If I had to use one word to describe the road, which leads up to the top of Mount Etna it would have to be ‘windy’.
I had been staying in Catania, about 40 kilometres distant from the volcano. I had been hoping to join an organised daytrip to visit Etna, but I was there off-season and no excursions were running, so I was advised instead to hire a private car and driver if I was set on making the trip.
It was with a few reservations that I acquiesced. Firstly, I thought the cost might be prohibitive but, on that score, I was pleasantly surprised and, secondly, I am not a very good car passenger, prone to car-sickness and, with that in mind, I should have been forewarned of what was to follow.
My car and driver collected me from the hotel where I was staying, on a grey Sicilian morning, flecked with drizzle. It was a small car, and I sat in the back, while the driver––Daniel––negotiated the narrow maze of Catania’s streets and nattered; nattered incessantly in good English, occasionally swivelling around in his seat to gauge my reaction. Inattention to the roads apart, Daniel was a very good driver, and it was not long before we had left the city behind and reached the lush foothills of Etna; the summit a dark, forbidding peak, shrouded in cloud, still many kilometres distant.
As we gained altitude, the road became increasingly narrow and more twisty, and the traffic of the city quickly vanished. It felt as though we were travelling through an empty, alien landscape. However, one thing that we did not leave behind was a distinct feeling of nausea. It had manifested itself bumping over the potholed roads and cobbled back streets of Catania, but it was more urgent now, veering around the windy corners of an empty carriageway on Etna.
Anticipating potential disaster, I searched around in my daypack for a makeshift sick-bag, fixing on an empty plastic carrier bag for the job. Only just in time. While Daniel continued to drive and natter oblivious, I was being copiously sick in the back seat of his small car. Not once, but again. And again. An endless personal eruption of epic proportions. The single plastic bag soon proved insufficiently resilient to contain the volume and extent of my disgrace. I found another plastic bag; doubled them up; still it was not enough. Vomit was leaking everywhere: on my coat; on my trousers; on the back seat of the small car.
Finally, Daniel noticed my distress. His reaction was one of bewilderment. Car-loving Italians; I don’t think there is a concept of car-sickness in Italy. More concerned for the state of his upholstery than for me, he told me to hang on for a couple of minutes; we were close to somewhere he could stop.
The stopping place was a wide, flat, deserted plateau, halfway up Etna. It was bitterly cold outside of the car, the wind whistling across the open expanse to the dark bulk of the hills beyond, but I was glad to be in the fresh air, leaning over, taking in big, greedy gasps. I stripped off my soiled coat and brushed down my grubby jeans, depositing the plastic bag and its sordid contents on the dry, dusty ground by the side of the car.
A small mangy-looking feral dog slunk towards us, limping on a back leg, which was red with an open wound. Disgustingly, it made straight for my bag of sick and stuck its nose into the stinking contents. Daniel, who had taken the opportunity of a stop to have a swift cigarette, aimed an air-kick in its direction, which caused the dismal creature to retreat briefly, before it slunk forward again.
“Don’t worry,” said Daniel reassuringly. “You only need to be scared if there are more of them.”
No sooner had the words left his lips, when there was a loud sound of baying from the far side of the plateau. Six, seven, nine, twelve dogs appeared in quick order, howling and barking wildly; running towards us, assorted shapes and sizes, bounding across the flat expanse, headed in our direction. The small feral dog at our feet took up the pack’s excited call.
Rarely have two people ever moved so swiftly in perfect unison. We were back in the car––both of us in the front seats now––with the engine running and the wheels beginning to roll. Only just in time, the small car revved away, leaving a scene of canine carnage in our rear-view mirror, as the wild dogs fought over ownership of my sick-filled bag, and we headed back onto the windy road leading further up Etna. There was never any question of turning back.
Whether it was sitting in the front seat from where I could watch the road ahead; whether it was the shock of our close escape; or whether I had simply just emptied the contents of my stomach, but I didn’t feel the least bit sick on the remainder of the journey up Etna.
When we finally stopped, on the edge of one of Etna’s arid, black craters, I was surprised to discover an entire tourist trade in operation. Here was a car park; souvenir shops; restaurants.
“Fancy something to eat?” asked Daniel, innocently.
I thought ahead to the prospect of the long return journey and decided probably better not.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny finds Etna’s craters sic!
E. C. Glendenny’s selected travel writing is available in Easy Come, Easy Go; Easy Pickings; Resting Easy; and Easy on the Eyes.