Independent March 15

Driving up Mount Etna in a sea of snow and sun

Where else could you bask in the Mediterranean sunshine just 45 minutes from the ski slopes on the most active volcano in Europe?
JACK DE MENEZES Author Biography Thursday 05 March 2015

Think of the Italian island of Sicily and three things are likely to flood into your mind delicious local cuisine, beautiful sights surrounding the imposing Mount Etna, and the Mob. Thankfully on my recent visit, the closest my path came to the latter was an evening’s dinner held in one of the old stables where Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II was filmed.

While the nostalgia of one of my favourite films wore off, the beauty of Sicily did not. From flying in on our connecting flight via Milan with smoke visibly rising from the Etna’s largest active crater, to arriving at our hotel in the small town of Taormina – on the east coast in the Province of Messina, just north of Catania – it quickly dawned that this was like very few places I had been before.

Unfortunately, our arrival in Taormina was greeted by complete darkness, and despite the relaxing sound of the waves of the Mediterranean crashing onto the beach just metres from our rooms, the view would have to wait until the morning.

But what a view.

A view of Taormina from the terrace of the Hotel Montetauro A view of Taormina from the terrace of the Hotel Montetauro Once I’d taken time appreciate the hidden cove for all it was worth, following the most picturesque wake-up of my near-on 24 years, it was time for the fun to begin. I was in Sicily for a reason, and as it proved a very enjoyable one. Tyre manufacturer Pirelli had chosen the location to launch their new Cinturato All-Season tyre.

Why? Well we began the morning basking in a toasty 14 degrees Celsius down on the coast, before making our way on roads cut through numerous orange and lemon trees, streams flowing down from the mountain and tucked away villages, to a race track that had a beautiful view of both the Mediterranean and Etna.

They soaked half of the track to replicate a wet road you would encounter in every day driving in Great Britain, then let me loose in three different cars to test the tyres close to their limit.

But the showing off didn’t finish there, much to my delight. We were then led up endless winding roads cut through charred volcanic rock from past eruptions. It’s at this point that the up-until-this-point helpful satellite navigation system informed me that the last major eruption of Europe’s most active volcano came in 2002. That less than 13 years had passed since was far from reassuring to say the least.

Mount Etna erupts regularly, although hasn’t posed a threat to the local population since 2002 Mount Etna erupts regularly, although hasn’t posed a threat to the local population since 2002 But soon enough I failed to recognise that molten magma lay beneath my feet as nearly a metre of snow greeted the convoy at our next stop-off, the Sud Rifugio Sapienza Nicolosi where to my amazement, many were taking a break from a mornings’ skiing or snowboarding. It then struck as the clouds cleared – yes our station of over 1,800 metres above sea level was above the clouds – that the view from just over halfway up Etna was inspiring.

The fun soon resumed when Pirelli decided to send us off-piste to test out the traction and braking in rather thick snow, and I have to say that it’s here that the Cinturato All-Season excelled.

With Britain experiencing an increasingly varied climate, with snow ranging from around October in some areas to February across the nation, Pirelli tell me that they are ready to add the United Kingdom to their target market of all-season tyres, although Germany and Italy remain the top of the list and will do for some time.

A view of Mount Etna spewing out smoke from its crater A view of Mount Etna spewing out smoke from its crater Driving back down Etna suddenly became a different proposition in itself, as the Italian guide at the head of the convoy decided he’s seen enough of the views and put his foot down, perhaps in an effort to test how the pair of young British boy racers – I assume that’s how my co-driver and I came across – could cope with the steep descent. His smile as he walked over to our car when we arrived back in Taormina suggested this was indeed the case.

As soon as the trip began, it was over, but not before a second sustained period out on the balcony to take it all in one last time and a beautiful regional dinner on top of the cliffs overlooking Taormina showcasing all the delicacies that Sicily has to offer. The location is the ideal place to relax, unwind and take it all in for what it is. Taormina is off the beaten track, and as a result there’s not a great deal to do there. But as part of tour across Italy or even a honeymoon, it’s unlikely you’d be disappointed.