Amy Frost, Educational Tour Coordinator and fluent Italian speaker, accompanied the University College School’s A-level Geography students on their tour to Sicily. With an abundance of human and physical geographical features, Sicily is the perfect all-round destination and ideal for students to use as the basis of their A-level coursework.
Here Amy gives us an insight into the 5 day, 4 night Geography trip to Sicily.
Friday 30th March
We arrived at Catania airport in Sicily just before 9pm, all on time and ready to settle in for the evening before starting our Sicilian adventure in the morning. Once we had collected our luggage, and rectified the situation of a misplaced bag, we met our coach driver and headed off for the hotel where we enjoyed a cold buffet of salads, meats and rice dishes before settling down for the night.
Saturday 31st March
Our first stop was the small hilltop town of Castelmola (which overlooks Taormina), where we turned our attention to human geography and discussed Sicilian culture and the impact of globalisation in the town. We then headed to Taormina where the students and staff enjoyed exploring the small streets, souvenir shops and gelaterias, before visiting the impressive Taormina’s Greek Amphitheatre which overlooks the sea.
We then headed back to the coach and went to the Alcantara Gorge where we explored the physical geography of the area. The students examined how the lava rock had been shaped by the water gushing through it, before discussing the columnar jointing forms that the lava had taken. Following the visit, we headed over to the “Farmer’s Market” outside the Gorge’s entrance where the students were thrilled with the free samples of olive oil, prickly pear jam and pistachio cream. One boy exclaimed “This is just the best day of my life!” You can’t get better praise than that!! We returned to the hotel and enjoyed risotto followed by baked pasta, pork escalope and potatoes with tiramisu to finish! Those who still had some room left enjoyed an ice cream at the local gelateria.
Sunday 1st April
Today started with some nervous excitement as we learnt that there had been an eruption on Etna merely hours before our planned departure. There was talk amongst the students that it could be the Head of Geography’s April Fools prank! Alas, it was all true, evidence of which we saw on the roads up to the volcano where Sicilians swept away the thick black ash which had accumulated on their driveways, shop fronts and car roofs. We headed over to the Sicilians’ “Grande Mamma” with beautiful blue skies and sunshine. As we climbed out of the coach at around 2900m, we were all taken aback by the sight of Sicilians whizzing down the slopes on skis, bum boards and sledges. We headed up on eerily quiet cable cars, enjoying the apparent serenity of snow filled slopes of Europe’s most active volcano. Once at the top, we walked over to our transport for the afternoon; monster truck style minibuses with huge 4×4 wheels. We climbed up further still (to approx 3000m), through man-made snow tunnels with 20feet of snow on either side of us. The power and sheer size of this natural environment certainly put our lives into perspective and gave us a sense of how temporary we all were in comparison to the life span of this natural giant!
After a bumpy ride, we reached our destination of the craters of the 2002-2003 eruption. Here, an Alpine guide took us around the crater’s rim. We were amazed by the size of the craters, as well as the heat which was still emitted from the ground, nearly 10 years later! Some of the students took advantage of this opportunity and dug small holes where they sat down and warmed their bottoms! The guide explained how the volcanic rock’s porous nature made it an excellent natural insulator and told us that if you dug 1 metre down, the temperature would be 90 degrees! This was an incredible experience for all of us and I for one was in awe of the power of Etna and the relationship the Sicilians had with her.
Although this day mainly focussed on physical geography, the human geographers were interested in how this natural feature had been used by the Sicilians to generate tourism and in turn develop the economy of the area. I questioned how the local people felt about the threat of living near this extremely dangerous volcano and wondered if they constantly felt unsettled by the impending activity that was sure to occur. The reply was very different to what I’d expected. “We call her our Grande Mamma! Sometimes she gives, sometimes she takes away – we are used to living in her shadow.” This amazing theory gave a real insight into what living in hazardous environments really means to everyday people. The fertile soil, revenue from tourism and awe and respect seem to outweigh the risk of potential disaster that could come from this explosive giantess.
After an amazing morning and afternoon, we stopped off at Piano dell’Acqua where we clambered across a lava field created by the 1992 eruption. We returned to the hotel for some interesting discussions about the day before sitting down to a meal of pasta alla Genovese, roast chicken with potatoes and fruit. All in all, this had been an awe inspiring day that I’m sure none of us will forget for a long time to come.
Monday 2nd April
Today was the turn of the human geographers. Firstly though, we satisfied the physical geographers amongst us with a visit to Mojo Alcantara. We climbed this extinct volcano and circled the rim. From the top, we enjoyed views of lush, almost tropical, vegetation and witnessed local people foraging for wild asparagus and fennel. We then headed off and visited the small hilltop towns of Castiliglione di Sicilia and Francavilla di Sicilia. We discussed the futures of these towns; would young people move out into the cities? In what ways did life here remain traditional and how had modernisation and globalisation seeped into daily life? The human geographers discussed the rise in “Agriturismo” and we could see the emergence of this in the small B&Bs in Castiglione di Sicilia. With the lure of holidays to unknown and authentic destinations on the rise, could Castiglione profit from its natural features and location? Or would the modernisation that was taking place in the town in the hope of attracting tourists, actually diminish the town’s “off the beaten track” appeal? All very interesting and relevant topics for both staff and students.
The end of the day saw us head to the Linguaglossa’s Visitors Centre where we watched a film about Etna’s eruptions and the Volcanologists who monitor her activity. As this was our final night in Sicily, we headed to a local pizzeria where we enjoyed bruschetta, drinks and pizzas which ranged from the traditional “Norma” (aubergines with baked ricotta) to the more modern “Pattapizza” (pizza with chips on top!) Satisfied and very full, we ended the night in high spirits.
Tuesday 3rd April
We packed up our things and said goodbye to our hotel this morning. We headed first to Aci Terezza and Aci Castello, small seaside towns where the physical geographers studied the pillow lavas in the sea and the columnar jointing within them. We then headed to Catania, Sicily’s second city, where we headed through the vibrancy and vivacity of the city’s outdoor food market. We revelled in the sights, sounds and smells which were in abundance. We were amazed by the low prices for the fresh fruit and vegetables and the range of produce on offer. From wild strawberries to eels, half a goat to a horse steak; all manner of things were available at low prices and fresh from the producers! There were no food miles to be accounted for here! We had the whole afternoon in the city before our evening flight back to London so the students and staff made the most of the time, with visits to traditional trattorias and high street shops, as well as an improvised game of cricket (with a tennis ball and a tree branch for a bat!) in the city’s park. After heartfelt thanks from the students in the Piazza del Duomo, we headed to the coach and took our flight back to a cold and breezy London Gatwick.