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Not surprisingly, as we headed from Italy over to Greece, our first stop out of Rome was in Sicily, the famous island at the tip of the Italian boot.  

Although the majority of our friends took off to see the lovely town of Taormina, Marla, Sam, and I decided to go see Mt. Etna, the most famous active volcano in Europe.  We took a very long bus ride through the scenic twisting countryside of Sicily. 

Sicily is a region of Italy with a population around 5 million.  As we learned, the island is economically depressed.  The majority of its economy is based on agriculture.  The other major industry is crime. es indeed, I was half-amused and half-appalled to discover the national hero of Sicily was the Godfather.   While here in America we admire Lincoln, Washington, et al, everywhere we went I saw tee-shirts, postcards, and framed pictures of the Marlon Brando character in the movie.  Good Grief!

Our guide discussed the Mafia in great detail on our bus ride up to Etna.  Although the Mafia operates mostly on the other side of the island, it continues to be a major force in the Sicilian culture.  Many Sicilians do not regard these men as criminals but as role models and protectors, given that the state appeared to offer no protection for the poor and weak.

During the mid-1800s, Italy waged a series of battles to free itself from outside domination by France, Spain, and Austria.  During this
Independence movement, Sicily fell under the domination of the Italian mainland.    There was little or no organized government.  In 1860, the new unified Italian state first took over both Sicily and the Papal States. Unfortunately their new Italian rulers looked more to exploit Sicily than make it feel like an equal member in the new government.  The Catholic Church did not like the new rulers of Italy.  The Popes were hostile to the new politicians and state and strongly encouraged Catholics to refuse to cooperate with the state.

During this turbulent period, Sicily had fallen to complete disorder.  The friction between the Church and the state gave a great advantage to violent criminal bands in Sicily who could claim to peasants and townspeople that cooperating with the police (representing the new Italian state) was an anti-Catholic activity. It was in the two decades following the 1860 unification that the term Mafia came to the attention of the general public, although it was considered to be more of an attitude and value system than an organization.

The Mafia became a means for rebels to defend the people against oppression, Roman and Northern Italian control, and outside invasion.  Using its "Robin Hood" origins, the Mafia gained the goodwill and trust from the Sicilian people by resisting outside government domination.

Meanwhile the new government in Rome had too many problems fighting France to worry about politics in Sicily, so they ignored the Mafia.  Using the social disorder to its own advantage, the Mafia turned to criminal activity such as protection rackets, cattle rustling, prostitution and eventually drugs.  The bribery of state officials was another main source of income for the early Mafia.

During Italy's Fascist period, Mussolini waged an all-out battle to suppress the Mafia. It takes a thug to beat a thug.  Badly weakened, the Mafia did not become powerful again until after Italy's surrender in World War II.  During the U.S. occupation after World War II, our own American government actually saw the Mafia as potential allies against the Communists.  The United States used Italian connections of American Mafiosi during the invasion of Italy and Sicily in 1943. Lucky Luciano and other Mafiosi, who had been imprisoned during this time in the U.S., provided information for U.S. military intelligence and used Luciano's influence to ease the way for advancing troops. Furthermore, Luciano's control of the ports prevented sabotage by agents of the Axis powers.

An alleged additional benefit (from the American perspective) was that many of the Sicilian-Italian Mafiosi were hard-line anti-communists. They were therefore seen as valuable allies by the anti-communist Americans, who allegedly used them to root out socialist and communist elements in the American shipping industry as well as wartime resistance movements and postwar local and regional governments in areas where the Mafia held sway.

Some say that the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, deliberately allowed the mafia to recover its social and economic position as the "anti-State" in Sicily, and with the U.S.-mafia alliance forged in 1943, this became the true turning point of mafia history and the new foundation for its subsequent 60-year rise to power.

Isn't it comforting to know the geniuses in our own government were responsible for the return to power of the most powerful crime syndicate in history? 




Sicily's greatest natural attraction is also its highest mountain.  Indeed, Etna is the tallest mountain south of the Alps.

To the ancient Greeks, Mount Etna was the realm of Vulcan, god of fire, and the home of the one-eyed monster known as the Cyclops. At approximately 3350 meters (11,000 ft), it is Europe's highest active volcano.  The height of its summit changes with each eruption, and over the centuries a few lava flows have reached the coast.

I was very curious to see Mt. Etna.  A History Channel story documented the theory that Mt Etna had been responsible for an enormous tsunami.  About 8,000 years ago, the eastern flank of the mountain experienced a catastrophic collapse, generating an enormous landslide in an event similar to that seen in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The landslide left a large depression in the side of the volcano, known as 'Valle del Bove' (Valley of the Ox). Research published in 2006 suggests that this occurred around 6000 BC, and caused a huge tsunami which left its mark in several places in the eastern Mediterranean. It may have been the reason that the settlement of Atlit Yam (Israel), now below sea level, was suddenly abandoned around that time.

Today over 1200 square meters of Etna's surface is covered with solidified lava. Etna offers skiing in the Winter months and breathtaking hikes in the woods during the Summer. There are also a number of smaller peaks on the slopes of Etna, and some interesting caverns.

Since Etna is a strato volcano, with relatively cool lava temperatures and numerous openings and vents, nobody ever knows precisely where on its vast surface the next eruption will be.  Etna's long recorded history has proven invaluable to the world's volcanologists.

When they say Etna is Europe's most active volcano, they aren't kidding.  Etna erupts all the time! For example, I read there was another eruption in November 2008, just two months after we visited the place.  

(By the way, did you know that ETNA or MTETNA is the answer to practically any crossword clue involving volcanos?  Peru's Misti Volcano is a distant second in Crossword importance.  Many people don't realize my real interest in travel is sneaky way to improve my Crossword skills.)

I was very surprised to learn that Etna has skiing in the winter.   My first clue was when I noticed the ski lifts taking people up to the summit.

My second clue about the winter skiing was when I noticed a postcard of Etna's most famous tourist trap, La Capannina, complete with plenty of snow. 

There is an area near the summit where all the tourist buses stop.  I counted a half dozen little Italian cafes that served wine, beer, sandwiches and gelato to the hundreds of tourists that visit this area on a daily basis. 

The most famous of these bistros is La Capannina, a combination grocery store/bistro with a fascinating story behind it.  Read the story

Sicilian family save their restaurant from Mount Etna eruption
(27 July 2001 17:14)

A Sicilian family of restaurateurs and hoteliers toiled for hours to divert an advancing mass of lava which threatened to destroy their restaurant last week.

After five days of eruptions on Mount Etna, Davide Corsaro was woken by one of his employees at 3am last Wednesday (18 July) to be told of an eruption only 100 metres from his restaurant.

Corsaro owns and manages the 19-bedroom Hotel Corsaro and the 30-seat La Capannina restaurant.  Both are in a mountain refuge at 2,100 metres, where cable cars and ski-lifts depart.

Corsaro said: "At 7am the lava began to move faster.  We made calls to the emergency services, but they did nothing until midday. 
We built a barrier of earth to control the path of the lava."  He said 10 firemen arrived two hours later and attacked the lava flow with 100,000 litres of water.

At one point the lava was only two metres from the restaurant.

A total of 20 people, including four members of the Corsaro family, successfully diverted the lava and saved La Capannina.  "It was like an American movie," Corsaro said.

The area is now closed to tourists. The state has promised financial support until the mountain refuge reopens but Corsaro said he was not holding his breath.

Road repairs to damage caused by an eruption in 1983 have not been finished. "We have a bad experience of broken promises," he said.

If you look at the pictures, you will be able to compare La Capannina before the 2001 Eruption and after the eruption.   As you can see, the lava flow literally ran right past the restaurant, but the little hut was spared.   It is good to see their rescue efforts paid off.

Other than the amazing story about the rescue of the little restaurant, this visit wasn't very exciting.  Since the area was above timberline, there wasn't a tree in sight.   Judging from the picture of La Capannina pre-2001, there used to be grass in the area, but no longer.  This area is as barren as a moonscape.   There is a huge ugly tableau of perpetual brownness everywhere you look.

I guess my biggest fuss was that we were given something like 30 minutes to look around.  The tour guide was frantic not to spend an extra second up here.  If nothing else, at least give us some time to hike around!  After a two hour ride up and a two hour ride back, the whole trip felt like a huge waste of time.  What they really wanted to do was to drop us off early in town with enough time to spend our valuable tourist money.  On the way back, Marla, Sam and I all looked at each other with regret - we should've gone to the beautiful town of
Taormina like everyone else.  Oh well.

Marla and Sam didn't even bother to climb the trails behind La Capannina.  So I took off on my own.  Below are some of the breath-taking pictures I took.


This is La Capannina BEFORE 2001 (wintertime)

This is La Capannina BEFORE 2001 (summertime)

Here you see La Capannina with the lava wrapped around it

I took this picture from the Cone Hill directly above La Capannina. 
The restaurant you see in the picture is across the street from La Capannina.

In this picture, I am at the bottom of a cone looking upwards.
Pretty exciting landscape, huh?


This sign marks where the trail begins. It is next to the lava that almost covered La Capannina Restaurant.  The sign says "20 minutes". 
Is that 20 up and 20 more back down?  Or 20 minutes for the Round Trip? 
I took a risk and went up.  It wasn't too steep so I ran up and back down. 
So to answer my own question, it's a 20 minute round trip if you run.

Another lava cone.  I hate to be negative, but this wasn't very much fun. 
The landscape was barren and ugly.  And I wasn't given enough time to go explore. 
Most of the tourists didn't even bother climbing.  They just hit the bars and started
to drink.  After all the fun I had exploring Mt Kilauea, a volcano in Hawaii ,
this trip was a huge disappointment.


As you can see, we are well above timberline.   You can see the ocean from Etna.
The distant blue you see is part coastline and part sky. 

Here is a picture of two lava cones side by side.  Such beauty! 
By the way, those dots on the trail are people.  This is a vast area.



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