Mt Etna, Sicily: Volcanic Adventures
We celebrated my birthday in Sicily this past summer, too. What memories of a “volcanic” birthday in Sicily years ago.
Here is the note I wrote then:
Sicily: Volcanic Adventures September 2006
I’ve been celebrating my end-of-August birthdays on volcanoes recently – “explosive” moments! 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 3 – 4 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.
I celebrated my fiftieth 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 t-shirt and windbreakers (though we started the climb in the heat at 6 pm) and 1-1/2 liters of water. We drank every drop while making the 5-6 hour climb (our guide permitted us only three 2-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 (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, wreathed 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 5:30 a.m. 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.
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 m high and last August, we rented a room in the home of 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.
This August, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to Mt. Etna. We left Palermo on Pino’s motorcycle, heading east along the seacoast and then south through the Madonie mountain range and then 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 c 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 backdropped by blue sky of clear intensity. Wide-angle-lens, never-ending pastoral vistas and Mt. Etna, off in the distance, had now become the indisputable protagonist of the stunning landscapes… and on we road, deeper into the Nebrodi range.
We arrived in Cesaró at nightfall and stopped at the first little hotel 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 pistachio pesto (nearby Bronte is famous for its pistachio production). I nearly swooned over the ravioli with pistacchio pesto and stuffed with crushed pistachios 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 pistachio 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 family endeavor!?!).
After dinner: 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 Cerasó, 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 farmhouses 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 (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 pistachio pesto! At the hotel coffee bar, we tasted her just-baked pistachio cake and above the espresso machine, I spied jars of her pistachio 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 – and her pistacchio pesto recipe!
With pistachio 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 façade, white limestone sculptural works contrast sharply with the metallic black lava stone in eye-catching fusion.
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, 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.
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. Naturalmente, 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!
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.
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 pistachio trees.
In the morning, we took a sinuous road through pastures then forests, up towards Mt. Etna. The highest (3,343 m) volcano 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 m) 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 at all, though, for Etna inspires awe and meditation. One cannot help but feel subdued in the face of the majesty.
Lunchtime landed us in Bronte, as planned. Called “la città 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 pistachio more than made up for the previous night’s mediocre dinner. We planned to head home to Palermo later on that day so we tucked additional small jars of pistachio pesto tucked into our baggage – as well as shelled pistachios for use in making our own pistachio pesto.
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 alleyway. 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 2-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.
Signora Vincenza’s PENNE AL PISTACCHIO
Assuming you are not able to purchase pistachio pesto at your local grocery store (!), try this alternative:
Pulverize about 6 oz. of unsalted pistachios. Mix with olive oil til a paste is formed.
Sauté finely-grated white onion (half of onion) til golden in olive oil. Add pistachio pesto and stir. Raise heat and add about 1/4 c of brandy. Add 1/2 c approximately – or more as needed – fresh cream. Add beef bouillon cube – start with just 1/2 (may be sufficient). Simmer. Add salt, pepper as needed.
Mix into hot pasta. Signora Vincenza does NOT add grated cheese.
N.B. Signora Vincenza makes a very laborious beef broth (I cheat with the bouillion cube but the resulting pistachio 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.)