Sicily, and Catania, in particular, is but a short hop away (so close, there’s not even time for an in-flight service).
Text by David Baker
From all the bustling activity that hit the visitor at first glance, Catania has a strong magnetic pull. This is Sicily at its most youthful, a city which comprises a great mixture of fascinating culture, history and traditions alongside cool and gritty bars, delivering abundant energy and an earthy spirit in sharp contrast to Palermo’s aristocratic airs.
At the city’s historic core is a Unesco-listed wonder, where black-and-white palazzi tower over sweeping baroque piazzas. One minute you’re scanning the skyline from the dizzying heights of a dome, the next contemporary art in an 18th-century convent. Beneath it, all are the ancient ruins of a town with over 2,700 candles on its birthday cake. Indeed, food is another local forte. This is the home of Sicily’s iconic pasta alla Norma and the extraordinary La Pescheria market.
Keeping an eye on it all is Catania’s skyscraping ‘frenemy’, Mount Etna, a commanding presence that adds layers of intensity, history, devastation and at the same time beauty to Sicily’s second-biggest city.
Locals see the affectionately named Mamma Etna as both a blessing and a curse. It’s a symbol of fertility despite having destroyed the city several times over the last 500 years or so. However, it has also allowed Catania to rebuild itself in its own opulent Sicilian baroque style. (The Centre of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site).
The fertile landscape created by this active volcano has also produced an abundance of agriculture, a beautiful national park just outside of the city, some of the best wines in the world and a mouthwatering cuisine drenched with fantastic flavour. So where to start in this city of contrasts?
How about the central piazza? This is a set piece of contrasting lava and limestone, surrounded by buildings in the unique local baroque style and crowned by the grand Cattedrale di Sant’Agata.
At its centre stands Fontana dell’ Elefante (built in 1736), a naive, smiling black-lava elephant dating from Roman times and surmounted by an improbable Egyptian obelisk. The Elephant itself is quite mysterious as no one knows why, when, and how it became the symbol of Catania. Some say the elephant is known as u Liotru, a reference to Hannibal the Great, others refer to a famous local nobleman’s confrontation with a local bishop. During the 9th through 11th-century Muslim rule of Sicily, Catania was already known in Arabic as Madinat al-fīl or the City of the Elephant.
Another distinctive feature, a fountain at the piazza’s southwest corner, Fontana dell’Amenano, marks the entrance to Catania’s La Pescheria (fish market). It takes its name from the Amenano river that used to run on the same spot. The river was buried in 1669 during a devastating Etna eruption.
Here, from Monday through Saturday, the streets are transformed into a loud and fast-paced market and where the smell and sound of the fresh catch being hawked from various collapsible stands have become iconic.
One of the best things about the Catania fish market is not just the activity of the pescheria itself, but the crowd that it attracts. If you like people watching (and in this case, people watching people), this is the place.
La Pescheria forms one component of the piazza’s social heart of the city, where it serves as a meeting place for locals filled with stores, bars and restaurants surrounded by the most famous buildings, palaces, churches and the town hall of the city. So, a walk around the piazza and a friendly wave to the Liotru is obligatory for any visit to Catania.
As you continue your exploration, as is so prevalent in Italy, you discover there is an astounding amount of layering of different parts of history. It was the seventeenth-century earthquake which allowed the Le Terme Achilliane (Baths of Achilliane) to resurface, and they are one of the most important remaining structures from the Roman Empire in Catania. The extensive series of subterranean Roman thermal baths were discovered under the Cathedral, Seminary (the actual site of the Museo Diocesano) and under the Palazzo Sentorio (the Town Hall) all in the heart of Catania’s historical centre.
The other precious piece of ancient Roman Catania is the Teatro Romano, an open-air amphitheatre. Dating from three hundred B.C the theatre is exceptionally well preserved in the classical style; it had a capacity for 7,000 spectators complete with an orchestra pit. Today the Teatro is partly submerged with water from the Amenano river. During Roman times the underground water source served as a water feature for the amphitheatre and was used to move elaborate sets and other equipment needed by the theatre.
On the western side, there is the Odeon, a smaller theatre also from the Roman period which was believed to be used as a rehearsal space for the main theatre.
Teatro Massimo Bellini is an opulent Baroque theatre dedicated to the Catanese opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture to witness in a city made up of one treasure after another. The theatre is open for public tours and has a vibrant calendar of events throughout the year featuring everything from ballet, classical music, theatre to opera. The unique outdoor summer performances hosted by the Teatro in the Piazza Vincenzo Bellini directly in front of the theatre make the most of the cool summer nights and the stunning backdrop of the beautiful square and fountain.
For lovers of theatre, the Teatro Stabile Catania is a vibrant part of Catania’s cultural life. Since 1969 it has been performing in the modern Teatro Verga, a converted cinema at number 39 via Giuseppe Fava. Throughout the year it hosts a mixture of contemporary Italian theatre, classical performances, international theatre, with the most well-known Sicilian actors and a focus on Sicilian playwrights such as twentieth-century Nobel Luigi Pirandello.
Another most excellent place to visit is Castello Ursino, a medieval castle left behind by the Normans, French crusading knights who ruled over Sicily in the 13th century. There aren’t many remaining examples of buildings from the Norman period of the middle ages, and so this domineering structure right in the centre of Catania is astounding to witness. It is open to the public for daily tours and has become a Museum with an impressive archaeological collection.
The Università degli Studi di Catania is the oldest university in Sicily and was founded by King Alfonso V of Aragon (who was also King Alfonso I of Sicily) in 1434. The university quarter is a vibrant part of the city filled with bookstores, cafes, restaurants and the historical palaces that make up the university are generally open to the public.
For all the delights of the city, one cannot ignore Mamma Etna. Europe’s highest active volcano, it dominates views from Catania and getting up it is a fantastic day trip. Even in mid-summer, the 3,323m peak appears to be snow-covered, but on reaching it, you find it is a layer of sulphur.
Working out how to do it, though, can be confusing. The easy way is to take the cable car from Rifugio Sapienza, on the Catania side of the peak. The return trip costs just over €20 and takes you to around 2,500m. From here large four-wheel-drive buses ferry you up to 2,900m, although the road would be easily passable in your hire car if you wanted to try it.
Alternatively, if you are used to hill walking and are up for a two-hour hike, it’s an easy two hours to the summit and dramatic clouds of sulphurous smoke billow from the craters. A warning though: Etna is active, so check conditions before going up. In bad weather, the lack of any features would make it very easy to get lost and into serious trouble.
A visit to Sicily wouldn’t be complete if it weren’t topped off with some diverse dining choices. Food is a constant companion on a Sicilian holiday. As well as epic suppers, there is a continuous stream of goodies to graze on, and in Catania there are many must taste signature dishes. And of course, being a port city it has the most fantastic seafood including pasta made with Nero di seppia (squid ink), Pesce Spada (swordfish) and sarde beccafico (sardine wraps).
If you were to try five things, these should be on your list:
1. Granita: Since the 10th century, snow trapped in caves on Etna was brought down in summer, flavoured and eaten as a dessert. It’s a cross between a Slush Puppie and sorbet, but in gourmet flavours such as almond, basil and myrtle. Parlours are open into the night and have scores of characteristics. The best are home-made and treated as works of art.
2. Pasta di mandorle: An Arab province for 200 years, Sicily shares the North African love of all things sweet. Pasta di mandorle are biscuits with a sweet, soft almond centre. Bought warm, wrapped in ribbons from the local bakery, they are utterly moreish. Try Etoile d’Oro, a cafe filled with bin and business people under the arches behind Piazza del Duomo. It has a huge chandelier and a long glass counter groaning under giant sweet pastries, biscuits, jellies and marzipan creations of every fruit imaginable.
3. Pasta alla Norma: Catania’s speciality, it has a spicy sauce of tomatoes, fried aubergines and salted ricotta. The name comes from the opera Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini, the city’s most famous musical son.
4. Cassata: ‘As lovely as a cassata’ the super-sickly dessert is prized across the island. It’s made of ricotta cheese, lots of sugar, vanilla, chocolate and fruit. Cassatina, fairy-cake-sized versions, are more manageable.
5. Squid and swordfish: Restaurants throughout the city boast a massive range of seafood, from fresh tuna to trays of sea urchins. Don’t leave without trying the squid and swordfish.
For a night out to try some of these delights go to Via Alessi. While the city has excellent restaurants and bars, the real nightlife is on the streets. At night the stone-flagged steps of Via Alessi are crammed with amorous young Sicilians talking and flirting, and the bars on the roads nearby are jumping. Later, head for one of the groovy beach clubs set up on platforms over the rocks at the nearby seaside villages of Aci Castello and Aci Trezza, where the posing and partying goes on until 4 am.
A final word. Much as a visit is thoroughly recommended, think twice about going in August! During this month Sicilian expats come home, and mainland Italians arrive in droves, and road, beach and bed space is like gold dust!