About 350 million years ago, when the light from the stars you see in the night sky had just begun its journey to your optic nerve, there was a rumble in the bowels of the earth, the sea began to boil and molten rock was thrown into the air.
When it cooled, there was Arthur’s Seat and the Castle Rock.
But this is the first time I’ve walked on the slopes of an active volcano. Mount Etna on the island of Sicily is like a shy virgin, wrapping herself in swirling clouds of vapour. The day we visit, the clouds are beneath us and we can see the summit clearly. It puffs out a steady stream of white smoke against the blue sky, as if announcing the election of a new Pope.
Although the air is fresh, when I reach down and pick up a handful of volcanic soil, the ashes and cinders are warm like coals in the hearth the morning after you lit the fire.
In 1979, there were 150 tourists like me with their mountain guides on the edge of one of Etna’s four craters, taking photographs and marvelling at the views across the valley floor.
Without warning, the earth exploded. One witness saw a rock the size of a house hit a Land Rover full of people. The vehicle was never seen again. A guide recalls a young woman trying to pull the body of her boyfriend from under the rock that had smashed his head. Nine people were killed that morning and a score suffered horrific injuries. Ever since then it’s been forbidden for anyone except scientists to go anywhere near the very top of this volatile mountain.
High above us a buzzard soars on the thermal currents created when the volcanic vapours meet the cold air. I ask our guide what these birds feed on. “Tourists”, he says with a straight face. Everything is black up here, even the humour.
We chat a little more and he says that although the earth looks dead apart from the odd tussock of grass, there is plenty of life.
Sure enough, as we walk, creatures erupt into the air from under our feet. Black grasshoppers, perfectly camouflaged against the charcoal cinders that crunch beneath our boots.
They make a regular meal for the lizards and snakes that live up on this lunar landscape. Walkers are advised to wear protective footwear because the most common of those snakes is the highly poisonous viper.
Back on the terrace of our hotel, with Etna’s summit visible in the distance, we watch volcano porn on Youtube. Vulcanologists must be the maddest of mad scientists. In silver suits with shiny metal helmets, they scramble about on the lip of live volcanic lakes to take temperature readings and lava samples, looking like actors in some low-budget sci-fi movie.
The most famous of them, a French husband and wife, are interviewed about their dangerous addiction. “We love volcanoes. They are our life.”
Minutes after the interview they are dead, turned to stone by a sudden lava flow that takes them by surprise, hurtling down the slope they’re standing on at more than 60mph.
Their film camera, set up at the foot of the slope, shows other members of their team racing to safety as a thundering grey cloud engulfs everything.
I feel relieved to have survived our excursion, with a small volcanic rock in my pocket to prove it.
The amount Sicilians can eat is beautiful but pasta joke
Voluptuous Italian film star Sophia Loren once said “Everything I have I owe to pasta.” After a week in Sicily, I know how she feels. Except that my curves are all in the wrong places. We were well warned.
“Sicilian cooking is up there with the best in the world,” said the guidebooks.
I had expected the usual tourist fare – pizza and spaghetti Bolognese but we were served dishes I’d never seen before, despite the fact I lived in Italy for months at a time when I was a young man.
We think of pistachio nuts as an accompaniment to aperitifs before dinner. In Sicily, you’ll find them everywhere. In salami, in pesto but best of all in linguine al limone, a silky blend of cream, lemon juice and pistachio nuts that clings to the linguine like a silk dress to Loren’s body.
When I think about it, I’ve yet to eat a full Italian meal. First you’re expected to enjoy an antipasto. That’s a starter to you and me and the best one we tasted was called caponata.
There as many recipes for caponata as there are cooks but our chef’s was a luscious, savoury blend of aubergine, onions, celery, capers, chives, almonds and cocoa powder. Si signore, cocoa powder.
After that it’s time for the ‘primi piatti’, or first courses. This is where you choose your pasta. It’s not a starter. It’s a full plate of pasta wrapped in a seductive sauce.
Sicily’s surrounded by sea so it’s no surprise that the most popular pasta dish is spaghetti alle vongole, a dish of pasta with little clams still in their shells that clatter around the plate as you eat.
Back home, if you were greedy, you might have a dessert now. But not here, no signore. Here, you have to choose from a list of ‘secondi piatti’ or second courses. In most Italian restaurants, this is chicken or steak.
In Sicily, it’s more likely to be swordfish steak or fresh tuna. There’s always a bit of tutting if you say you’re too full for a secondo piatto.
The waiters don’t even ask if you want dessert. They just put the ‘dolci’ menu down in front of you and stand there, pencil poised.
After a week of this I’m ready to throw in the towel. The buttons on my shirt-front are threatening to fly off and take somebody’s eye out. So it’s a relief to rediscover airline food.
Three minutes in the microwave and it’s ready. A cheese toastie. Washed down with a half bottle of champagne, of course. It’s the last day of the holiday after all.
Access all arias
On our first afternoon in Taormina we visited the old Greek theatre, a marble-columned amphitheatre open to the skies. “They should have operas here”, I say in a flash of genius. My wife makes me look again but properly this time. There are several hundred plastic seats and banks of stage lighting. “Of course they have operas here.” I’ve never been to an opera before. I’m a bit of an inverted snob about big-ticket events you’re supposed to dress up for. Still, I give it a go on our last night. Do you know what, those Italians sang tears out of my cynical old eyes. I was doing arias all the way home.