All was calm as I craned my neck toward the sky above Mt. Etna, half afraid of hearing an explosion that would shake the ground on which I was standing. I’d read that during an eruption, red-hot lava flows out of Mt. Etna’s crater and clouds of ash and smoke cover the Sicilian sky. Last year, Mount Etna was so active that it grew by 100 feet in half a year. And here I was with only two trekking poles for protection, climbing up. Would it erupt like Mount Vesuvius? Would I end up being a body frozen in time like those in Pompeii?
That was highly unlikely because our guide, Carmelo, Professor of Volcanoes at the University in Catania, promised we’d be safe on this side of the mountain. We didn’t even need to don the helmets stuffed in our backpacks. We traversed the dark solidified lava terrain looking out and up to black mountains and craters everywhere in the distance. It looked like a scene out of the movie, The Martian, except the stark terrain was black, not ochre-colored. As we arrived at the peak of one crater, Carmelo pointed to Africa in the distance and Europe to the North.
There were more than 1,000 small lava cones everywhere we looked, each representing an eruption of Mount Etna. Tiny Ladybugs scurried around the ground looking for insects to eat. The bright orange beetles were in radical contrast to the back lava rocks. We climbed up the foreboding landscape, finally arriving at the summit, jubilant. We each found a rock and pulled our lunch from our backpacks, staring out at the unearthly dark landscape surrounding us. My heart was still pounding. On the way back down, one minute we were sliding in black sand, the next, stepping over boulder-sized lava rocks. I smiled to myself. I’d done it! I’d made it to the summit of Mt. Etna with the other intrepid souls in our group.
I was on an Adventures in Sicily vacation trip along with eight other travelers, all of us seduced not only by the idea of climbing the 11,014-foot Mt. Etna, but also cycling the road to the volcano, snorkeling in the Ionian Sea, visiting cultural sites, tasting wine in a Sicilian vineyard, and happily gorging on pizza, pasta, gelato, arancini (deep fried rice balls), and other Sicilian specialties.
None of us had met before this trip, but over the last seven days we had bonded, and were now fast friends. Before coming to Catania, Sicily, what we had in common was weekly Zoom cycling classes with our coach/cheerleader/ manager and organizer, Robert Penino, who, when not coaching on zoom, is a film producer living in Tampa and NYC. Coach Robert, who was born in Sicily, knows Catania well, and had also recruited his cousin, Giacomo, to guide us through the non-active adventures and cook us an authentic Sicilian meal: pasta limone, sauteed onions, and peaches soaked in a white wine.
It felt like weeks ago that we began this trip with a visit to Catania’s famed fish market, whose entrance was marked by a canape of brightly-colored umbrellas.
We walked past octopus, snails, clams, rays, eels, anchovies, swordfish, and tuna, all heaped on ice. Coach Robert had given us each 50 euros to buy whatever we wanted for our spacious lodging in Nicolosi. I pointed to tuna steaks as Giacomo haggled and got the price down to seven euros for two huge steaks. He urged us to sample tiny crawfish and shucked oysters, so fresh you could taste the sea.
The market offered much more than fish: there were piles and piles of vegetables of all varieties, fruits, and cheeses like pecorino and gorgonzola and Mozzarella di Bufala. There were huge slabs of steak and carne di cavallo (horsemeat), a Sicilian specialty. As we shopped, Giuseppe, an electronics salesman who was also our driver/errand-runner/man-of-all-trades and friend, transferred our purchases to an iced cooler, and we continued on to the open-air market. Here, you could buy anything at cut-rate prices: socks for one euro, sun hats, underwear, espresso pots, T-shirts covered in glitter and fake designer logos, smartphone cases, and an array of clothing including an adorable sundress with pockets that I bought for six euros.
Coach Robert had rented a huge house which offered private bedrooms and private baths for each of us. There was an outdoor pool, tennis court, and a huge terrace which looked out over Catania and the Ionian Sea. At night, we’d sit on the terrace watching the full moon glittering orange and reflected in the sea. We’d often see fireworks — not to celebrate a holiday —- but simply because Sicilians love fireworks. On the side terrace was a perfect view of Mt. Etna, just 11 miles away.
The first night Coach Robert hired a professional chef, Marco, to cook barbeque for us: pasta Con Vongole followed by an array of grilled meats. While I expected to hate horsemeat (I eat very little meat), it was my favorite, much tastier than hamburger. After dinner, we each downloaded the app Glimpse, so Coach would always know where we were, whether cycling or hiking.
The next morning, Coach Robert set up our rented bikes, handed us water bottles and helmets, and we split up into two groups: the fastest riders with Enrico (who sells Porsches when he’s not leading bike rides and therefore is a speed demon), and Robert,who is also a very fast rider, but slowed his pace to match ours. We started on a gorgeous hilly ride from the town of Nicolosi, where our house was, towards the ancient village of Milo. We rode past pastel houses, their terraces filled with colorful flowers and plants. The distance to Milo was 18 miles, and I’d been worried about sharing the road with cars, motorbikes, buses, and trucks, but every driver was respectful. And even though I was riding a hybrid bike, the cobblestone streets terrified me. I couldn’t wait till we were on asphalt roads.
I’d been hesitant about signing up because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the rest of the group; but Coach Robert was completely inclusive and made sure everyone went at their own pace. No one got left behind or dropped, and he also followed our respective routes on the Glimpse app. Plus, Giuseppe followed in a van filled with iced cold drinks and snacks. After every ride (or in between), we stopped for gelato or granita, a sweet Sicilian ice cream served in a warm puffy brioche.
That afternoon, we hopped into the van and drove to a private wine tasting at the Biondi Vineyard. The Biondi family has owned the 14 acres of vineyards since the 1600s with 14 acres and three different vineyards: one 12,000 years old, one 2,000 years old, and one, a former crater.
Owner Ciro Biondi explained that the volcanic soil and red pumice give the wines all the nutrients from the ground. The Biondi’s make 25,000-30,000 bottles a year, 90% of which they sell all over the world. Each of the six Outis wines we tasted was better than the previous one. I’ll be buying more of their bottles in NYC.
There was our visit to a UNESCO World Heritage site, Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolo l’Arena, a former Benedictine Monastery (the second largest in Europe). The building later housed a military barracks, was a World War 11 shelter, and is presently a university and astrophysical observatory. Everywhere were old pieces of columns and ancient relics. Like everything else in Sicily, there’d been an eruption from Mt. Etna in 1669, which surrounded all of Catania with lava but did not destroy the Monastery. Our guide explained that the eruption took two months. “Slow, very slow,” he said. “We’re very slow in Sicily.”
Exhilarating, was walking up 649 stone steps to Taormina, perched on a rocky promontory high above the sea and known as the “pearl of the Mediterranean.” Most tourists drive to this restored medieval town, but no matter how you arrive, the views below are postcard-perfect.
We continued walking up the endless stone steps to an enormous theatre started by the Greeks in 3 BC, and which once produced plays by Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Gladiators also fought there. Today, it’s used for concerts and plays.
After a guided tour by a local historian, we walked back down to Taormina’s warren of winding cobblestone streets lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and narrow steps with plants in colorful jugs leading up to the residents’ homes.
And of course there were italian men in speedos. Coach led us to Aci Castello, a castle overlooking the sea, occupied first by the Greeks then the Romans, and filled with ancient relics. Below in the sea, we saw two paddle boarders floating by, both in the brief swimsuits you no longer see in America, but are the uniform in Sicily.
And there was the afternoon Coach Robert surprised us with an acrylic painting class led by a well-known Sicilian artist. We each chose an image to paint. Interesting that five in the group each painted a lemon.
One morning a Sicilian yoga/Pilates instructor led us through stretches on the back lawn. She counted in heavily-accented English, “One two three, five seven nine,” We burst out laughing and she laughed back. “Okay, you count in English,” she grinned. That afternoon, Coach took us on a private boat snorkeling tour, and while the underwater viewing for me only produced a few tiny fish, two in our group saw an octopus. Still, being in the water was a welcome relief from the vigorous hiking and biking.
Finally, we cycled up the road leading to Mt. Etna, past houses that had been once buried by lava and now only a roof could be seen above ground. I was worried that cycling the endless hilly switchbacks would be too difficult, but they were easy to navigate thanks to my electric bike (a concession to my bone-on-bone knee, serious lower back issues, and the fact I was 20 to 40 years older than everyone else). I made it to the top with no problem and celebrated by hoisting my bike onto my shoulders (more difficult than the actual climb). One the way back, of course, we stopped for gelato. Then we rode home on Nicolosi’s cobblestone streets, which were suddenly no longer scary.
It’s amazing what your mind can talk you into or out of. I was one of the first to sign up for this Sicilian adventure, but as the start date got closer, I began to worry about not being able to keep up on the bike, especially as I had been taking spin classes indoors forever and hadn’t ridden outside in years. The electric bike alleviated my concerns about both hills and distance. Next, I worried about being able to hike five hours up and down Mt. Etna, but that was wasted worry time, because there was always someone with whom to hike at my pace and most of the time, we all stayed together. But, in spite of my initial trepidation, I am not a quitter. When I make up my mind to attempt something, I do it.
By the end of the trip, I felt as empowered as I ever had while running marathons or triathlons or climbing Himalayan mountains. When I finally returned home, before I’d even unpacked, I took a bike to Central Park and rode Heartbreak Hill, the toughest incline in the Park. Compared to the hilly switchbacks on Mt Etna, it felt like a molehill.
Would I do it again? Heck yes! Next year, Coach Robert is planning a new Sicilian adventure, this time to the even more beautiful north of Italy where we will be cycling rolling hills along the sea, paddleboarding, kayaking swimming, and a slew of other adventures. The second he posts the trip online, I’m signing up. Many of my fellow adventurers are signing up too, because each of us had the adventure vacation of a lifetime. It doesn’t get any better than that.