We awoke on the mountain, breakfasted, and drove down the road a little to the start of a walking track we had planned.
We were met with quite open, grassy terrain, dotted with autumnal birch trees, and the bald grey hills of ex-craters poking out. And the faint smell of sulphur (not, as it turned out, Nettle’s grey water tank).
We were following the track around one such hill and heard an incomprehensible call coming from atop the hill; We spotted a man walking along the slope, and figured he was calling his dog. Then he called again — “op-lop!” — Oh, it was directed at us! We stopped and greeted him. Clearly a photography enthusiast, he told us there was a great view from up the hill, and a rainbow was out.
It was tempting, but we ended up talking instead — he lived locally, and the hiking club he was a member of were having a gathering up at a refuge hut on the mountain; he was on his way there, and amazingly, invited us along. Thrilled, we accepted, and walked with him onwards. His name was Nuccio, and Mount Etna was his passion: He came up the mountain regularly, hiking and exploring the ever-changing landscape, and was a volunteer ‘tourist rescuer’ when visitors got themselves into trouble, a regular occurrence given the changeability of the weather up there. When he wasn’t involved in volcano-related activities, he worked as a doctor.
He told us he was exploring the area before the club gathering to see if there were any changes after some tremors and explosions that had happened the night before — a fact we found a tad frustrating, given that we had spent the night on the volcano and had seen and felt nothing! We were in the wrong place to witness it, apparently, but maybe next time.
So Nuccio led us up to the hut, making sure at each point we were familiar with the way back (caution no doubt born of experience with people getting lost). Along the way he pointed out trees with fishbone-like scars on their trunks; the sap, he told us, used to be harvested from the trees by making diagonal cuts in the trunk. It was a good asthma remedy, apparently.
The club were gathering to celebrate St Martin’s day, an event he described as being associated here with the ‘last summer’, the final day of fair weather for the year.
We arrived at the hut, and Nuccio co-ordinated to have us join the festivities. That sorted, he settled into his tour guide role, and took us along with five or six others on a walk around. He showed us a mysterious tube of solidified lava, and revealed that it was what was left over when a tree was swallowed by a lava flow, and then rotted away to nothing after the lava cooled. He took us to an ancient river bed, at least a million years old apparently, which was interesting given that it lay on the side of a very active volcano for all of those years.
We met up with another group who were also out walking, and some introductions were made. Then, Nuccio led us on up a hillside slippery with scree, and pointed out the rainbow that was behind us, and the lava fields beyond it where the 2001 eruption destroyed the Piano Provenzana ski resort; we could just see a speck which Nuccio told us was the roof of what was once a hotel, poking out above the lava.
So, well and truly awed with Nuccio’s tour-guide skills, and thrilled to be able to benefit from them, we followed the group back to the hut and joined the larger group there in the dim warmth, smelling pleasantly of wood-smoke, an open fire burning cheerily in the corner fireplace. We milled around — a vast number of the people there had cousins in Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland…this place has some serious links with Australia!
What followed was a feast of epic (or should I say Sicilian?) proportions. Everything, down to the olives, cheese and wine, was home-made/grown/raised; a quite normal practice here, but we were immeasurably impressed, not least because it was all just fantastic. I’m a vegetarian, but I made an exception just this once; it was hard to feel too bad about it, given the down-to-earth nature of the food we were having — it doesn’t get more organic and free-range than that. One of the dishes, tasty crumbed and grilled meat on skewers, was wild pig that is a local pest, and is hunted by the locals!
Nuccio engaged us in a game of gastronomic chicken, bringing more and more food over, plonking it on our plates and racing off before we had a chance to make him stop — or issuing us with dire warnings that our most gracious hosts would be most upset if we were to be seen not to be enjoying the local fare. It all ended up on my plate, of course, so it was with a very, very full belly that I eventually admitted defeat. You win this time, Nuccio!
All up, there was great local red wine, beautiful home-made ciabatta bread, olives, sausages, cheese and unidentifiable pieces of jelly-fatty-meaty-stuff (all yours, Katherine), then steak, wild pig skewers (ad nauseum — but very good), followed by delightful Sicilian marzipan cake, home-grown mandarins, espresso coffee and, of course, grappa. Wow!
Sitting beside us was an adorable toddler, who was ripping off pieces of the tablecloth and playing peek-a-boo with us, holding the paper up in front of his face, then peering out over it. We transcended language.
With the weighty (all meanings of the word applicable) business of eating out of the way, the festivities proper began — there were raucous songs and crazy dancing, and Pino who gave off a playful elder vibe led a wild tale/song/game that Nuccio explained told the story of the discovery of Italy and, apparently, its animals and the sounds they make (at one point, kangaroos were introduced on our behalf, albeit not entirely a factually accurate addition).
Eventually, things wound down and it was time to go home, having been made to feel absolutely welcome. While making our goodbyes, we were presented with the gift of a club-branded beanie/scarf hybrid to remember everyone by, an absolutely lovely gesture. Wow!
And finally, with concern for our well-being (and, I suspect, our digestion!), Nuccio and his friend Carmelo offered us a 4WD ride back to Nettle — there may have been snow coming, and they wanted to make sure we returned safely. These are the most kind, friendly and considerate people ever!
Nuccio had told us that afterwards, he had to go seeking some Americans who had gone out and not returned yet — apparently, no less that 100 people a month get lost, and it’s up to Nuccio, Carmelo and others like them to help find them.
We exchanged telephone numbers, and we were floored when Nuccio proposed an outing a few days later to visit some of the local sights. Thrilled and touched, we immediately agreed, and worked out a place and time to meet, then waved them goodbye as they went off to prepare to find their Americans. (A little later, just as I realised I’d left a jumper behind in all the excitement, a car pulled up by us, and Nuccio jumped out and handed me the jumper; I thanked him profusely, and waved farewell again, as we shook our heads in wonder — a kinder sort we shall never find!)
Rather than face possible snow, we headed downhill towards the town of Linguaglossa, where we had arranged to meet Nuccio and Carmelo a few days later. A little driving back and forth without finding any promising places to stop, and we headed towards the coast where we found a caravan park so we could have a day using our laptops. We hooked up the 3G internet, and settled in for the night.