Of course, there is something about Sicily that captures everyone’s curiosity. Her legacy is intertwined with the war-torn and historical backgrounds, mighty volcano, Mt. Etna, and the Sicilian Mafia mobsters. Mafia, the violent criminal organization, has deep connection to Sicily, and Sicilian life.
A view of the City of Messina
After an uneventful overnight sailing we reached Messina, a city on the Sicily’s Ionian Coast, in the wee hours of the morning. Messina is a major gateway to other Mediterranean islands.
Sicily is one of the autonomous regions of Italy located in the central Mediterranean Sea. Strait of Messina separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. It enjoys dry, hot summers, mild winters, and rain in between. Her culture is rich with literature, foods, art, architecture, and music influenced by many external countries. As many European nations occupied the land, they all contributed to the unique heritage of Sicily.
Strait of Messina
Spectacular sceneries including promontories, pristine beaches, highlands, winding highways, and roadways, orange, lemon, pistachio, and olive groves are enticing.
Messina is Sicily’s third-largest city. For centuries, the city had struggled with deaths and destruction due to earthquakes (1783, 1894), tsunami (1908), and WWII Allied air bombardments (1943). It took many years of reconstruction to bring back the city to its current state. The city of Messina is prone to earthquakes as it is situated between the European and the African tectonic plates.
Port of Messina
Like many places in the region, Messina had various foreign influences (as they invaded and occupied Sicily for extended periods of time) on everything from culture, art, cuisine, and architecture. It has elegant historic buildings built with various medieval architectural styles. Messina has monuments, museums, cathedrals that represent several different architectural styles such as Arab, Phoenicians French, and Spanish.
Port of Messina is the largest natural port in the Mediterranean Sea. Freight and cruise ships sail to and from near and faraway places making it a valuable port. The population is Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has its base in Messina since 1548. The University of Messina was founded in 1548 by Ignatius of Loyola.
Port of Messina-Stele of the Madonnina del Porto
In the middle of the harbour, there is a 35-meter-tall octagonal stele of the Madonnina del Porto that blesses all ships entering the port. Madonna della Lettera (Our Lady of the Letter) is the patron of the port and the city. The Latin words on the base of the monument proclaims, “I bless you and the city”.
Sicily’s Ionian Coast offers spectacular beeches, hill-top villages, rugged uplands, natural woodlands, remarkable gorges, luscious vegetation, many old towns, beachside and ski resorts, historic churches, and castles. Greek, Roman, Etruscan, medieval and Arabic architecture influence is seen everywhere.
Sicily has a thousand kilometers of coastline. There are beeches, orchards, hills, and valleys. Her diverse scenery is highly enjoyable.
Sicily’s Ionian Coastline
Housing settlement on the mountain slope
Mt. Etna, Europe's most active volcano, is Sicily’s major tourist attraction. Mt Etna is about an hour’s drive from the seaport. Mt Etna is on the east coast of Sicily between the cities of Messina and Catania. On clear days, it can be seen from afar, as it dominates the landscape of eastern Sicily. Like Messina, Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, is also found in the shadow of Etna. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
We started our bus journey from the cruise port of Messina towards Sapienza Refuge, elevation of 1910 m, the endpoint for automobiles. It is the closest point to the crater, Silvestri Crateri.
At a distance we could see the ‘smoking’ volcano. There are many myths about Mt Etna. Ancient Greeks thought it was the land of Vulcan, the Italian god of fire. There were legends on Hephaestus’ workshop, the Cyclops and about the giant Typhon that was trapped by Zeus under this mountain. The myth says that the earth shook as the giant moved around.
A village in the foothills of Mt Etna
Mt. Etna is one of the most monitored volcanos, the history of the eruptions and volcanic activities are well recorded, in the world. The 1381 eruption sent a lava flow to about 16 kilometers to the Ionian Sea. Another violent eruption in 1969 produce about 830 million cubic meters of lava. There were volcanic activities again in 2001, 2007, 2015, and 2017, but with less impact. During a few eruptions lava flow destroyed small villages on the mountain slopes.
Mt Etna belongs to the stratovolcano family, also known as a composite volcano, is characterized by a steep profile and with craters called calderas. The lava from this type of volcano doesn’t travel far as it hardens easily due to its high viscosity. Etna is 3,329 m high and has a basal circumference of 140 km. Mt. Etna is an active, unpredictable, and ever-changing volcano. Over the years, it has erupted many times causing deaths and destruction.
The Mt. Etna area is a large nature reserve. Through winding roads, quaint villages, windswept landscapes, citrus groves, and black and barren lava rock filled terrains, our bus climbed the steep and hilly areas with ease. The vast barren lava river paths on the mountain sides formed by the old eruptions looked like lunar landscapes.
We were excited to travel through the mesmerizing country sides, colourful Italian villages, farmlands, and along the foothills of the famed volcano. Several densely populated settlements, notably the city of Catania, are found on the lower slopes. About a million people live on the slopes of Mt. Etna, and many millions in the surrounding coastlines.
There are three distinct eco regions in the Mt Etna area. Large lower areas of Mt. Etna region are fertile and rich dedicated for growing grapes for wine production, olives, apples, chestnuts, hazelnuts, limes, lemons, and oranges. Large mammals roamed the Mt Etna area once upon a time, but now foxes, martens, wild cats, rabbits, peregrines, and golden eagles are common.
In certain areas, high up in the mountain, there are lava-carved caves, and huge volcanic calderas are found. Non-agricultural areas up in the slopes of the mountain has forests of chestnut, beech, oak, pine, and birch. The mountain peaks are covered with ashes, dried up lava sand and rocks. During the winter, there are ski areas available for ski enthusiasts.
Town of Zafferana at the foothills of Mt. Etna
We passed through the town of town of Zafferana before arriving at the Rifugio Sapienza, a kind of basecamp. From here we can walk, about 20-minutes, to the volcanic crater, the Silvestri Crateri formed in 1893. Also, there are cable cars and jeeps available to go towards the summit.
A Mountain home
Vehicular traffic ends here at Rifugio Sapienza
Mountain pathways to the Crater
There are other means to visit Mt. Etna. There is a train from Borgo metro station in Catania that takes about three hours to circle the mountain. There are also Jeep tours to the mountain available from Catania and other neighboring towns.
There is a unique phenomenon associated with Mt Etna: it occasionally blows ‘smoke rings’ like a self-indulged smoker. The first recording of such an event was in 2014. The size of the smoke ring was the ring was about 50 meters in diameter. Unfortunately, we didn’t get an opportunity to witness such a rare event!
After an exciting, and exhausting day our courteous, and efficient driver took us safely through the winding and narrow roads via the slopes of Mt Etna to our cruise ship.We have been to other exciting volcanic regions, including the drive-through Qualibou (place of death) volcano in the beautiful island of St. Lucia. We saw the bubbling mess of mud-steam-mineral mixture spewing and running down in streams.
Also, in the Yellowstone National Park through many geothermal active areas, steaming pools, hissing, whistling fumaroles, bubbling mudpots, hot springs, steam vents, and grand geysers. However, Mt. Etna is different: it looks high, and mighty. You do not want to miss the awesomeness.