Two tickets from paradise: Riomaggiore

Three days in the Italian Riviera was just about the perfect amount of time from my perspective.  Enough to get out and about amongst the vineyards and hike, to relax over pesto and vino in each of the towns, to catch some rays, and to enjoy some great gelati.  In our final day, we had a train to catch back to Roma, but not before a few hours in Riomaggiore, the final town in the set of cinque.

These bad boys make the local economy tick

These bad boys make the local economy tick

A beautiful section of the long and winding road

A beautiful section of the long and winding road

Just checking out the low-hanging fruit

Just checking out the low-hanging fruit

To get the real experience, we made sure to take a ferry around the cliffs to get from Manarola to Riomaggiore, which led to some great views of the peninsula amidst the Mediterranean’s waves.  Once we landed in Riomaggiore, we snagged some final focaccia as our last Cinque Terran meal, and boarded a train set for La Spezia.  At La Spezia, we quickly boarded our fast train back to Rome (in which I got a brief glimpse of the top of the leaning tower of Pisa – good enough for me)!

Summer days on the Ligurian coast

Summer days on the Ligurian coast

A private garden at the temporary digs in Manarola

A private garden at the temporary digs in Manarola

I want this BabYack, though I am not fully aware of its most effective use

I want this BabYack, though I am not fully aware of its most effective use

A wonderful weekend overall, I highly suggest a visit if you are ever in Italy, or better yet in Liguria!

My favorite, and only, mosaic of the weekend in the center of Manarola

My favorite, and only, mosaic of the weekend in the center of Manarola

Getting ready to board the ferry to Riomaggiore

Getting ready to board the ferry to Riomaggiore

I should update folks on where I actually am at this point – I returned to the States on Friday night, and am on my way back to New England after spending a wonderful 24 hours in North Carolina celebrating the wedding of my wonderful friend Catherine.  A beautiful bride, a beautiful service, and a true Tar Heel reception complete with a live blue grass band, shrimp and grits, and ice cream cake.  I wish Catherine and Scott the best in their new marriage!  What a weekend, now it is time to rest up and get ready for the next chapter in the saga of summer ‘013: the wilds of Montana and Glacier National Park!

The final village as seen from the sea

The final village as seen from the sea

Welcome to Riomaggiore

Welcome to Riomaggiore

The bustling streets bracing for a new round of tourists

The bustling streets bracing for a new round of tourists

Hiking in wine country: Corniglia and Manarola

And a big hike it was – not terribly long (I don’t think, not aware of the actually kilometer-age), but up and down the vineyards we went, in and out of coves as escarpments jutted out into the sea.  We started fairly early in Vernazza after a quick breakfast at a pasticcieria  owned by a dup of charismatic Sicilians with pride in their food, and a bit of comedy in their delivery.  Still can’t get over this granita and pastry goodness – especially when it involves a corneto filled with ricotta!

I agree wholeheartedly

I agree wholeheartedly

And I also complied wholeheartedly

And I also complied wholeheartedly

However, the wise decision was made to transport our bags to our final destination, Manarola, before really getting after a long trek.  We arrived via train and found our nice little spot overlooking the water (complete with a great balcony and private garden area too!), and quickly backtracked to Vernazza for a pre-hike snack.  And yes, the snack was incredible focaccia/pizza of the margherita + pesto variety.  Think pizza like that I posted a picture of in the last post, but with thicker foccacia-esque crust, and cut into large square pieces.

The view that the window obscures

The view that the window obscures

The view from our interestingly-shaped window

The view from our interestingly-shaped window

The train systems were hidden quite well within the cliffs

The train systems were hidden quite well within the cliffs

Welcome to Manarola

Welcome to Manarola

Thankfully, I didn’t eat too much, and we got on the hiking trail to our first stop: Corniglia.  After climbing quickly up to the top of the ridge, the trail then began to meander through the landscape at roughly a constant elevation.  After a few km, the views of our destination were as clear as day, the beautiful town that is the only of the five without direct water access.  More of a cliff town than anything, and a quaint little town at that.

A stunning view approaching Corniglia from the north

A stunning view approaching Corniglia from the north

Corniglia, the hydrophobic of the village quintuplets

Corniglia, the hydrophobic of the village quintuplets

The brief quest for wine in Corniglia was temporarily thwarted, as our first option (with some crazy contraption for drinking the liquid) was closed.  However, we ended up finding a little spot to stop for some libations and a nice cheese platter, and then snagged some necessary honey and caramel gelato to give us energy for the final push to Manarola.

A beautiful display at the Corniglian wine garden

A beautiful display at the Corniglian wine garden

An outdoor bar with wine, cheese, honey, and chutney - aka an Italian hiker refueling station

An outdoor bar with wine, cheese, honey, and chutney – aka an Italian hiker refueling station

This next part of the hike was by far my favorite part of all the hikes in our weekend at Cinque Terre.  After a precipitous climb up again to the ridge, we were densely hiking within very active vineyards.  Grapes everywhere, and the most insane collection system cart I’ve ever seen.  Think a single rail with a chair/cart that rides straight up and down near vertical terracing cliffs.  Gave me vertigo just taking pictures of it!

One last view of Corniglia after we rapidly gained elevation en route to Manarola

One last view of Corniglia after we rapidly gained elevation en route to Manarola

I salute those who have the brass to ride carts on these tracks

I salute those who have the brass to ride carts on these tracks

After waltzing through a town at the top of the vineyards, we began the descent to Manarola. The views leading into Manarola were stunning as well, similar to those of our descent into Vernazza.  The cliff faces are a bit more exaggerated, the town a bit larger, the vineyards in closer proximity, and positioned perfectly to capture the last light of the setting sun.

Our destination emerging from amongst the grape vines

Our destination emerging from amongst the grape vines

Manarola: the glamour shot

Manarola: the glamour shot

We made it back to the room for the evening, got prepped for dinner, and relaxed over some pesto pasta, grilled vegetables, and locally-produced white wine.  The last part of the meal was no party though, we struggled to eat a HUGE plate of spaghetti with a large crab integrated, broken, and strewn throughout the dish.  Hazardous to say the least, and I think he got the better of us over all…  One last sunset in Cinque Terre, and it did not disappoint!

There are too few sunsets over the sea in my daily routine

There are too few sunsets over the sea in my daily routine

…And neither did the last of my moonlit series!

The upstairs neighbors burning the midnight oil

The upstairs neighbors burning the midnight oil

Can't get enough of these moonshots

Can’t get enough of these moonshots

Cinque Terre part II: Vernazza

A bit behind on the travels here, but have no fear – all of the tales will be told.  I just returned for my last week of work after a long weekend jaunt to Venice, the Dolomites, and Verona.  Pictures of heaven to follow in forthcoming posts.

Winding around the coastline from Monterosso to Vernazza

Winding around the coastline from to Vernazza

Saying goodbye to Monterosso

Saying goodbye to Monterosso

I firmly believe that an early morning reveals the best in any location.  This certainly applies to Cinque Terre, and we were in for a great first full day in pesto paradise.  After a brief breakfast at Manuel’s courtesy of my favorite snaggle-toothed caretaker, Arianna and I hit the trails to check out a bit more of Monterosso before making our way along the cliffs to our next destination: Vernazza.

The first glimpse

The first glimpse

Welcome to Vernazza

Welcome to Vernazza

The hikes along Cinque Terre, when open (a few are closed down due to damage from relatively recent rock slides), are like a perfect outdoor stairmaster.  In other words, they are mostly staircases, with a few flat spots peppered along the trails when you aren’t really changing elevation all that much.  You hug the coastline from up on high as it undulates back and forth, providing for some spectacular views of the next towns as well as some more difficult than expected hiking.  However, very much worth the effort.

Evidence that rock slides are a real issue

Evidence that rock slides are a real issue

And evidence that this might truly be heaven

And evidence that this might truly be heaven

Descending on Vernazza from the north was one of the more remarkable views we had over the course of the entire weekend.  From the brightly colored boats in the mini-harbor, to the stunning clock tower, to the richly-painted buildings crowding around the square for the best view of the day’s catch, it all makes for quite a special scene.

Looking back on the square from the pier

Looking back on the square from the pier

View from our mini balcony!

View from our mini balcony!

Anyone for boating?

Anyone for boating?

After being thoroughly exhausted from the hike, Arianna and I relaxed out on the pier and watched the local Vernazzan children duke it out in a good old-fashioned potato sack race.  Let’s just say that if this was an Olympic event, any Italian representative would not hail from Liguria.  Kids struggled with the concept of jumping, but I was happy to see some great diggers.  Oh yeah, the white team CRUSHED IT.

I was very close to getting in there and giving the blue team a coaching session.  VERY close.

I was very close to getting in there and giving the blue team a coaching session. VERY close.

Looking West at the right time

Looking West at the right time

Apparently people like wasting metal and giving lock-pickers a practice range

Apparently people like wasting metal and giving lock-pickers a practice range

Despite the beauty of Vernazza, I have mixed feelings about the town.  We stayed in a pretty hot and stuffy hotel (which called for the removal of the mattress from its frame to put it on the floor right next to the wide open window), it was very touristy (even into Saturday night?!), and there was a rager going on in the city center until the wee hours of the morning (which is within earshot of just about every building in the small town).  But overall, the positives far outweighed the negatives, and yes, those included debatably the best two pesto margherita pizzas I’ve ever eaten in my life, pesto lasagna, gelato for days, and yes, the sun setting over the bay with fork and the aforementioned pesto lasagna in hand.

Pesto lasagna just running away with the culinary game

Pesto lasagna just running away with the culinary game

Though the marinara mussels gave it a potato sack (disg)race for the money

Though the marinara mussels gave it a potato sack (disg)race for the money

The steps down were made a bit trickier by the vino...

The steps down were made a bit trickier by the vino…

Oh, and this happened during dinner

Oh, and this happened during dinner

Not a bad way to recover from a hard day’s walk with a heavy pack in a beautiful little town.  After deciding on the best pastry shop to dive into for breakfast the following morning, we called it a night and prepped for the biggest hike of the trip the next morning to Manarola (via Corniglia)!

Party on, Vernazza style

Party on, Vernazza style

Necessary moonshot

Necessary moonshot

A weekend in the Italian Riviera begins – Monterosso al Mare

And so the four part series begins!  What an amazing trip it was to Cinque Terre, a set of five vineyard-ridden, fish-catching, cliff balancing towns.  Amazing structures, colors, culture, food, and yes, vino.  The towns are named – from north to south – Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  I may let the pictures speak for themselves in these next posts, so don’t fret if my writing is a bit truncated compared to my usual verbose nature.

Readers, meet Monterosso al Mare.

Readers, meet Monterosso al Mare.

180 degree spin, a view of the town from the pier

180 degree spin, a view of the town from the pier

A nice spot for some bouldering adjacent to the Mediterranean

A nice spot for some bouldering adjacent to the Mediterranean

My good friend Arianna from high school came to join me on this adventure, as she is currently just a short jaunt away from Italy in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  She is working for Reclaim Childhood, and NGO founded by Williams College alums that engages young girls (many of whom are Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees) in athletics.  Check them out at: http://www.reclaimchildhood.org/.  On this trip, Arianna and I got our fill of all things food, hiking, sun, and fermented grape.  We stopped in each of the five towns for at least a little while, and truly got a feel for the relaxed Ligurian lifestyle.  If you take anything from following my short trip to Cinque Terre, remember this: pesto.

Let the terracing begin!

Let the terracing begin!

Passing in style \

Passing in style

Reaping the benefits of a short hike above Monterosso

Reaping the benefits of a short hike above Monterosso

The adventure began, as all my adventures do, in Roma.  After meeting up old school style (as in pick a place, pick a time, and meet, rather than just be interconnected via cell phone or internet), we hitched a ride on the fast train to La Spezia, the major southern transit hub for all things Cinque Terre.  After only a stop on the platform, we snatched the next train bound for Monterosso al Mare.  We glimpsed out first views of the cliff faces from the train, yet were rudely interrupted by the conductor asking for our tickets.  We had unfortunately rushed and forgotten to validate our tickets (get a hole punched in them by an automatic machine pre-boarding), which he told us was a 50€ fine.  Great.  50 beans for not getting a hole punched?  Dude, just take our ticket so we can’t use it again.  Or better yet, punch a hole in it so we can’t use it again.  We bargained down to a 5€ first-time fine, and were happy to leave this dude behind us and let the scenery raise our spirits once more.

Downtown Monterosso

Downtown Monterosso

Not a bad stoop

Not a bad stoop

Floral education: this is where capers come from!

Floral education: this is where capers come from!

Luckily, amazing vistas are not in short supply in Cinque Terre.  In fact, it is hard to find a place that doesn’t have a great view!  Monterosso is a bit touristy due to its size and the size of its sandy beaches, but an excellent first stop nonetheless.  We made our way to our guesthouse, Manuel’s, chatted with our host who lacked some teeth and knew very little English, and settled in before exploring.

Time for some sun

Time for some sun

The main beachfront in Monterosso

The main beachfront in Monterosso

Wishing that time could slow down a bit...

Wishing that time could slow down a bit…

The more natural side of things

The more natural side of things

One thing Arianna and I agreed on for this trip was that food would be a priority.  That being said, we dropped in on one of the best restaurants in town for our first meal that included fresh sea bass and tuna.  And yes, dessert was a delicious gelato in town as we navigated the two main streets and got lost on our trek back up to Manuel’s.  We called it an early evening to prep for the hiking ahead, the scenic Vernazza was waiting!

Tuna heaven

Tuna heaven…

...with a side of fresh sea bass and potato

…with a side of fresh sea bass and potato

Be prepared, lots of moonshots to come

Be prepared, lots of moonshots to come

Seven hours in Napoli

So I have some catching up to do, I know.  Here it is, about a week or so later, and I’m just wrapping up my travels from last weekend.  Anyways, it will be a bit of a trend as we move forward into my last two weeks here in Italia!

Creativity on display on Stromboli

Creativity on display on Stromboli

After a good – albeit short – night’s rest following the volcanic hike up Stromboli, I awoke a bit early to try and see some more of the island.  I failed in my attempt to get around to the other side of the mountain, but did succeed in having some fantastic breakfast – debatably my best thus far this summer (and that means a lot, coming from someone who is not a fan of using superlatives).  At the main bar in town, I got some homemade fragola e limone granita accompanied by a warm corneto and a caffe.  It gave me the energy I would need to attack the rest of the long day ahead!

The best breakfast one could ask for other than Cathy Tuttle Sunday specialties

The best breakfast one could ask for other than Cathy Tuttle Sunday specialties

One last goodbye to Stromboli

One last goodbye to Stromboli

After walking along the black rock beaches and encountering some less than fortunate jellyfish stranded by the tide’s ebb, I hopped on my speedy catamaran ferry to Napoli (aka Naples).  Five hours later, we docked in the grittiest town seen thus far.

Run aground in Napoli

Run aground in Napoli

This town is all about its boats, and its sunbathing

This town is all about its boats, and its sunbathing

When I first stepped off the boat, I was a bit turned around – the ferry had thrown an aggressive head fake and docked south of where I expected it might, meaning I walked an extra 2km or so to make up for my blunder.  Don’t worry, I was never lost, I just was taking the roundabout route.  I got to see hundreds of people sunbathing on the rocks like reptiles needing their daily rays, my first true introduction to southern Italian summers.  With my heavy pack in tow in the bright Napolean sun, the tour of the town was off to a great start.

Arches overlooking the sea

Arches overlooking the sea

I don't know who this incredible mustache is, but it somehow grew a person

I don’t know who this incredible mustache is, but it somehow grew a person

I hit up some of the most major sights in the city during my first few hours of racing around, including: la Piazza Plebescito, il Castel Nuovo, and la Galleria Umberto.  After taking the funicular (cable car) up to the second tier of the city (it is a port town with a pretty stark hill separating the upper and lower parts of town, which I imagine also has some socioeconomic implications…), I ventured to la Villa Floridiana, and the highlight of the visit, il Castel Sant’Elmo.  Up in this elevated neighborhood dubbed Vomero, the sights of the urban sprawl below are spectacular.  And so continued the summer of panoramic views!

The enormous Piazza del Plebiscito

The enormous Piazza del Plebiscito

Il Castel Nuovo, rocking the triple-tone brick

Il Castel Nuovo, rocking the triple-tone brick

A photographer's dream

A photographer’s dream

La Galleria Umberto with the coolest ceiling I've stumbled across in a while

La Galleria Umberto with the coolest ceiling I’ve stumbled across in a while

My next stops were down in the old city center, which apparently is an area known for its petty crime, specifically pick-pocketing.  As a result, I threw on the walker’s evil eye I learned so well to adorn when living in New York City (though I hadn’t needed it for a while, it felt so natural – like putting on an old well-broken in kangaroo leather baseball mitt).  Needless to say, no pickpockets messed with me on this day, though I was a bit concerned someone might get some ideas based on my large hiking backpack…  Maybe it was the evil eye, or maybe it was the extra push-ups this summer, but either way I managed to snap some photos without any petty crime threats.

My inner panoramaniac was overjoyed

My inner panoramaniac was overjoyed

Vesuvius is that fella in the background for those interested in continuing the volcanic theme of the trip

Vesuvius is that fella in the background for those interested in continuing the volcanic theme of the trip

Had to incorporate some artsy-ness too

Had to incorporate some artsy-ness too

The old city center is a crowded, dirty, tight space peppered with churches.  The people are out in full force, making walking tricky, and cars can barely fit through the tight one-way roads.  As an outsider, the culture seemed so thick one could almost cut it with a knife.  The town seemed to not need me as a tourist, and almost point me to the door, not caring if I went or stayed.  An interesting experience to say the least, and the best word I can use to describe the city is one I have already used in this post: gritty.

Powerful juxtaposition

Powerful juxtaposition

The real Napoli

The real Napoli

Captain Morgan style: hot, sweaty, exhausted selfies

Captain Morgan style: hot, sweaty, exhausted selfies

Cable car me!

Cable car me!

Where Roma has obelisks, Napoli has intricate pillars.

Where Roma has obelisks, Napoli has intricate pillars.

Dante immortalized in his piazza

Dante immortalized in his piazza

I’m glad to have stopped in Napoli, even if it was for just a brief seven-hour stint.  It would be a great place to spend a bit more time to try and explore what makes the city tick, though I’ll leave that for some more of you cultural urbanites.  As for me, I ventured back to Rome, and got ready for the brief work week ahead!

Contradictions - a trash heap amidst the beauty

Contradictions – a trash heap amidst the beauty

It was laundry day

It was laundry day

There were some churches packed in the tight streets like sardines

There were some churches packed in the tight streets like sardines

Exhibit B

Exhibit B

Now you see it...

Now you see it…

Now you don't!

Now you don’t!

Smoke WAY above the water

I awoke early on Sunday to the crisp Sicilian air in Messina to board a ferry to my next destination.  Before I go any further, a huge thanks to my Italy touring tip man, the cycling phenom himself aka the manhunt champion, Master Stefan Wirth, MALD.  When I dropped the “I’m working in Rome this summer, got any must-see Italian sites for me?” bomb on him, kid stepped up to the plate like a seasoned pro.  One word: Stromboli.

My morning steed

My morning steed

The ferry lasted just under two-hours in a Catamaran, and I disembarked on the small Aeolian Island of Stromboli.  This island is literally just a volcano, and a very consistently active one at that.  So much so that now the entire population of the island (around 400) pretty much survives off of a thriving tourism industry.  These folk were once farmers harvesting grapes from the volcano’s slopes, but my how the times have changed.

I could absolutely live here

I could absolutely live here

The first sight you see when you get off the boat is obviously the towering mountain in front of you.  But then you notice the black sand beaches.  And then your eyes scan the white structures with almost too perfectly cliché yet beautiful blue doors.  And finally, you notice the gritty people living in the shadow of Stromboli’s ever-present eruptions.  Then you realize that this is what love is.

Black rock and sand beaches - a sign of a true volcanic island

Black rock and sand beaches – a sign of a true volcanic island

The Stromboli symbol, in a beautiful spot of graffiti

The Stromboli symbol, in a beautiful spot of graffiti

The equivalent of main street

The equivalent of main street

I hit the road to find my B&B, named il Giardino Segreto (the secret garden), which is set apart from the rest of the town on the path I would later hike to the volcano’s summit.  A gorgeous little place with a friendly staff who speak no English, and a perfect spot to rest the head for the evening.  After settling in, I marched back ‘downtown’ (basically just a church, corresponding piazza, a bar, and some trekking company offices) to catch up with my guide and rent me some hiking boots.  Magmatrek welcomed me with open arms, and Totem supplied me with some decent (yet later I would realize too small) hiking boots and a headlamp.  I made sure to buy some fresh fruit, a hiker’s best friend, and snagged some brioche for breakfast.  I then made my way back up to the secret garden to get out of the sun for a bit and rest up for the evening trek.

En route to il Giardino Segreto, and la sciara del fuoco

En route to il Giardino Segreto, and la sciara del fuoco

Atop the B&B, looking out towards Strombolicchio

Atop the B&B, looking out towards Strombolicchio

Fast-forward to that afternoon, around 1630, when I returned to the Magmatrek office to prepare for my evening hike up the volcano.  Now I know what you are thinking: “why the hell is Emerson paying for a trekking guide?  The kid is a back-country hiking genius, if such a thing even exists!”  I know, I know, and I’m flattered that you think such a thing, but guides are required to reach the summit.  I believe that came into effect after the last major eruption of the volcano in the early 2000s.  The major risk may not be what you think – for hikers, yes there is a risk of getting tagged by some pyroclastic projectiles (my newest favorite band name for when I form one), but the major risk for the townsfolk are tsunamis.  When the lava flows down to the ocean, it can create fissures in the earth, which through fluid dynamics can be the inciting cause of massive waves (up to 4m high or so) descending on the beachfront villages.

La Piazza downtown.  One church, one bar, one trekking rental store, and a bunch of trekking guides!

La Piazza downtown. One church, one bar, one trekking rental store, and a bunch of trekking guides!

A nice little entryway next to my B&B

A nice little entryway next to my B&B

No real concern in terms of dangerous eruptions today, but nonetheless I picked up my required helmet from Magmatrek and met my guide, Poldo.  He is an awesome dude with a sweet gecko tattoo on his neck, and exactly the type of person you’d expect, and hope, to be your guide on such an excursion.  Turns out that I was very lucky to have Poldo as a guide, which I’ll get to later…

The start of the stream of fire

The start of the stream of fire

We were an international group of 20 trekkers – Germans, Spaniards, Dutch, Aussies, Brits, and a few Americans.  The only downside to the group was our painfully slow pace, yet it turned out to be a saving grace later on.  The trek is fairly demanding, especially in the intense heat of the afternoon, but I was well prepared after my daily walks to the FAO.  To pass the time, I chatted at length with a great new friend, and Australian-Italian chap by the name of Vincent.

Poldo (in orange) preaching about the volcano during a brief rest stop

Poldo (in orange) preaching about the volcano during a brief rest stop

By the time we hit 500m (our final destination being the summit at 918m), the vegetation was no longer and the clouds started to roll in.  Eventually, as we got closer to the top, it began to feel like a steep, eerie, veiled moonscape.  Visibility was minimal, the switchbacks were monotonous, and the temperature started to dip.  Our slow paced marched onwards and upwards, and we eventually reached the top.

San Lorenzo from up on high

San Lorenzo from up on high

The landscape beginning to shift as the switchbacks begin

The landscape changing as the switchbacks begin

Now when we got to the viewing site for the first of three craters, visibility was nil.  Zip. Nada. We could sometimes see the clouds blowing by light up a faint red when an eruption occurred, but nothing more than a hint of color accompanied by the loud explosions caused by the earth’s mantle surging upwards to the surface.  We had some time to wait, so we waited.  But the first viewing site did not clear up…

The waiting game...

The waiting game…

The first crater hiding under the rapidly-moving clouds

The first crater hiding under the rapidly-moving clouds

We moved on to the summit, and the waiting game began anew.  Other groups, who had already reached the summit and were waiting for quite some time, eventually hit the road.  But Poldo told us that we would wait for as long as we could.  He wanted us to see the real Stromboli.  After praying for the clouds to clear up, they finally started to.  And the show could now begin!

Good evening Ginostra crater!

Good evening Ginostra crater!

Unfortunately, though the clouds cleared up, the craters were causing a dense vent of steam to form (due to how humid the air was up top that evening), obscuring our view for the most part.  But we got what we came for: a few SOLID eruptions tossing magma upwards of 200m in the air.  What is cool, and unique, about Stromboli, is that the summit lies 200m or so above the craters that shoot out magma.  We were informed that it is the only active volcano on the planet where you can view the craters from above in this way.  The most active and largest of the three craters – Ginostra – was putting on a show.  And thanks to Poldo’s pace (which was set to accommodate a few shall we say ‘inexperienced’ hikers in our group) and determination to keep us up there until we saw some vivid eruptions, the trek was an incredible success.

DSCF7580

DSCF7579

DSCF7574

DSCF7581

It was a dusty, ashy, and quicker descent to San Vincenzo, the largest village on the island.  Upon arrival around midnight, I ditched my boots, traded them for my comfy sneakers, and joined my Australian friends, and our guide, at the bar for pizza, beer, and a cannoli.  What a great way to end an amazing day.  Long story short: go to Stromboli, you will never forget it.

Not going to lie, I look GREAT in a hard hat, right?

Not going to lie, I look GREAT in a hard hat, right?

My favorite door on the island, and that is saying something!

My favorite door on the island, and that is saying something!

Climbing a crossword puzzle clue

If you got addicted to crossword puzzles like I did, thanks to my father and his insane ability to finish the daily one in a few minutes, you already know where this post is going.  If not, you’ll never miss this clue again!

Here is a hint...

Here is a hint…

On Friday evening, I hit the road for Fiumicino airport for my first real excursion out of the Rome.  Unfortunately, it started a bit later than planned due to a 2hr delay, but nevertheless I made it after being quite cramped in a plane that had Poste Italiane written on its side…  Was I mailed to Sicily?  Short answer, maybe.

I arrived in Catania and was greeted by a fellow Tufts veterinary school connection, a vet in the US Army named Elliott.  We connected through our mutual interests in non-traditional veterinary careers, and his awesome blog that you should all take a gander at: www.elliottgarber.com.  Elliott is posted on a base outside of Catania (Sigonella Naval Air Station), and lives in a small town called Motta Sant’Anastasia.  I didn’t know what to expect when I thought about real Sicily, but I got a solid – albeit brief – dose by walking these streets.  Small, cobblestone roads lined with elderly men just straight chilling on their stoops for most of the day, and amazing cuisine.  When I say small, I mean tiny.  Think about needing to do a three(or five)-point adjustment turn just to get around a corner in a Honda Civic…

The view from Elliott's deck

The view from Elliott’s deck

We ate mussels and a fantastic pizza covered in cheese (asiago I think?), pesto, funghi, and prosciutto.  One of the better meals I’ve had this summer for sure.  After eating our fill, we returned to Elliott’s place and crashed to prepare for an outing the following day.

Atop the neighborhood castle, looking out over Motta

Atop the neighborhood castle, looking out over Motta

Saturday began with an awesome Sicilian breakfast – brioche e granita (basically icy/smoothie goodness).  I chose to get pistachio and mandorla (almond), and my tastebuds were in heaven.  Once we managed to down our meals, it was time to hit the road!

Our destination looming in the distance

Our destination looming in the distance

Within an hour, we were at our base camp for the day.  Let the ashy socks time begin – we were hiking up a portion of Mt. Etna itself!

I need to take a few lessons from Sensei Lerette in selfie snapping

I need to take a few lessons from Sensei Lerette in selfie snapping

The first mistake I made was when I put my socks on earlier in the morning.  We made the decision to hike at the last minute, and I lacked to foresight to switch to more, how do you say, ‘appropriate’ socks for quite a hike up a volcano.  If you’ve never hiked a volcano before, here is your first lesson: wear tall socks and high-soled shoes.  None of this ankle socks and sneakers garbage.  I toughed it out with minimal issues, just a pound or two of ash and volcanic rocks in the socks.

The slopes above the Valle del Bove

The slopes above the Valle del Bove

A unique formation standing proud on the slopes of Etna

A unique formation standing proud on the slopes of Etna

After a bit of hiking, we reached the Valle del Bove, which is the site where the current lava flows come to rest.  It is a barren wasteland of black basalt rock and ash that stretches for as far as the eye can see.  As of late, when Etna erupts, it tends to spill out large amounts of slow-moving lava, as opposed to some of the violent pyroclastic explosions other volcanoes (for example, St. Helens) may be known for.  Elliott mentioned that his base calculated they have five days to evacuate in the case of massive flows given the historic speed of past Etna lava flows.

The Valle itself

The Valle itself

If this were covered in snow, it would be the perfect sledding hill

If this were covered in snow, it would be the perfect sledding hill

After getting a view of the valley, we decided to try and follow the path a bit farther up to get a glimpse across the ridge.  Follow the path we did, and it rapidly seemed to disappear, or rather many paths seemed to emerge.  We think this was because the vegetation has created faux paths depending on where it grows, and where the ash tumbles downhill.  Anyways, we went off-trailing up to the top of the ridge to find a spectacular little valley.

Floral blooms on desolate  ashy slopes

Floral blooms on desolate ashy slopes

Check out the color of this little dude!

Check out the color of this little dude!

Checking out some solid rock amidst the ash

Checking out some solid rock amidst the ash

After enjoying the awesome views and floral blooms one would not typically expect to find displayed on the slopes of an active volcano, we found the ash equivalent of a ski slope down the mountain.  It was a nice direct jaunt back down towards base camp, with only a few minor delays when I needed to dump out the sneaks.

Our path down the mountainside

Our path down the mountainside

Since when did my feet, when covered in ash, look like Gollum's?

Since when did my feet, when covered in ash, look like Gollum’s?

This rock was very porous and easy to break, like a honeycomb

This rock was very porous and easy to break, like a honeycomb

This piece of rock seems to have fractured and taken a bit of a tumble!

This piece of rock seems to have fractured and taken a bit of a tumble!

After eating some great American staples – PB&Js – courtesy of Elliott, we were off to find some beaches in Taormina.  Hold that thought, we actually made a pit-stop in a beautiful little town called Zafferana Etnea, which was seemingly deserted given the fact that we dropped by during the peak of the afternoon siesta.   

A fox being a bit too friendly with tourists in the middle of the day...

A fox being a bit too friendly with tourists in the middle of the day…

Downtown Zafferana

‘Downtown’ Zafferana

Okay, bring that thought back – it is beach time.  And no, this wasn’t like your Lake Sunapee beaches or even your Cape Cod beaches, this was what you think of when you hear Mediterranean beach.  Picturesque, rocky, covered with overly-tanned and under-dressed Italians, etc.  We definitely stood out in our ash-covered calves and t-shirts, but it was well worth the brief trip (and the cannoli/caffe freddo combo that I ordered on the beachfront café).

Left side!

Left side!

STRONG side!

STRONG side!

Elliott, being the great guide, host, and friend he is, drove me to my destination for the evening, the port town of Messina in Sicily’s northeast corner.  The highway on the coast of Sicily must have cost an astronomical amount to build, as we must have driven through at least twenty separate tunnels – some of them quite lengthy too!  Big thanks to Dr. Captain Garber for showing me the Sicilian lifestyle, and here’s to hoping I can repay the favor in some foreign land someday!

One of many tunnels en route to Messina

One of many tunnels en route to Messina

I waltzed around Messina for a short while to try and find a nice dinner spot, but a short while turned into close to 90 minutes… of searching.  Where were all the restaurants hiding?  It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t find a single one for a long time.  But alas, I settled on a pizza joint, and it is time to appease the angry southpaw Jewish giant back home with some food photography.

Not too bad for a last-minute dinner option.  That bad boy is loaded with ham, ricotta, and mushrooms

Not too bad for a last-minute dinner option. That bad boy is loaded with ham, ricotta, and mushrooms

Stay tuned for volcanoes parte due, coming to you soon!

Once more for good measure

Once more for good measure