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“Not Your Grandfather’s Sicily”
by Ondine Cohane
“After a few miles on the road to Mount Etna, Sicily’s villages disappear, leaving just the sharp contrast of the forested areas (known as dagala) and the lava fieldsof the volcano,ossified and nearly barren. Flashes of the Ionian Sea are visible below. Carmelo Giuffrida, my guide, explains how the split nature of this landscape is echoed in the character of the people who live close by, in their irreverence and fatalism. One house might be destroyed in an eruption; another, only feet away, spared. We get out of the van and start climbing toward the Valle del Bove. Apart from the crunch of our boots on the volcanic sand, an occasional birdcall, and a low grumbling from the volcano that becomes more apparent as we ascend, there are no sounds. The hard climb means that Carmelo and I barely speak, save for his pointing out trees and plants. Many of these have medicinal and mythic associations: One is thought to halt mortality, another is an antiseptic that Achilles supposedly used, and a third would hydrate lonely climbers when there was no water around. As we get higher, the trees seem more like bonsai than pine. A pair of falcons hover overhead. And then we arrive at the Valle del Bove, a vast crater that resembles an unending primordial valley. As Carmelo moves off to let me experience it by myself, the rumbling grows more intense. I sit there for what feels like an hour, watching the shadows change. Carmelo, a fifty-year-old naturalist from Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, on the eastern coast, left the island for a couple of decades to live in New York, and traveled extensively in Latin America and India. Then he moved back and started to work as a guide, introducing visitors to the unique flora and wildlife and to the true character of Etna, the paradox of violence and nurturing, that is the reality of the volcano. As we walk back down from our conquest, we discuss Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia—and then how the personality of the volcano (the creator, the destroyer, and the equalizer) can be compared to Indian deities.I am struck by how Carmelo’s adventures farther afield have made him more attuned to nuance in his explanations of his home turf.
Carmelo is part of a new wave of Sicilians who are changing the way the island is experienced by travelers. Sicily, known for sending away its sons and daughters, is, like my native Ireland, reversing the migratory pattern as a result of new prosperity. Talent is coming home, and making its mark!”
Il mensile per l’ecologia della mente e la decrescita felice
“Etna walk : Primordial Charm”
by Maria Ferdinanda Piva
“Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, one of the most active in the world and a magic and primordial place. To visit these places of rare beauty, the best way is to go walking.”
Visiting Etna is like stepping into a concentrated space and time. In just a few kilometers you can pass from the warmth of the Sicilian beaches (you can swim from spring to late autumn) to the snow, which is sometimes still present in May to the top at over 3300 meters above the sea level. As for the passing of time, the landscape shaped by the highest and most active volcano in Europe varies so quickly that the changes can already be seen in few months or few years, not in millions of years like normally happens elsewhere. Over 700-800 meters there are few traces of human activity, because it is not worthwhile to plow fields, plant vineyards and build houses on which any day may be destroyed by the fury of lava. The real estate that usually leave an inheritance to their children and grandchildren, here at any moment can be sucked into the vortex of transformation. It is as if the volcano wanted to underline the impermanence and irresistible tendency to change of everything that surround us: an element that western thought does not takes into account very often.
The Tao of Etna
“It’s the Tao of Etna.” sums up Carmelo Giuffrida. He called “Etnatao” his project, which consists in leading naturalistic excursions on Mt. Etna. Carmelo is a naturalistic guide and has a degree in geology, fact quite rare, the latter among the guides working around the volcano and more generally in Sicily.
“The majority of my hosts are foreigners. – he says. Especially from Germany, Uk and France. They are between 30 and 50 years, who have usually learned from their parents to appreciate the pleasures of hiking. In Italy walking is not yet this popular, many people consider it not very interesting. Instead, I am convinced that it is an intriguing experience and the best way to approach nature. I’m trying with difficulty to build an awareness of this type here in the south, where the distance from environmental issues is higher than the italian average”. Not to mention that Etna is indeed a regional park, not a national park as it should be and the management of this vast territory is largely bureaucratic, with a lack of efficient services and controls. Despite this, Etna has much to offer, and is a great place to learn to appreciate all that “slow” tourism is able to offer. Nature does not merely provide fireworks at the top of the volcano (about mutability of the landscape: three of the four summit craters were born in 1900, the latest in 1971), but unfolds in a thousand aspects at various altitudes. Many volcanoes have only a rocky desert landscape, Mt. Etna has also large areas covered with vegetation.
An extraordinary flora
Being a huge volcano overlooking the sea, Mt. Etna shows a broad range of habitats that change according to the altitude and a very extended blooming season that may start at the sea level around January and may last up to late October at 1800 or 2000 meters. There are many endemic plants, such as the Etna Broom (Genista aetnensis) or the two varieties of daisy looking flowers (the only two endemic species able to grow up to 3050 meters of altitude, in the heart of the volcanic desert) the Senecio aetnensis and Anthemis aetnensis. Who would expect to find here, at a stone’s throw from Africa, Birch trees so typical of northern and central Europe? They moved southwards during last ice age and eventually arrived here colonizing the slope of Etna. Isolation, combined with the extreme characteristics of the environment, has led them to evolve into a separate species, the Betula aetnensis, able also to withstand the long and dry summers. Here you can also find Beech trees (Fagus Sylvatica), typical also of cooler climates. Here the Beech trees reach the highest altitude in Europe (over 2200 meters above the sea level) and also this is the southermost area in all this continent where this kind of tree can grow. Beyond the limit of trees and below the beginning of the volcanic desert, Etna offers another exclusive habitat : the Astragaletum. Named after the Astragalus Siculus, another endemic plant. It is an area of low and bushy and nearly all endemic plant, that climbs the sides of the mountain (up to 2500 meters) until it reaches the volcanic desert of the highest altitudes of the volcano. The perimeter of the volcanic cone measure at the base over hundred km, but winds in areas of urbanized enough. The walk is more interesting at middle altitudes: thirty km in three to four days, with overnight stays in bivouacs. The landscape is anything but monotonous even when it is crossed horizontally instead of vertically.You can often see side by side two different faces of nature: the moony landscape of recent lava flows and, in a surrealistic contrast, extended green areas where the vegetation, after several centuries of struggle, has re-conquered and colonized old lava fields.
The footprint of an extreme volcano
There are incredible differences between different sides of Mt. Etna. To the East there is a big volcano-tectonic valley,Valle del Bove, a place that condenses most of the volcanological history of Mt. Etna. To the South many different lava flows flew down in the past centuries and the result is a fascinating landscape where each flow is at a different stage of colonization by pioneer vegetation. To the North you got extended areas covered by Pine trees (Pinus Nigra), Beech trees (Betula aethnensis) and and higher up the Grotta del Gelo, a volcanic cave where the ice is present all year round. To the West Etna has a totally different shape and offers a fantastic landscape that opens up to the inner part of Sicily. At just an hour travel by car from Catania and is already possible to find interesting trails that go through pristine and remote landscapes, that give you the impression of a magic place lost in time. “The ecofriendly excursions I propose – Carmelo says – tend to emphasize all the facets of Mt. Etna in order to discover the essence and the energy of this charming volcano”.
He also organizes excursions in the Egadi and Aeolian Islands, and in other parks of Sicily.
Guía de Sicilia
“Rumbo a Sicilia” by Miguel Reyero
“For something more than the usual excursion to Etna, please contact Carmelo Giuffrida, a geologist and an excellent naturalistic guide of Catania. After living in half the world (of course speaks Spanish), he will share with you his great knowledge about the geology, flora and fauna of the volcano and its vicinity. From easy walks in fascinating places like the Valle del Bove, to longer hikes for both individual and small groups with different budgets. In any case you will know much more about the mountain, its evolution that had a great influence on the land and even to its inhabitants.”
Hunter Adventure Sicily Guide
Excursions on Mt. Etna Independent operators :
Carmelo Giuffrida speaks several languages, including English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.
He is an appassionate supporter of Etna’s environmental and ecological tourism.
VoyageSicile France Green Sicily U.K.
We have been working with Carmelo Giuffrida for four years for the naturalistic excursions on Mt. Etna. He is our favourite guide! His long experience and his gift of easily passing you even the most technical information allowed our guests to fully appreciate the excursions. From time to time he proposes new and tailor made excursions based on the rhythm and the level of the group, scrupulously following the changing weather conditions. He has a deep knowledge of all the different realities of the Etna area, its wildlife, its flora and its geology. He makes you feel at your ease thanks to his empathy and sweet humour. Positive feedbacks have arrived since his first excursion and we wanted to publish them on this site to share the tourists experiences with those who are looking for a tailor made excursion, in contact with nature, far from mass tourism proposals.
What about Carmelo Giuffrida? He is without doubt one of the most prepared naturalistic guides on the volcano you can find. Sharing a day trip with him is very nice not only for its preparation on natural sciences but also for his smile, his charm, his clever irony and for his friendly company.
Tururi Tours Holland
More than a guide for Etna Carmelo is primarily a good friend. When we first met something clicked immediately. His attitude fits perfectly with our philosophy of organizing trips to Sicily in an authentic way and outside the mass tourism. He has led several groups for us and not just during one day excursion to Mt. Etna, but also for a few days touring Sicily.It has always been a great success! We are completely satisfied with his work and when our guests go with him we do know that they are in very good hands. This feedback from one of our guest who visited Mount Etna with Carmelo speaks for itself:
“One highlight of our trip was meeting the guide Carmelo, not only for his impressive experience about Mt. Etna, but also for his personal contact with us. He shared his great knowledge about geology and botany with us, but also his particular view of nature and life in general. That we all found very inspiring.We hope to meet him again! “
Take a look at our video of him with a special day on Mount Etna:
I just wanted to thank you very much for a super day with my group on Mt.Etna. We all thoroughly enjoyed your guidance and explanations and I thought that you are a sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful, wise and very friendly fellow! I particularly liked your philosophical and spiritual approach to Mother Earth and her workings – something that I certainly agree with! Greetings!
Martin Hunt Adventureline Redruth, Cornwall,
Joker Travel Agency Belgium
It was more of a coincidence that I , as tour guide, happened upon the website of Etnatao.
Our travel organization used to work with another partner. What an experience we got during our stay on giant Etna!
Thanks to Carmelo for sure!
The weather was so bad that day,but how inspiring and professional were his walks and talks.
The whole group loved it!
Tour guide Joker Travel Agency
Travel Specialists U.S.A.
I just wanted to thank you for guiding me up Mount Etna. I really enjoyed myself and feel you are a terrific guide. I will definitely send my clients to you.
“Hiking an Active Volcano”
By Tisha Tumangan
“Upon our arrival in Catania, we connect with a local guide that would take us up to Mount Etna for a hike. Mount Etna isEurope’s highest and most active volcano. Not only is it active (holy crap) but it has one of the world’s longest documented records of eruptions. In case this isn’t absurd enough, the most recent eruption was in February 2012 (and again in April!)
When our guide, Carmelo Giuffrida, picks us up and assesses our clothing, the realities of our impulse decision to hike Etna hits me. Do we have any footwear remotely resembling hiking boots? No. Do I have a warm jacket for the wicked winds and chills up there? Only if my cute Guess raincoat will suffice. Did I know there was still some snow on the mountain? No, no I did not. I suppose I didn’t give it proper thought. I heard “hike a volcano” and simply thought, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!” That was it! No consideration that our hike might not host one of those short distance, clearly defined nature trails that are appropriately uphill, but yet well-worn from numerous hikers.
During the 45 minute drive to our starting spot near the base, Carmelo, who is a geologist, shares the history of Mount Etna and explains the general dynamic of volcanoes in general. He tells us how different they are around the world, from the way they’re formed to the way they erupt. A native Italian, he speaks to us in mostly English, but enjoys plenty of casual conversation with David in Spanish. Carmelo has traveled and lived around the world, poetically telling us that he “is a victim of that sweet disease wanderlust.” Once outside the city, we make a few stops to see outcropping of volcanic rock in the harbor and wind our way up, up, up… through the small villages on the face of the mountain, always at risk of an eruption. “While the volcano causes damage to roads and buildings, it’s not as dangerous to the most precious thing… human life,” Carmelo explains. People live near volcanoes because of the rich minerals, geothermal energy and fertile soil. And the slow-flowing lava, gives people time to evacuate.
At our “last chance” stop we grab much needed coffee, water, and a small picnic lunch for later. Soon we’re climbing our first crater… and soon we’re almost blown off… into the abyss! I have never experienced winds this intense! Jenn and I stop halfway across to grab a rock, while the wind whips by threatening to take us with. I am not exaggerating, I literally felt like I was a paperdoll. David makes it a few yards further, before nervously securing himself by another large rock, but Carmelo, at one with nature and very in his comfort zone, simply extends his arms and leans into the wind. It holds him up completely and he looks like a vertical skydiver! After that intense experience, we continue to drive a bit further up the mountain. Finally he parks and we begin the real hiking. Carmelo gives us a hat and warmer jackets (he must be used to unprepared tourists!) and noting my shoes, asks if I want boots. Still unaware of the realities I’ll face, I decline, thinking, “I plan to replace these shoes anyway, so no bother if they get ruined by the snow and ash.” And oh did they ever; practically falling apart.
The hike was tough, a real mountaineering-type hike. No mellow incline, not trails here… we hiked straight up the side of the mountain, digging for footing in soft volcanic ash with every step. When we reached sections with layers of snow, I got to experience what wet ash felt like squishing around in my shoes. (Can I change my mind and get the boots after all?!) I have never felt this much like such a clueless city-person to date! After an hour and a half of panting, David swearing to quit smoking, and constant checks to see how high we are, we stopped for lunch. Here we’re rewarded with a stunning, majestic view over the city of Catania, with the sea in the distance. Around us are expanses of mountain wilderness, small craters, and further below the mere dots of the villages we passed. Looking above, we see the smoking main crater of Mount Etna… pleasantly reminding us that it is indeed active.
Another hour of hiking, brings us to the crowning glory. A huge crater near the tippy-tippy top stretches hundreds of meters across. We look into it, not only shocked at the immensity, but also that it would be so easy to trip into it! Then what?! I stay a safe number of meters from the edge, agreeing that this was very worth the tough hike! Eventually, we made it back down… ‘skiing’ on slippery snow most of the way. Back in civilization, despite vows to quit made during the hike, David lights up a cigarette to congratulate himself on the accomplishment. *sigh* I find a place to dump my destroyed shoes, and we all grab a quick snack before retiring for a well-deserved nap, just happy that Etna didn’t get the best of us!”
It was probably obvious how pleasurable we found your excursion. It was the highlight of our trip to Sicily.
You made your extensive knowledge of Etna available to us in a very understandable and interesting manner. We will always treasure this experience. On the bus trip to the airport we had a wonderfully clear view of Etna and could see there was activity around Valle Del Bove . We thought perhaps you were up there soaking in the essence of the mountain’s power. Your gentle and friendly manner made us feel like friends. We hope to return and do this once again..
Kerry and Kathy Frederick
The guide that everyone would like to have
A thanks on behalf of the entire group for the wonderful week of trekking on Etna. In particular thanks to the guide, Carmelo Giuffrida, for the dedication and professionalism demonstrated that ended with friendship.
Carmelo is the guide that everyone would like to have. We hope to participate soon to other excursions.
We were very happy with the tour you gave us of Etna.It was one the highlights of our visit to beautiful Sicily.Thanks again for sharing all of your knowledge with us.If I know of anyone who plans to visit Etna I will definitely recommend you as their guide.
Pat & Joan Tadie
we are the family of Fermo, Mauro, Alessandra, Andrea, Veronica and Luca, that came to your beautiful island last june. We would like to thank you for the beautiful day spent together during which we fell literally in love with Etna and Sicily. The fascination and the wisdom of all the stories you told never leaves us and whenevert we hear on TV news about Sicily is reason to attentive listening. We believe that all this has been possible thanks to your sicilian spirit, so warm, spontaneous and noble. Lots of greetings from all of us.
After our first (very rainy) day back in Holland one of the first things we want to do, is to thank you again for the most interesting experience of our trip to Sicily, the one you have given us on Mt Etna.
We are still talking a lot about it and from time to time we remember each other to your wise words about undergoing the ‘now and here’. It is not easy to practise this advice in our daily-life experience in this always rushing country, but we were trying this before our trip and now that we have met you we will certainly go on practising!
We were all very impressed by the overwhelming nature of Etna and thanks to your extended knowledge and your friendly way of sharing it, we think we have experienced a little bit of the effect nature can have on our personal lives. Summarising we all enjoyed our trip very much and we will certainly return one day!
Best wishes to you!
on behalf of all guys and the teachers of the European School of Varese, on a trip to Sicily in October 2009: THANK YOU! You’ve shown so many interesting sides of Etna. Hardly could we live these feelings without your help. We will never forget that. We all think you are the best guide to love Etna.
Elena De La Morena García
Hello Carmelo, we want to thank you for the unforgettable tour on Mt. Etna.
Merle, Joerg and Marystella Adler
We enjoyed a splendid day on Mount Etna with you. We have good memories and enviable photos. I think you are a terrific guide. You know so much about the geology, history, and flora of that awesome mountain. You also have a passion for imparting that knowledge to your guests. If you ever need to have a prospective client contact someone for a recommendation, I would be happy to answer their questions.
Visit my blog https://etnatao.wordpress.com