Friday, December 2, 2011

Europe 2011: Conquering Monte Fossa delle Felci

I have wrestled with this post now for over three months. These first lines have been the most difficult. How to describe my time visiting my ancestral home on the Aeolian Islands off Sicily? Authoring professional reports for the last ten years may have taught me the value of the comma, but it has ruined any creative writing skills I may have possessed. Blogging, I thought, would be pretty straight forward, a few photos here, the odd comment there and that would be all. Apart from the odd poorly structured group email in the time before facebook, I don’t believe I have written anything in the first person since High School.

So, with those first difficult lines out of the way, lets get on with the story. My grandparents on my paternal side are both from a small Island off the coast of Sicily, Salina. Having its roots in Latin, the word Salina means ‘salt marsh’ or ‘saltworks’. It was a salt lake, a dammed coastal marsh, for which the island was named. The water would eventually evaporate leaving the salt behind. This salt has been used for centuries to cure the delicious capers that are omnipresent on the Island.

Mr grandparents emigrated to Australia in the early 20th century. Although they hadn’t known each other in their homeland, they met through the local expat community and eventually married. My grandparents were typically Italian; loud and boisterous, warm and benevolent. My grandfather, although a largely uneducated fruit shop owner, had his hand in many pies. He smartly invested in numerous properties in Sydney well before any property boom. My grandmother was an amazing pianist and entertained us for hours playing away on her old piano. Her traditional Italian cooking was a thing of legend. They were both respected in the Italian community and sponsored a number of islanders to come to Australia after the Second World War.

Within this context, most of my extended family have made the pilgrimage back to Isole Salina. We still own the family house which is in the small village of Lingua, on the South East coast of the island. The original Salt Lake is directly behind the old house. Towering over the village is the 968m peak of Monte Fossa delle Felci an extinct volcano. From Lingua it is a steep climb from the coastal piazza to the peak. Many of my family have climbed the peak. My parents climbed it on their travels back in 1980. I have no doubt that my grandparents would have at some time climbed up the Monte. It was my time to continue the legacy.

The night before my climb, as tends to happen in Italy, we were eating and drinking late into the evening. I had also forgotten to buy water in the afternoon, and being Italy nothing would be open till at least 10am the following day. I had a stale 600ml in an old bottle that would have to do. To make it even more interesting, being on holiday I didn’t have any of my normal hiking gear, so it would be 968m and around 10km in old sneakers with no grip and boardshorts.

A night of eating and drinking, not a great start

I managed to drag myself out of bed early. The sunrise at the piazza was beautiful. I was tempted to go for a swim then hit the café for breakfast and a coffee.

However it was not to be, Monte Fossa Delle Felci beckoned.

The trail is directly outside the house. I literally opened the door and turned left. I began to climb and in short time I was amongst the villas, capers, olives and vineyards that surround the village.

Olives and capers

Climbing ever higher I eventually left civilisation altogether and entered the UNESCO World Heritage Site that surrounds and protects the mountain.

The path was incredibly steep and the volcanic rock unstable. Olives and capers grow wild.

The temperature was rising dramatically and my body was screaming for water. I allowed myself a mouthful every half hour or so. At times I was close to turning around. But onwards and upwards I pushed.

The vegetation and climate began to change over the last 200m of vertical and after nearly 3 hours of scrambling I finally reached the crater rim, 960m above the Mediterranean.

Here the trail converges with a vehicle access track which I followed for a few hundred metres circumnavigating the volcanic crater. The drop in temperature and shade was a welcome relief. Exotic pines and lush ferns replaced the barren volcanic shrubs of the lower slopes.

After cooling down, I went back to the rim overlooking Lingua and the home of my grandparents. The whole village, and the salt lake from which the island takes its name was visible.

I sat for awhile, treating myself to a muesli bar, a big mouth fall of water and enjoying the view over to the islands of Lipari and Vulcano.

It was time to begin the long walk back down, a cold drink and a swim in the med awaited. As is usually the case with steep mountain trails, the hike down was just as hard as the hike up. Although not as aerobically taxing, the combination of my warn out ski knees and crappy sneakers made for a few stumbles on the sharp volcanic rock.

Gradually, I retraced my steps. As I crossed through a strange stand of cacti all I could think about was jumping into the ocean.

I eventually made it back to civilisation and the beautiful villas that surround the village and felt an emotional and wonderful sense of achievement. The climb was hard, maybe one of the hardest I have done, however knowing that so many of my ancestors had also completed the journey made me carry on, achieving my goal of conquering the Monte.

The Mediterranean sun was in full affect back in Lingua and I met Holly, smashed a bottle of water and jumped into the ocean.

Reflecting on my trip now a few months later I am so stoked to have had the opportunity to climb the mountain. It really is one of my most special achievement and one I wont forget. I can only imagine how my grandparents must have longed for their island home as they toiled as early non-english speaking immigrants to Australia. Hopefully one day I can take my own children to the island and show them the mountain that our ancestors climbed, the waters they fished and the food and wine they enjoyed.

Our time on the island was not all climbing. We also ate copious amounts of delicious Sicilian food and wine with long lost cousins, hired a scooter and drove around the island, snorkelled with the colourful fish and put up with shambolic Italian public transport system. Ill post up some more photos soon, for now, ciao!