The pillars holding up my life had fallen down and I was lying there grey-faced amongst the rubble. I was beaten, broken, weak and defeated. I’d almost given up.
The air was getting harder and harder to breathe and the earth was crumbling beneath me. I couldn’t possibly sink any deeper. Surely not. This had to be the worst it could get.
It was the Armageddon dysfunctional mind and I just needed to escape.
So as the avalanche of tears flooded down my cheeks and my lungs opened and closed like a battered old accordion desperate for air, I squinted through the tears to see my computer screen.
It was the cheapest flight I could find to depart on Monday. And two days later, I packed my backpack, made my way to the airport and boarded that plane to Catania.
A week in Sicily was never going to cure me but it sure as hell was going to take me away from the situation I was in. And as soon as the plane left the ground I felt a rush of relief fill my body me from the ground up.
I needed this now more than ever.
Ten whole days without having to stare my ugly reality in the face, without dissecting it all and bathing myself in the regretful tears of four wasted years. Ten whole days to escape reality, to lose myself in a Mediterranean paradise.
Home to the filmset of my Granddad’s favourite film, The Godfather, and one of my favourite wines, Nero D’Avola, Sicily had always been high on the long list of countries I’d always wanted to see.
I’d bought myself a Lonely Planet guide and read it front to back on the way there; folding the pages for must-sees and must dos and making notes of things I wanted to learn more about later.
I took the airport shuttle bus and was dropped off outside Catania Centrale railway station on the waterfront where I had a fifteen minute waddle with my backpack to B&B Chapo.
Upon first impression, Catania seemed a little tatty around the edges.
Hoards of homeless men and drunkards lazing around outside the station were heckling me for money and whistling as I made my way along the dusty, dirty pavements towards Piazza Vincenzo Bellini.
My guard went up a little and I started wondering was this such a good idea after all.
Trattoria di De Fiore
By the time I arrived at B&B Chapo, it was time to get myself some dinner and after plenty of in-flight research, I knew exactly where I was headed.
For over 50 years, septuagenarian chef Rosanna has been recreating her great-grandmother’s recipes, including the best pasta alla Norma you’ll taste anywhere in Sicily. Service can be excruciatingly slow, but for patient souls this is a rare chance to experience classic Catanian cooking from a bygone era.
I arrived at Trattoria di De Fiore at seven thirty, just as the waiter setting out the chairs for the evening along the busy little side street that was piling up with traffic.
Red chequered tablecloths were being draped over small wooden tables with a chair placed on either side. Fresh red roses were being plonked into tall thin vases and candles were being lit.
I took a seat on the table at the centre and ordered myself a glass of Chianti while I nibbled on the freshly cut baguette from the basked in front of me.
There was no music playing and no particular ambience, and it wasn’t really what you’d call a place for people watching as such, but I found myself feeling mesmerised by the dim and dusky lighting.
Trails of white and red taillights from the traffic moved past in slow-motion to my right and the candles on every table flickered. Behind me the sun was setting, casting a coral coloured gleam that reflected off the walls of the inner city buildings and I couldn’t see it from where I was, but I could feel the powerful presence of Mount Etna towering over the city from the north and casting a violet shadow.
When the waiter returned I ordered the famous pasta alla Norma and was by no means disappointed by Lonely Planet’s recommendation when this simple but artistically presented dish that was put in front of me.
Rosanna says her grandmother referred to pasta alla Norma as pasta Mungibeddu in honour of Mt Etna (Mungibeddu being the traditional Sicilian name for Catania’s famous volcano): tomatoes represented Etna’s red lava, aubergine the black cinders, ricotta the snow and basil leaves the mountain vegetation.
I politely declined the waiter’s offer for parmesan and ground black pepper but glady accepted his Buon Appetito and tucked right in.
Lava Skiing Down Mount Etna
The next morning I woke a little later than I should have and had to sprint back to Catania Centrale where the bus to Mount Etna was departing at 8.15am.
I dodged the potholes and hurdled over stray dogs and homeless men, making it to Piazza Papa Giovanni XXIII just on time – just as the bus doors were about to close. I paid the €3.10 and made my way to the back of the bus to take the very last empty seat.
The drive to Etna took about an hour and I entertained myself with a game I like to call European Eavesdropping; a sometimes fascinating game that took four years studying Applied Languages and a a hefty student loan to master.
As the roads began winding up towards Etna and the bus began to tilt backwards the landscape around us was changing dramatically. Trees and fields were being replaced by rocks and gravel and the higher we climbed, the greyer it got.
When the bus stopped, everybody piled out and scrambled off in different directions to the various tour guide centres dotted around the car park. For once I’d done my research and I knew that hiking Mount Etna on my own was not a good idea, so I followed a few friendly looking couples towards one of the huts.
We were handed a bright red jacket, a helmet, some walking boots and some sticks before being escorted up to an altitude of 2500m by cable car before starting our hike.
I followed our tour guide, Guiseppe, closely but in silence, my eyes paying close attention to the cracks and craters below my feet.
After a few hours of climb, the we stopped for a picnic lunch in the shelter of a deep crater to the West side of the volcano.
I sat alone, enjoying every well-deserved bite of my ham and cheese baguette. The skies were bright and blue but I could no longer feel the Mediterranean warmth I’d felt down below at sea level, the winds were picking up and I was very glad of that red jacket.
By the time lunch was over, the guide had decided that the winds were too strong for us to climb any further so he gave us our instructions for descent. We packed up our lunchboxes, took a last sip of water and grabbed our backpacks ready to go.
Those walking sticks were the only reason I didn’t blow off the top of Mount Etna and end up in Greece. It was now half force winds and I had to dig them deep into every crack of earth I could find to anchor me down before taking another step.
When we’d crossed the main crater, it was time to hit the slope. I was up front and Giuseppe asked if I’d be okay to lead while he went to the back and made sure the stragglers were keeping up. Excited by the responsibility, I nodded my head and tightened the straps of my backpack a little before leading us all down towards the coast.
The views were breathtaking but I daren’t look up in case I lost my footing. The earth was turning into gravel and my feet were sinking ankle-deep into the tiny stones then gliding forward. I tried to resist the momentum but in the end, gravity took hold.
I was lava-skiing down Mount Etna.
I was skiing at serious speed with adrenaline pumping through my veins and an uncontrollable smile across my face. It was one of those exhilarating experiences; the kind that faces you with death and reminds you you’re alive. And I was alive alright – laughing from the pit of my stomach and without reason. Laughing for the first time in a long time.
As we dangled over the ground in our cable car journey back to the bus, I pressed my face against the glass, looking down at the ground below me.
A never-ending series of volatile eruptions from deep in the earth’s core had been bursting to the surface with brutal force and shattering it to pieces since time began. It was piece of earth that had been broken and burned over and over again; smothered in molten lava, suffocated in debris and choking on the thick black air that continued to rise from the volcano’s central vent.
But every now and again you’d see a patch of greenery, forcing its way out between the rocks and growing upwards towards the sun. A little reminder that when the mind says give up, the world whispers try it one more time.