Apologies for the reduced posts last week folks - it's just that I've experienced the worst two Wifi connections since I've been travelling. As such, I'll incorporate two consecutive (but very different) days into one mighty Catania-based post as that is where I now am. Take your time over this one and (hopefully) enjoy the read.
So after a very memorable and unforgettable week in Palermo, I departed in the direction of Catania - the second biggest city in Sicily located on the far east of the island. Despite being the smaller of the cities, the airport here sees more volume of traffic than its equivalent in Palermo does.
If you've heard of Catania before, it might be related to its terribly turbulent past with earthquakes and and volcanic eruptions from the not-so-far away Mount Etna.
Visiting this city was always going to be something I'd have done but I wasn't necessarily going to leave today until fella from my hostel, an Australian- Sicilian named Daniel who I'd met just the day before, said he was planning on leaving today and strongly suggested leaving together. So be it and that's what happened.
Regular viewers will know that I've had incredibly good fortune luck over these last six months in just about every aspect related to my travels. To be fair though, a lot of well-thought out planning and decision making goes on behind the scenes when I'm not spending the time writing to your good-selves.
So here's how the day turned out after I followed someone else's plan and not my own...
With bus and train departures available, we went with train option (which to be fair had been recommended by some locals so no issue with that decision). This would get us to Catania in 2.75 hours. However, only too-aware there was a storm last night I say to Daniel at breakfast:
'D'you think it'll be all right on the train line following the storm last night?'
'Yeh, it'll be fine' he responds in that typically cool and phased Australian manner.
'Shouldn't we book a hostel?' I said somewhat cautiously as we were leaving in just a couple of hours time.
'Nah, it's end of season now, we should be fine'.
Both would not be fine.
The first image below shows the location between Palermo to Catania. Envisage then the fairly straight line through the countryside you would expect and then see the second image that shows our GPS position at one point during the trip. You've heard of A to B via C - now try A to B via Z!!!
Why? Oh, that's cos we had to get off the train an hour into the journey and catch a bus to then catch another train to our final destination. It was both tedious and laborious and we eventually arrived 5.5 hours later via two trains and a bus. Good call Danny-boy, good call.
Having finally arrived, we walked for twenty minutes to get to the hostel only to be told they were full. I was suitably unimpressed by now but we fortunately managed to find a second hostel and it's there we're both currently staying. I managed to wrangle a 4 bed dorm where as Daniel is in the 10 bed. Punishment for his bad decision making in my eyes :-)
It gets worse though as this hostel has singularly the worst Wifi I've had in six months! Now, not only is that bad as I can't blog when I want, but also because it's preventing me not being able to put in sufficient research in on what to do in this big city.
So with both of us having no idea what to do, Daniel makes his third slightly suspect suggestion the morning after the day before. In his defence, it sounded somewhat well-reasoned - even if it was for something that I'd managed to avoid entirely since my travels began.
Behold a big red bus and then a big bronzed man - Daniele Trumino.
Yes folks, I've now endured one of those blasted tourist buses which, let's be honest, are designed for either elderly or less able people - or just the downright lazy. Agreed? No qualms with the first two but when you sit amongst some plump, middle-aged Americans, well it can't get any more cliché can it.
Get this - within 15 minutes we had genuinely swapped bus three times!
'Don't let it get to you, just expect it as being typically Sicilian' says my forever relaxed travel companion.
There's more though - the audio guide was in Italian, not English. Also to augment my suffering, I watched in silent agony as my fellow bus tourists 'happy-snapped' at practically everything that came into their vision. If they weren't photo-snapping, they were video recording helplessly and the more speed the bus picked up, the worse their footage got. Distressing for me but definitive proof we really do all see things differently and have massively varying standards of what we think is good enough to show others back home. Or maybe that's the point, many of us just don't think.
As such, the first image is how I look just 15 minutes into the journey having switched buses 3 times already.
The second image is 15 minutes into the return journey back. Quite a difference huh.
Now what could possibly rescue this dire situation and cause such a joyous change in reaction?
Alcohol (and food) of course :-)
The 'tour' was really awful so effectively we paid 15 euros for transport to find somewhere to eat. However, I'm happy to report that the big Australian-Sicilian finally made a good decision as the place he gambled on for lunch ranked right on up there as one of my most enjoyable meals I've eaten on my travels.
So that's a litre of wine, 4 antipasti dishes, (chopped Octopus, fried sardines, some fried potato-based balls and an unappealing dish of anchovies). This was then followed with a pasta dish each, (Spaghetti Marinara) and either Swordfish or fried Calamari as main course. God I love Italy...
All of this with plenty of bread for 20 euros each. Great meal at a very decent price - discounting the fact that I had just paid 35 euros in total for a bus ride and some food. Definitely a 'one-off'.
Oh, one further thing to mention relating to the food. Having purposefully avoided the anchovies, Daniel requested that I try one having noticed I had neglected this dish. The problem was that I don't typically eat anchovies and these ones were, well, somewhat different to fried ones you get or even the cooked ones you can see on pizzas. These mini fishes were caught only yesterday in the sea we were currently over overlooking - although that's not the point I want to emphasise.
But this is: these were RAW ANCHOVIES!
As in, they slice open the fish and pull out the backbone and guts, effectively filleting it and then they season it and serve it 'as is' and that's what I was now about to eat. (Feeling a little queasy yet folks?) :-)
Don't worry, no slightly unsettling images to follow although in hindsight I wish I'd have taken some.
And did I enjoy the lightly seasoned raw anchovies? I can't believe I'm saying this but 'You betcha' - I really did and subsequently, I thoroughly them recommend folks. I wish now I'd taken a close-up of them but unfortunately I didn't.
Needless to say I took an afternoon siesta, and then a couple of beers in the evening before a moderately early night in preparation for the big one tomorrow....
'Tomorrow' had now arrived, destination: MOUNT ETNA. I would endeavour to climb Europe's largest active volcano on my own as Daniel was getting a Sicilian-themed tattoo. This was preferable for me really being the SOLO traveller I am.
My alarm woke me at 06.55am and I arrived back to the hostel at 18:25pm. A super long, exhausting but fulfilling day. More on this later but I can tell you that forget all other past and recent treks, nothing comes close to today.
Due to the terrible Wifi I made sure before I went to bed last night that I sought the knowledge and experience of travellers within the hostel who indeed were able to give me the sound advice I was after. Now I had confirmation the trek could be accomplished without a tour and so I got in as many details and tips n tricks as I could.
Tours to ETNA are advertised all over the city of Catania (as you would expect) typically ranging from 39 to 75 euros.
Wait till you hear the overall price of my entire ETNA day out later on.
From what I understood, the local bus service offers only one departure time to the mountain and one departure time back at 16:30. As such I caught the 08:15 with a bus full of people from the main station. It would take 75 minutes to get out of the central Catania to the starting point on the mountain where the tours and hikes effectively begin. It was interesting observing the drop in temperature during the bus journey having starting at 20 degrees and when I exited the bus, 13 degrees. Mind you we were already something like 1900 meters high by now.
Below shows half of the large area filled with excursion outlets, restaurants and tourist shops. The opposing side is pretty much the same. Regarding the excursions, basically you pay for usage of the cable car and then a shuttle bus to take you to the highest point of ETNA that tourists are permitted to go.
I followed what looked to be a path to ascend the mountain (no obvious signs) and within a few minutes I was fairly sure this was the start of the path; the start of the hike; the start of God knows what lied ahead of me. I promptly observed there appeared to be two paths; the first directly following the route underneath the cable car and another longer, more twisty but less steep route. I took the latter as you would need much better bones, joints and knees than I have to tackle the direct path. If you're a fit person, you should definitely choose the direct route.
Up to this point I observed no more than 15 people on the same trek I was on which surprised me but there will have been other people doing the direct hike. It was a bit foggy up to here so no stunning images of the view back down so these will have to do:
Here I am coping well 30 minutes into my trek and currently at around 2200 meters high.
After 75 minutes I'd reached the cable car drop off point - the point I had once naively thought was the final stage - especially as I couldn't see beyond this point for entire last hour. Ha, if only. I would soon discover than I had walked just half of the distance. Now 75 minutes of walking might not sound a lot but the gradient so far was already 500 meters in elevation to reach this point!
So from having seen literally 15 or so people on my walk, here is a very small portion of the people already up here courtesy of the cable car now wanting to reach the top via the bus:
Out of curiosity I enquired as to how much the five minute shuttle bus ride would cost for transportation to the reach the next and final point of the trek. I almost choked at the 18 euros quote and proceeded to climb the next stage with a similarly small minority of people. A glance up now revealed several peaks that looked like they were in the direction of where the many shuttle buses were heading. At this point I almost laughed it off in disbelief not fully appreciating or accepting that is where I was heading - but it was - and there were another 500 meters to climb.
Immediately I noticed a difference in terrain. Up here it looked more like Martian territory - not that I've been to Mars but I have seen images courtesy of Nasa.
Oh, incidentally, any guesses on what insect was most prevalent throughout the entire mountain trek? I'll answer later on...
The different terrain was about to get a whole lot steeper and a whole lot more challenging. Consequently this second half of the trek alone was really tough for me and the hardest climb I've ever done in my life. For a lot of it, I was stopping every 30 seconds to catch breath and to give my legs some light rest. I was pleased to see others needing the same momentary rest but equally, there were those that could seemingly continue, slowly, without requiring as many stops.
Somehow though I made it to the top most point permitted and if I wasn't so exhausted, I'd have been emotional.
This, then, is me at nearly 3000 meters high somewhat worn out and battered by the wind - as you can see :-)
Amusingly though I soon discovered there was an easy way to distinguish between the people who took the cable car + bus to those who walked. Any ideas?
Perhaps unsurprisingly all the trekkers want to do upon reaching the crater is to sit, relax and eat - appreciative of their recent accomplishment. Conversely the rest of the tourists are of course now eager to walk and so they circle the perimeter of the big, empty void. That's of course all there is to do up here at the top!
In the second photo particularly you can see them all following each other along the outer edges; like a colony of ants.
As for me, I couldn't give two hoots about walking the crater and instead I also sat and ate but I use the term 'ate' loosely. This is what happens when you plan a trek to Etna at short notice.
Not good but thankfully I made it without passing out!
Another reason why walking up here was so fulfilling was because the alternative didn't in anyway compare. Think about it, the vast, vast majority of people would spend in excess of 60 euros for a full excursion which basically means spending a little bit of time wandering the perimeter of the top. Oh, and it includes a bus and a cable car!
In saying that, you've gotta hand it to these companies who profit purely from the ignorance of others. Granted in some cases it won't be possible for people to walk and so you have little choice and in that regard, what else an you do? I completely empathise with that if reaching the top is what you want to do.
Once I sat and 'ate', I rested for a bit and managed to take a selfie which allowed me to test that my fingers were still working and not completely frost-bitten.
I later learnt that you can actually go higher (and see lava) but it is compulsory to have a guide for this and of course, you'll have to pay. Something to remember though if you're thinking of making this trek.
For the journey back I managed to wipe off 30 minutes from the time I took ascending and so I completed the downward route in just under two hours. With aching legs this made the trek back down unconformable at times rather than difficult and when I reached the point where I started, I smiled to myself and proceeded to find a bench to just rest until the bus came an hour or so later. Interesting to observe exhaustion conquered hunger although the first thing I did when I returned to the hostel was eat having literally had a croissant, cake and 2 small bottles of water in the last 12 hours.
If you're wandering why I didn't eat at the half way point, they were charging too much for sub-standard food and I wasn't prepared to pay it. There's that hardened a little stubborn 'you ain't conning me' attitude again.
Oh, speaking of money, I haven't as yet mentioned how much today cost me. Let's say the average excursion tourist paid 45 euros and ate at the half way point, we're taking mid 50 euros minimum. Others will have paid more.
I paid 6.60 for a return bus ride and that was for everything. I'll leave you with that thought and urge you to always look into finding your own routes and not rely on the simple, expensive tourist option.
Thanks for reading folks, feel free to drop me a comment if you made from the start of this post to the end.
And now for me? Time to head further south down this beautiful island I think...
Top tips: Take food and water. Sounds obvious but do so and make time to prepare for this unlike me. If you have flexibility during your trip, choose what looks to be a good day (weather wise) to go. I've explained that you don't need to book anything in advance so you can even choose to go 'on the day' which is pretty much what I did. Take warm clothing in your rucksack although these can be light items such as wind-proof trousers and raincoat or if you prefer, wear long bottoms and a top from the very start. Have suitable footwear with decent grip and bring gloves too and perhaps something to keep your head warm as it is really windy the higher you climb. If you go on your own, bring some music and headphones.
If you want to trek but don't fancy the full on 4.5 hour walk, consider walking the first half and take the 18 euro bus to the top. That way you'll have had the best of both worlds. That's it then, you're now all set. Enjoy, it'll be memorable I promise...
PS - Lady birds were by far the most common insect on the mountain.