Etna; Etna

Day 355, Crotone, 23.071 km

If you want to read with music, here is the original soundtrack (think « Etna » during the chorus, you’ll see it’s like you’re there). 

Then, for those who are worried about my water state, you should know that since my acid pamphlet, my indictment of the water terrorists in these same columns last week, everything is back to normal: the cemeteries are open, the fountains are working, the « points » are back to being water points, I can drink my fill, and I don’t deprive myself of it… Seems that some messages come through…

4 intense days. That’s the least I can say… With the main character, at least for the first two days, the above-mentioned volcano. And as soon as I leave Syracuse, I see it. It will not leave me for 3 days. It crushes everything else from the top of its 3.300 meters. It is present, it is there: Etna. A short transition stage to Catania, where I spend the afternoon walking and preparing the next day’s stage, including eating the most gigantic pizza I’ve ever seen in Italy! (even with my crazy hunger I had difficulties to finish it…). At first I thought I’d go to the top of the volcano with Jay, but some research on the Internet quickly gave me a better idea: rather than struggling on mountain bike tracks, there are two accesses by the road, one to the south / one to the north, it’s a bit tough but it seems doable. After the double ration of Ventoux, a double ration of Etna!

You can’t miss it
Fountain, elephant, church, you can find everything in Catania

Departure in the early morning, after a copious breakfast, for the first ascent, the one of the south side. After a « soft » transition (not excessively flat either) and surprisingly devoid of cars (it must be the Sunday morning effect), we enter in the heart of the matter at the exit of Nicolosi. A regular slope, and quickly the landscape is transformed. I have memories of my trip in Iceland which go back up: the black sand on the side of the road, these tortured forms of rocks staked out by bushes, no doubt, we are near a volcano. With always in line of sight, which dominates us from all up there, the main crater of Etna and behind me the sea which fades away.

Catania and the sea in the distance

Arrived at the Sapienza refuge, at the end of my first ascent of the day, I am a little disappointed: I cannot see the main crater, hidden as it is by other craters. And I don’t dare to leave the bike too long and too out of sight, so a too long hike or a ride in the cable car are excluded. After a few tours of the craters accessible on foot, I say to myself that being « disappointed » is perhaps a bit much, the views are still quite incredible. And I even have the pleasant surprise to meet my breakfast companions who are doing a tour with the hostel’s manager. The world (well, Etna) is small!

You might be able to tell from the previous pictures, but I have a nice descent ahead of me. And the manager of the hostel tells me before leaving: « Be careful, there is a lot of sand on the road – Yes, Yes ». As soon as I say it, I forget it, and I start to ride downhill! And after almost 40 km of climbing, I don’t feel like hitting the brakes. First turn, 40 km/h, I go a little wide, I see at the last moment a pile of sand in the elbow, I feel my rear wheel starting to chase, I don’t dare to brake, nor to turn my handlebars, I see myself going straight into the safety barrier (all this happens of course in a fraction of a second, by the time you read this it has already happened 4 times). But it was only a small pile of sand, I quickly regain grip and a stable attitude. But I understand the « Be careful ». I also understand a little bit what people who told me they were afraid on the downhill can feel. Plus the sand is often in the turns, and I don’t see it until the last moment… 

At the bottom in one piece, I just have time to fill the water bottles and I start the second ascent of the day. A lot in the forest (in the shade, cool) at the beginning, I take advantage of every opportunity where I see the main crater to take a picture of it. Even against the light. Even if it’s the same thing every time. And as I take more and more pictures, I say to myself « Well, it’s funny this cloud, it looks like there’s smoke coming out of the volcano… »

Looking at it more closely, I’m thinking that it’s a rather big cloud, and there are weird noises too. A storm? But the sky is blue all around, I haven’t suddenly become a weather expert, but it doesn’t look like a storm. I finally realize that I am witnessing an eruption of Mount Etna. I would have liked to tell you that I had to avoid torrents of lava, that I had to dodge a rain of molten rock, that thanks to my faithful steed I was able to rescue a family in distress and get them out of the flames of the inferno, but mostly I saw a lot of smoke. And the people around me didn’t look that worried. But it’s still very impressive, so much so that I completely forgot to take pictures of Piano Provenzana, which concludes the ascent of the northern part of Etna. So you will only have pictures of the eruption…

What I didn’t fail to notice, however, is that the double ration of Etna succeeded where the double ration of Ventoux had failed: I have a new record of positive elevation gain in one day: 3.263 m! Most of it in the first 80 kilometers, which incidentally means 40 kilometers of descent, without sand this time, a real treat! I arrive on the coast, in the beautiful village of Taormina. A little dip in the water to refresh myself, and I start to look for a bivouac. As the night is falling and the two paths that are supposed to lead me a little away in the forest are in reality private paths, I end up settling on the side of the road…

Naxos and Taormina
Isola Bella

The next day, I take the road to Messina, give a high five to Poseidon and take the ferry to Italy. And I get the SS106 road again where I had left it, at Villa San Giovanni, and I continue my journey, wind at my back, towards the south of Italy. I notice that Etna has still not left me, it still watches over us from the other side of the strait…

Etna seems to come out of the water

I intend to follow the coast to Crotone, but I see a sign pointing north to the national park of Aspromonte. I remember having noted somewhere that it was worth taking a look at it. So I change my itinerary and decide to go for the mountains! During a water break, I meet a French guy who is also cycling around Italy, in the same direction, and we spend a good moment to discuss. At the moment of leaving, he realizes that his rear wheel is flat, and I abandon him to his repair… The discussion was pleasant and longer than expected, and I begin the first kilometers of the climb at about 18:30. Moreover the wind has risen, against me, and I start to feel my legs. I stop in a supermarket to buy something to improve my dinner (a beer, a piece of cheese and a tray of tomatoes) and while talking with one of the employees in a more than approximate Italian, I finally understand that the road I was going to take is blocked. It’s a bit much. Moreover the alternative road he advises me (and that I follow) goes up very (too?) much, and even if the view on the valley in the descent is rather nice, I’m fed up with it and I stop in the first field where a hedge of trees hides me a little from the road.

The next day, after 450m of flat, I start to climb. It’s hard and it doesn’t stop. When I think I’m at the top, when I say to myself: « there are no more trees above, we won’t be able to climb much higher », I take the next slope at 1000%. And I have the impression that it lasts at least 25 km (probably more around 10). Even if the view on the valley is great, I can’t wait to reach the top…

Then follows a small rolling part, in the forest, which reminds me a bit of the Czech Republic (and the emotional memory of bivouacs in the woods, without cars or neighbors) and I arrive at a crossroads: on the right, I go back down towards the coast and the sea. To the left, I continue in the park, in the mountain, with the promise of other climbs. And of course, I turn left! Forget the last few kilometers, the burning legs and the excruciating climbs. It seems that memory is selective. To convince myself of the validity of my decision, I put together some solid arguments: 1. Very few cars. 2. Fresh water springs to quench my thirst. 3. Between 800 and 1,100 m of altitude, it’s rather 25° than 35°. 4. The higher it is, the more beautiful it is! And a little voice inside me hopes that the upcoming climbs won’t be as horrible as the one in the morning… In the end I got everything right, the hardest was behind and the most beautiful in front…

I only have to cover the short distance that still separates me from Crotone, a matter of half a day. Which doesn’t start well, since I decide to follow the main road, its trucks and other driving enthusiasts, while a small road winds quietly along the cliff. Then I meet a guy who compliments me on my Italian, it’s 9:30 am, I don’t know what he drank but it seems efficient. I even manage to order a meal without a word of English (I’m not sure what I’m eating, but it’s very good), and I don’t have the heart to refuse a coffee when I see the reaction of the chef at the first attempt!

Capo Colonna and its Roman remains
A coffee – No thanks – Are you sure? – Well, ok.

And for those who have trouble keeping up with all these names, a little point on the map: 

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