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Getting around

Part 2: Catania, Mt Etna

22.12: Munich -> Catania
23.12: Acireale - Mt Etna - Acireale
24.12: Acireale -> Taormina -> Acireale
25.12: Acireale -> Aci Castello -> Catania -> Acireale
26.12: Acireale -> Villa Romana del Casale -> Palermo
27.12: Daytrip to Cefalu
28.12: Palermo
29.12: Palermo -> Monreale -> Palermo

30.12: Palermo -> Riserva naturale dello Zingaro -> Trapani
31.12: Trapani -> Erice -> Trapani
1.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Trapani
2.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Selinunte -> Agrigento
3.1: Agrigento -> Ragusa
4.1: Ragusa -> Modica -> Siracusa
5.1: Siracusa
6.1: Siracusa -> Catania -> Munich

22.12: Munich -> Catania
Hotel All Seasons, Acireale. Part of a package deal, the room must have cost 80 Euro/night. This is for a nice, large room with two double beds, suitable for four people. The room has a flat screen TV, phone, fridge, A/C, attached bathroom with shower bath tub, table, decent furniture but no cupboard. It's a sort of "budget no frills luxury" hotel.The (buffet) breakfast is included.
Weather: +4C, rainy and overcast in Munich in the morning. +14C in Catania with a mix of clouds, sunshine and light rain.

We reach the airport around 8:20am and proceed to the check-in counter. Lots of people at the airport this morning, as if half of Munich was on the move. Long queueing time at the Air Berlin check-in counter, long queue after that at the security check. The plane, a B737-700, is almost completely full. In fact at the check-in counter the guy had mentioned that they overbooked the flight. Tiny, narrow seats in the plane (rows of 6 seats).

This 9:45am flight finally takes off at 10:10am with 25 minutes of delay. Some turbulence when flying over the Alps, otherwise the flight proceeds smoothly.

Despite the delay we land in Catania on time at 11:55am. I check the distance between Munich and Catania - slightly above 1200km. At a flight speed of 900km/h this can be covered in 1h 20 min, but Air Berlin declares a flight time of 2h 10 min. It seems that Air Berlin is including in these 2h 10 min processing delays at the Munich airport and an extra long time for the plane to finally take off after boarding is completed. By contrast, Airasia has minimal processing and take off delays.

It takes a while to retrieve the luggage at the baggage retrieval belt. But the cool thing is that there are no trolleys, despite the fact that they charge you 1 Euro to use one. I can't remember having ever landed in an airport which charges money to use trolleys upon arrival or which has no trolleys in the arrivals area. Even those tiny remote rural airports in Malaysian Borneo have baggage trolleys in the arrivals area, but the Catania airport has none.

Apart from the trolley issue the Catania airport seems to be ok. I was fearing the worst (deep Italian south, mafia etc.), but no, Catania airport is more or less ok.

I then proceed to the car rental. I've rented a mid-sized saloon car for 16 days with Europcar through a German reseller. The counter is in a small building about 50m outside the airport. The staff is professional and friendly. Initially they give me a compact car, one class below what I ordered. When I complain they change the car into a much larger one (Peugeot 5008), sort of a small minivan. For the same price.

The Europcar staff tells me I can park the car in downtown Catania. No problem according to them as long as no luggage is visible, i.e. as long as I keep all stuff hidden in the car boots.

It's about 1:40pm when I have finally the family and the luggage in the car and am ready to leave. Some initial panic as I can't find the controls, then finally we leave. The car navigation system (a Samsung S2 smartphone with the Navigon Europe software) works flawlessly from the beginning.

The airport in Catania is just 5km out of town, so driving into the city centre takes not much time. It's just that the road setup is a bit unusual, so I feel a bit uneasy to drive on the streets. And I'm not yet used to the size and shape of this car and the controls.

We park the car very close to Duomo square, near the fish market. It's 2pm and parking is free until 3:30pm, so we'll have to come back to buy a parking ticket. Then we start exploring Catania.

We get overwhelmed by the fish market. Very amazing place, with fish sellers, big sword fish, very picturesque. In fact the entire market scene is great. Soon after that we reach the Duomo square. Very nice and would look even better if the sun was shining and there was the proper light.

It's 2:15pm and we still have had no lunch, except for a sandwich served at 11am on the AirBerlin flight. There is a small restaurant next to the Duomo square promising authentic Sicilian food. Not cheap though, since a dish of noodles starts at 10 Euro. But we can't find any other restaurant in the immediate neighbourhood, so we decide to have some quick lunch in this place.

Big mistake, as this turns out to be an overpriced tourist trap. The pizza is thin and burnt, the French fries are burnt as well, and they charge us 12 Euro simply for using the table (four "coperto" at 3 Euro each, one per person, even the small kids pay that). Total of 37 Euro for two pizzas, the French fries and one bottle of water. I guess that for the rest of the trip we'll avoid whenever possible Sicilian restaurants.

At 3:15pm we continue exploring Catania. Actually we don't get far, because Shirley and Natasha are tired and can't walk. We just walk around a bit the area. It's sort of nice, although not too impressive. Would probably be nicer if it wasn't raining and the sun was shining instead.

Shortly after 4pm we get back to the car. The idea would be to get to the hotel and on the way to stop at a shopping mall where to buy some food, shop around and have dinner.

Somehow the navigation system chooses not to use the motorway, which in fact is too far inland and guides us through a maze of streets in Catania, then through a maze of streets outside of Catania. Really complicated to get to Acireale where the hotel is. The streets are very, very narrow and there is a lack of street signs (I often wonder how fast I'm allowed to drive). When it gets dark, it is difficult to see the street border because it is not marked.

We stop at a supermarket along the way where we buy some groceries, then finally reach the hotel. Surprise, surprise near the hotel there is a big shopping mall, the type we have been looking for.

In the evening we just stay in the hotel.

23.12: Acireale - Mt Etna - Acireale
Hotel All Seasons, Acireale. This morning we discover that the breakfast is really excellent. Buffet type, wide choice of things to eat, fresh fruits (even pineapple). There is even a machine into which you put an orange and which generates freshly squeezed orange juice.
Weather: sunny weather the whole day. The temperatures are mild, probably around +15 or more at sea level. On Mt Etna it's still sunny but quite fresh, with a very strong wind blowing above 2500m.

We get up, have breakfast and at 11am leave the hotel and drive towards Mt Etna. Initially we drive along the coast towards the north for a while, then at one point we follow the indications of the Navigon navigation system and turn left. By the way, beautiful countryside and great light on this December morning.

After a number of intermediate photo stops we reach the Zafferana village shortly before 12pm.

I must say that we are driving relatively slowly, since we are not in a hurry and the roads anyway are quite horrible. They are very often very narrow and we need to turn left and right very often. I wonder if it's the navigation system which is sending us on a weird route or if really this is the only way to reach Mt Etna from Acireale.

Zafferana is sort of cute, but not too interesting and after about 20 minutes we leave for Mt Etna, by turning left at the Tamoil petrol station.

The road finally improves, as we get out of the village areas. It's no longer a maze of narrow alleys with frequent intersections. It's a decent mountain road which allows to drive at a bit faster speeds (although actually most of the time you may not/cannot drive faster than 50km/h).

Great views of Mt Etna covered with snow. Especially the contrast of the black lava stone with the white snow is striking. Along the way we see cars with snowmans on the front windscreens driving down from Mt Etna. Apparently it's a local custom to drive up to Mt Etna, make a snowman on the car and drive down to the sea.

Shortly after 1pm we reach the Rifugio Sapienza mountain station at 1920m altitude, which apparently is the highest point you can reach by car. We are now surrounded by snow fields and I'd guess that the snow must have started around 1600m above sea level.

To continue towards Mt Etna there is a cablecar, the Funivia dell'Etna. Quite pricey, as we pay a total of 85 Euro for the four of us (kids pay 15 Euro, adults a steep 28.75 Euro).

Later I realise that the hill station of this cable car lies only at 2520m (i.e. 600m higher), making this cablecar ticket price even less justified.

The scenery in any case is impressive. It's slopes of black and brown lava stone with white snow streaks. Also this panorama with the snow mountain on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other side is quite striking.

There is still not that much snow, probably it's too early in the season. This is a skiing area, with lifts and cablecars designed to bring skiers up, but at the moment the ski slopes are not properly covered with snow.

We reach the top station of the Etna cablecar at 1:40pm. It consists of a building which houses a shop and a restaurant. From here you can continue with a short skilift to a higher level. Outside of the building it's cold and there is strong wind.

There is the option to continue with a minibus to a place called Montagnola. The cost is 26 Euro per adult + an obligatory guide for 9 Euro. Two adults + two kids must be close to 100 Euro. A quick check on a map shows that this Montagnola list just at 2670m, only 150 metres higher than where we are now. Not worth spending so much money for such a short trip.

Since outside the wind is very strong, I leave Shirley with the kids in the restaurant and continue on my own to a higher place from which there is a better view of Mt Etna. Walking up the slopes is quite a challenge, because I'm not used to the thin air and initially struggle a bit with the breathing. And then there is this very strong wind blowing into my face.

While walking up I run into people who are getting down and back to the cablecar station. I have a chat with a group of tourists from Sardinia, who in the end insist that I drink a glass of wine with them. I decline because I still need to walk a bit and the conditions are so challenging. I don't need alcohol in my blood right now.

Essentially, if you walk a bit from the cablecar hill station, you reach a point from which you have a nice view of the summit of Mt Etna and of the Mediterranean sea. Really an impressive view, with the snow, lava fields, the sea. What a contrast.

While walking back I notice that there is something looking like a mini-crater from whose rim there are gas emissions.

I'm back at the cablecar station at 3pm. We then take the cablecar to get back down to the car and at 3:35pm start driving back to Acireale. The idea is to head to this Il Ciclope mall (the one near the hotel) and spend the rest of the day relaxing there, shopping, having some food etc.

It takes quite some time to reach Acireale, more than I would have imagined. In fact we are at the mall only at 5pm, after having driven for well over an hour across a crazy maze of Sicilian roads.

The mall turns out to be a disappointment. It's not what we were thinking it would be. There is no food court area, only two cafes serving a very limited choice of food, mostly sandwiches and simple ready-made meals. I finally get SIM cards for the mobile phones (15 Euro with 7.50 Euro of airtime, 23 cents/minute for calls and a 250MB Internet package valid for one week).

We do some more shopping, then eat something in a cafe. Not worth mentioning, the kids have each a chocolate pancake as dinner, Shirley and I have an ice cream. Later in the hotel we eat more sandwiches.

From a culinary perspective our Sicily trip has so far been well below expectations. We haven't been able so far to find good Sicilian food, were ripped off in a restaurant and now are having difficulties even finding restaurants. We see very few restaurants along the way. Hopefully tomorrow the situation will improve when we visit Taormina.

After the mall we head back to the hotel and spend the evening there.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon