of Calabria, Sicily, volcanoes and the Golfo de Squillace

Ch 4: Catania to Le Castella

“Why have you enter-red my Marina without permiission?”, demanded the slight italian man, who materialised at the side of the yacht just as the roast chicken dinner was going onto the table at 11pm last night. “I was calling you by the radio and you ignor-red me”. We apologised, showed him the still-switched on radio, and it seemed the problem was the difference between channels 16 and 14 (14 is for use if you are in trouble!)

OK, it’s true that Rod Heikell’s pilot-bible says the marina should not be entered in darkness, because of the hidden sandbank in the entrance, which moves about twice-daily to trap unwary craft – another of Odysseus’ ordeals before reaching Ithaca and his beloved Penelope…..and we were heading towards Ithaca, more or less!

Last month we had succeeded in avoiding the rocks rained down on Odysseus’ fleet in Bonifacio, Robin had squeezed Voltair between Scylla and Charybdis just last week, and we had evaded the lava-bombs of Etna only yesterday. Last night, we narrowly escaped the “siren song” of max volume karaoke from our neighbours boat, as well as the thumping bass-line from the bar 100m away, so we thought that a little “blind putty-sniffing” should be no problaymo. And so it proved, which is why we were moored on the furthest pontoon from the harbour office (and the music coming from the pizzeria) without any sand on our keel.

Francesco (the Director of the Marina, it turned out) was mortified to find he was interrupting our dinner, and agreed to return around midnight in his car, to take me to the office for registration. He was charm itself, and offered us free use of his fleet of bicycles and wifi to tempt us into staying another day. Perhaps he was “Circe” re-incarnated, who wouldn’t let Odysseus leave her island once she had allowed him to arrive.

Monday (for it was Monday 13th) had been a long day – about as long as they come! We started at 1am to move the yacht away from the Sirens and anchor somewhere quieter, got up at 5:30 after rolling to the wash of the the fishing boats for four hours, and were under way by 6. Etna steamed quietly behind Catania in the foreground, city of lava streets, wide public spaces, ornate eighteenth century churches and lots of graffiti, with the plume of steam and smoke from Etna drifting eastwards right across the sky at 10,000 ft. At sea level there was a gentle breeze from the northern sector. Just enough to justify the presence of the sails, close hauled on port tack, as we made our way towards the high mountains of the toe of Italy. By 11:30 it began to look like we might dispense with Perkins and just sail, but then it veered 45 degrees, and dropped, and by 1pm the sea was a glassy calm.

At lunchtime, George decided he had done enough already, and ceased to steer the vessel for us, and by 4pm we had reached Cabo Spartivento – the southern-most point of mainland Italy, and a good place for a swim! The yacht continued to dawdle eastwards while we took it in turns to jump or dive in, grab the trailing rope, and haul ourselves to the dinghy and thence return to the yacht. After that the remaining 40 miles seemed to pass quite quickly, with a land breeze filling in from the north. The giant chicken we had bought in the market was retrieved from the bottom layer of the fridge, acquainted with the feel of garlic under its skin, dusted with herbs and oil and told to go into the oven and not come out again until we said so. Which brings us back to 11pm and our arrival at Rocella Ionica. (I missed out the bit about the light land breeze blowing up into a force 6 at 10pm, which caught us out somewhat, since we had full sails up, a madly gimballing cooker and a chicken dinner trying to escape to run around the cabin floor).

But we really want to tell you about our Etna Experience of Sunday. I had booked by phone from the departure lounge at Bristol airport the “Classic Etna Tour”, on behalf of all four of Voltair’s crew, and we were not quite sure what it entailed – except you didn’t need high heeled shoes to keep you further away from the hot lava. So Harriet and Marten who had just got in from Holland on Saturday afternoon, and were feeling the heat a bit more than the “old hands”, Graham and JK who had arrived on Thursday evening, walked over to the dock entrance just as the minibus drew up to pick us up at 9am. On the bus already was Dafydd and his dad Gethyn from Cardiff and Fabbio, our gentle giant Sicilian guide for the day. On the outskirts of town we picked up Silke, a slender red-head from Amsterdam, and then we were complete. Gethyn started us off with a cherry-eating competion, english was decided on as the lingua franca (almost outvoted by the dutch), and we were soon on the tangenziale heading towards the higher ground. Before long we came to Milo, a village about 800m up on the east side of the mountain, and a coffee stop. Fabbio bought us all a drink, himself taking a “café freddo con granita d’almondo”. Clearly we should have waited for him to be served, since his cold collation of expresso, crushed ice and almond milk looked really good!

After 30 minutes of driving, we pulled up in a wood of silver birch trees, where the ground was covered with a fine layer of rice-grain sized glassy particles, and Fabbio pulled out from the back of the bus a large sack containing caving helmets and torches, issuing one to each of us. Yes, this was our first visit to a volcano, and we were going underground to find it! A short walk through the woods was punctuated by Fabbio bending down to identify this unique plant or that unusually fragrant herb which was growing in the volcanic particles called “lapilli”, which had rained down into a 20cm thick layer only in 2014, ruining cars and gardens in a 10-mile radius. The ground we were walking on was part of an ancient lava-flow and soon we came to some excavations and went down a steep set of steps, under a low roof (hence the helmets) and into a 2m tall cave, hence the torches. The roof of the cave was non-porous rock, but covered in mini-stalactites. Not formed by water-action, these “dente del cane” – dog’s teeth, were evidence that as the lava-flow had cooled down and the molten layer (beneath our feet) had become shallower, the radiant heat was still great enough to locally melt the roof and cause little dripping stalactites of basalt. We were inside a giant tube of solidified lava, and were able to walk along it 30m or so to another large cavern with steps leading out of it to the surface. Along the way we had passed a circular “chimney” about 1m in diameter with daylight streaming down it.

Fabbio then produced an I-pad from his shoulder bag, and showed us a photo of a painting from the 19th Century, showing us the exact same set of steps we were now looking at, with men with moustaches and Victorian clothing going up and down them. This lava-tube cave had been used as a snow storage ice-house in those days, being packed with snow from both entrances and down the chimney at the end of winter, and unpacked as refrigerating snow-blocks to be taken by mule-train to the rich merchants of Catania in summer – a three day walk away. Remarkable!

“So”, said Fabbio, as we piled back into the bus, “Now we go to work”. Up we went, the road, fringed by yellow bushes of “Etna-broom” passing through lava fields spanning the eruptions of several centuries as we wound our way up to the 2000m level where the road stops and the Etna ski-resort starts. There were plenty of souvenir and postcard kiosks, but we were pretty keen to start walking so off we went along a compacted road across the immense lava-field, past a 30-bedroom hotel which had been destroyed in the 20th century, and past the white skeletons of fir trees whose shallow roots had been burned off, but whose trunks had not combusted. Clumps of vegetation “dagala” punctuated the grey rivers of lava – these were where the flow had solidified without heating the subsurface too much, and beech trees, particularly, with deep roots had survived. After a while we left the road and set off along a much rougher track towards a recent crack in the mountain, which had erupted less than 50 years ago. This crack was several km long, and was punctuated by 12 or so mini-calderas ranging in size from 200m diameter down to 10m diameter. Early in the eruption, these had been flinging molten lava bombs high into the air, where they started to skin-over and solidify, and then came down with a big “splat”. Yes, they are called cow-pat lava, though I didn’t get the Italian for that. Fabbio explained all of these phenomena to us, along with some details of the geology of Etna and its mineralogy. His “day job” had been teaching Geology and specifically Hydrology at the university of Catania, but he had got bored with the sedentary university life and, now having passed 50, decided to be a mountain guide instead. For recreation, he had been the discus-throwing champion of Sicily, so you can imagine his quite squat but very muscular build and his ability to climb loose scree slopes at the same speed at which he walked on the flat.

The summit of Etna at 3300m kept coming and going out of the clouds, and we were probably 1000m below that, but it was a hard enough walk, at least for me. Eventually, having got to the largest of the “new” craters and walked around its edge, we descended again towards the car-park, meeting the road where the giant 20-seater 4 x 4 trucks were periodically grinding past us on their way up to even higher levels.

Lunch came next, a thousand feet lower, in a lovely semi-private restaurant with open-air tables. It was a simple affair, bruschetta with tomato aioli piled high onto the crisp toasts, followed by rigatoni pasta with aubergine and courgette, tomato and cheese of course. But the cheese was a hard ricotta from the south and not hard parmesan from the north. This is Sicily’s signature dish called “pasta norma” and appears on pretty much every menu we saw. Fabbio next produced three 2-litre bottles of mineral water “why should I buy their water, when I bring these from the Etna-spring myself?” and the restaurant brought us a bottle of excellent rose and red wine. The red was a blend of Nero d’Avola and another grape whose name escapes me, but which formed the juice which made the delicious rose without further blending.

Then we were off to another geological spectacular, the gorge on the north side through which the Alcantara river flows. This a 100m deep gorge which narrows to a 10m wide slot in the basalt with the river running through it. The rock formations are remarkable – just like those of Staffa in the Hebrides, and the river is quite cold and not quite deep enough in July to swim down it, without going aground. Silke and JK had a go at that, but the rest of the group stayed on the dry side but easily beat me going up the 220 steps back to the road at the top!

And then a 90-minute trip back to Catania in the Sunday evening rush-to-go-home took us back to docks – Daffyd off to do second year of physics at Edinburgh university, Silke off to Calabria to continue her trip with some friends and Voltair’s crew, after a very uninspiring meal near the cathedral square, back to loud music and hot cabins in the docks.

Full marks to Etna Experience for organising the 11-hour trip and to Fabbio for being such an excellent guide.

Now it’s Tuesday and we are heading across the “Golfo de Squillace” to La Castella – our jump-off point for tomorrow’s trip towards Greece. Do you think half-way across the “Gulf of Squalls” with a thunderstorm to leeward would be a suitable location to get the spinnaker out of it’s bag? I must stop writing and find out.

Best wishes from Graham, Harriet, John and Maarten