We stood on the deck of the hulking cargo ship, through the bluster and drizzle in the Strait of Messina, both of us feeling something like sailors docking at an unfamiliar port of call. My new acquaintance, a Genovese Ph.D. student in anthropology named Giacomo, explained to me that he’d rarely ventured south of Rome, much less ever been to Sicily. But he was excited, as was I, to see the brilliant golden statue of Madonna of the Letter come into view as a faint rainbow stretched 180 degrees across the harbor. He explained his travel philosophy: that the self is a vessel one empties at home and slowly fills with experiences over the course of one’s travels.
That sounded like a great frame of mind to begin my trip to Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, positioned in the shadow of Mount Etna on the island’s eastern coast. While it doesn’t attract the same kind of attention as Palermo, Catania’s unheralded delights are worth exploration: fine architecture, bustling markets, lively cultural events and centuries of history dating to the city’s beginnings as a modest Greek colony. And while the euro has seen an uptick over the dollar in the last year or so, a trip to Catania can be had for a relatively modest sum.
While I could have flown to Catania from where I was staying in Rome, I opted for the more scenic train ride. A second-class seat cost me 69.50 euros (about $86), and while the seats didn’t recline (brutal on a 10-hour ride), the train was half empty so I had the seats next to me to myself.
In addition to the joys of train travel (something I’ve documented in the past) I got to experience something quite novel: When the train arrived at Villa San Giovanni, at the tip of Italy’s boot, the entire thing was loaded — passengers and all — onto a large ship and ferried across the water to Sicily. Once unloaded in Messina, we continued in the same train down Sicily’s coastline, past Taormina and into Catania Central Station.
The sights and smells of the new city hit me square-on after stepping out onto the uneven stone pavement: the peddlers selling gelato and icy granitas, shops full of fresh pasta, motorbikes zooming in and out between lanes of cars, and walls covered in multicolored graffiti. I walked a bit along the water, taking in the slightly briny sea air before hanging a right and making my way toward my lodgings in the center of town.
The door closed with a reverberating clang, as if I had entered a mausoleum. I had arrived at my hotel, Asmundo di Gisira, which is equal parts bed-and-breakfast and art gallery. It was certainly one of the more interesting hotel experiences I’ve had in recent memory: Art pieces bedeck the lobby and rooms are themed after myths. Mine, with two beds placed back-to-back and a circular mirror on the ceiling with a remote-controlled chromatic lighting system, was named after the Acis and Galatea myth, famous throughout the island. (The quickie version: Acis loves Galatea, as does a monster named Polyphemus; spurned by Galatea, the monster kills Acis; Galatea turns Acis into a magical stream.)
Idiosyncrasies aside, I was more than pleased with the room: It was enormous, had two balconies, and came with a delicious breakfast each morning. The price for this luxury, $116 per night, was even more reasonable when combined with a Hotels.com coupon I found on the Groupon website that gave me $40 off a $300 purchase, effectively lowering the nightly rate to $106.
One aspect of the hotel I particularly enjoyed was the ability to take breakfast on a large terrace overlooking Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. Piazzas are essential to Catanian life, something I discovered during my first morning walking around the city. The main square, Piazza del Duomo, seemed to fill with people proportionally as the morning sun illuminated it: Vendors, shoppers heading to the market and old men sitting around the elephant statue in the square’s center fill the plaza. You’d be wise to grab an espresso macchiato (an espresso with a dash of milk) from one of the cafes on the west side of the square and watch this snapshot of Catanian life — Caffè Prestipino makes a good one (1 euro).
After paying a visit to the Cathedral of Sant’Agata, which has, because of earthquakes and Mount Etna’s ornery nature, been built and rebuilt several times since its original construction in the 11th century, I headed across the street to the Church of the Badia di Sant’Agata. I noticed its promising-looking dome and was hoping to ascend for a good view of the city; I was in luck. Three euros and 170 steps later I was up at the cupola, with a wonderful view of the city and Mount Etna, one of the largest active volcanoes on the continent, looming only somewhat menacingly in the background.
While Catania has a public transportation system, its center is small and very manageably explored on foot, allowing you to match the unrushed pace of life and enjoy the narrow stone streets, polished by years of automobile and foot traffic; the sunbaked facades of its buildings; and the thousands of balconies that lean out into its avenues.
Catania’s ancient history is conspicuous everywhere you go. A quick walk from the main piazza is the archaeological complex Terme della Rotonda (free admission), an ancient thermal bath complex from the Roman Empire that was repurposed and used as a Christian house of worship beginning in the sixth century — the oldest in Catania.
Built in the 1800s (practically a newborn) the Teatro Massimo Bellini, named after the city’s most famous composer, watches regally over a piazza with the same namesake. I went one afternoon, hoping to catch that evening’s “La Traviata” performance, only to be greeted by a sign saying it was sold out.
Undeterred, I went to the box office about 30 minutes before showtime, and slowly pushed my way to the front of the line. I was in luck. My balcony seat wasn’t cheap (42 euros), but I was happy to have landed a seat, and the guy at the box office even floated me a 20 percent discount (off the regular price of 52.50 euros). The gorgeously gilded opera house was a perfect environment to watch the trials and tragedy of the courtesan Violetta Valéry.
Ursino Castle, which dates to the 13th century, now holds a civic museum (12 euros admission with audio guide) and is also worth a visit. Inside you’ll find treasures from the old Italian masters: works from El Greco and Battistello, and Caravaggio’s somber “Maddalena Addolorata.” For the most part, works proceed chronologically, eventually getting into the 20th century and the colorful, almost Van Gogh-like “Autoritratto” (self-portrait) by Antonio Ligabue. The museum is quite large and parts of it, like one area where 500-year-old relief fragments are just sitting on the floor, feel a little like the curators didn’t know what to do with so much history.
It’s a palpable feeling in Italy, particularly in Sicily: The sheer volume of fascinating ancient buildings and artifacts can overwhelm. And as on the floor of a rain forest, new life must push through the old and fight for resources. The compact Sicilian Museum of Contemporary Art does this well (5 euros admission), highlighting works from Catania (Alfio Giurato’s moody work “The Puppets”) and elsewhere (the Cuban artist Cesar Santos’s cheeky “Playground”).
And at Gammazita, a cultural association/library/performance space, I saw both young and old united on Piazza Federico di Svevia enjoying a public performance, socializing, eating and drinking. Inside the building is a warm, eclectically decorated informal lending library — further back is a small bar and cafe. A couple in the front room was setting out food announced on a hastily scrawled menu: Eggplant lasagna, arugula salad and a couple of other dishes.
The chaos spilled charmingly out into the street. Two young women were singing and playing the guitar, and guests could enjoy their food and peruse piles of books that were set up outside. A store just across the alleyway (also called Gammazita) specializes in circus and street performing. Alongside, a tall young man was giving an informal plate-spinning lesson to some youngsters. All in all, it was a welcoming, festive atmosphere. That eggplant lasagna, which I had, along with the salad, for 10 euros, also happened to be excellent, with perfectly al dente noodles and a creamy tomato sauce.
They love eggplant, or melanzane, in Sicily. It’s a staple of local cuisine, which became apparent in my eating adventures across the city. North of Piazza del Duomo at Pasticceria Savia, I had a great arancinu catanese (2 euros), a cheesy, saucy fried rice ball dotted with splotches of fresh eggplant. They also did a creamy pistachio cannoli (2.40 euros), which I enjoyed with a 90-cent espresso at the bar. I went for a little stroll around Giardino Bellini park across the street to walk off the heavy food.
One afternoon I walked into Pausa Pranzo, where I was introduced to the Sicilian way of doing lunch — no menu, just choose from several options. I had a small plate of mixed vegetables as an appetizer (5 euros) followed by a juicy, garlicky spaghetti alle vongole (7 euros). The situation was similar at Il Principe (incorrectly listed by Google Maps as permanently closed) — various vegetable antipasti (3 euros) followed by a dish of fried whole sardines, a Catanian specialty (6 euros).
What really shone, though, were the markets, where you can find seasonal, high-quality ingredients. This was apparent at the fish market near Piazza del Duomo, which overwhelms with fresh clams, mussels and other seafood, and particularly at the large Fera o Luni market in Piazza Carlo Alberto di Savoia, which doubles as a flea market (Catania’s big markets are closed Sundays).
The latter market was vast and labyrinthine, with vendors selling everything from fresh fennel and cauliflower to knockoff designer handbags and shoes. I dug through a pile of clothing and picked up a button-down shirt and sweater for one euro apiece, and a bag of fresh green and black olives mixed with pickled carrots and cauliflower (one euro). My bad Italian led me to accidentally buy way more pepato stagionato — a powerfully salty sheep’s milk cheese that resembles pecorino Romano — than I intended, picking up more than a pound. At 6.50 euros, it was still a good deal, and I enjoyed it with a crusty white roll I purchased from a local baker for 25 cents.
A local I met at the San Nicolò Benedictine Monastery, Carmelo Sidoti, was a fierce champion of his city, and quick to distinguish Sicily from the rest of Italy: “We had 17 civilizations here. We are unique in our position,” he said. “The motto of Catania is ‘Melior de cinere surgo’: From the ruins, I emerge stronger.” He was hardly incorrect: it felt to me as if Catania, where the past meets the present, is getting ready for its moment.
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