Smoking with a Sicilian Legend

A slightly misguided adventure up an erupting volcano.

Aerial view of a volcanic eruption

Dave Lee

Dave Lee is a TV producer, restaurant reviewer and travel writer for the Yorkshire Post based in East Yorkshire.

Or maybe a specific type of stupidity. Either is good. That’s what happened when me and my mate Will took a last-minute flight to Naples for a week-long break driving down the Amalfi Coast.

We arrived, hired a car, and took the ferry to Ischia as Will is a big fan of the film "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which was shot on the island. As we sat at a beach bar after a few hours scrambling round the glorious Castello Aragonese, we finally discussed a plan for the week ahead. Pompeii was a definite target as neither of us had been, and then the idea was to see how difficult it was to drive up Vesuvius before heading down the coast to Sorrento, Capri and wherever else took our fancy. While toasting this schedule with a cheeky Limoncello, I noticed footage of an erupting volcano on the TV news in the corner of the bar. As neither of us spoke good enough Italian to keep up with the newsreader, we were relying on the on-screen graphics to extrapolate that the footage showed Etna from a couple of weeks before.

"What if," said Will cautiously, "instead of driving up an extinct volcano…"

"Yeeeeees?" I replied, with a rising tone of encouragement.

"We see if we can drive up a recently-erupted one?"

That was it — maps out, distances calculated, speed limits discussed. We decided that the Amalfi would have a coast forevermore, but an adventure to Etna was both attainable and far more appealing. Sicily became our new destination.

Funghi Town

There was a distinctly mushroom-y feel to the hotel. There were drawings and photos of mushrooms all over the corridor walls, and the curtains in the dining room featured mushroom illustrations.

After a marvellous night on Ischia — with seafood pasta and local red wine — we went back to the mainland first thing in the morning and straight to Pompeii. Despite our new plan, we simply couldn’t miss out on somewhere we’d both always wanted to visit and it didn’t disappoint. You really need a couple of days at least at Pompeii to see anything like enough, but even in the long day we enjoyed there, it was clearly one of those places that absolutely lives up to the billing. It was like walking round an Asterix book.

By the time we’d finished pretending to be ancient Pompeiians escaping from the lava, it was almost dusk. We decided to press on down the coast to try and get closer to Sicily before dark. After a couple of hours, we pulled off the autostrade at Altomonte and found a hotel up a hill near a castle. It being late, we booked in, dropped our bags in our rooms, changed and headed to the hotel restaurant.

As we were seated, I mentioned that there was a distinctly mushroom-y feel to the hotel. There were drawings and photos of mushrooms all over the corridor walls, and the curtains in the dining room featured mushroom illustrations. Perhaps we’re in mushroom or truffle country, I ventured as we ordered a fiasco of Chianti and awaited the menu.

How right I was became abundantly clear when, instead of a menu, the waiter brought out a trolley and started loading our table with little dish after little dish filled with what looked suspiciously like mushrooms, all prepared in differing ways. "It looks like it’s a set menu," I suggested. "Are they all mushrooms?" asked Will to the waiter, who used his hand to indicate he wasn’t finished. Will looked at me. "I don’t like mushrooms," he grimaced. "Neither do I," I replied with a frown. We later discovered that this hotel was renowned throughout the gastronomic world because one of the greatest mushroom chefs worked there, and we’d arrived during their annual mushroom festival. If you ate there, you ate mushroom. We were very lucky to get a table, apparently. We didn’t feel lucky.

As the waiter put the last dish down, I managed to sputter out "Scusa, che cosa e questo?" which resulted in him pointing at each dish in turn and the response "Fungo e fungo e fungo e fungo e fungo e fungo…" And then, right at the end of a very long fungo list "…e patata," which lead to an unseemly scrap as we both jumped on the single portion of roast potato. We did, at least, manage to force down the mushroom ice cream dessert. Just about.

Mounting Tension

I’m still not sure if this is true or if it’s the sort of thing they say to wind up stupid English blokes planning to drive up an active volcano.

The next morning (after a thankfully non-mushroom breakfast) we moved on to Reggio Calabria and the ferry to Messina. The further south you go in Italy, the more rustic it becomes. The scenery is more agricultural, the buildings more crumbly, the food simpler (though just as delicious) and the Italian’s accents more impenetrable. Once you arrive in Sicily, it feels like you’re experiencing the most Italian place there is.

After a lunch of Pidoni (little cheesy pasties) in a square near the fountain of Orion, we took the short drive to Taormina – at the foot of Etna – and found the amazing San Domenico Hotel. We’d been tipped off by the receptionist in Altomonte about this place and it turned out to be an amazing 15th century monastery reinvented as a 5-star hotel. Thinking we couldn’t afford it, we enquired at the desk and were told that, as a party of Americans had unexpectedly checked out early that morning, we could have our rooms half rate. This was an amazingly luxurious place to use as a base for our volcanic explorations.

We asked various people as we wandered round the hotel’s botanic cloisters about how safe it was to drive up Etna. We were told that if white smoke was emanating from the summit we were fine, but that we should turn back if it turns grey. I’m still not sure if this is true or if it’s the sort of thing they say to wind up stupid English blokes planning to drive up an active volcano. What certainly was true was that the huge boom we heard every minute or so was the same one which had apparently scared off the party of Americans. It was the sound of Etna cooling down after the recent eruption and, rather than unsettle us, this terrifying noise actually heightened our sense of anticipation.

Summits Up

It’s never wise to ignore vulcanologists when they’re telling you you’re in danger.

At dawn (if dawn was at 10 a.m.), we set off toward Etna. It’s much bigger than you think. And further away. It took about an hour before we were satisfied that we were actually on it, and then we followed the winding road that snakes up and round the mountain. We checked occasionally that there was still white smoke at the top — there was.

The landscape altered dramatically as we wove to the summit. On the western side of the mountain, it was relatively sunny, green and lush (as lush as the side of a volcano can be), but on the eastern side — where the prevailing wind mainly blows the smoke and where most of the activity had been — it was astonishing. Imagine the type of environment only seen in a sci-fi movie — barren grey rock, loose ash blown everywhere and swirling grey smoke blocking out the sun. For the most part, we couldn’t see the road and had to wait until the wind changed before we could move forward. We got out once to soak in the atmosphere and take pictures, but the air was so choking that it was impossible to be out there for more than a minute or so.

At one point, on the smokeless side of the volcano, we passed a line of six white Land Rovers, all driving in the opposite direction. At the windows of each were people in hi-viz waving at us and pointing for us to turn around. We assumed that they had been working somewhere further up the hillside and briefly considered their advice to change direction. After all, it’s never wise to ignore vulcanologists when they’re telling you you’re in danger. We decided that they were probably just making a fuss and that we’d press on a while longer. What do they know?

What they knew became very apparent about half a mile further up the way. There, just at the side of the road, we spotted a white hot chunk of rock about the size of a bread bin. It wasn’t all white, some of it was red. We — quite reasonably — assumed that it had recently landed there and had more than likely been shot out of the summit of the volcano at the speed of a bullet. This theory was confirmed with one look at the smoke plume emanating from the top of Etna, which was now distinctly dark grey. Though we’d travelled barely halfway up the volcano, we spun the car around and within about ten minutes we were passing the line of Land Rovers at great speed and, now, in the same direction.