Mt. Etna, the largest of Italy’s three active volcanoes, commands the view to the east of Enna, an ancient town built atop a hill in the middle of Sicily. A few miles farther and 2,000 feet higher on the road climbing out of the Dittano Valley, the smoking giant looms even larger as seen from the narrow ridge where the Greco-Roman village of Centuripe was established to defend a crucial trade route. The slopes of the ridge are crowded with pastel-colored houses and still, to this day, threading your way through Centuripe isn’t an easy proposition. The dark, narrow alleys sometimes end abruptly at stairways, and our own excursion through town is more strenuous than desired. But when finally emerging into sunlight, we’re rewarded immediately with an unobstructed view and stop to take in all of Etna’s 10,990 feet, rising from sea level in the fertile Simeto Valley.
Drawn Toward Etna
The epic mountain is so alluring we find it hard to look away. But we should. The road down from Centuripe is in such a state that every millimeter of suspension travel the Multistradas allow is needed. In other words, the holes and waves in the asphalt are much more multi than strada. The ground has a bad habit of moving here. Road conditions improve on the other side of the valley, where, in order to stay the night as close as possible to Etna, Michiel and I have booked accommodations halfway up the mountain.
All the curvy roads have taken their toll by the time dusk sets in, but still we have to keep on climbing. The lights far down in the valley, in Catania, are already on. And quite quickly, without any other traffic on this road squeezed between low walls of lava stone, I’m feeling lost and lonely in the darkness. It’s a relief to at last turn in on the hotel’s drive, a 400-foot, cobblestone parkway between chestnut trees that delivers us to the courtyard. Natural stone walls and an olive tree we’re told is several hundred years old provide the perfect ambience for a bottle of warming, locally produced red wine. Sicily is taking care of us most admirably right now.
The sky and sea! The morning is a bowl of blue above and below. But it’s cold at 6,000 feet, and although we’ve gained a lot of ground closing in on Etna’s smoking peak, we want to ride on, to draw nearer. Back inside Bosco Ciancio, our hotel, the owner draws us a small map so we can find our way on the little roads leading through forests of chestnut, and farther up, the oaks and pines. Reaching the zone marking Etna’s last big eruptions, in 2001, we’ve finally run out of trees. There’s not a single trunk to block our view anymore, and the pumice-saturated scene is stunning.
Motorcycle & Gear
Once on the main road from Catania to Rifugio Sapienza, the highest point you can travel by a street-legal vehicle, we’re no longer alone, becoming part of a considerable stream of traffic. No wonder, though—it is a gorgeous Sunday morning, and what better place to be than the upper heights of this storied mountain? That’s especially true for riders enticed by Etna and beautiful racecourse-shaped corners that start from the coast and continue on to their summit 7,000 feet above. I counted close to 300 motorcycles parked in front of the various restaurants and coffee shops offering their fare with free million-dollar views.
And the fun isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Corners down the other side toward Zafferana Etnea (a commune of Catania) seem to be endless. The village is crowded with festival-goers today, but back during Mt. Etna’s 1991-1992 eruptions the general mood in town wasn’t at all joyful as the lava flow was approaching. Nothing could stop it, and many people no doubt wondered if the town would have to be rebuilt yet again. However, this time, the scorching flow stopped only 2,500 feet from the first homes.