The last time I saw rain like that which pummelled Catania on our first day in the city, I was in Nepal and the monsoon was sweeping all before it. This though was a European city, the sight of water cascading down the streets and flooding the central square was shocking. Judging by the reactions of local people, it wasn’t just me who was surprised by the ferocity of the storm. We’d taken shelter in a small bar just off the main square, the older clientele spoke of a year of weather extremes. This type of storm has become common.
The rain relented and we were able to make our way to a restaurant for a late lunch. That was when the hailstones began falling. Accompanied by fierce winds, deafening thunder and alarming lightening, sizeable pieces of ice were hurtling to earth. I can say, without fear of contradiction, being hit by large hailstones travelling at heroic speeds towards earth was not very enjoyable. The noise, of what must have been tonnes of ice colliding with the city, was unbelievable.
The rain continued well into the night and we gave up on plans to find a restaurant in a distant part of the city, retreating instead to our hotel room. The following morning grey clouds still filled the sky, but it felt as if Catania had been cleansed by the storm. The air was fresh and the humidity of earlier days had relented, even while signs of storm damage were everywhere. We were staying on the main square and ventured out to have strong coffee and sickly sweet breakfast treats in one of the local cafes.
It was Saturday morning and, around the corner from the square, we could hear the city’s traditional fish market starting to come to life. After breakfast we wandered into the compact area where the freshest fish imaginable were on sale. Some stalls also sell meat, cheese and a range of fruits and vegetables. The cries of the seagulls wheeling overhead competed with the cries of stall holders, in a piece of street theatre that has been running for centuries.
The market is fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. I can imagine that on a hot day the sounds and smells could be a little overwhelming, but today it drew a crowd of onlookers, passing the time of day while watching the cut and thrust of negotiations as sellers haggled over the price. Swordfish was popular in La Pescheria, as it’s properly known, but a variety of fish and shellfish all caught within a boat ride of the Piazza del Duomo were on offer. In a changing world, this traditional market remains one of the largest in Italy.
Afterwards, we headed into town to explore more of Catania’s atmospheric streets. It might have been the dark clouds, or the damp in the air, but after the excitement of the market our stroll around the city was tinged with a feeling of disappointment. Catania is part workaday port city which has been through difficult economic times, and part rising star with chic squares, excellent food, lovely buildings and a renowned nightlife. The Catania we encountered was the slightly disreputable, down-at-heel version of the city.
The city seemed subdued, and so were we. Thankfully, a delicious lunch in a bustling and noisy restaurant revived our spirits, and inspired us to explore more of the historic centre and further afield. Mount Etna, which towers over the cityscape at the northern end of the Via Etna – a snazzy shopping street – was shrouded in low cloud. Invisible it might have been but, as we discovered on our meanderings, this is a city defined by its relationship with one of Europe’s most active volcanoes.