Weather wasn’t actually at its best. It hadn’t been for days. But our time in Catania was running short and we really didn’t want to miss on our last chance to pay a visit to Mount Etna.
The hike we intended to do wasn’t too long, so the retreat wouldn’t have been that problematic after all. Besides, no risk no frisk, like we say in Italian, sort of! We decided to give it a go and hope that the mother mountain would have welcomed us.
So Daniele and I, together with Chiara, left Misterbianco after lunchtime, guided by our good friend Filippo, real expert and great lover of Mamma Etna and her itineraries, and CEO at LA.BOO, a great total green startup made in Sicily that launched on the market a beautiful and sustainable bamboo bicycle (check them out, their work is great and it helps the planet!)
Destination: Velle del Bove, The Ox Valley, Mount Etna.
Meeting Mamma Etna.
Here in Sicily they call it Mamma Etna, Mother Etna. Despite the benevolent name, Mount Etna actually is an active volcano that rises majestic on the East Coast of Sicily, a few kilometres away from Catania.
Its view from afar is absolutely fascinating, a mixture between a mountain and a divinity, this peak holds some special energy and instills a peculiar mixture of respect, admiration and intimidation.
However, despite its threatening undertone, this volcano is very much loved by the people who live here, who learnt not only to coexist with it, but to actually appreciate and be grateful for the beauty of its eruptions and the fertility that its lava brings to this lands.
The outcome is rather evocative, both naturally and socially speaking.
The Hike: where trees have eyes.
There are many itineraries that lead to Valle del Bove. The one we went for actually is among the most beautiful ones. It is simple and not too long, but it conveys intense emotions and it both leaves you breathless and a bit out of breath, especially when extremely humid like it was on that day.
The hike is called the Acqua Rocca trail, as it walks by the Acqua Rocca waterfalls. It starts on the left side of an abandoned and ruined building on the side of the road. Your best chance to find this building is to follow directions to Lava Cave, which you can find on the map below.
Right after the bend, the building is on the left side of the road (see the capture screen below). You can park your car there. As soon as you pass the building, go through an opening in a fence. Then you’ll meet another ruined building, a old house without a roof. Go past it. The trail will become clearer and clearer. All you have to do is to follow it.
The atmosphere gets instantly suggestive.
The soil is sandy and dark, made of supertiny pieces of crumbled lava. A beautiful beech woods starts soon after the beginning of the itinerary and it accompanies hikers throughout the way, together with two faithful fellow inhabitants of this mountain: shiny green ferns and huge amounts of Helichrysum, the Everlasting flower, so called because of its ability to keep all its benefic properties even after drying.
Despite being on a volcano, which could erupt any moment and wipe everything away in a matter of few hours, it’s incredible how fertility can be discovered in every inch of this place.
It feels like the soil is actually breathing and plants are growing prosperous and nourished, even more than usual if that’s possible, full of properties and incredible energy and vibes. You can actually perceive Planet Earth being alive and it is a gorgeous sensation, which generates and incredible feeling of worthiness and belonging…to the point tree hugging became some kind of actual urge at some point!
Here trees have eyes and watch you walk by them, as if Mother Etna was saying: “for good or for worse, I’m keeping an eye on you”.
In fact, fallen branches left a million eyes drawn on the trees’ trunks, giving an even more alive flavour to this wood.
After a good 20 minutes hiking, the itinerary goes through a small wooden bridge, after which the Acqua Rocca Waterfalls, the first landmark of the hike, can be seen.
This actually is a dried waterfall (water here flows only when snow melts), which left a smooth wall of igneous rock, now home to a climbing crag. Even if it takes off the track for a moment, it’s worth a visit.
Rain started to pour, so we actually stopped here for a moment, finding shelter in a small cave on the left side of the waterfall. According to weather forecasts and common sense, we should have backed away and give up our hike. But again, no risk no frisk, so we decided to wait for the rain to stop.
All very charmed by the power of nature in Mount Etna, we spent that time talking about plants’ intelligence, sensibility and resilience.
Indeed, I still don’t get it why humanity doesn’t perceive these organisms as powerful as animals or men even. We keep underestimating the power and wisdom of plants and trees and vegetables, and the absolute importance they have on our lives and our planet.
I feel like there still is the need to remind and underline that without plants there would be no life on this globe. Whatsoever.
I’m ever more sensitive to the problem of climate change and pollution and nature disintegration. We’re literally tearing apart our planet. And it baffles and bewilders me how some people still believe it’s a lie. If we all stop for a moment to observe nature, climate, weather, history and people’s health, it all appears so obvious and alarming. We plant flowers and green plants in our homes to make them prettier, then we deny the problem, as if the whole planet wasn’t where we live.
Rain stopped, so we decided to keep going. We were all very doubtful, but Filippo assured us it was really worth the possible sopping. Optimism leading us, we kept walking on the evident path in the beautiful forest.
The second landmark of the hike is a giant secular beech born at the top of the waterfall. Her roots and branches reach out unruffled and majestically. Now it was Chiara’s turn for a big hug!
At this point, the view starts to reach really far in the distance. Catania can be seen in the valley, all the way to the sea. We took a moment to rest and play with our echoes spreading across the plain in front of us.
From here, the toughest part of the itinerary begins. Rather uphill, the soil is made of igneous sand, making it really hard to walk and use the full push of feet and legs, sliding a bit each and every step. A good pair of sticks probably help a lot!
Besides this minor difficulty, the actual bummer was the group of clouds surrounding us, that poured down a bit of rain every now and then and filled the air with a thick layer of humidity. On the other hand, the atmosphere was incredible, making it look like a remote place on Earth.
When we reached the top, we could see nothing. A grey, huge, heavy wall of clouds wouldn’t allow us to see anything at all. Rain started to fall again, but we really didn’t want to give up on our determination and frisk: it was clear the spectacle would have been absolutely beautiful.
Patience keeping us positive, we decided to shelter under some beeches that offered us a compact roof with their dense foliage. Owls live around here, so if you’re lucky enough one of them will fly past you, like it happened to us.
We probably waited about half hour. Then rain stopped and we gave it a last chance.
All of a sudden: the frisk.
The Ox Valley is famous to appear all of a sudden to hikers who arrive from the so called Schiena dell’Asino, the Donkey’s Back. Indeed, the uphill unexpectedly ends, becoming a very steep downhill.
What comes next is an incredible sprawl of solid lava filling the enormous plain. This actually is a huge depression, stuffed up with the scorching mud eruption after eruption, preventing it from getting anywhere and destroying villages and cities downstream.
It is 1 km deep and 5 km wide, with a perimeter of a 18 km. A lava desert covering 37 squared kilometres. I guess pretty much everyone thinks about Mordor as soon as it appears at their eyes.
It is such a different, incredibly unusual landscape: its charisma is absolute. Like a magnet, you can’t stop watching it and feel surprised about it.
As usual, what seemed like a misfortune throughout the hike actually turned into a beautiful blessing: clouds slowly drifting away made the atmosphere even more bewitching.
When you stand on a place like this, the almighty of planet Earth is absolutely unquestionable and, as every other time, you realise how little and fleeting we all actually are. On the other hand, it becomes clear how perfectly architected everything is, so to allow each one of us to live in harmony with all the rest.
Destruction comes, and there fertility goes. Some times lava would reach the sea, some other times it would be collected here, kept by Etna itself, which both gives and takes, like any good mother.
The extremely thriving vegetation shows it clearly. Indeed, the contrast between the lava and the plants growing vivid as soon as the valley ends is clear-cut and a peculiar one. Nothing in nature is left approximate, nor it happens by chance. Everything goes like it has to, and nothing holds grudges against it, but rather, does its best to give its best during its time here, whether it’s a tree, a volcano, an Everlasting Flower, or hopefully mankind.
So even if we weren’t actually frisking, I guess we were all doing it inside. We were all so happy we stayed positive and managed to have our slice of beautiful view over the valley. And so Mamma Etna thanked us for believing in her and wanting to admire her so much, giving us a beautiful, fiery sunset, just to prove a bit more her magnificent existence and power.
I will never forget those vibes.