October 2022: The island of Sicily has been on my bucket list for a while. I have wanted to see the highest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna and learn more about the island made famous by the movie Godfather and its mafia history.

About Siciliy

 

 

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is part of Italy but is semi-autonomous.  Even though it is part of Italy, it has its own unique culture and history, and the Sicilian language is still spoke by some. Sicily has been heavily influenced throughout history by the Greeks, Romans, Moors, and even the Normans. The 2nd largest city of the island, Catania is shadowed by the active volcano Mount Etna that has a history of erupting and terrorizing the surrounding villages and cities. What I like about the Sicily the best is all of the abandoned old buildings that are so common. The decay of these buildings has a certain timeless charm to them, and I love to explore them. So many young people are leaving the countryside for the cities that these buildings have been left to wither and die. There are so many abandoned farmhouses and village houses that the government is even selling them for 1$ to anyone who will invest a minimum amount of money into them in order to restore them. Sicily has endless small roads through the countryside that will take you to ancient villages with incredible food and wine and aside from some crazy Sicilian drivers, you will share these roads with few other foreigners especially outside of the summer season.

Map of Sicily 

To reach Sicily, my wife and mother-in-law flew to Catania, Sicily from Nice, France via Palermo. We arrived late in the evening and picked up our rental car a miniature manual transmission Fiat car and had to drive an hour to the medieval hilltop village of Castiglia de Sicily where we spent the night in a small guesthouse on with our own private patio overlooking the village and Mount Etna. Driving in a new country especially in the beginning when you are adjusting to the new rules, new car and other drivers is always a challenge and Sicily was no exception. I quickly discovered Sicilians like to drive fast and impatiently. They will whip around blind corners at a blazing speed even in narrow village one-way roads and they love to tail gate. All I can ever do is my best to ignore others and to drive safely. Being ignorant of the driving norms can be embarrassing at times and when we pulled up to a toll booth that only accepted coins, which we did not have we found ourselves confined between the closed toll gate and the line of vehicles waiting behind us. There was no one in the toll booth and all I could do was waive my arm up in the air hoping someone would come to my assistance and the driver of the car behind me did. He very impatiently paid the coin for us and blurted out in broken Sicilian English, “you go now.” 

Then when we finally arrived in the medieval village, a maze of narrow one lane roads-some too narrow for cars we were warned, our GPS went haywire, something we found to be common in Europe and we had to call the guesthouse at 11pm at night and ask for directions. A very stern elderly lady scolded us for not following her emailed directions but explained that she will repeat them for us. We eventually found the guesthouse and set off for bed before our early morning departure to climb Mount Etna to a cluster of lava caves. 

Castiglia de Siciliy

Castiglia de Sicilia is a medieval small hilltop village of old crumbling buildings and churches that meets your vision of a fairytale Sicilian village. When we first approached from the distance, I know right away we picked the perfect place to base ourselves during our two-night stay in Sicily. It is full of abandoned buildings and doesn’t have a commercialized tourist feel to it at all. You are more likely to see old Sicilian men at a cafe arguing about politics than you are another tourist. There are a few small local eateries with great food, and it is a great place to relax and explore.

Castiglia de Siciliy 

View of Mount Etna from Our Room’s balcony 

Smoking Mount Etna Looming Over Castiglia De Sicilia in Morning

Winding Streets of Castiglia de Sicilia

Old Abandoned Church just outside of Castiglia de Siciliy

A church siting on the hilltop of Castiglia de Siciliy

Mount Etna Lava Caves

Mount Etna at 11,000 ‘ is a monster that dominates the Lanscape of western Sicily. It has been revered since ancient times and it deserves the respect it is given. All settlements that lie beneath it do so at the mercy of the volcano. On multiple occasions it has erupted and decimated the villages and cities beneath it. I wanted to have at least one day on the volcano, and I found some beautiful looking lava caves that required a long hike through the ancient forests and lava fields of the volcano. This seemed like the ideal way to visit the Etna and to make sure that the hike would be safe for my mother-in-law I hired local guide-which wasn’t absolutely necessary, but I hired him anyways as a precaution.

A building destroyed by lava from 1981 eruption just before town of Randazzo

The hike was absolutely beautiful and this one of my favorite days of the trip. We started out in the village of Randazzo, an old town that was spared by only a mile from a recent eruption that sent a lava flow to its doorstep. We purchased some sandwiches at a local shop, and we drove up a way via a small road to the parking lot at the trailhead. From there we walked 3-4 hours up to the lava caves, slowly exploring the ancient old growth forests of gnarled oak and cedar trees and the lava fields that were dotted with craters some of unknown depths and potentially a place of future eruptions. We didn’t go to the summit because the top is currently closed due to unsafe activity, but it didn’t matter because our hike ws amazing. Aside from a few rangers tending to the forest, we were the only hikers on the volcano, and we had the trails and caves to ourselves. Even though the hike went through some pretty wild landscapes we didn’t see much wildlife other than a few birds. However, there are wild donkeys, and they own the trails and do not take kindly to sharing their territory with intruders especially the mother donkeys with younglings. On a few occasions, we had to back away from a mother donkey that approached ready for battle.

Young donkey with its protectove mother to the side

Forests of Etnas Northern Slopes

Forests of Etnas Northern Slopes

Paula admiring the nature of Etna

Autumn on Etna

The flanks of Mount Etna are either forest or lava fields. The lava fields range in age depending on what eruption they came from because there have been so many eruptions and the older lava fields have more vegetation on them as nature slowly begins to renew itself.

Paula standing above a small crater

Town of Randazzo Below the lava fields from the 1981 eruption that almost destoyed the town 

We reached the lava caves at approx. 6000′ after 3 hours of hiking almost straight up. There are many lava caves on the mountain, and many are sealed below the ground undiscovered it is believed. One cave further up has a glacier inside of it and I really wanted to do this cave, but it involved a full day of hiking that some in my party might object to. The cave we explored extended for about 3/4 of a mile underground and had multiple openings in the ceiling that allowed sunlight to penetrate the darkness creating small areas of life inside the cave. We saved our sandwiches for inside the cave and had a surreal lunch in the solace of Mount Etnas lava caves.

Paula in the lava cave

Huge lava cave

Paula posing for me

One of the openings in the ceiling allowing sunlight to pierce the caves darkness

We finished our Etna trek around 5pm and had gelato at a restaurant in Randazzo. Then we drove back to Castiglia de Sicily and had dinner and wine at a small traditional eatery near our guesthouse located at the top of the Hilltown. After dinner we walked the old cobblestoned streets imagining the history of the little town among its crumbling facades. 

Driving Around Mount Etna to Adrano

We slept in for the first time on the trip and had a relaxing breakfast. The day was forecasted for rain and the forecast didn’t lie. My plan to drive a few hours to a 2000-year-old Greek necropolis on the south end of the island and do a lot of hiking but this plan was foiled by the rain so instead we decided to drive slowly around Mount Etna visiting the small villages in its fray. We ended up spending the afternoon in the old medieval city of Adrano, where we walked along its old churches, and drove to the hilltop in town where a Norman era tower stands overlooking the city with sweeping views of the church domes below and Mount Etna in the distance. Also on the hilltop was an old creepy cemetery with abandoned tombs that like the bodies inside were decaying and in the process of being removed by father time.

Village made of lava rock

Adrano Town

Norman Castle in Adrano

Tomn in Adrano

Adrano Crypts

Abandoned Farmhouses

On our way to the airport for our evening flight to Malta, I caught a glimpse of an abandoned farmhouse in an olive tree grove. Without hesitation, I whipped off the road and left the car in park while I raced off to explore the farmhouse. I live for moments like these. The building looked beautiful, and I wanted badly to get to it before the sunset. I had to hop a few walls, and fences and trudge across field but I arrived, and the beautiful old building was not in good shape. I’m not sure how old it was but it appeared to be from as old if not older than the 1800’s and there was a lot of beauty that remained in its old state of decay.

Abandoned Farmhouse

Abandoned Farmhouse Interior

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