Matera & Mt Etna, Italy
Once we had finished our coastal adventures south of Lecce, we made the long drive up to the city of Matera. The landscape was mostly flat, with an abundance of olive trees that reminded us of Greece. Not far from the city was a small caravan park, where we spent the night being unusually social. Parked nearby was a lovely British couple, who we chatted to for most of the afternoon. This the type of interaction we don’t mind having. At the park reception, however, was an Italian man, who it seemed was born to talk. Every time we had a simple enquiry it took us a good 10 minutes to escape his clutches. It didn’t help that he frequently switched between English and Italian, resulting in us not understanding half of what he said. When we finally broke free for the final time, we settled inside the van and didn't dare step foot anywhere near his office. For dinner Danny cooked up pasta and veggies in a local sugo (a rich tomato and herb sauce) that he bought on the street in Lecce. It was beautiful – I can't believe I have never heard of this sauce before.
The next day we drove into Matera, a compact city but also a busy one. We followed the signs to the Information Centre, which turned out to be a travel agent, but they offered us a map and that was all we needed. All we knew about Matera was that it consisted of people that lived in cave dwellings up until the 1950s, when the government was shamed into providing more humane accommodation for the inhabitants. Now the caves have been turned into hotels, cafes, tourist attractions and souvenir shops. We weren't expecting much (how exciting can cave houses be?) but it turned out to be utterly incredible. At various points we glimpsed views over the old city, showing a sea of low, stone bunkers covering the hillside. The scene looked like it came right out of a film set thousands of years ago. One cave/museum showed several movies that have used the town as a backdrop, such as the Passion of the Christ.
We ventured into a couple of reconstructed caves to see how the occupants lived: two or three ”rooms”, basic furniture, no running water or electricity, a fire pit for cooking, and damp, cold conditions. It was rudimentary to say the least. Our exploration also led us an abandoned cave that hadn't been converted into anything. 'Hospitable' and 'homely' were not words that came to mind. Afterwards we checked out a rock church, comprised of hollowed out caves that served as various rooms, each decorated with faded murals. I like unique churches, and this one could definitely be called unique. There were a few tour groups around but thankfully the town wasn't overrun with them. There also weren’t an abundance of souvenir stores to detract from the primitive ambiance. We both agreed that, so far, this was our favourite city in Italy.
The seven hour drive to Sicily was thankfully along motorways, allowing us to avoid the mountains. We arrived at the port just as the sun was setting, from where we caught the very short and very expensive ferry over to the island. On board we had our first Italian arancini, sitting in some sort of flavourful ragout. It was heaven. My list of amazing food in Italy keeps growing and growing.
We thought the driving was bad on mainland Italy, but it was 10 times worse in Sicily. Cars and scooters darted in and out haphazardly, with absolutely no concern for anyone else. It would probably be okay if you were used to it, but we (while driving a big, slow van) were not. I really don't know how we weren't in an accident. We drove halfway up Mt Etna, miraculously unscathed, and parked where the road ended with a few other campervans. It was a pity we were driving in the dark, as heading towards a gigantic volcano would probably have been an impressive sight.
It was bitterly cold the next morning, despite the blue skies overhead. When we emerged from the van we were first met with hazy views over the towns and water below. Once we turned around, though, we came face to face with a huge, black mountain, covered in what looked like mud but was actually completely dry, hard, volcanic rock. This was Mt Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, the beast we were about to climb.
Danny cooked up a pasta lunch to carry with us, expecting the hike to take about eight hours return (according to the guide books). When we spoke to a travel consultant near the start, he said five-to-six hours was more realistic, which relieved us a little. We chose to head off early, while the weather was clear and before the tourists started streaming in.
In the end we didn't have to worry about the crowds – hardly anyone else was stupid enough to walk up the mountain. Most people caught the costly cable car and bus right to the top without dropping an ounce of sweat. Because of this convenience, the path we were on was almost deserted. It was like walking along a dirt track, but on rocks, and it was fairly steep most of the way. A couple of times we tried to take a short cut straight up the volcano, rather than follow the switchbacks. This turned out to be a mistake. Off the well-trodden trail the rocks were so loose that for every two steps we climbed up, we slid back one. It didn’t save us any time or energy. To distract myself from the frustration, I gave my attention to the preponderance of ladybird beetles crawling all over the rocks, doing my best not to step on the cute creatures. I had no idea why they would want to live in such a harsh environment - where did they even get their water and food from?
About halfway up we could finally see the top of Mt Etna, marked by puffs of smoke, giving us some motivation. A couple of hundred metres before our final destination, the path we chose (again, not following the marked trails) went almost vertically up - we couldn't take more than five steps without having to stop and catch our breath. The backwards sliding was relentless, and it took us about half an hour to cover that last 200 metres.
Two and a half hours after starting, we finally made it. My first thought: it was bloody freezing. I had never felt such a cold wind ever in my life. My hands froze instantly, and the rest of my body was quickly following suit. Now that I was up, all I wanted to do was go down again.
Although we weren’t allowed to climb to the actual summit, we did arrive at a crater with sulphurous smoke wafting about. The top wasn’t too far away though, where smoke was pouring out – it was a pity we couldn't get closer to the action. Blanketing the surface were metallic, charcoal-coloured rocks, reflecting as though someone had painted one side with silver paint. Danny thought it was like walking on the moon (like he knows). We wandered around several non-smoky craters, where there wasn’t much to see but we acted like it was fascinating along with all the other tourists. With little to hold our attention and the chilling conditions, it wasn’t long before we commenced our descent.
We reached the bottom in roughly two hours, sliding down most of the way (Lonely Planet: eight hours. Us: four and a half hours). At the base we rewarded ourselves with a strong drink and more arancini, feeling we burned enough calories to justify the treat. We briefly explored the numerous souvenir stores, all selling tacky, overpriced objects made out of volcanic rock. Too exhausted to bother with shopping, we headed back to the van and drove down the mountain.
Our next destination was Syracuse, on the south east coast of Sicily, fighting through heavy traffic to make it before dark. After buying food for dinner we collapsed in the van, not moving for the rest of the night. I'm sure our bodies would feel the pain tomorrow.