Discovering Sicily: in the shadow of the volcanoes (Part 2)

This half term I’ve headed to Sicily courtesy of Discover the World Education to see what it offers as the potential for school visits and geography teaching – with a bit of volcano climbing along the way! We arrived on Monday evening having flown from Gatwick for the 5 day, 4 night trip. Here is the second instalment…

On Wednesday morning we headed out for the highlight of the trip, Mount Etna. It’s imposing form standing dominant behind Sicily’s second city of Catania (which has felt the might of a number of times since founded in 729 BC) sat stretching up above the clouds as we approached. Driving up to the cable car station you pass a hive of agricultural activity as the ash forms a basis for fertile grounds and the harsher climatic conditions put crops like grapes under just the right amount of ‘stress’ to create the perfect Sicilan wine. You see how vegetation has started to colonise the lava flows giving a continuous record of Etna’s eruptions – with the main activity based round 4 craters at the top, its sides are littered with fissures and dormant craters from one of its previous eruptions.

Arriving at the cable car station is the first sign on this trip of the mass tourism that I expected of a Mediterranean island. Shops, restaurants and fast food outlets surround the car park. The only issue is a distinct lack of toilets and they are right next to the boarding point for the cable car which makes for an interesting queuing system. If you are planning to take a group of students I’d say split them up into groups with one adult to a group and don’t even attempt to queue or get the cable cars all together – just join all your groups back up outside after you disembark the cable cars and before you get on the 4WD vehicles (that can take 26 on board) to the nearest crater to the summit you are allowed to visit (from the 2002 eruption). You can walk from the cable car station but it’s a long way, hard work on the ash and cold and windy – 4WD is much easier and there is still a climb up round the crater to tackle with a mountain guide (there for safety but they do give you some information too).

Words cannot describe the awe and wonder walking round the 2002 crater with the might of the 4 active craters just behind you. The 2002 crater might now be considered relatively inactive but the steam still comes out of sides and when the guide dug less than 6 inches into the ash you could feel the heat coming off the ground – a huge contrast to the strong biting wind! Remember your layers!

After we headed back down Etna via the cable car and coach we went to Tenuta del Gelso, an orange plantation that also owns two vineyards on the sides of Etna, for lunch and a little wine tasting. The food, and wine, was amazing – although (obviously!) you miss that bit out when taking students and instead get to plant orange trees. Listening to how this immense operation is run and the different techniques they use to maximise production and revenue was inspiring given the clear passion they have for what they do – from grafting new citrus plants into established trunks and their door networks to selling oranges by the hectare (ie you come and pick as many as you can for a fixed price).

We left Tenuta del Gelso in the late afternoon and drove back along the Riviera dei Ciclopi stopping off at a couple of points along the way for photographs. The volcanic activity has created dramatic coastal features and the once isolated fishing village are now a thriving tourist area (apparently! But, as with the other tourist areas we’ve seen, they are all now shut for winter!). We arrived back at our hotel for a bit of packing and dinner before we move onto a different hotel tomorrow for our last night in Sicily.

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