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Anne's Travel Notes - Sicily Volcanoes

Anne Robichaud

I've been celebrating my end-of-August birthdays on volcanoes recently - "explosive" moments, volcanic adventures! For many years, my birthday has landed me in proximity to volcanoes: we are in Sicily every August at the home of my husband Pino's family in Palermo. Each year, we enjoy day trips in the area with the family and Pino and I always take off for three or four days on a "Sicily discovery" trip to celebrate my birthday on the 24th. We've been going to Sicily every summer for over 30 years and still discover new treasures on this island of the endless wonders.

Stromboli

I celebrated my fifitieth birthday a few years ago in an all-night climb to the volcanic crater of Stromboli (one of the magnificent Aeolian islands off the north coast of Sicily) - and THAT certainly did convince me that I was indeed 50! I should have known when our guide told us to bring along an extra tshirt and wind breakers (though we started the climb in the heat at 6pm) and 1 1/2 liters of water. We drank every drop while making the five to six hour climb (our guide permitted us only three two-minute stops during the ascent and sternly warned us to avoid sitting down - I guess for fear we would never get up again!). Our clothes were sweat-soaked and so we changed as soon as we reached the top, then put on our windbreakers (it was chilly at the summit).

Objective of the climb? The magic of the spewing crater at night. Alas, the night we climbed, the crater was wreathed in fog: most dampening (in more ways than one) after that arduous climb. But the proximity of the menacing rumble of the volcano inspired awe. In quiet meditation, our climbing group sat around the crater rim, in a brilliant red cloud in quiet meditation, listening to the rumble, overcome by the power. Then we put on our helmets to "ski" down: the first half-hour of the descent was like skiing through powder, though we were sliding through lava dust. The helmet was protection for any bits of flying lava. We arrived back at our hotel on the sea at 5:30am. We were one of the last groups allowed permission to climb to Stromboli's vocanic rim: a few months after our climb, tourists were killed by the lava spew.

Lipari

The following year, we headed to Lipari, another Aeolian island jewel, once an active volcano and the signs remain. I remember our exploration of the pumice quarries there and my birthday gift from Pino was a bellissimo obsidian necklace. The island of Ustica (about 70 km north of Palermo) is the tip of an inactive underwater volcano about 2000 meters high and last August we rented a room with an elderly couple just outside the one little village on the island. Our room overlooked the splendid coastal area which has recently been declared a Protected Marine Area and is divers' paradise.

A Motorcyle Road trip to Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna, Sicily

This past August, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Mt. Etna. We left Palermo on Pino's motorcycle, heading east along the seacoast, then south through the Madonie mountain range and into the Nebrodi mountains, stopping often at the quiet mountain towns along the route. The medieval houses hug the roads which wind through the towns. Often the contemplative elderly are sitting outside observing the world passing them now, perhaps reflecting on what has passed behind them.

Our walks in these towns took us past central piazzas where little boys kicked soccer balls around the fountains and the cathdrals stand tall and stately - magnificent Baroque edifices whose elaborate interiors contrast with the simplicity of the towns themselves.

We stopped in Troina (pop. 1200) of ancient Greek origin with a Chiesa matrice ("mother church" or the "matrix" - southern Italian term for the principal town church) built on the foundations of the 11th century Norman fortress. The town spreads out on a mountainous crest and the road down from Troina dipped and swooped, taking us past isolated stone farmhouses flanked by terraced olive groves and on through pastures of grazing cows and goats, all back dropped by blue sky of clear intensity.

Hotel and Restaurant Mazzurco, Ceraso'

We road deeper into the Nebrodi range. We arrived in Cesaro' at nightfall and stopped at the first little hotel, Hotel Mazzurco, perched on the crest of a hill, overlooking a vast valley below and facing the northwest flank of Mt. Etna. "No room in the inn", though the proprietor indicated to us a B&B three kilometers down the road. A call there confirmed space so we sat down to dinner at the hotel's restaurant, perhaps one of the most wondrous meals we have ever eaten. Both of us ordered pasta dishes with pistacchio pesto (nearby Bronte is famous for its pistachio production). I nearly swooned over the ravioli with pistacchio pesto and stuffed with crushed pistacchios and fresh sheep's milk ricotta while Pino enjoyed penne al pistacchio. Pino finished up with the grilled lamb, for which the Nebrodi mountain area is also famous. I held out for the dessert: homemade pistacchio gelato.

The cook, Signora Vincenza, reigns in the kitchen assisted by her daughter Mariella. Her sons run their hotel and assist in the restaurant, too - as do the grandchildren now (just name me an enterprise in Italy, which is NOT a family endeavor!?!).

Casa Angelone B&B, near Ceraso'

After dinner we went back down the hill to our B&B, Casa Angelone, where we were warmly welcomed not just by our host, young Francesco Borgia, but by his friends of all ages. They had gathered for a dinner to celebrate publication of a book on the Nebrodi mountain towns just written by a noted Italian journalist, who was there as well. We enjoyed conversations with many of the guests, including a couple who lived in Ceraso', others from Messina, including Francesco's brothers and parents. He had grown up in Messina, graduated in economics from the University there, but opted to leave city life for his deceased grandparents' land holdings here in the Nebrodi where he had spent many a happy summer as a child.

Francesco has turned one of the farm houses into the Casa Angelone B&B where we stayed that night and is now overseeing the work on the transformation of the other agricultural buildings on the property into an agriturismo.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast with Francesco and his father (he was a visitor there for a few days) and then headed back up the hill to Ceraso' as I couldn't leave the area without asking Signora Vincenza how she had made that pistacchio pesto! At the hotel coffee bar, we tasted her just-baked pistacchio cake and above the espresso machine, I spied jars of her pistacchio pesto - for sale! Che fortuna. I squeezed a few jars into the motorcycle luggage carrier and then went into the kitchen to ask Signora Vincenza how to best use her pesto on pasta. She generously shared with me her culinary prowess (see recipe below).

Randazzo

With pistacchio pesto added to our limited baggage, we mounted the motorcyle and headed off in the direction of Randazzo, just north of the Parco Naturale di Monte Etna and on the southern border of the Nebrodi mountain chain.

Randazzo, medieval town of lavic rock which rests on a prehistoric lavic basin, has eluded many a volcanic eruption in spite of its proximity to Mt. Etna (just 15 km. away), but not the devastating bombings of 1943. In fact, the conquest of Randazzo by the Anglo-American troops signaled the end of the German domination of Sicily. We wandered the town, stopping in to see the Basilica di Santa Maria, noble Norman edifice of the 13th century, restored in the 16th century. On the basilica facade, white limestone sculptural works contrast sharply with the metallic black lava stone in eye-catching fusion.

Novara della Sicilia

A pause in Novara di Sicilia

Back on the motorcycle and on to Novara della Sicilia with majesty all around: the profile of Mt. Etna in the distance and dipping valleys in front of us, surrounded by verdant pastures and mountainsides blanketed with oaks, beeches, almonds, and chestnuts. Climbing, climbing ... on tortuous winding roads to Novara. Characterized by 17th century Baroque architecture which "modernized" the medieval, Novara perches on a limestone outcrop overlooking the valley with vistas that stretch over the hills and gorges right out to the Aeolian islands off the north coast of Sicily.

We arrived in Novara just in time for lunch at Il Pineta, recommended to us by Francesco Borgia. As our host, Giuseppe Gramboi told us the story of how he started the restaurant over 20 years ago, while his wife Marilena prepared for us some of the dishes which have made them famous. Salted pecorino di ricotta (ricotta of sheep's milk - straight from the shepherds) and wild mushrooms of the Nebrodi mountains star in their pasta dishes.

Santa Venerina

From Novara, we headed southeast to the coastline, just south of Taormina, stopping for the night near Santa Venerina in the B&B which Emanuele Scammacca, Barone del Murgo (or simply il baroneto- "little baron" - as his employees affectionately call him), has created from the agricultural buildings of the vast family landholdings, once feudal tracts.

We chatted with the "baronetto" about their grape cultivation and then enjoyed a buffet dinner on the loggia. The fine wines of the Murgo cellars featured at dinner: the Etna Rosso, a blend of the Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Mantellato grapes perfectly accompanied the meal. After dinner, we walked the grounds of the estate, watching the sun drop like a fiery ball into the sea off the eastern coast of Sicily.

We enjoyed breakfast the next day on the terrace near the pool and then made a quick stop at the cellar of the Murgo estates. No room, though, on our motorcycle for their olive oils, wines and .... spumante!

Back to the Coast and Acireale

Destination for the day: the seacoast ... finalmente. The road from Santa Venerina spiraled down towards the sea and we stopped to swim in acquamarine waters just south of Taormina near Stazzo, immortalized by Sicilian author Giovanni Verga: "black reef of basalt rock surrounded by translucent waters".

After a morning in the sea, we headed to Acireale, whose pre-Greek, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine vestiges were largely lost in the late 17th century earthquake. But the city resurrected in Baroque magnificence, thanks to the merchants and nobility. The gargoyles that support the balconies of the town hall are grotesquely delightful and embody the Baroque splendor of the town and the Villa Belvedere offers superb vistas of the lava coastline.

From Acireale, we followed that lavic rock coastline south to Acicastello, which grew up around the astouding black volcanic rock Norman castello, built of basalt covered with encrustation due to an undersea volcanic eruption and perched on a basalt precipice overlooking the sea.. Most likely the castello was built by the Normans on Greek, then Roman, fortifications as its strategic position allowed for control of the sea and all ships heading to the Straits of Messina.

No remains of pre-existing Greek and Roman fortifications exist as they were probably destroyed by the Arabs, but the ancient Greek writers tell us of the naval battles which raged in the seas below the castle. Impossible to imagine such violent naval battles while looking out over the serene sea at sunset from the castle ramparts.

Mt. Etna

NIghtfall meant time to look for lodgings and as we planned to head up to Mt. Etna the next day, we took the road in that direction, stopping for the night near Trecastagni in a most unremarkable hotel with unremarkable food. We decided to make up for it the next day, calculating a lunchtime arrival in Bronte, famous for its cultivation of pistacchio trees.

In the morning, we took a sinuous road through pastures then forests, up towards Mt. Etna. The highest volcano (3,343 meters) in Europe and the most active volcano in the world, the Arabs called the Mt. Etna "Mons-Gebel" or "the mountain of all mountains". Poplar, chestnut and oak forests cover the lower slopes and give way to vast forests of beech towards the peak. The landscape grows ever more desolate and lunar as the round spirals upwards towards the volcano. We stopped often at lookout points with sweeping views down to the fertile plains below and then right out to the sea - a strong contrast to the rocky black volcanic earth on the slopes of the Colossus behind us.

We reached the Rifugio Sapienza (1900 meters) and parked the motorcycle to make the short climb to a minor crater. A contemplative climb, a sobering climb - a sense of insignificance in the face of Nature's power.

Because of the 2002 eruption, the base of this small minor crater is strung with ropes, like a spiderweb, discouraging observers from climbing down into it: the earth is still dangerously hot. Treks and Land Rover trips up to Mt. Etna's summit depart from the Rifugio and visitors keep the information areas, the cafès and gift shops buzzing. Not a raucous group, though, for Etna inspires awe and meditation. One cannot help but feel subdued in the face of the majesty.

Bronte

Lunchtime landed us in Bronte, as planned. Called "la citta' dei pistacchi" (as the sign at the entrance to town reads), Bronte was once part of the feudal landholdings of Admiral Lord Nelson (a gift from King Ferdinando III) and in fact, the descendants still have a castle in the area.

Devastated by Etna's eruptions in the 17th and in early 19th centuries, Bronte perches on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Valle del Simeto, a serene landscape which cancels the memories of past anguish.

We stopped to ask a local policeman about the best place to eat the famous pistacchi di Bronte and somehow, we were able to follow his intricate directions (enhanced with animated gestures) to a modern hotel on the outskirts where the pasta dishes with pistacchio more than made up for the previous night's mediocre dinner. We planned to head back to Palermo later on that day so we tucked additional small jars of pistacchio pesto tucked into our baggage, as well as shelled pistacchios for use in making our own pistacchio pesto.

San Fratello

Cheese in Sicily

We wound our way from Bronte to the north coast of Sicily and stopped at the last "outpost" of the Nebroidis, San Fratello, hoping to buy pecorino direct from a shepherd. We parked the motorcyle and asked the town pharmacist who directed us to a house down an alley way. We knocked and a timid woman opened. She and her son took us to the garage where huge rounds of pecorino cheese were set out carefully. Her son sliced into one - pungent, sharp and filling the mouth with its grandiose flavor. The rounds were huge and wishing we could load up a couple, we settled instead for large pieces of different cheeses. Some more seasoned, some less so, and some made with black peppercorns.

By this time, there was no more room in the motorcycle luggage carrier! We packed in the cheese, fit the pistachio pesto jars into the corners, and transferred our few clothes to a shoulder bag which I propped on my knee for the two-hour ride back to Palermo. Down we spiraled to S. Agata a Militello where we picked up the coastal road west to Palermo, just as the sun sank into the Mediterranean in a red blaze. A glorious end - and not just to the day.

Recipe: Signora Vicenza's Penne al Pistacchio

Assuming you are not able to purchase pistacchio pesto at your local grocery store (!), try this alternative:

Pulverize about 6 oz. of unsalted pistacchios. Mix with olive oil until a paste is formed.

Saute finely-grated white onion (half an onion) until golden in olive oil. Add pistacchio pesto and stir. Raise heat and add about 1/4 cup of brandy. Add 1/2 cup approximately - or more as needed - fresh cream. Add a beef bouillon cube (start with just 1/2 which may be sufficient). Simmmer. Add salt, pepper as needed. Mix into hot pasta. Signora Vincenza does NOT add grated cheese.

Note: Signora Vincenza makes a very laborious beef broth (I cheat with the bouillion cube but the resulting pistacchio pesto sauce is squisito the same). To make Signora's beef broth: braise veal bones (from a butcher, but you won't be able to get the same sort of bones that she does: those of the huge white chianina oxen which graze in the Nebrodi mountains - what flavor!) in oven with onion, celery, carrot and then put the bones in a large pot, add water and fresh carrot, celery, onion and let simmer away on the stove all day! Signora Vicenza adds finely-chopped fresh parsley for about the last 15 minutes of simmering.

Another wonderful pesto: In the area near Trapani, Sicily, basil pesto is made with almonds, not pinenuts.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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