If we’d left Catania twenty-four hours earlier, we’d have left feeling underwhelmed by this attractive and dynamic city. The Catania we encountered during the first day and a half of our stay was grey, damp and dreary. On Saturday night though, grubby streets with graffitied buildings that made us feel a bit depressed in daylight, suddenly burst into life. Metal shutters were unfurled to reveal hip cafes, bars and restaurants. People crowded the pavements, and formerly quiet streets pulsated to the sound of music and conversation.
Catania successfully combines the stylish with the gritty and down-at-heel, modern life happily coexists with ancient history. It was a relief to see this other side of the city because I badly wanted to like it … and not only because I was expected to report back my impressions to an Italian colleague who is from here. This is a legendary city built at the foot of Mount Etna, and its destiny, from ancient history to the modern day, has been intertwined with Europe’s most active volcano.
That history includes the devastating earthquake of 1693, which left an indelible mark on the whole region, and left Catania in ruins. The city was rebuilt in the baroque style seen so often throughout this region for exactly the same reason. It has bequeathed the city some magnificent buildings. Other earthquakes have caused severe damage to the city over its more than 2,800 year history*, which dates back to the 8th century BC and includes centuries of Ancient Greek and Roman rule.
Regular volcanic eruptions have done their worst, only for the city to be reborn, but all that volcanic activity has also produced rich, fertile soils, especially good for growing grapes. An upside that can still be tasted in the excellent wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The Sicilian wine business has been around for over 6,000 years according to research published last year, but it really took off when the Ancient Greeks arrived and began cultivation in earnest.
The Romans valued Sicilian wines for their distinctive flavour, and traded them around the Mediterranean. No visit to Catania would be complete without sitting in a square sipping a local wine. Viticulture though, isn’t the only wonder to survive from Greek and Roman times. We left the lovely Piazza del Duomo with its massive Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and delightful Fontana dell’Elefante, a Roman-era volcanic rock elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk, and wandered along the Via Vittorio Emanuele II.
This ordinary-looking street hides an extraordinary secret, one easily missed if you’re not paying attention. The entrance comes with little fanfare, but once you’re inside a truly wondrous sight reveals itself, a 2,300 year-old Roman theatre. It’s utterly and completely spellbinding. You could walk around this area and never know the theatre existed, surrounded as it is by houses, churches and a former palace. We arrived early in the morning and had this atmospheric place to ourselves.
In the centre of the theatre’s semi-circle is a pond, into which runs a stream containing fish. The Romans used it to stage water ballets. There’s a small practice theatre behind the main event. From here we walked through streets lined with beautiful baroque churches and palaces to find a Benedictine Monastery, today a 16th century UNESCO World Heritage Site that today houses part of the University of Catania. We were out of luck for an English language tour, but were able to go inside and wander around.
We popped inside the huge, but unfinished, Church of Saint Nicolò. Destroyed by a lava flow from a Mount Etna eruption in 1669, reconstruction began in 1687, just in time for the 1693 earthquake. The interior’s an immense space of white marble. Afterwards we headed north through interesting streets to an area close to Park Villa Bellini – the composer was born in Catania – where there are plenty of bars and restaurants for a lazy lunch.
The maze of streets in this area are filled with old palaces and baroque churches, not many of which were open. We simply didn’t have the time to fully appreciate it, but the little we saw was fascinating. Our last few hours were spent pottering, before heading back to the Piazza del Duomo to do some people watching over a coffee. Catania in the sun was a much more attractive proposition, we really need to come back in Spring.
* This includes the recent volcanic activity and earthquake that has damaged villages and towns, and injured several people.