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Catania, Sicilia 18 October 2011

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The emotional weather changed. We awoke to a magnificent view out over the Gulf of Santa Eufemia from our perch in the Not-4-Star Hotel. Even the usually uninspired Italian "breakfast" couldn't bum me, nor the congestion on the A3 into Reggio. They're building a spectacular new A3 and using half the old one as a construction bed for the new tunnels and bridges, and the traffic is fierce. We found the Reggio Airport in the middle of a rough neighborhood with narrow streets and much crazy traffic, but I managed to get gas and return the car ...then we were in the hands of the pros. Bus to the port, hydrofoil to Messina, 10 minutes until the train to Catania left, zip zip!

Catania reached out and offered us a hotel near the Stazione Centrale with an English-speaking desk clerk who solicitously helped me check the internet in our baroque room with doors to a jungle of plants. Quiet at night, internet mostly works, cool. Only a barking dog to spoil the picture.

My friend the clerk suggested a restaurant where locals go around the corner, and we had a nice, fairly-priced dinner with cheerfully careful service. Found our shopping needs quickly. Enjoyed the feel of the town. It's big, 300,000 people, Sicily's second city ... but they're friendly people, and tolerant.

mouse over for context

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<p>the jungle out our door</p>

the jungle out our door

A few thoughts about selecting accommodations: this one, Hotel Romeo, I found by walking in a likely direction away from the Central Train Station. We have to leave again by bus from the train station, and it takes a pretty special hotel to make dragging luggage through busy Italian city streets worthwhile. Up until now we have been choosing based on TripAdvisor reviews and Rough Guide and Rick Steves guidebook recommendations, and our results have been spotty at best. With the tourism rush abated, we'll be trying more of the "arrive and look around" approach. It sure did work here! We'll likely stay here for two more days in about a week.

I have already mentioned how important wifi has become. Friendly staff is number two. Comfort and quiet are crucial. Even the breakfast here is good. 

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Nothing cheers me up more than a good narrow-gauge train ride, and we got a great one today! It's called the Circumetnea, because it visits the towns that snuggle just out of harms way (most of the time) around Mount Etna, Sicily's very active volcano.

Without a car, every day trip is a production. We had to find the Metro that runs from Central Station to the station from which the Circumetnea departs. Then we needed to find lunch. By "production" don't take me to mean it's a bad thing; this is what our kind of travel is about. We found the guy who makes great panini (sandwiches) and specified ours down to the kind of cheese (cacchiocavone, a BIG local cows milk cheese) and local salami plus local spicy sliced mushrooms marinated in local olive oil on a fresh baked round bun. Anticipating the eating was almost as good as the eating! Then some fruit: the fruit seller had fresh persimmons at the peak of ripeness that you could suck dry ...and mandarins as big as oranges.

Back to the station in time for a mad rush for the best seats on the mountain side of the one-car self-propelled train -- think skunk car, for you folks in Fort Bragg, only narrow gauge. Then, one minute late, the mighty chug begins from sea level up to just under 1,000 meters (3,200 feet). I could bore you with dozens of pictures of the changing moods of Etna, but here are a representative few, more or less in order.

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Catania goes on for some time, the train chugging uphill through backyards of a city that has apparently grown without planning. The area around Etna is very densely populated despite the dangers. 

When the city recedes, you're in volcanic terrain -- note the volcanic cave at the right of the picture. It was a beautifully clear day, and Mount Etna was making all the clouds when we started. The soil is pure, supporting cacti and scrub where it hasn't been carefully walled and amended to support oranges and olives at this altitude. Snow from a recent storm still collars the mountain, but its a smaller collar than it was yesterday. This is Etna's south slope.

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<p>plenty of cactus, and plenty of building material</p>

plenty of cactus, and plenty of building material

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We approach the top of our climb at Roccacalanna, with Sicily stretching far into the distance. It is a very large island, and, as you can see, very bumpy. The bottomlands are rich in agriculture, with orange orchards, vineyards, greenhouses, and truck cropping right around the year. Most of the people live in the rocky hills where the soil isn't as precious, and there is plenty of building material. The downside risk is that if Etna has taken this slope before (as the lava testifies) it can again.

In 1992, Etna took nine hikers on the rim of its main caldera. In 1972 it ate the scientific station designed to predict future "events." Living this close to an active volcano doesn't seem to bother the locals any more than earthquakes bother us Californios.

Sadly, the "architecture" here is cracker box 1970s, charmless and undistinguished. Most of the "flight to urban life" has happened here in the last 40 years.

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The train kept loading up with high school students and then unloading them a few stops along. Italy has an interesting, and potentially clever, approach to educating its young. Little ones go for what we consider a long day. The adolescents like the "deviatori" shown here get out at one, in time to go home for lunch and a siesta, or to jobs. The boys in particular are as butt-headed as their American counterparts, hacking around to impress each other and any girls present. We happened to have two young lovelies on the whole circumnavigation with mother and grandfather, and they were ostentatiously unimpressed.

I write "potentially clever" because I think the principle work done in "high school" is social, and any attempt to teach hard subjects after noon is doomed to failure. The only reason to keep them in jail is to get them off the streets and their parents hands. Put them to gainful work, or apprenticeship, or enrich the education of the truly interested. I go a step farther: end their "solids" at noon, and put them to work cooking their lunches ... from food grown by those that can't find other work in the afternoon on the school farm. 

These kids all had cellphones and iTunes and American clothes with English slogans. The kid in this picture had sweat pants on that say Hollywood. You can see my reflection in the window. Count me among the deviatori.

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We've worked our way around to the north side now. Two or three ridges keep the lava flows away, and there's good soil here, hence this is the famous grape growing region. The mountain has cloaked itself in cloud blowing off toward the northeast, and the sun makes photography problematic. Earlier we could see that there is an ice field on the northeast side that was too bright to photograph.

We went through the "anchor" town of the railroad, Randazzo, the largest city on the route (beside Catania, of course, and it doesn't count.) We took on a particularly rambunctious group of fanculi here; the two beauties above being among them. Another group on a train full of students decided I look like Santa Claus and were yelling "Hey, Santa Claus!"

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<p>Almost down the hill into Giarre,...

Almost down the hill into Giarre, due northwest, (above left) we could see the train of vog produced by the mighty mountain engine. Then, back in a standard gauge train for the ride from the narrow gauge terminus at Giarre to Catania, a thirty minute ride, we can see how the mountain is a calder with a mountain inside it, evidence of previous major events. Will this mountain blow its top, Mount Saint Helens style? If it does, it will be catastrophic.

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Onward to Vallelunga

Tomorrow we relocate, by bus and train, to the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school on the Regaliali estate in the middle of Sicily for three days of cooking.

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