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TOUR OF MOUNT ÆTNA.1
Leave Nicolosi— Tre Castagne, different places known by the common
name of Aci—Calatabiano— Communicative Host-Castagno de' Cento Cavalli-Late Eruption-Randazzo-Sicilian muttonBronte-Lord Nelson-Murder of the Contessa L- - by her Husband_Error of Ricupero, Gioeni, and Spallanzani-Circumference of Ætna.
We left Nicolosi next morning early, and soon arrived at the charming village of Tre Castagne, delightfully embowered in a magnificent grove of chesnut trees; there are also in this neighbourhood some of the largest oaks I have ever seen. The country through which we passed might, for beauty and fertility, vie with the celebrated Tempe, or with the Elysian fields themselves. We breakfasted under the shade of a wide-spreading chesnut,
“ So vast, he looked the father of the wood;" and enjoyed the delicious scenery of these favoured regions at our leisure. Resuming our journey, we passed the celebrated monastery of “ Maria di Valverde,” at which we alighted to view the church, and examine a miraculous picture of the Virgin, said to have been brought from heaven by an angel. I cannot say, however, that it does much credit to the celestial painter, whoever he may be. The church and mon
onastery were founded, according to Pirro in his “ Sicilia Sacra,” by a penitent robber, who having long laid the country under contribution, was directed to take this method of disposing of his ill-gotten treasures by the blessed Virgin, who appeared to him in his sleep, and commanded him to build a church to her on the spot where he then lay. A festival was instituted in consequence, which is observed with great solemnity on the last Sunday in August, when the temple is visited by a vast conflux of people from the surrounding country.
The scenery between this place and Aci Sant' Antonio is no ways inferior to that through which we had just passed. Aci Sant' Antonio is a small town, containing about three thousand souls, situated on a plain of lava, now covered with the most luxurious vegetation. Almost all the towns and villages in this neighbourhood are called by the common appellation of Aci, in remembrance of the Sicilian shepherd crushed to death by Polyphemus; they have some particular adjunct to distinguish them, such as
Concluded from vol. xiii. p. 406.
Aci Bonaccorso, a village.
Aci Sant'Antonio, a neat town, containing a population of three thousand.
Aci San Filippo, containing a population of four thousand.
Leaving all these Acis behind, we entered a wood, which is also called the “ Bosco d'Aci:” it abounds in chesnut and mulberry trees of magnificent growth, the shade of which was highly refreshing to travellers, who had been exposed to the ardour of a Sicilian sun in June. To our right lay the fertile plains styled the “ Coste di San Giovanni di Mascali,” abounding in corn, oil, wine, and fruits, in endless variety. There is also much game in the neighbourhood, hares of great size and excellent flavour, with numbers of the red-legged partridge ; but the flesh of this bird acquires a bitter taste from its feeding principally on the myrtle-berry..We shot as we came along, and by the time we arrived at Calatabiano, had provided ourselves with a respectable supper, in case the landlord should prove insufficiently provided to answer the demands of a party so large and so hungry as ourselves. Never did St. Julian, the patron saint of travellers, inspire wayfaring mortals with a happier thought; dried kid. ney beans, lupines, eggs, and garlic, was all mine host of Calatabiano could afford us. To make up for the scantiness of his fare, he plied us with compliments in profusion, assuring us that had he known such illustrious travellers were on the point of honouring Calatabiano, he would have been better provided ; although he acquainted us with what we had already perceived, that he was not an innkeeper by profession, but a galani 'uomo, who supported himself by the manufacture of spades, shovels, pickaxes, horseshoes, and other articles for the honest inhabitants of Calatabiano : it was true that when travellers of consequence, such as our excellencies, happened, which was very rare, to pass through the village, and he was thoroughly assured of their respectability, he usually invited them to sojourn under his roof during their stay. How long he would have gone on in this strain, there is no saying, accompanying every word with the grimace and gesticulation common to the lower classes of Sicilians, had we not, alarmed by the rapidity and perseverance of his elocution, cut him short, by requesting he would lead us to an apartment. We were accordingly shown out of the shop, in which we had been standing during his harangue, into an inner room, which served also for a kitchen, and was in every respect worse than the one we had quitted ; but we preferred it, imagining we should, at least, have it to ourselves, but we were never more disappointed. Our eternal host burst on us every moment, told more stories in an hour than I could repeat in a day, and expressed considerable mortification at our sparing him the trouble of roasting our game, entering into a long dissertation on the culinary art, with an encomium on his own proficiency, from which I could collect that he held few dishes to be good without a plentiful proportion of oil and garlic.
After supper, arranging our mattrasses on the damp mud floor, we threw ourselves down ; but scarcely had we got our talkative host out of the room, by extinguishing the light, as a polite hint for him to depart, when, as at a signal given, guests still more unwelcome made their appearance, if I may use the expression, in the dark. Fleas, spiders, bugs, mosquitoes, sand-flies, cock-roaches, with other genera and species innumerable, made a simultaneous attack upon us in all parts: we turned, we tumbled, we roared, we swore, we scratched, we caught, we killed, but all in vain : our blood-thirsty assailants were too numerous, too daring, and too hungry to be repelled. It was evidently long since they had made so delicious a meal. It will scarcely be believed, that even in this state of purgatory, we at length fell asleep, thanks to our exertions on the preceding day. But we had not long sunk into soft forgetfulness before the silken bands of sleep were burst asunder by a noise like the discharge of artillery, or the explosions of Mount Atna, proceeding from the adjoining apartment. One of us rose to ascertain the cause of this horrible disturbance: it was our indefatigable landlord, who was making up for the time he had lost in our company, by working at his anvil during the night. We could not help smiling in the morning at the motley condition of our features, which bore evident marks of their being the leavings of the plentiful banquet we had afforded to so many voracious hordes.
Calatabiano is situated on the side of Ætna: it is a miserable village, though dignified by the inhabitants with the appellation of town : its human population is scanty, but for vermin, I will back it against any three cities in Europe.
Having taken, I hope, an eternal adieu of our loquacious host, who made several desperate efforts to detain us, by beginning various stories, to which we resolutely turned a deaf ear, we rode on before breakfast to Lingua Grossa, a small town, containing two thousand inhabitants, prettily situated on a declivity. It owes its name to the rustic pronunciation of the people of the district. As this was a convenient spot for fixing one's quarters when visiting the “ Castagno de' Cento Cavalli,” and the eruption of the preceding year, which I was anxious to examine after the extinction of the conflagration, we left our horses at the very indifferent inn of the place, and provided ourselves with mules, the paths being too rugged for the former animals. In the neighbourhood of Lingua Grossa is a fine forest of pitch trees, of which the inhabitants extract and prepare the juice.
The leaves and branches of the “ Castagno de' Cento Cavalli a magnificent spectacle, and seem a forest in themselves; but the trunk by no means corresponds with the expectations raised of it. It has all the appearance at present of five distinct trees; if it be but one, as is generally allowed, it must, when entire, have been the wonder of the vegetable creation : it measures in circumference one hundred and sixty-four feet, a truly prodigious size. There are several others in the vicinity, which would be reckoned of extraordinary growth at a greater distance from this colussus of the woods. Carrera, who wrote in 1635, describes this tree. Without agreeing with him that it must have existed thousands of years, it is certainly very ancient, as it was nearly in the same state in his time as at present: he says that twenty-seven horsemen entered at once into its hollow, and that a flock of three hundred sheep have sometimes found refuge there ;
the same author also mentions certain oaks near Tre Castagne, which six men holding by each other's hands could scarcely encompass.
We next proceeded, under the direction of our guide, to visit the scene of the eruption of the preceding year. After four hours ride, wearrived at the foot of the hill which overlooks the plain where it took place ; leaving our animals there, we ascended to the summit, and precipitated ourselves down the declivity of ashes sloping into the valley, nearly in the centre of which rises the hill which poured forth the torrent of lava; our guide indeed remonstrated, and we had not calculated the ascent on our return; a few minutes took us to the bottom, and we crossed the plain, sinking deep at every step in the fine black sand. We found the height of the hill to be about three hundred feet, and had great difficulty in making our way to the summit. The crater is about fifty yards in diameter, and was still exhaling smoke: the lava had every where externally assumed the appearance of other streams of sciara, that is, of large rocks and stones confusedly heaped one upon another, except in the immediate vicinity of the mouth, where it was almost smooth. In the crater it still felt hot to the hand, and a stick inserted into the crevices took fire. We found several pieces of scoriæ so perforated, as to resemble sponges, and very light; scoriæ similar to these have probably occasioned the mistake of several travellers who have numbered the pumice stone among the productions of Ætna, which in reality is not found on the mountain. The lava of this eruption is of a horn-stone base; it is more than usually porous, but hard, and contains shoerls and feltspars: we perceived some of the former loose among the ashes, but they are by no means so abundant here as on Monte Rosso. It being late we left this spot, in hopes of being able to reach Lingua Grossa in good time for supper, but were sadly disappointed in our expectations; we found to regain the height from which we had descended into the valley, an undertaking which had nearly defied our strength, and reduced us to take our night's lodging al fresco, and supperless, in the gloomy vale into which we had penetrated with so much ease; it was literally
Facilis descensus Averni,
Hoc opus, hic labor est. In climbing this steep acclivity, which was covered to some depth with a coating of fine sand and yielding cinders, we could scarcely make good a single pace in five; the ashes constantly gave way under our feet, and we often retrograded two steps instead of advancing one; if by accident we met with a stone which showed its head above the sand, we found by experience that we could not trust our weight upon it, without risk of being rolled down again like the stone of Sisyphus to the bottom of the ascent, and having our Herculean task to commence afresh: at times we strove to help ourselves with our hands, but these not only served to loosen more effectually the light ashes, but it also filled our eyes, mouths, ears, and nostrils with the subtle dust, which rolled down in suffocating clouds on the rearmost of the party. Every third minute we were obliged to turn round and throw ourselves on our backs to repose, or, almost fainting, to apply our parched lips to a flask of brandy which we fortunately had with us, and which we may thank for having accomplished our task, at least for that night. At each halt we cast our anxious eye down to observe our progress, and cheerless indeed was the prospect of the valley below, which at every step seemed obstinately to preserve the same distance. I have ascended many of the steepest mountains of Europe, but I never underwent a fatigue so sharp and painful as the present : suffice it to say, that it was half-past six when we left the plain, and that we did not regain the brow of the hill until a quarter after ten. We found our attendants, who were with the mules, in astonishment at our protracted stay, and although we made the best of our road, it was one o'clock before we reached Lingua Grossa, where a good supper and a few glasses of excellent Ætna wine soon recruited our exhausted spirits.
We breakfasted next day at Castiglione, a town built on the rocky summit of an Ætnæan hill. Three miles from this place is Francavilla, beautifully situated on the side of a steep ascent, from whence there is a fine view of the plains at the foot of the mountain. In the neighbourhood of Francavilla is the river of the same name, one of the principal streams which supply the Alcantara ; on its banks, and in the adjacent country, flourish a number of very fine plane trees. We left Motta Camastra, a village on the summit of a hill, which appeared almost inaccessible to our right, and passed on to Auricella, or, as it is commonly called, Rocella, situated also, like most other places in the vicinity, on the top of a lofty mountain.
When we arrived at Randazzo, we inquired for the inn, and were shown to a wretched fandaco, the door of which was open, but on alighting from our horses we did not find it so easy to effect an entrance; a goat, of a most venerable aspect, with a beard that swept the ground, and seemed to speak him the father of many generations, presented his formidable horns, and kept us at bay, nor would he relinquish his position until in our impatience we violated the sanctity of his person by the application of some smart strokes of the whip; having forced an entrance vi et armis, an old woman conducted us to certain miserable chambers, each furnished with a bedstead, on which lay what had, from the inequalities of its surface, more the appearance of a sack stuffed with pebbles than a mattrass, the duties of which it was destined to fulfil. On our consulting our host, who now came in, concerning our supper, he assured us we should want for nothing, but should have all the place afforded: but what was that ? Was there any fish ?- None at present, but there would be some to-morrow ; could we have a beef-steak ?—No; beef was rarely killed at Randazzo. A pork chop ?-He was afraid not; was there castrato or moutone ? both of which signify mutton; he paused for a moment, and then said, that with a joint of mutton he believed he could furnish us, and that it should be on the table in about two
his was good news, and we got ready for supper. Our host kept his word, soon after the appointed time a huge quarter of mutton smoked upon our board; but ye immortal gods! what mutton! the body of Cycnus was not more impervious to the lance of Achilles, than this invulnerable joint to our