The Black and The Light. Circumnavigating Etna

by GIOVANNI GIACCHI – Catania is black, but since a town cannot be this way at all, the blinding and primeval light, coming down to earth as if there is no protection, reflects the black of stones and buildings by bringing them out and by making streets smart, as well as flowery gardens and the shadows of those who walk. Black town, not obscure. It’s a place of extremes, borders and limits as the water flowing in fountains or from bar taps seems to be insufficient against all the black.

Etna is already here, as memory of landscapes or simple warning. While we are about to catch the FCE train of the good old days (the two carriages are forty), the Ferrovia CircumEtnea, we feel that paying a visit to the mountain means going toward something unknown, which is also the limit of Catania, the Etna’s black offshoots as well as international and hard-working capital. We find in a border town; or better in an extraordinary patchwork of elegance, pleasantness and ancient fears.

At the entrance to Catania Borgo station we leave the old-fashioned steam engine Meusa that De Amicis, the writer of Cuore, travelled by too. In 1911 the Queen of Italy Elena also got on this train to reach Randazzo where one of her lady companions had a villa. We are going to a 110 Km journey from Catania to Riposto by travelling through Maletto, the capital of strawberries that is located at an altitude of one thousand meters, just as Bronte is the international capital of pistachio. Going on a three-hour journey to Paternò and Belpasso, we hope to succeed in leaving behind the triviality of our existence – European now – as we conceive it. The train whistle along with its jerks are a clear sign. Etna is still far away, more or less close to us during the entire journey. It’s a warning rather than a beautiful spectacle. It struck three times thus upsetting the seeming order of things: in 1923, in 1928 and in 1981 its black ash whitened the sea too.

Between us are lava land appearing almost everywhere, abandoned cars out of use, artificial grass five-a-side grounds, new houses, shacks and, above all, Indian figs which grow in bunches or lonely just like Japanese pictures.

We go away from confusion.

We can see from afar some villages clinging nearly with fear to Etna, as if they ask the mountain for water and food. From that distance the volcano looks like one among the several peaks we have seen on TV movies or a Rock Mountain that an inspector or a cowboy used to act nearby. This is what we are scared of: we fear what we could find inside, the impossibility for us to fight against nature, the forces being given off from down there and permeating this land.

In fact, everything is electric here and almost too vital regardless of dry land on these August days. It’s as if Etna had transmitted its power to the faces we usually see, to their movements and to houses. The countryside of vineyards and olive trees planted in orderly rows stretches out on the other side of the valley, while parched and yellowish mounts that remind us the other face of Sicily stands in the background. Going across villages, we can also see road signs, shop signs, and quite often the dry cleaner’s located by the sushi fusion restaurant Morobishi, as written in the signs.

In our carriage some tourists sit spellbound and some proud and beautiful women, as composed and haughty as every Sicilian woman, travel by train as if it were a local underground. Heiresses to Greek, Aragonese, Turkish, Norman women and to our world too, they can remain impassive in spite of train jerks.

From Bronte on, there is only lava bursting out. Let’s think about the black trail, that is the groove where lava flows down after a volcanic eruption. We imagine it to be hidden on a hill or on the side of a mountain as if it were a fugitive. Many old houses which seem to be abandoned, maybe they are, with molten rock walls and a gate stand there as if they were waiting for anybody.

By the side of railways, an Italian flag fluttering on one of these houses reminds us that our country is joined by common feelings and details. That flag does not mean anything, however it’s likely that somebody has put it there in an attempt to set one more border, one more limit to the intrusiveness of its history and environment.

After having moved from Linguaglossa to the side where Etna and the sea just below are so enchanting as never before, from a long way out those bleak mounts are now full of wind turbine blades, a sort of loan to the contemporary and to unauthorized activities.

It’s the same as that bus passenger who told us the times when, in his youth, he effortlessly used to go skiing in the morning, to the seaside in the afternoon and the way we can repeat those things.

An old stooping kind-eyed woman who was taking home or had tried to sell two sacks of fruit enters the following station. We both think we got away with it since the day is coming to an end. The mountain seems to tell us: -You cannot do it -. It is not easy to get away with it, that’s the lesson of the day.

In the meanwhile, the woman looks with curiosity at everybody who is taking photos. What’s on those pictures? She wonders.

Before catching a half-hour intercity train back to Catania, we get to Giarre with a strong feeling that all mountains are inaccessible and that we live a parallel life, mindless of this nature threatening to destroy us at any moment. Not to mention all this black! Isn’t it our exact condition? The one of human beings?

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