We wake up to a clear, warm, beautiful day. Calabria (the "toe" of Italy's "boot") looks as if it's just a few miles away (it's 20 or so). If we had to choose whether today or yesterday should be storming, yesterday was, by far, the best choice. After breakfast, we're on our way to Mount Etna.
Other than the clouds that the mountain generates for itself, the sky is quite clear, and visibility is excellent.
As the bus starts climbing the mountain's south side, we go through a couple of towns. One of them shows evidence of earthquake damage (severe damage, in many cases) in perhaps half the homes. The church facade is being held together by a massive steel exoskeleton. Homes show cracks, and concrete block construction has been exposed after the masonry sheathing has been shivered to the ground. And yet, life goes on...
Higher on the mountain, we pass through stands of chestnut trees, chock full of the spikey nuts. We see old men, young men, families with kids, out among the trees, collecting chestnuts.
Black lava rock shows through in more and more places, as we climb. The surface lava is very rough. In places where it's been blasted or otherwise cut away, to make way for the road, you can see large, thick sheets of the stuff. Sheets are, perhaps, 2 or 3 feet thick. Grass grows on some older flows. Trees (including chestnuts) grow on the much older stuff. Etna is nearly 11,000 feet tall, but we're only going to the 6,000 foot level. With a car, you can go higher. Or, from this level, if you have the time, you can grab a funivia much higher.
Unfortunately, we haven't the time for either the funivia or much hiking. We descend into a small (100 foot wide by 50 foot deep) crater called Sylvestre, where we find -- of all things -- ladybugs. Big ladybird beetles, all over the place. Why are they here? I don't know. I thought ladybugs eat small insects, such as aphids. Perhaps there are really tiny insects there, and we can't see them. Or perhaps they like some mineral in the lava ash. Oh yes, up here, there's not so much lava rock as there is soil. The grains are generally bigger than sand, but smaller than pebbles. There are a few fist-sized (and larger) lava rocks strewn about, of various colors -- mostly reddish, orange, brown, black. There's no evidence of current volcanic activity anywhere within sight. The lava flow we observed from Taormina would be on the east face of the mountain, and we are at the south face -- though probably at approximately the same altitude.
I'm really bummed that we won't see any volcanic activity, or climb higher on the mountain. Oh, well.
After a 45 minute stop at Sylvestre crater, the bus takes us 300 feet (why use the bus?!) to another area where we can buy souvenirs. Huh? 20 minutes here. I kill time by sampling some of the honey concoctions they're trying to sell. I try almond, hazelnut, pistachio, peach, strawberry, whole hazelnuts and almonds, lemon, and even balsamic. (Balsamic honey is NOT good eats!) We buy one each of the lemon, peach, and hazelnut. Why? WHY?! It must be the altitude and frustration...
Then we board the bus for another 300 foot trip (??!?!?!?) to a restaurant. Robin recommends eating in the sit-down restaurant upstairs, rather than the sandwich place downstairs. Everyone takes the suggestion. The waiter comes to the table, stands next to me, and says, "Sorry?" I should have taken that as an omen. I order an Antipasto Siciliana; Macaroni with cheese and tomato sauce; and a bottle of acqua gassata (€14.50). Chris and Jane, sharing our table, order a three-cheese plate and some wine. Mike and Diana, also at this table, order macaroni, a salad, iced tea, and a water. The drinks are served within 5 minutes, along with some bread... 20 minutes later, the macaroni plate is served to Brigid and Mike. It's doughy and dull. ...and 20 minutes later, nothing else has changed, other than the heat under our collars.
Most other members of our group have been served. Most people who came in after we ordered have been served. Paola and Enzo have made inquiries. How long can it take to prepare a salad and a couple of cold antipasto plates, one of which contains nothing more than THREE PIECES OF CHEESE?
Another 5 minutes, and the salad and cheese plate arrive. Another 5 minutes and my antipasto plate arrives (1 slice salami, some pickled vegetables, a few fennel-flavored olives (very nice!), a piece of hard cheese with peppercorns, a piece of softer cheese that's been smoked, a strip of prosciutto). I like the cheeses, especially the smoked one. And I really dig the fennel-flavored olives. Worth waiting 50 minutes for? _____ no!
Meanwhile, it turns that that Ken and Duncan have not been served, either. In fact, by the time we're all finished, they STILL haven't been served, nearly 60 minutes after ordering (a salad and a couple of omelets -- how long does THAT take?!). More intercession by Enzo and Paola (Robin's italian is apparently not nearly as fluent as Paola's), and they are served.
Lunch has consumed something like 90 minutes.
Taken all together, I would have much rather that we had been offered the option to pack a bag lunch, been dropped off at the bottom of the funivia, and taken the 2 1/2 hour trip up to actually see something of Mount Etna, rather than having wasted so much time poking around an empty, dead crater, boarding and deboarding a bus for trips no longer than a city-block -- twice, tasting flavored honeys, and trying to figure out how to ask a waiter in italian, "Where the ____ is our overpriced food?"
And we're back on the bus, working our way down the mountain. Along the way, we see a home that has been engulfed in a lava flow (when? looks like within the last 20 years, but we have no way of knowing).
We're heading to the north coast of Sicily (which I finally learn is pronounced sih CHEEL ya), to another resort town, Cefalu (cheh fah LOO). This is yet another town that's been inhabited since the 5th century BC. Its occupants have included the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, etc. The dominating features of this town are La Rocca, a huge rock that stands above the town -- the heavily deteriorated ruins of a Norman castle are parked atop the rock; and a rather fortress-like Norman church.
Four hours later (after an AutoStrada stop, where I find another bag of my fave new cookie, Mulino Bianco Tenerezze Caffe), we're in town. We're staying at the Rive del Sole, a hotel right across the street from a beautiful beach.
We are told to allow the hotel staff to deliver our bags to our rooms. Now, I have TWO problems with this. First, this is an ETBD tour: We should all be ready and able to carry our own bags. I don't like this trend in the Rick Steves tours -- more about this later, perhaps. Second, and more to the point, I can see our bags, and I can trivially pick them up and bring them to our room. That would allow us to make the best use of our time, right away (such as starting on this journal, or changing clothes, or...) without waiting for someone else to bring the bags, 15 minutes later. This is not a convenience for me, it's an imposition ON me. Brigid insists that Robin wants to establish a certain relationship with the hotel and staff, and that by grabbing my bags, I'm interfering. Frankly, that's just not my problem, but I acceed to Brigid's wishes, and I stop sneaking our bags to the room. Instead, I do a slow burn, while sitting in the room, unable to do anything until the stuff I need has been brought to me. Feh!
We walk over to the restaurant for this evening's meal at La Botte.
Once again, wine and water are included. [This is convenient, but again, I have to wonder whether it's a great idea. It's certainly easier for everyone this way, but there's a cost.]
We skip straight to the first course, penne in an eggplant, mushroom, and tomato sauce. This stuff is truly wonderful, and I could make a meal of it. In fact, I take some more, when the waiter offers it to me. It's very close to being as good as Brigid's eggplant-tomato sauce.
The second (and final) course is some kind of thin, white fish filet (sole?) that has been breaded and fried. It's fresh and piping hot on my plate. Alongside is a small salad with lettuce, radiccio, and tomato, in a (slightly salty) vinaigrette.
Robin takes us on an extremely brief orientation walk, pointing out the church, the ATM, the path to La Rocca, and the Internet cafes (both of which are wine bars!). We end the tour at a gelateria (I get a cup of pistachio and Cefalu, which turns out to be a strawberry/orange granite; Brigid gets a cone with pistachio and mango -- which doesn't taste anything like mango to me!).
Finally, we return to the hotel and regroup on the roof, for a little game. On the bus, Robin passed out paper slips and asked everyone to write down 3 unusual things they've done. We then proceed to play "What's My Line". This was fun, and we learned a few interesting things about fellow tour members...
It's late, and we're going to climb La Rocca tomorrow.