Catania, a city of surprises

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.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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.

Sicilian Street Art, Catania

A little like the city which acts as their canvas, street art in Catania feels a little rough around the edges. The streets of Sicily’s second city are undoubtedly gritty. Crumbling plaster falls from many historic buildings, rubbish collects on corners or in doorways, dirt and grime are ubiquitous. Look hard enough though, and it’s not difficult to find spots of brightness where street art illuminates dark nooks and crannies, and brings light to grey buildings.

As we walked around, we saw a lot of graffiti that made use of the decay found in the urban landscape. This made it all the more poignant. At one point I found myself taking a photo in a side street unaware that I’d strayed into San Berillo, Catania’s red light district. An area of unofficial brothels packed into a warren of narrow lanes where women sit on chairs outside doorways, wielding a camera seems inappropriate and can attract unwanted attention.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ironically, San Berillo is a hotspot of street art, and the handful of pictures I took before realising where I was, were all faces of young women. The area itself has a fascinating history, once an upmarket area that includes old palaces of Sicilian aristocracy, it fell into decay and was gradually abandoned from the 1950s onwards. A lot of the original houses were destroyed for a redevelopment project that never materialised, leaving a physical hole in the city.

As people left the area, sex workers moved in and have never left. In the 1990s, things were so bad that this was considered one of the largest red light districts in Europe. In response, a project called Red Line Distreet has brought street art to many walls in the district. I left the area behind and within a few minutes was in the heart of Catania’s commercial district, the Via Etna. It seemed a world away from San Berillo’s streets, but in reality these areas rub shoulders with each other.

I found myself in San Berillo after failing to reach the one area where I knew there were several massive pieces of street art, the Art Silos found in Catania harbour. This was a project that dates back to 2015, when the I-ART Festival commissioned pieces to be painted onto eight disused wheat and corn silos on the docks. At 28 metres high, the silos are pretty imposing, and I could see them in the distance as I made my way down an access road.

Unfortunately, I was stopped at a security check where the pleasant police officer told me it was far too dangerous for pedestrians to go any further. As a large lorry roared past, I understood what he meant. My only other option was to walk down a busy dual carriageway, which seemed about as appealing as being run over by a lorry. So I made my way back into town, checking out the small fishing boats in the publicly accessible parts of the harbour en route.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania does have a lot of street art, but I only found a few building-sized pieces, and most of those were two or three years old and often faded. A few artists appear over and over though – one in particular who has a line in fanged creatures and balls. Local art occasionally mingles with international art, but I didn’t recognise any of the artists with whom I’ve become familiar. Perhaps next time I’ll have more luck.

La Pescheria, fish tales in stormy Catania

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.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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.