Victoria Cook, my co-presenter for this second block of filming in Sicily, arrived with our new director Ailsa yesterday. First thing this morning we were straight up to the cable car station on Mount Etna and Victoria was trying to ask an Italian man who couldn’t speak English as many questions about the volcano in a minute as possible. She’s never done our show before, so this was something of a baptism of fire which she handled with considerable aplomb.
Once that was done we boarded the craziest looking minibus I’ve ever seen. It had huge 4×4 monster wheels and resembled a school bus on steroids. As it grunted and grinded its way up a twisting track (which turns into a ski slope in the winter) we paused a few times en route to pop out and film facts about the desolate black gritty mountainscape around us.
Eventually we reached the highest point we could in the transporter – a jagged lava stream from a series of eruptions over the last 20 years which have buried a cable car station, a research centre and a lodge. The only sign of previous human habitation is a mast sticking out of the rocky lava with an orange flag tied to it. Above us on the mountainside were the already cooled remains of this week’s 2 day eruption, which led me to believe that the volcano was now dormant. This proved not to be the case. In the middle of filming a take a low level boom rumbled out from the mountain top and a cloud of smoke and gas shot out above us. I squealed in the same involuntary way I did when whale watching in Australia last year. It seems to be the noise I make when overwhelmed by spectacular displays of nature.
Luckily this was a fairly standard incident of Etna letting off steam. It will continue to be active for around another million years, and has many major eruptions to come, but today was not the day. The city of Catania, which nestles below the mountain, has already been destroyed 7 times and will inevitably be destroyed again. Basically, don’t buy a holiday home there.
After we wrapped filming it was time for us to drive from the East of Sicily to Contrada Ramaldo in the South. I’m not sure what I expected Sicily to look like, but our impression is that it’s seen better days. Every farm we passed seemed to be derelict, although someone seemed to be keeping an eye on most of the vines and olive trees that nestle away in the parched rolling valleys. There seem to be lots of failed projects from the 1980s – half finished housing estates, empty industrial parks, crumbling tower blocks. Our hotel is bizarre. It’s on the scale of a 1970s Las Vegas hotel, but dumped on the edge of town under a bypass bridge and appears to be devoid of guests. When we entered the giant marble foyer the only sign of life was about 7 Italians watching Italy lose the football.
Everyone seems quite content though. When we eventually found a pizzeria that was still open it was stuffed full of laughing children running around and happy families enjoying the cheap and tasty food that seems a god given right across Italy.