Mount Etna, Et Al.
My main activity today was a half-day bus tour to Mount Etna. Yes, that Mount Etna. Yup, it’s still considered an active volcano. And, yes, neurotic, old me went there. (Emphasis on “neurotic.” And on “old,” while we’re at it. The “went there,” on the other hand, solely serves to pad out the sentence.)
Because the bus didn’t leave until 11:30, I had time in the morning to see stuff. Hence, the “et al.” in the title of this post.
In yesterday’s post, I said I put the Catania fish market on the agenda for this morning. I went there, but I didn’t account for one thing.
Today is May 1st. That’s May Day, aka Labour Day (or the local-language variants), in much of the world. I knew this, but because it’s not a thing back home in Canada, it didn’t occur to me to take it into consideration.
A couple of fish mongers and a few vendors selling other goods opened stalls today. But it was far from the bustling fish market the tour book promised.
(Aside: Along the main shopping promenade, which comprises the major part of the route between my hotel and the fish market, the vast majority of the stores opened today. Some, but not many, chose not to. I hate shopping, so whether they opened or not was irrelevant to me. When I travel, I try to do as little of the things I hate as possible.)
The Giardino Bellini (Bellini Garden) is a beautiful park near one end of Catania’s shopping promenade. The park, clinging to the side of a hill and on a couple of plateaus, has lots of trees and statues, a fountain and a reflecting pool, and a tall, attractive gazebo. All-in-all, it’s quite peaceful and appealing.
The park was reasonably well used this morning, considering the day was quite overcast.
The cloud god cast His, Her, or Its gloomy countenance over me all morning. But at least the rain god kept His, Her or Its wrath in check during the morning hours (he said, foreshadowing a part of the afternoon).
The bus I took to Mount Etna is run by a company that also provides hop-on, hop-off tours. They use an earbud-based sound system on the bus to provide a running commentary of the sights while still In Catania, in a language of the listener’s choice. (The company includes free disposable earbuds in the price of the ticket. Then again, almost everything is disposable if you don’t want to keep it. Although, you should be careful how you dispose of, say, nuclear waste if you have any.) So, that was a bonus.
Outside of Catania, the road to Etna climbed steadily.
On the way, the bus stopped in Nicolosi. It’s a working class village of charming proportions. On the other side of the street from where the bus stopped, the “Dolce Vita Café” juts into a small square.
We stopped for only ten minutes in Nicolosi, so I didn’t get to patronize the establishment. However, based on its rundown, uninspired appearance, I suspect that achieving a state of true dolce vita there requires the consumption of non-trivial volumes of alcoholic beverages.
Leaving Nicolosi, the bus continued to drive up the road. Climbing, climbing, climbing.
Mount Etna Park
Upon entering Mount Etna Park, the audio commentary resumed. The narration included descriptions of Mount Etna, its history, and discussions of volcanic processes in general.
Part of the commentary told me that, when it explodes, Etna’s energy is greater than that of a nuclear bomb. And Etna can throw boulders larger than cars a great distance. Yikes.
The recorded narrator also said that by reading a collection of measurements, including emitted gasses and ground movement, among others, scientists can predict an eruption 30 days in advance. He didn’t mention anything about the tour company using that information to decide whether to cancel tours. Yikes, yikes, yikes.
When we got up quite a ways, the driver pulled off in a strategically situated turnout. There, he suggested we could get out for a few minutes to look at and take pictures of a destroyed small house in a volcanic crater. I got out. I looked. And I took a picture. Who am I to not do what the driver suggests? I’m Canadian. I fear that the Government of Canada will seize my passport if I ruin Canadians’ reputations by not being polite. (Fear #1,562 on my list of fears.)
Then we continued our course upward. Ever upward, upward, upward.
BSG Plays a Weak Hand
On the way up, the blue sky god (BSG) scored brief, small victories over the cloud god. However, I think that was less due to the power of BSG and more to do with us ascending closer to the upper reaches of the cloud god’s jagged, sometimes (but not today) ephemeral realm. Consequently, BSG didn’t have to tunnel as far through the cloud god’s domain to show us glimpses of BSG’s dominion.
That’s my theory. Others may have other theories. They are wrong. If you don’t believe my theory, take it up with BSG. He, She, or It is the final arbiter of these things. So it is written (now).
At the apex of our journey, we reached 2,000 metres above sea level. There, we stopped for two and a half hours before heading back. The road-vehicle accessible plateau at that level holds a cluster of undistinguished and slightly rundown snack bars, souvenir shops, a vendor that offers hiking tours, and a vendor that offers tours on single-person, four-wheeled motor bikes.
The plateau is also the starting point for a cable car (like a gondola ski lift, not like a San Francisco cable car) that takes people higher. The top of mount Etna is 3,357 metres above sea level. The cable car rises to 2,500 metres.
The cable car costs €50 per person. When the driver told us this in Italian and English, he felt the need to repeat it a few times. And, lest people thought he said €15, not €50, he also felt the need to say “five,” while holding up all fingers on one hand, and “zero,” while forming a circle with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand.
The driver also told us there is something else at the top that takes the total to €78 if you choose that option. However, I couldn’t make out what he said.
By the time we reached the plateau, BSG had again thoroughly lost the battle. Clouds filled the sky.
When I got off the bus, I asked the driver if he thought the cable car was worth it on a day like this. He said he didn’t know, but they have a live cam from the top displayed on a screen at the ticket booth down below so I could judge for myself.
I went to the ticket booth. I looked at the screen. On it, I saw what I can best describe as fog with a ghostly outline of something I couldn’t identify. I decided to not spend the €50. All but a couple of people from the bus made the same decision.
Instead, I went to one of the characterless snack bars for a pasta lunch, with a small fruit salad, and a glass of wine. The meal entirely lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Entirely. As one might expect in a nondescript, not terribly well maintained snack bar in a tourist trap.
The Gods Must Be Angry
By the time I finished lunch, the fog god, a more grounded relative of the cloud god, engulfed the plateau with His, Her or Its murk. Nevertheless, I planned to take a free, self-guided 500-metre walk to a volcano crater, hoping that the fog wouldn’t further thicken to the point where I couldn’t find my way back to the bus.
I planned to do that, but the rain god changed my mind. At first, the rain god’s efforts were lackluster. He, She or It initially mustered little more than a gentle shower, in fact, not much more than a heavy mist.
Then, the rain god briefly showed that He, She or It can be a vengeful god. But, fortunately, the rain god’s fury was brief. He, She or It soon returned to feeble, if any, efforts.
I foiled the rain god’s will with the trusty umbrella I brought with me on the journey, and by tactically ducking under a canopy when the rain was at its worst.
When the rain god ended His, Her, or Its display, the fog god, proved that He, She or It can dominate them all if He, She, or It so chose.
I was at a spot where I knew I wasn’t particularly far from where the bus was parked. But the fog totally obscured it. It’s a big bus. A big, bright, red bus. The fog was so thick that I might not have been able to see molten lava when it fell upon me if Mount Etna exploded. Then again, who wants to see that happen?
(Those of you who are thinking, “I’d definitely love to see that, as long as it’s you and not me it happens to,” please leave this journal immediately and don’t come back.)
Fortunately, I still had an hour to find the bus and figure out what I could do beyond try, and fail, to gaze at my totally obscured surroundings.
I temporarily gave up on my plan to try to walk to the crater. My thinking was that the couple of metres of fog my eyes could penetrate at the crater wouldn’t look much different than the couple of metres of fog my eyes could penetrate in the parking lot.
I hoped the fog would clear. It didn’t entirely. But the fog god lightened His, Her or Its veil slightly. However, not enough such that I could see all that much farther ahead of me.
Eventually, I permanently gave up on the idea of a walk to the crater. Instead, I went into another snack bar for an espresso and the snack bar’s weak attempt at a pastry.
Etna remains shrouded in mystery for me.
A couple of minutes before the bus was scheduled to return to Catania, the fog dissipated enough that I likely could have walked to the crater without getting lost or falling off an unseen cliff. But there wasn’t enough time.
Just as I sat down in the bus, the sun god managed to force some of His, Her or Its rays to just barely pierce the cloud god’s still sky-filling gloom. But that didn’t last even until the bus pulled out of the parking lot.
Shortly after the bus did pull out of the parking lot, BSG pried open a very small, blue patch as a farewell. But that, too, did not last long.
The Journey Ends
To slowly bring this post to a conclusion, it’s clear that many of the gods did not smile on me today. BSG and the sun god gave Their best efforts to brighten my day, but Their victories were exceptionally brief and very far from complete.
Had I known before I bought the bus tour ticket yesterday that the weather would be so scenery-obscuring, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Heck, if I’d known before I boarded the bus, I probably wouldn’t have boarded. Instead, I likely would have written off the cost of the ticket as a bad investment and wandered around Catania some more. Its old town has a lot of charm. And it is growing on me. But that might just be mold or other fungi that’s taken hold due to the current dampness.
On the other hand, on the walk back to my hotel from the bus, people out for strolls jam-packed Catania’s shopping promenade. It’s a long, wide promenade. It takes a lot of people to jam-pack it. I guess that’s what people do on May Day here. They stroll on the shopping promenade. If the whole city was that crowded, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it that much had I stayed in town today.
Getting back to the gods, the bright side is that the god Who could have done real damage, the volcano god, did not play a hand on Mount Etna, at least not today. May the volcano god be praised.
The next stop on this trip, a trip with now less than a week to run, is also close to Mount Etna. Despite not planning a trip to the volcano from there, it is close enough that the volcano god could probably make my life miserable from that distance. Again, if you have an in with the volcano god, please put in a good word for me.
But, close though I may be, the weather forecast for the almost two days I’ll spend at my next stop is for pretty well nonstop rain. So, unless the forecast turns out to be wrong, if I want to see views of Mount Etna I’ll probably have to settle for other people’s pictures of it. May the cloud, rain and fog gods have mercy on my soul and prove the forecasters wrong. And why shouldn’t They? What have the heathen forecasters ever done for Them?
And so concludes another episode of, “My Mazel!”
Ha! You had a lot of gods there playing the slot machines and you thought you would join in but you lost all your slugs. Laughing, they are. Saw you coming, they did. Nonetheless, even if you didn’t see the volcano, you KNOW that you were there, and of course we have the proof. If we could make it out through the fog. So, actually, those old snack shacks and destroyed house could have been anywhere, couldn’t they?
It looks like you had a lovely time in the garden in the morning though, and really, how much dead fish were you hoping to see? So not a bad day. To risk repeating a sentiment I expressed before: better fog than ash obscuring your view, so consider it a win.