Gita Italiana 2010: Sicily’s Mount Etna

Our next Gita Italiana stop is just a ferry ride away from me in Sicily, but I’ve still never been to see Mount Etna in person. Giving us the goods on this hot spot (ha!) is none other than Alexia Murray of 2 Kids and a Dog — you remember the family with the hilarious calendar and YouTube videos? Welcome Alexia!


Our gita Italiana starts like this:

I’m brusquely awoken by something pounding on my belly.  I open my eyes, and realize it is a small boy, an odious boy, who happens to be my son.  He dashes off cackling and I catch sight of the clock.  Darn! The alarm didn’t go off!  We’re late!  We gotta get out of bed and head up the mountain before (dramatic, scary music) the tourists get there!

Alexia, Nick, Liam, and Luce (don't worry -- the arm is fine!)

Alexia, Nick, Liam, and Luce (don't worry -- the arm is fine!)

As some of you know, my husband Nick is Sicilian and we always spend part of our summer in his hometown, Catania.  One of our yearly day trips is visiting the Etna volcano, a massive active volcano standing 3,329 meters high that dominates the east coast of Sicily between Messina and Catania.  The last eruption was in April of this year.  In 2001, a crater even opened dangerously close to the town of Nicolosi.  The worried townspeople brought out their Saint from the church and the lava stopped.  A miracle!

“I’m going to need another miracle to get my family moving,” I think as I gaze across the bed and see Nick snoozing beside Luce, our 6 year-old daughter.  Only 3 hours later we’re in the car, picnic packed, camera in tow and donning high-tech mountain gear (clothes from Nick’s prepubescent era).

Obviously, being “Catanese”, Nick does NOT consider himself a tourist, but a LOCAL, a gruff mountain man, bordering on volcano expert…even though he goes to the Etna once a year (using his satellite navigator) and doesn’t know the difference between magma and lava (do you?).   As we snake up to the Etna (about 30 km from Catania), Nick grumbles that we’ll get to the cable-car station just as the bus loads of (scary music) tourists start swarming in.  He pleads, “ let’s just go to the beach!” No way Jose, the kids demand to eat their salami sandwiches face to face with the mighty Etna.

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Finally, we pull up to the “rifugio Sapienza” at 1910 meters.  Nick’s mood changes (thank God) when he immediately finds a parking spot.  A miracle, he announces.  My day starts to look better.  Pasty-faced with total sunscreen, we climb into our own private cable-car, the kids buzzing with adrenaline.  Luce, the wise one of the family, inquires, “Mom, what happens if the volcano explodes now?” I laugh and reply, “don’t worry about it sweetie, it’s not going to happen…” But the question echoes  in my head… “crap, what happens if the volcano really does explode, NOW?” I instantly file the thought into the “I can’t deal with that” section of my brain.  The 15 minute cable-car ride flies by, apart from a brief episode when the gondola (no, not the ones in Venice!) suddenly stops and we dangle in thin air for what seems like an eternity.  Liam jumps up exclaiming, “I need to go poo-poo,” making us lurch precariously.  To avoid a panic attack, I spend the rest of the gondola ride on an astral voyage.

At 2500 meters, we roll out the plaid blanket and devour our picnic. I scoff at the (scary music) tourists, some in flip flops, struggling to walk over the jagged lava rocks, others with straw beach mats under their arms.  I wonder, “what were they thinking when they decided to spend the day on the highest active volcano in Europe?” I gaze down at my feet, proud to be wearing my robust high-top sneakers.  That lava ain’t got nothing on me in these.

The view is stunning from our picnic spot.  We’re on top of the world.  Everything around us is black, while Catania and the immense sea gleam below us.  I can practically see all the way across Sicily, to the Madonie mountains where (more dramatic music) Corleone is…  It’s amazing.

Alexia's trusty hightops

Alexia's trusty hightops

After lunch we get on a jeep-bus with gigantic wheels, a relic from some lunar expedition.  The NASA-mobiles will take us up to 3000 meters to visit a small active crater!  The kids tingle with anticipation.  On the way up Luce eats three ham sandwiches, a banana, a zucchini omelet and belts out “Old McDonald” to the dismay of our fellow travelers.  Liam, on the other hand…falls asleep.  Nick is very pleased as he will have to carry Liam on his back like a donkey when we take our one-hour hike around the crater.  Upon arriving, we are greeted by our guide, a REAL, although slightly elderly, mountain man with a thick Sicilian accent who occasionally utters a few words in French (in the same Sicilian accent).  Do I look French, I wonder?  I don’t know.

As I take my first step behind our guide I feel something strange on my foot.  I realize that my sturdy, reliable high-tops are disintegrating.  The soles are detaching and I’m going to kill myself on the top of a mountain in Sicily.  So much for my high-tech gear, I might as well have worn flip flops.  However, the situation is not so dismal as I soon figure out how to walk so the soles don’t catch on the craggy rocks.  I know I look like I’m doing a Monty Python “silly walk,” but I hold my head up high, avoiding the (scary music) tourist’s curious gaze and focus on the incredible moon-scape around me.  The top of the volcano looms above us, smoking enigmatically.  When I put my hand on the ground it is warm, and when I dig a bit, it’s hot!  Steam bellows out of the smaller crater below us and is whisked off by the wind.  Oh, and by the way, it’s freezing.  So, we take out our shiny, ’80’s triacetate-polyester tracksuit jackets and bundle up.  Lookin’ good, feelin’ good.

By the time we walk all the way around the crater, Nick is cussing in Sicilian due to the sizable weight in his arms (Liam), not to mention the 4 liters of water he is carrying in his backpack.  I am waddling like a neurologically damaged duck and Luce is getting reprimanded by the Sicilian guide (in French) for throwing rocks over the edge of the crater.  Ah, just another day of our relaxing vacation… And we still have to get down the mountain…

But all in all, a great Italian gita.

Mount Etna looms behind Calabria

Mount Etna looms behind Calabria


Alexia Murray is an American mom living in Rome with her Sicilian husband (who claims to descend directly from the Druids), two vivacious kids and their dog Hamlet.  Together they’ve created, a site that hosts an ongoing comic web series, which thrice weekly reveals in short snippets what really happens to make their ridiculous yearly family calendar.  Documenting the activities is a multi-tasking mom and a burnt-out pop, cooky costumes, home-made sets, an absurdly busy doorbell, a slow burning soup on the stove, surreptitious sibling rivalry, and a lot of barking.

All photos courtesy of Alexia Murray. Also, for a live shot of Mount Etna, check out the Mount Etna webcam.


Grazie mille Alexia and family!

Are you ready for some Puglian action? That’s where we’re headed tomorrow…

6 Beans of Wisdom to “Gita Italiana 2010: Sicily’s Mount Etna”
  1. Gil

    Lovely pictures! Oh to be young and healthy enough to carry out such an adventure.

    Living vicariously is great too 😀

  2. 08.28.2010

    Alexia is hilarious, I had no idea she was such a great reportage journalist too!

    Loved this installment of Gita Italiana, and enjoyed meeting yet another mutual friend here.


  3. 08.28.2010

    This was great fun. Glad it was you, though, and not me!

    Hahaha, I’m with you Jen 😉

  4. 08.28.2010

    Thanks Michelle! I had a great time writing this post!
    Is it bedtime yet?

    Hahaha buona notte 😉

  5. 08.29.2010

    I loved your post. My mother, who is gone now, was from Sicily. She went to school in Catania and used to tell us about walking to class with umbrellas, because of the ash from Mt. Etna!

  6. 08.30.2010

    What a trip! I’m exhausted and I wasn’t even there! Sure keeps you on your toes though!

    I once spent a very memorable day in Catania but didn’t have the chance to visit Mount Etna. Loved living it vicariously through you, Alexia!

    And love your family’s calenders as well!



Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake