Sicily: the Island of Snow and Fire

Our journey back to Palermo to return our hired car and to catch our flight to Pisa took place on one of the most beautiful days I have encountered and through marvellously Arcadian landscapes.  In January Sicily is at its greenest;

it is hard to imagine that by the torrid summer much of the island will be almost desert-like.

The first part of our journey took us past Mount Etna. It’s such a majestic volcano, crowned with perennial snows at its summit and yet almost constantly in eruption.

In fact at this very moment Etna has continued its fiery activities since August.

I remember as child staying on the top floor flat of my uncle and making out the red-hot vision of the crater. Almost as important as the weather was the topic ‘what is Monticello (the local name for Etna) doing today?’ Unlike Vesuvius, which explodes infrequently but violently (as in the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD; the last major Vesuvian eruption was in 1944) Etna is more courteous to its human neighbours and lava rarely flows as far as the city of Catania although it has swallowed villages higher up. Eventually, however, the solidified lava crumbles leaving a fertile soil which produces the finest horticulture one could wish for. I remember visiting the orchards of my Uncle’s family doctor and being stunned by the lush vegetation and the abundance of fichi d’India (prickly pears).

Etna originated around two million years ago during the Quaternary era and at 10,912 feet high it is the tallest terrestrial active volcano of the Eurasian tectonic plate. My cousin was part-author of a Club Alpino Italiano book on the volcanic caves of Etna a geological feature I have yet to explore.

Europe’s most southernly glacier, in one of Mount Etna’s volcanic caves (Courtesy Catania University)

We met with more snow-capped mountains driving past the Nebrodi hills which rise to a height exceeding six thousand feet.

Our final Sicilian stop was at the coastal town of Cefalù with its magnificent cathedral-basilica dating back to 1131.

The apse is crowned by glorious mosaics in the characteristic Sicilian-byzantine style. The intention was to continue the mosaic decoration in the nave as happened at Monreale. I found however, that the mosaics were emphasised in their majesty by the approach via the almost bare nave.

As Goethe wrote in his ‘Italian Journey’: ‘Our visit to Sicily is now happily completed and will for me be an indestructible treasure for my whole life’. I could not agree more!

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