A Trip around a Volcano
In late February 2018 we made a trip to the area around Mount Etna in Sicily. We flew out to Catania on easyJet and based ourselves in that city for a few days.
Mount Etna is 3,329m high and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It is in an almost constant state of activity.
The Ferrovia Circumetna, which roughly translates as the “Round Etna Railway” , is a narrow gauge line opened in 1895. It stretches for 68 miles and follows a route that encircles the volcano.
The line stretches from Riposto (17 miles north of Catania on the main Catania to Messina line) all the way back to Catania itself. The Catania terminal, Catania Borgo, has a link into the brand new Catania Metro system which is operated by the same company (FCE).
The railway was originally operated by steam, but today is serviced by a variety of diesel multiple units including some brand new Newag sets only delivered late last year.
JOURNEY AROUND ETNA
We boarded the 8:42 Rome-bound Inter City express at Catania and took it for 20 minutes along the coast to Riposto. At Riposto we left the modern FS main line station behind and walked over to the neglected and graffiti-covered narrow gauge station. In winter there are only 4 or 5 trains a day around this part of the loop line, so we had had to plan carefully. The little single car diesel eventually appeared and left on time at 9:20am.
The train, with a total of 5 passengers, began to climb almost immediately. The hour-long journey to Randazzo took us past grape vines and citrus trees (the fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture and there are many orchards and vineyards on the lower slopes of the mountain).
We paused at Randazzo (the most interesting town on the loop and once one of the most densely populated on the island after Palermo and Catania) for a look around. After a couple of hours wandering around, we bought a picnic lunch and boarded a lunch time train heading around to Catania. The two hour journey passed though the town of Bronte (famous for its pistachios) before heading back into the suburbs of Catania. This section of the line has a more frequent service and the trains were busier.
The whole journey affords the passenger with fantastic views of the mountain and is thoroughly recommended.
Randazzo lies at the northern foot of Etna and is 70km northwest of Catania. The town features a very picturesque town centre with many beautiful churches, including Santa Maria which has a façade built entirely of black lava stone.
We based ourselves in Catania, the second largest city in Sicily. Catania is one of the ten largest cities in Italy (320,000) but has a nice small town feel to it. It has its ugly parts, particularly the area around the station, but has a wonderful old centre that is lively and bustling but compact enough to be able to walk around.
We made a trip (out by bus and return by train) to the nearby city of Siracusa. This ancient city, founded by the Ancient Greeks, played an important role as one of the key cities of the Mediterranean. It is famous for its Greek History, and there are several amphitheatres and relics left over from that era. In more recent times the city has developed around a fishing port and is famous for its seafood.
“Liberty” is the Italian variant of Art Nouveau. It gets its name from the designs of Liberty department store in London.
Whilst Palermo has more “Liberty” influence, Catania is not short on buildings in this style either. Our base in the city, the Liberty Hotel, was one such example.
Catania is dotted with small Citrus Stalls, many in Liberty Style. Although they sell a variety of drinks, including some alcoholic, their main offering is local lemon juice mixed with sparkling water. It is refreshing and delicious.
The Catania fish market is one of the biggest in Italy and stretches over quite a wide area in and around the main Cathedral Square. It is open every day until 2pm and is lively and animated.
There are plenty of restaurants surrounding the market where one can sample ultra fresh seafood for lunch.
The main Catania market is also worth a visit. A variety of fresh produce is on offer, but some of the most colourful stalls belong to the tomato sellers.
FOOD AND DRINK
Catania is famous for Pasta Norma , a dish that is supposed to represent Etna and features Aubergine playing the part of the mountain
Canoli, miniature cream-filled pastries, also originated from the city, but are now found all over the world.