in the direction of the mainland. Was she about to blow again? 

After spending the night at a service station on the E45 outside of the city of Messina, we hit the road at the crack of dawn and headed south along the coast towards the Mt Etna National Park. I still couldn't believe our Rover had made it all the way to Sicily. Driving at 55 mph for 2,000 km had certainly paid off despite the unnecessary abuse from the 18-wheeler  truck drivers, who seemed to think it was acceptable behavior to fill our wing mirror with their front grill. Skidding onto the SS-114 coastal road, we passed through the charming and historic hillside town of Taromina (Sicily’s Monte Carlo) and one of the island’s main tourist resorts. It was still relatively early in the morning, and the hoards of package tourists and holiday makers had yet to arrive in the historic centre. Ditching the Rover down a side street, we grabbed our cameras and wandered up and down the main street of Corso Umberto. Admiring the architecture of the beautiful Torre dell’Orogio clock tower, the church of San Giuseppeand and the picturesque plazas, we gazed through the windows of the many souvenir shops, ice cream parlours, sweet-smelling boutique hotels and expensive restaurants serving swordfish and fine wine. Drinking fresh mountain water from an ornate fountain, we headed back on the SS-114 coastal road with dramatic views of the ocean. 
Church of San Giuseppe, Taromina.
(Photo Simon Raven)
Making a pit stop in the busy little seaside town of Giardini Naxos, we devoured a bag of enormous peaches bursting with Sicilian sunshine (the best I have ever tasted), before continuing to weave south along the SS-114 to the town of Fiumefreddo di Sicilia. Reluctantly leaving the coast, we zig-zagged through the countryside and passed citrus groves, orchards of lemons and figs, vineyards, farms, forests and quiet villages as we moved closer to the looming Mt Etna volcano. Reaching Linguaglossa, a pretty town with its rich production of wine grapes, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts and cattle breeding, which sits in the shadow of the volcano and, rather bizarrely, on a large tongue of lava, we turned south and headed for Zafferani.
Arriving at the perimeter of the Mt Etna National Park, we gazed up the small narrow road leading up into the dark clouds. It was a hot day, but the weather wasn't looking good. What was the worst that could happen I thought to myself? OK, so we were driving an old Rover with dodgy tracking and we had absolutely no survival equipment and zero knowledge of volcanoes. But so what? People have crossed deserts without the knowledge of, uh...sand. Crossed oceans without the knowledge of water and there we were agonizing over whether we should risk damaging our fragile car by driving up a little volcano. Then to our amazement a convoy of motor homes zoomed passed, followed by a small fiat with a pensioner sat hunched over the wheel. I turned to Si. "If they can do it, so can we!”  I cried.

The green forest landscape began to disappear and was replaced by barren black volcanic stone, called sciara. The Rover was running smoothly, the brakes were working just fine and the engine was purring like an old lioness. We were over 3,000 metres in altitude when the cigarette lighter suddenly exploded in the ash tray giving us both a hell of a fright. But this minor explosion didn't distract us from what we had come here to do; the challenge we had set out to achieve and the adventurous story for us to tell in front of the open fire in the years’ to come. We felt like Knights in shining armour charging towards the fiery dragon, the Rover our sturdy stallion. Nothing was going to stop us from reaching our goal…nothing! I slammed my foot down on the pedal and we zoomed up the volcano. Well, when I say zoomed, I mean, we went a little faster. A wild fox ran across the road and looked at us with its penetrating eyes. We motored on. The landscape was now totally barren black rock at an elevation of 6,500 feet. What will be at the top I thought, smoking craters, lava pouring out, a snap shot from 230 million years ago during the Triassic period? Our mission was soon complete. I was shaking. My heart was thumping. We followed the road around a bend, but sadly our illusions of being surrounded by spewing lava and dinosaurs were trashed when we were presented with a really big car park full of cars, RV’s, and tour coaches. There was even a restaurant, souvenir shops and a flipping hotel. I couldn't believe it. We had risked our lives (well, not quite) to drive up a smoking volcano, and we get to the top and there's practically a theme park waiting for us.

Nearly at the top of Mt Etna. (Photo Chris Raven)
Parking the car, we paid for a ticket and grabbed a coffee in a bustling cafe. The clouds were low and rain was soon to arrive. It was pointless jumping in the cable car or paying for a 4×4 Jeep ride to the crater another 1,000 meters up. So, after munching on a chocolate bar and a packet of crisps, we admired the misty landscape from high up on Mt Etna before jumping in our Rover and driving back down to the ocean to the smell of our burning.

It was a wonderful road trip to Sicily, but there was more to come. From volcanoes and Catacombs in Palermo to ancient Greek ruins, we were going to see it all. We had the whole of the Mediterranean to explore, and while we waited for the brakes to cool down and stop smoking I flicked open the road map and pointed to Seville in Spain. When you are on a road trip you have the freedom to go where ever you want to go, and we like that.

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