Catania – A new Sicilian city to explore
It’s early on a Friday morning and the sun is blazing down on the handsome Saint Agatha Cathedral, located on Catania’s central Piazza del Duomo. That’s hardly a rare sight here, as Catania has more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in Europe – an average of 2,500 hours per year, or almost seven hours a day. Even on a fall day like this one, it’s about 26°C at noon, and on torrid summer days it can reach 40.
As the morning develops, the Piazza del Duomo is livened up by the odd early-rising tourist and locals on their way to morning prayers and work, as well as by the scooter-driving young and old – not to mention the coffee baristas at Caffé del Duomo, who energetically ensure that guests get the day off to a good start. “Un cappuccino, prego.”
The new day begins even earlier – before dawn – for Catania’s many fishing boats. Their catch reaches La Pescheria, the lively and raucous fish market on Via Pardo, around the corner from Piazza del Duomo.From early morning to lunchtime, the air is full of nonstop sounds – shouts, cries, chatter and haggling – over the enormous selection of fish on display from the bounteous larder that is the Ionian Sea. Here, everyone is sociable with a capital S. One of the fishmongers offers generous tastes from his selection of delicacies, and presents us with his favorite local recipe, uttered in his special mix of Sicilian and English – baby anchovies fried in olive oil with egg and garlic, all topped with...“friiish prezzemolo. Comprende?” “Si, si, comprende, fresh parsley.”
The customary sunshine is welcome enough, but there is something particularly enticing about a sun-drenched morning in Catania, whether you’re relaxing on the sunny side of Piazza del Duomo or shopping in the shade at the market. Sicily’s second largest city, with a current population of 300,000, was first colonized by the Greeks, then by the Romans, extending over a period of over 1,100 years. With Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest and most active volcano towering above it, this tenacious town has suffered numerous devastating earthquakes. In 1693, it was virtually completely destroyed by a doomsday-esque volcanic eruption.
It’s no coincidence that Catania embraces the symbolism of resurrection. Many of its buildings were reconstructed using the very lava rock that flowed forth from the eruption. Likewise, local farmers began cultivating crops, including their all-important wine grapes, in the extensive areas covered in newly fertile soil, mineral-rich in volcanic ash – a major plus in viticulture. The tradition they started has continued and been developed further. Not surprisingly, many vineyards thrive today in the Etna area, which is now known for making fine and vibrant wines.
At the end of Catania’s main drag, Via Etna, the still-active and mighty volcano rises 3,300m above us, but it doesn’t strike daily fear in the hearts of modern-day Catanians, despite the fact that global warming could increase the threat in the coming years. “Etna is not a threat people think about every day. Today, experts armed with technological equipment monitor the volcano and its movements on a daily basis. There were a few tremors last week, but nothing that special,” says Eduardo, an easygoing middle-aged city native.
Catania has a city symbol – its landmark, so to speak – an elephant, perhaps regarded as a good luck charm against outbreaks of Etna. It literally takes shape as U Liotru, or the Fontana Dell’Elefante – a stone statue which was perched on an obelisk in Piazza del Duomo as part of the reconstruction of the devastated city center.
The cathedral itself is named after Agatha, a young virgin who was beaten to death by the Romans in 251 AD for expressing her unwavering faith in God. She was subsequently canonized and is now the patron saint of the city.
“For many of the faithful, she is an important symbol of the city and its history, but there are also non-believers in Catania. And there are many different views and other symbols,” a non-Catholic Catanian confides in us as we approach Porta Garibaldi at the end of the long Via Garibaldi. On the top of the gate, a Phoenix rises from the ashes and experiences its resurrection, which many Catanians consider to be a truer landmark than the somewhat curious U Liotru elephant.
Nor is it entirely coincidental that Catania’s twin city is Phoenix, Arizona.
Of course there are enough rundown buildings in the streets around Porta Garibaldi to discourage any associations with the idea of resurrection. “That’s true,” a resident Danish expat tells us before adding, “But you should have seen Catania 10 years ago. It was way worse back then.”
But Catania is nothing if not lively and pulsing with vitality, displaying a big-city buzz and a here-and-now atmosphere. On Via Monsignor Ventimiglia, the long approach road, impatient Catanians sit endlessly in their cars, beeping their horns in chronic traffic jams on their way to wherever, while scooters weave in and out of the traffic.
Yet you can also sense plenty of friendliness and hospitality; this city is not yet overflowing with the numbers of tourists flooding the coastal towns of Taormina and Syracuse. The Catanians’ often sparse grasp of English is no obstacle – it’s merely a challenge, overcome with smiles, gesticulating, mimicking and simple, universal words, and you are made to feel more than welcome in the many bars and restaurants. Here you really sense a good mix of relaxed provincial living and humming, big-city cosmopolitanism. Foreign visitors are by no means a new phenomenon in Catania, Sicily.
“First, we were invaded by the Greeks, then the Romans, so you can pretty well describe us as...bastards,” says Eduardo, a Sicilian soul with a self-deprecating grin. He adds, however, that there are also internal differences between Sicilians. He paints a historic picture of Catania’s traditional rivalry with the island’s biggest city, Palermo, on the northwest side. “At one time, the government was moved from Catania to Palermo. As a result, it seems, Catanians consider themselves to be diligent, hardworking businesspeople, while the residents of Palermo are public sector administrators. It’s to them Catanians pay their taxes.”
Employed in the oil industry, Eduardo has traveled the globe. In fact, he considers himself a world citizen, more humanist by nature than religious, and he speaks impeccable English. But he is also a genuine Catanian, with family roots dating back to the 19th century. And as a Catanian, Eduardo carries the Catanian resurrection gene.
“I used to live here in the city. Then I moved to the countryside, but I’m back here now, and it feels right,” he says before taking the short walk home and putting the fresh fish he just bought in the fridge.
Life is going well, not only for Eduardo, but also for his son – who’s an esteemed chef – and for the other young people of the city. In a couple of historic buildings, young Catanian students are acquiring new wisdom and insights. The nearly 600-year-old Benedictine Monastery on Piazza Dante Alighieri, a late Baroque treasure of a building that is a Unesco World Heritage Site, houses the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania. At the end of one wing of the building, a large rock of solidified black lava can be seen right outside the windows.
“The glowing stream of molten lava came to a halt right here in 1693,” a local history buff recounts, adding that the townspeople responded “by laying thick, soaking wet carpets outside the wall.”
Perhaps their faith in God strengthened that day.
Among the many Catania buildings damaged in 1693 was the elegant Villa Cerami, which in the eruption’s aftermath was purchased by a nobleman who restored it and embellished its interior Baroque furnishings. Today, this villa is the site of the University of Catania’s Law Department (which has a special resonance in historically Mafia-infested Sicily). In the small garden outside the main entrance, you often see diligent students poring over their books during school hours. But once the lectures are over, they gather at the nearby steps on Via Crociferi and in the bars along that street.
“In contrast to Palermo, Catania has much busier, more hectic nightlife, perhaps because it is closer to the Italian mainland, or maybe it’s due to the higher student population,” a Sicilian travel blogger writes.
Or as a resident young woman puts it, “I’m madly in love with Catania and its streets.”
That’s not surprising. On the many warm spring, summer and fall evenings, students and non-students alike congregate in the streets outside the many small bars and sidewalk cafés, where guitar music and spontaneous singing can be heard, and a feeling of love, or at least of camaraderie, pervades the air.
But not on this Friday evening, following a violent afternoon thunderstorm when the heavens open and university students and schoolchildren alike are sent home early. This proves to be a wise decision. Within minutes, near subtropical pelting rain instantaneously turns the city center, its fish market and the other markets packed to the gills (so to speak), into flooded chaos. Just about everyone rushes inside, huddling together in the cafés and restaurants, while hardy, fully stocked umbrella vendors pop up on all sides and do a roaring trade.
The transformation from the 26° noon sun to over 60mm of tropical downpour is a breathtaking contrast. But we’re in Catania, where there are plenty of wet days in the fall – though mild Indian summers sometimes stretch all the way into November. What follows? A couple of chilly winter months before an early spring arrives, and then comes a long, sunlit summer of unrelenting heat and seawater that can measure 27 degrees. Will climate change perhaps level Catania even more seriously than in 1693? That’s one possible scenario for the not-too-distant future. Another is that the city of resurrection with its resilient population, will overcome the odds, continue living up to its reputation and remain the indomitably charming focal point of Eastern Sicily.
Published: February 7, 2019