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Sicily 2012 - Back again!

Sunday 3rd June - East Midlands to Catania

Two Winster cavers, in desperate need of a holiday, left a wet and miserable England at an unearthly hour this morning to fly to their favourite volcano. They were delighted to find on their arrival that the weather on Etna was, quite simply, stunning. A quick unintentional tour around Catania and off we went to Hotel Corsaro. The weather was too good to waste, but we had neither the time nor the energy to head to the top - so we headed straight out to the Schiena dell' Asino to take a look at Etna's new baby. Wow, she is truly a 'growing girl'.

That evening we met with some old friends, and plans were soon hatched for tomorrow's adventure.

Monday 4th June - lava caves, old friends, new friends.

It would seem that the hotel is brimming with "special guests" at the moment, and arrangements were soon made to all meet up in the evening. So with some fairly miserable weather imminent, the two Winster Cavers, Helmut and Gerhild set off down the hill for a day exploring the area near Rifugio Citelli, and some of the nearby lava caves including the Grotta di Serracozza.

An excellent and entertaining day of furtling around was rounded off with a social gathering of fellow Etna-philes... good food, good wine, good company.

Tuesday 5th June - will she, or won't she?

It has to be said, that when it comes to seeing volcanic eruptions on Etna, the Winster Cavers seem to have been pretty lucky in the past. It would appear that others are hopeful that we'll be sparking off a nice "touristic" eruption too, but so far only the somewhat vicious wind is breaking the scerenity of the mountainside.

Not really fancying a day in a dust-storm, and with the promise of perfect weather tomorrow, we did a longer-than-expected walk around the Monte Intraleo area... glorious sunshine, but strong wind.  This evening we rest, as early(ish) tomorrow we plan to head to the 2900m mark to take a closer look at the new south-east crater... and to sit and enjoy the eruption that we're all waiting for? :-)

Wednesday 6th June - The Full Monte - topping out on Etna

The wind had, as predicted, dropped overnight, and today promised perfect weather. Thus there was really no other option - to the top it had to be. Made the most of the expensive 'solo andate' on the funivia and slogged up the next 400m of ascent along the jeep track, to join another couple of Etnaphiles up at the Torre del Filosofo to embark on the ascent to the Bocca Nuova. No words can ever describe the magical, terrifying essence of this place. You'll just have to wait for the photos... After a picnic at the top, we descended via the ash slopes and skirted around to take a look at Etna's new baby, who is rapidly approaching the size of 'mamma'. Left our friends there and returned via Monte Montagnola, one of our favourite descent routes, with awesome views over the Valle del Bove. A fantastic and exhausting day, rounded off nicely with a social evening with Hotel Corsaro's other 6 'special guests'.

Thursday 7th June - Fond farewells and onward travel - from Monte Etna to Castelbuono

It's always an emotional time leaving Hotel Corsaro, and this time was no exception. We've met up with friends old and new, who all share a passion and respect for this very special volcano, and saying goodbye today was a bittersweet experience. We drove North via Bronte and Cesaro, with incredible views of Etna as we headed into the hills, and then through the heart of the Nebrodi mountains to lovely San Fratello, where we had stunning views of Santa Agata di Militello and beyond to the Aeolian islands before reaching Castelbuono via the coast road. We're staying in the turret of a 'castello' here and it's absolutely great!

Friday 8th June - Chilling out in Castelbuono

The Winster Cavers need an easy day, and so we're having one! Lazy breakfast in the courtyard of the castle, and making music under the shady, old oak trees in hammockland whilst the sun shines in a clear blue sky..... perfect....

The evening was spent ambling through the narrow and rather picturesque cobbled streets of Castelbuono, sampling the delights on offer - limoncello, pesto di mandorla, pizza...

Tomorrow we hope for a reasonably early start so we can get out walking before the heat of the day.

Saturday 9th June - hot, hot, HOT!

The threatened early start didn't happen, so by the time we reached Rifugio Crispi high above Castelbuono it was gone 11:00am, and by the time we had donned walking boots and set off, the sun was most certainly shining!

We climbed through delightful old woodland of oak and beech, reaching a viewpoint looking East. From here, one could see down to the coast, and across to Etna, dominating the distant horizon. No obvious signs of our eruption yet!

Thankfully we'd plotted a route with various options to it, and as the searing heat started to take its toll we (unuslualy for us) decided not to overcook it, and took the shorter loop back to Rifugio Crispi.

Sunday 10th June - Pizzo topping and piglets galore

OK, we couldn't resist a hike to the top of Pizzo Carbonara, at 1,979m Sicily's highest peak after Mount Etna. Last time we'd topped out on this limestone giant from Piano Battaglia, a much easier walk, but this time we set out from the Rifugio Crispi above San Guglielmo. A perfect blue sky awaited us, and much cooler conditions than yesterday. All seemed to go swimmingly well - pleasant ascents through the woods, where wild pigs were furtling about, and awesome views down to the coast, East to Mount Etna, and North to the shimmering Aeolians........ then the limestone peaks and dolines of the Carbonara ridge, with snow still visible in hollows here and there. From the top we struck out along an initially well-marked ridge of truly grand proportions, disturbing a rather splendid large snake en-route but the path eventually dwindled to nothing and we were reliant upon taking a bearing (and heading East towards Etna) until we picked up another marked path, with more pigs snuffling about in the woods. A detour at the end of the walk to see some magnificent ancient holly trees, and back to the car - think after today we won't be walking into town for a beer tonight!

Monday 11th June - Cefalu and its Rocca

Stopping off on-route to pick up a few litres of "vino locale", we drove down the hill and along the coast to the popular resort of Cefalu. The town centre was a vibrant mix of interesting shops, bars and restaurants - with the Duomo making a striking centre-piece.

Overlooking the town is the impressive, castello-topped "Rocca" - a limestone outcrop some 270m high. We ambled along the narrow streets, taking in the sights, the smells, the noise, some 'granite' and some arancini as we did so, before climbing the Rocca in the full heat of the day.

The Rocca has to be the highlight of Cefalu - a mighty natural defense, beefed up with Byzantine fortifications. And the views from the top were excellent!

Tuesday 12th June - Monte Dei Cervi

A route picked from the Cicerone walking guide to Sicily, we headed off from Piano Colla, along a forestry-style track through marvellous limestone scenery, and into dense beech woodland. Looking back we had superb views of the Madonie's high point, Monte Carbonara, and our excursion of a few days ago.

We paused at an alpine meadow for a brief lunch-stop, before climbing to the top of Monte Dei Cervi. From the summit approach, the views have to be amongst the best in the Madonie - the huge "Carbonara" limestone massif dominating the skyline with a mix of rounded karst domes, and jagged ridges. And Monte Dei Cervi lived up to its name - the Mountain of the Deer did, indeed, have plenty of deer. Our return route took us through yet more beautiful woodland - an excellent walk - highly recommended.

Wednesday 13th June - Monte Grotto Grande

Well with a name like that, what Winster Caver could resist? And with slightly cloudy sky and fresher air, it seemed an ideal day for another walk up a big hill. But as we approached our start point, it soon became apparent that a slight change of plan was required. For at the start of the Isnello to Grateri road was a small group of people standing around a rally car, and dotted along the road were signs saying that parking was "devieto" today - rally practice was clearly more important than our walk!

Engaging "Plan B", we drove back to Isnello and went to climb Monte Grotto Grande from the other side. A steady climb up a slightly uninspiring jeep track reached a col, and as we climbed, views across the Madonie and out to sea opened up. We continued towards Monte Grotto Grande, to find that our path had climbed well above the "summit" cross. Not wishing to lose altitude only to have to regain it, we enjoyed the views down to Isnello, before heading back down the way we had climbed.

Tomorrow we move on. If we've understood correctly, our next accommodation has the cheek to charge 5Euro a day for WiFi. Come on guys... 5 Euro? You can buy 5 litres of wine for that! The blog will get written, but may not get uploaded until sensibly priced Internet access is restored.

Thursday 14th June - Due Castelli e una Spiaggia

With today destined to be a travelling day, we deemed it a good opportunity to visit the Castello at Castelbuono and its huge museum of modern art. Definitely worth the EUR4 entry fee; an interesting blend of ancient and modern, and all achieved before the tour bus hordes arrived! Having scored a winner there, we moved on to the hidden gem of Pollina, a short hop away, perched precariously on a hilltop with every teetering house seemingly to rely on its neighbour to support it. Had a good wander around the ruined castello there, with unbelievable views of Cefalu, Palermo, Isnello, Castelbuono and the Aeolian islands, before moving on again to St Stefano for lunch and then heading up to our next stop at San Cataldo, almost on top of the scenic Alcantara gorge.

Friday 15th June - Francavilla and the Alcantara river

Feeling in need of a more relaxing day, we first bimbled around Francavilla's market to buy fruit and cheese for lunch before climbing the steep path up towards the ruined castello. Another remarkable ruin, again somehow balanced against all odds on a near vertical crag, with dizzying views down to the Alcantara river and nearby towns such as pretty Motta Camastra, itself wedged firmly (ish) onto another awesome rock outcrop.

We then descended to follow the lovely 'sentiero natura' around and along the Alcantara river, finding ourselves a peaceful riverside picnic spot close to twin waterfalls for lunch. Tonight we're taking it easy too - there's a bottle of Prosecco chilling nicely in the fridge as we write!

Saturday 16th June - Malvagna to Punto Casteluzzi.

Having managed an almost-early start, we set out from Piazza Roma in Malvagna to do part of a walk inspired by the Rother Walking guide to Sicily. After a short walk through the town, we were soon on the slightly-overgrown 'sentiero natura' that climbed steeply behind the town.

As the sun beat down we made hot and slow progress up the 500m climb - our reward being unbroken views of Etna, steaming gently in the distance. A tantalisingly short distance from the summit, progress was impaired by a large herd of goats and some rather angry sounding dogs(!) so we returned, as planned, the same way as we ascended, content that actually, we had probably had the best views already.

Tomorrow we return home, and thus concludes another two weeks of hiking in Sicily. This was our second visit without an eruption on Mount Etna... this could seriously damage the reputation of two Winster Cavers!