Today would be another highlight of our trip, we are hiking up Mt Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. This is the very reason we included Catania in our Italian itinerary. We booked our guided tour with EtnAround, who was highly knowledgeable on the history, fauna and flora on Mt Etna (the same tour can be booked from here). We met up with one of our guides, Alessio, at the pick-up point at 8.30 am. Alessio drove us to one of the towns at the foot of Mt Etna to meet up with the tour leader, Marco, and the rest of the group and to get our sandwiches for lunch at Mt Etna. Along the way up to Mt Etna, Alessio continued introducing the flora at the base of Mt Etna. Before long, we reached a carpark of some sort. This was the starting point of our hike on Mt Etna. Marco explained that we were at 1,800m above sea level and would hike up to around 2,500m on the volcano before heading back down. As Macro and Alessio were preparing the gear for the group, we took the chance to take pictures of the surroundings. We could only see a vast piece of land and the road leading up to a small crater sitting far in the background.
And Our Hike Begins…
As we were starting our hike, we faced a tall slope that seemed to lead nowhere. We saw the peak of Mt Etna hiding behind the hill as though she was peeking at us. We were very excited with our first step on the volcano terrain was unlike what we thought. The soil on the volcano was soft and grainy. This feels more like the sands of a beach but looser as our feet begin to sink into the ground. The first part of the trek was easy, as the path gradient was gentle. Along the way, Marco explained the importance of the flora we saw spreading around the area we were stepping into. Alessio, who was at the back of the group to ensure that none of us was lost during the hike, constantly looked around the ground and sometimes picked up rocks he found on the ground. Alessio explained to the pack of us at the back of the group that this was a volcanic rock that came out of the crater. Anything larger will be capable of causing hurt to humans and properties.
Lunch with a View
As we continued our hike up Mt Etna, we reached a grassland. Walking on this part of the volcano feels like walking on flat ground. At the trail’s end, we came across some boulders that we would have to scale. As we climbed up these boulders, the peak of the snow-covered Mt Etna with fumes of white smoke emitting was in our sight. We were amazed by this incredible view of the gentle lady that we were on. Looking out into the area, we saw a crater-like depression that seemed to stretch forever. As we were walking along the path, the path got narrower and narrower to the point that it was just as wide as two feet wide. One misstep would mean we would fall into the valley below, and there were no barricades would shield us from the potential danger of falling over. However, we had trust in Marco and Alessio that we were well watched over. Marco announced that we would stop for lunch at the trail’s end. We all found a huge boulder to sit on and started munching on the sandwich we had bought earlier. What we saw ahead was the peak of Mt Etna with her endless white fumes and, at times, low clouds passing over her. The view is a one in a million! This is a perfect spot to have lunch while looking at Mt Etna and enjoying the mountain breeze.
The Return Journey
After 15 mins, Macro announced for us to start our hike down to where we started. Instead of going through the same route, we took a different way. We hiked upslope and boulders, putting the view of Mt Etna behind us. As we walked, we came to a part where we needed to descend. Alessio assured us we could run down the slope without worrying that we would tip over the edge. I had a go at it, and it was fun (though I thought it would be more fun if we had some sledge down the slope). The volcanic ashes here are more coarse and looser. We soon come across a lava channel. Gone was the lava that once flowed through this channel. All that remained were rocks that the lava had once smashed through. Another downslope later, Marco brought us to a lava cave. He explained how this cave was formed and how the locals used this cave. We were taken inside to feel the temperature difference. We continued on the path, and suddenly the path felt familiar. This was where we were when we hiked up. I exclaimed to my friends. We are near the end of the hike. Soon after, we can see the vehicles we drove up on.
After returning to our vehicles, Alessio said we would stop by a cafe on Mt Etna for coffee. So we were driven to a cafe which was closed. At this point, we realise that the destination is not this cafe but the crater behind the cafe. The short walk around the crater allowed us to see what a crater looked like. Alessio explained this is just one of the hundreds of craters on Mt Etna, and every year the volcanologists would find one new crater on Mt Etna. After the crater visit, we had some coffee, and soon it was time for us to bid Mt Etna farewell.
Last Look at Catania
Alessio drove us back to Catania. The plan today was that if we got back to Catania at around 3 pm, we might still be able to squeeze in a visit to Ursino Castle, just 15 mins walk from our hotel. We arrived at Catania city at around 4.30 pm. There is little time for us to visit the castle before it closes. We walked to the city centre for our last dinner in Italy. We asked the friendly waitress about the fried rice ball we had heard so much about during dinner. She gave us some recommendations, and one of them is located about 5 mins walk from our hotel. We headed to get some rice balls and picked up gelatos before returning to the hotel to pack our luggage for our journey home tomorrow.
The bus we were supposed to be on to Agrigento was initially scheduled for 7.20 am but was brought forward to 6.30 am. We had an early start and made our way by foot to the bus terminal, located about 20 minutes from our hotel. We cut it very fine when we arrived at the bus departure venue. The bus we booked did not depart from the bus station but along a nearby street. We were looking for the bus we were supposed to be on, and our bus had left the stop by the time we found it. We asked around to see if we could get the bus company to help us contact the bus driver, but alas, there was no booth set up by the bus company, and there was no way we could reach the bus driver. Walking around, we saw the SAIS company booth and purchased the tickets to Agrigento. The next bus will not leave until 1 hour later. Since we had some time to kill, we had breakfast at the cafe opposite the bus station. After this little episode, I realised there is no need to pre-purchase bus tickets to Agrigento as there are multiple departures from Catania. The bus ride to Agrigento took around 3 hrs. The moment we arrived, we verified that our bus to Catania later in the afternoon would leave at the same place where we were being dropped off. One cafe latte later, we bought our bus ticket to Valley of Temples from the SAIS office diagonally opposite the bus terminal.
2,500 of Greek History at Valley of the Temples
There are several buses to get to the Valley of Temples (refer to the bus schedules from Agrigento here). There are two main entrances to the Valley of Temples, we started our tour of the valley from the western Porta Quinta entrance, where bus #1 stops. Using the official app, we did a self-guided tour for this day trip to the Valley of Temples. I find the official app for the Valley of Temples very useful (you can download it here for free, scroll down to “Offical App” on the webpage) as it has a designated route that we can take from either of the entrances together with an audio clip that we can listen to when we arrived at the various landmarks. The Valley of Temples wasn’t crowded when we were there due to the low travel season. It took us about 2 hrs to follow the recommended route provided by the app.
The Entrance: Gate Five, Temple of Dioscuri, Temple of Olympian Zeus
Coming into the Valley of Temples through the Porta Quinta entrance, past the ticketing counters, we saw a vast piece of land with nothing but stone walls. There is a wooden path passing in the middle of these walls. Gate Five is essentially the outer wall of the Valley of Temples. Walking past Gate Five, the first set of ruins came into our sight. Only four pillars of the Temple of Dioscuri remained over the land it once stood. We can only roughly make out the size of the temple based on the ruins scattered around, which suggests this is one of the smaller temples in the Valley of Temples. We walked around the temple, hoping to get some pictures of the temple from different angles.
We continued our walk, following the route suggested by the app, and came to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is located up a slope. A picture shows how this temple looked during its hay day. What I like about the app is we were given the option of listening to the narration on the ruins that we saw (unlike the audio guide in Pompeii). From the narration, we sought out a statue fallen on the floor, which was supposed to symbolise the Carthaginians defeated by the Greeks long ago. It is a way the victors humiliate the Carthaginians. We thought the Temple of Olympian Zeus was rather large from the fallen statue. Although reduced to only stones here and there, parts of the temple walls still stand. We headed down the slope to a rectangular depression filled with uniformly carved stones. These stones were laid out orderly, and we learnt from the app that this is the main altar to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. From the size of this altar, I can imagine how grand and massive this temple would be in its prime.
The Mid-block: Golden Gate, Temple of Hercules
Walking away from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the path led us up a slope and through a bridge. Unlike the Golden Gate in the States, the Golden Gate here does not refer to the bridge we were about to cross. Instead, it refers to the path beneath it. From the app, we came to know that this path was used as an entrance to the temple from the city’s port. Today it is replaced by a road used by cars. A short walk from the Golden Gate, we came to the first of the less destroyed temples – the Temple of Hercules. More columns and pillars are standing compared to the Temples of Dioscuri and Olympian Zeus that we saw nearer the Porta Quinta entrance. Not only did we see an almost complete set of pillars on one side of the Temple of Hercules, we saw some remnants of the inner pillars, the steps that lead into the temple, and the raised ground on which it was being built. The Temple of Hercules provided us with some great photo opportunities.
The Highlights: Temple of Concordia, Temple of Juno
Walking along the path, putting the Temple of Hercules behind us, we came to the highlight and the poster child of the Valley of Temples – the Temple of Concordia. We had a pleasant stroll towards the Temple of Concordia. The openness of the path allowed us to see the city of Agrigento from a distance. Before we knew it, we arrived at the Temple of Concordia. We spotted photos of this temple in airports and train stations promoting Sicily. The Temple of Concordia is the most well-preserved Greek architecture outside of Greece. The building resembles the Parthenon in Athens but on a smaller scale. It has a very distinctive Greek-styled structure. We were all awed by the sight of the Temple of Concordia the moment we saw it from a distance. The temple stood strong after 2,500 years, with its distinctive inner sandstone colour structure surrounded by numerous outer pillars supporting a partial roof resting on a four-step platform. This is history coming to life! As the Temple of Concordia is built near a cliff, the view over the vast land in this part of Sicily is equally stunting. We can see the agricultural fields and the sea over the horizon. Looking out into the massive land beneath the Temple of Concordia gave me a sense of zen. As we were walking towards our next landmark, we spotted the broken bronze statue of the fallen Icarus lying dramatically near the base of the Temple of Concordia. The presence of this statue gave the Temple of Concordia a robust Greek identity.
We continued our path as recommended by the app and came to a flight of stairs, where our last stop for the trip in the Valley of Temples would conclude. The Temple of Juno is perched on the top of the stairs at the highest point in the Valley of the Temples. Unlike the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Juno has only its outer pillars left and some beams that these pillars hold. The size of the Temple of Juno is roughly the same as the Temple of Concordia. Although the Temple of Juno did not age, it radiated a certain charm of ancientness. As with the Temple of Concordia, the view of the plains below from the Temple of Juno is fantastic. Moreover, we could see the Temple of Concordia nesting from afar.
Returning to Catania
We were pretty mindful of the time. After finishing with the Temple of Juno, we were left with 1 hr before our bus back to Catania departed. We exited the Valley of Temples from the Temple of Juno exit. From here, we were not quite sure which bus runs through. We did a quick check with the staff at the ticketing office and were told that Bus #2 comes here, but it would take around 1 hr to get back to Agrigento city as the bus would make a loop at the beach nearby. Our only option is to grab a cab from Juno Exit to Agrigento if we were to make it for our bus back to Catania. The helpful ticketing staff helped us book a taxi to take us back to Agrigento, which brought us back to the city in good time for our ride back to Catania.
We embarked on the 3 hr bus ride back to Catania. When we arrived, it was time for dinner. We decided to have seafood for dinner tonight, as Catania is by the sea, so the seafood should be fresh. I did a quick Google search and found a highly-rated restaurant nearby the bus station. The food was excellent, and the seafood was indeed fresh. As the night was young, we returned to the hotel for a movie night, packing back with us gelatos and snacks. After that, we had to rest and get our bodies ready for the hike of our lifetime tomorrow, trekking up the tallest active volcano in Europe – Mt Etna.
We left the hotel in Rome at 8.30 am to catch our 10 am flight from Rome to Catania. The night before, we requested the reception at our hotel to help us book a cab, which cost us €70. We would have paid roughly the same amount if we were to take the train to the airport. We thought booking the cab was a great idea, as this saved us the effort of lugging our luggage on the uneven Roman roads we experienced the first day we arrived in Rome. The ride from our hotel in Rome to Fiumicino Airport took around 40 mins. After checking in, we headed for the lounge for breakfast before heading to our flight to Catania.
Our flight to Catania landed on time for the 1 hr ride from Rome to Catania. After collecting our luggage, we proceeded to get bus tickets to Catania. From my research, there is a bus that would bring us directly to our hotel in the centre of Catania. We exited the Catania airport terminal on the right to get the tickets and found three ticket booths. We bought our bus tickets from the booth furthest from the entrance to the Airport terminal with the sign “SAIS: Messina -Palermo-Enna”. The ticketing staff gave us directions to the bus top in front of the terminal building with the symbol “ALiBus”, where we took the airport bus. A bus ticket to Catania ticket costs €4 one way. The bus ride to Catania City centre took around 30 mins, and we were helped by the friendly bus driver who ensured that we alighted at the correct stop. After settling into our hotel rooms, we headed to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, where we could lunch with the stunning view of the snow-capped Mt Etna.