Mount Etna

We decided to visit Ivan at the last minute and buy two tickets for the "Virtu Ferry" trip to Sicily the following morning (0700). This means getting up at 0500 and waiting outside the door of your hotel for the bus to arrive and take you to the ferry in Valletta. Now upon reflection, it does seem that more thought should have gone into this, especially when you consider that Etna is one of the most active Volcano's in the world and from time to time has been known to deliver some devastating blows to the surrounding countryside. But we were booked and boarded the ship at about 0630 and settled back into very comfortable seats (Air Canada should take a look at them) and waited for the start of a fresh adventure.

The Virtu-Ferries Catamaran

In November the Catamaran only sails from Valletta to Pozzallo in Sicily and takes about 90 minutes to cover the roughly 90 kilometer trip. This particular morning was warm and the sea placid, so the voyage was without incident, very little swell or roll of the boat. A word about the Catamaran is appropriate because this is one of the most luxurious ferries I have seen. The lower decks hold 65 cars and 10 coaches/trucks, while the top are designed for up to 600 passengers. The forward area is spacious, with large wrap around picture windows and two large HD TV's showing movies on the voyage. There are rows of airline style seats to the port and starboard and the centre has a comfortable lounge area with a snack bar for drinks etc (soft, coffee, and alcoholic). At Pozzallo we boarded luxury coaches and set off toward Etna, still some hours away. Our first stop was for coffee and a croissant at the beach area in the old fishing town of Pozzallo. A small centre with a memorial to the fallen, overgrown with flowers and palms.

Luxury Coach

It seemed that few people here spoke English, but that added to the fun of it all and trying to make the waiter at the cafe understand what we wanted, resulted in finally pointing to the object in the glass case and paying (Euro's). From here we headed out into the country, through row upon row of lemon, olive and orange groves, hills and valleys, all of which makes Sicily a very beautiful country to visit. If you look quickly among the hedgerows as they speed by, you might see the odd concrete bunker poking out from under brambles near a railway line, or standing out obtrusively in an orchard. Suddenly a sign pops up at a T junction in the road and the name Pachino flashes by. July 10th 1943 is when the RCR landed on the beach near Pachino and is now remembered with spaghetti, meat balls and cheap wine in the mess by members of "The RCR". To all but a few these are faded memories, as the coach moves quickly over newly paved roads, in the warm Sicilian sun. I had been through this area years before and could remember seeing Etna for the first time, but I don't think I had really looked at that time, because when it finally came into sight, it was enormous, far larger than I had ever remembered. The words, towers and dominates apply to its position within the landscape. It is literally a mountain of charcoal grey ash and pebbles, capped with a great cloud of steam that creates its own clouds. Standing at well over 3,300 meters it truly is an amazing sight and makes you realize just how insignificant we are. If ever that volcano decided to play its own game, the results would be devastating, yet here and there small villages cluster on its sloping sides, as though seeking refuge from its power. Vineyards grow in the fertile soil and masses of chestnut tree's stand tall along the lower slopes. In fact most of chestnuts North Americans buy for Christmas come from these tree's.

The coach winds its way up the side of the Volcano, with spectacular views of the villages and towns spread out along the way. Small villages with roads barely wide enough for the bus to negotiate. At one point an argument broke out between the driver, our guide and a farmer selling fresh vegetables on the side of the road. He wouldn't move his truck, and they couldn't get by, which resulted in a dozen car horns suddenly breaking into song, along with the shouts back and forth. Now it was no longer the voices of the vendor, the driver and our guide, but other road users and some passers-by, all of whom had an opinion. Eventually the vendor gave way and we continued our journey, with the sound of angry voices still ringing out behind us. 

During the ride, you can see that most of the road and retaining walls have been rebuilt in recent years and there are great mounds of a new lava flow on either side. At one point you can see a convent that was spared during an outburst by Etna, with a huge wall of lava seemingly stopped by what would have been called nothing short of a miracle and an hotel that was not. There is also a small farmhouse at a bend in the road completely encased with only the roof and a dried out tree peering out from beneath a solid block of lava, yet all the time the guide assures you all of how safe it is.

You arrive at the highest point for coaches and regular vehicles and as you start to walk up the fairly steep slope toward the cable car (gondola's) building, your breathing is difficult and you realize for the first time that you are at an altitude of 8,000 feet or more. You purchase your ticket (which I thought expensive at 24 Euro's) and begin the ascent toward the summit. The small cable cars give you a close up view of how Etna has sent its lava streaming down the sides of the mountain in previous years and how the cable car you are riding in, has been destroyed several times and realigned. The day we made this journey was a little hazy, but sunny, so while we had a good view of Sicily, the long distance aspect was slightly obscured. When times are considered safe, you can board large all terrain vehicles, another charge (Tundra type vehicles), and continue to within a 1,000 metres of the actual vent. The day we arrived, the Volcano was far too active and the vehicles and Land Rovers were not running.

Mount Etna the day we were there. Note the cloud formation.
(Click above for larger image)

Etna bus with the cable car in the background

To stand and look toward the vent is really an eye opener, as mentioned, the day we arrived Etna was extremely active and moments after you saw great plumes of steam, with lava and rock being thrown into the air, you heard the boom. Being Canadian meant we didn't really feel the cooler temperature, but you would be advised to wear a light jacket or sweater, at this elevation the air is not only thinner and cleaner, but much cooler. Be sure to take a look at the beautiful blues, golds and reds of coloured crystals embedded in the lave. These are for sale at the top of the gondola ride as well as the bottom, we actually found them to be cheaper at the bottom.

Brilliant blue crystal set in lava

The trip back toward Pozzallo once again takes you through beautiful countryside, with mountains and deep valleys, farms and small villages scattered across the landscape. The roads are for the most part wide and smooth and only in a few spots did we encounter any road works, one being at the entrance to one of the highest bridges in Europe. Here there were steel girders and wire mesh placed for vehicles to use and a drop of several hundred feet if the driver missed his mark.

The next stop was the town of Modica, an ancient city founded in 1300 BC that stands in a picturesque deeply valley and uses what-ever space it can, even climbing the steep slopes on either side. Famed for its chocolate making, we were here for a few hours to enjoy a stroll along the streets of very classy stores or to just sit and watch people go by. We couldn't find any fast food restaurants (what a joy) and as Italians have a pension for enjoying a full evening meal, a few hours doesn't leave much time to just go in, order and be out in a few minutes.

The castle of the Counts of Modica

So we finally found a little cafe and had coffee and a dessert, then sat on some benches near the large traffic circle in the centre of town and watched a female police officer, keep traffic from stopping in the no parking area's. The first we knew of her being in the area was a couple of sharp blasts on a shrill whistle and people running out of stores nearby to get into their cars and leave. She really knew her job and used nothing but hand signals and the whistle, which never left her lips. One driver attempted to argue, but was shouted down by the whistle and a glare, followed by another blast and a hand gesture that could have meant go, or something not quite so polite. I was tempted to film this but thought better of it, not wishing to spend the night in a Sicilian jail.

At the end of the day as we headed back toward Valletta, relaxing in the comfortable cabin of the Catamaran, we reflected upon a most enjoyable trip. We will definitely do it again and would recommend to anyone visiting Malta that they should take the time and book a trip. For the 42 LM you get full value for money and door to door service.

When visiting Europe, we fly
Lufthansa Airlines


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Please visit some old photo's of Malta from the 1950's