By Chris Raven
Sicily, the largest of the beautiful Italian islands, has a rich Phoenician and Arab ancestry and rivals Greece for ancient Greek architecture (The Valley of the Temples). It is famous for the Mafia (Cosa Nostra and the Coppola), tasty desserts (cassata), the Sonnet, sea monsters, Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele – the largest opera house in Italy, great street food (arancini – Sicilian rice balls with a choice of meat or bacon, new-wave of wine-growers, Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ and skiing down a volcano (Mt Etna).
Our Mission: To drive up Mt Etna on the island of Sicily to Refugio Sapienza, elevation 6,500 feet.
Vehicle: Rover 214 GSi, silver, bought for $500 in cash on eBay. Assembled at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham, UK, 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 Something Happened On The Way To Heaven 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 are comfy, music comes out of the radio, it has an electric sunroof, electric windows, and the brakes work, which is important, the engine looks like a proper engine and all of the four wheels roll. What more do we need?
Zipping through the protest-free streets of Reggio de Calabria – a town on the heel of Italy and home to the ‘Ndrangheta criminal organization’, we skid onto the docks and purchase a ticket for the last ferry to Messina. With more staff than passengers aboard the vessel, we step out onto the deck and watch the sunset paint glorious flames across the Sicilian sky. Boats bound for Malta are silhouetted in the distance and to our right we can see Mt Etna and a trail of smoke bellowing out of the crater and streaking above the ocean in the direction of the mainland. Nothing is going to stop us from driving up the highest volcano in Europe (10,922ft) and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Maybe we are both being a couple of unrealistic clowns with a laissez-faire attitude. I mean, Mt Etna has already blown its top five months before, and 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. Was she about to blow again? 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.
After spending the night at a service station on the E45 outside the city of Messina, we hit the road at the crack of dawn and head south along the coast towards the Mt Etna National Park. I still cannot believe our Rover has made it all the way to Sicily. Driving at 55 mph for 2,000 km has certainly paid off despite the unnecessary road rage 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 pass through the charming and historic hillside town of Taromina (Sicily’s Monte Carlo) and one of the island’s main tourist resorts. It is still relatively early in the morning, and the hoards of package tourists and holiday makers have yet to arrive in the historic centre. Ditching the Rover down a side street, we grab our cameras and wander 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 peer through the windows of the many souvenir shops, ice cream parlours, sweet-smelling boutique hotels and expensive restaurants with swordfish on the menu. Drinking fresh mountain water from an ornate fountain, we head back along the coastal road with dramatic views of the ocean.
Making a pit stop in the busy little seaside town of Giardini Naxos, we devour a bag of enormous peaches bursting with Sicilian sunshine (the best I have ever tasted), before continuing south to the town of Fiumefreddo di Sicilia. Leaving the coast, we zig-zag through the countryside and pass citrus groves, orchards of lemons and figs, vineyards, farms, forests and quiet villages. Reaching Linguaglossa, a pretty town that sits in the shadow of the volcano and, rather bizarrely, on a large tongue of lava with its rich production of wine grapes, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts and cattle breeding. We turn south and head for Zafferani and arrive at the perimeter of the Mt Etna National Park. The green forest landscape begins to disappear and is replaced by barren black volcanic stone called sciara. The Rover is running smoothly and the engine is purring like an old lioness. We are over 3,000 metres in altitude and we both gaze up at the towering volcano with smoke bellowing from its cater. What is the worst that can happen I think to myself? OK, so we are driving an old Rover with dodgy tracking and we have absolutely no survival equipment and zero knowledge of volcanoes. But so what? People have crossed deserts and oceans without the knowledge of, uh, sand or water. We are explorers goddammit! Two men on a mission with nothing to lose. Then, to our amazement, a convoy of motor homes fly past followed by a small fiat with a pensioner sat hunched over the wheel. I turn to Si. “If they can do it, so can we!” Suddenly, the cigarette lighter explodes giving us both a hell of a fright. Thankfully, this minor explosion hasn’t distracted us from what we have come here to do; the challenge we have set out to achieve and the adventurous story to tell people in front of the open fire in the years’ to come. We feel 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 slam my foot down on the accelerator pedal and we zoom up the volcano. Well, when I say zoom, I mean, we go a little faster. A rugged fox with a beautiful fluffy tail runs across the road and looks at us with its penetrating eyes. The landscape is now completely barren black rock at an elevation of 6,500 feet. We are nearly at Refugio Sapienza. What will it be like up there? Smoking craters? Red hot lava? A snap shot from 230 million years ago during the Triassic period? We follow the road around a bend, but sadly our illusions of being surrounded by spewing lava and dinosaurs are trashed when we are presented with a really big car park full of cars, RV’s, and tour coaches. There are even restaurants, souvenir shops and a hotel. We grab a ticket from the parking machine and buy a coffee in a bustling cafe. Despite the shock of arriving at a busy car park, we both begin to absorb our surroundings and soon discover there is a cable car and 4×4 Jeep rides to the crater another 1,000 meters up. Si suggests we ski down it. Now that sounds fun! It has been a wonderful adventure, but there is more to come. Whipping my phone out of my pocket I glance down at the map of Sicily and point to Palermo. When you are on a road trip you have the freedom to go wherever you want to go, and we like that.