The Port city of Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, is situated on the east coast of the island, just south of where Italy puts the boot in. Mount Etna looms on the horizon, swathed in haze, huffing a near constant stream of smoke and an occasional dribble of red-hot lava. It’s a brooding city, many of the buildings constructed from dark grey basalt lava rock; there’s a plentiful supply. You may think at first glance that my photographs are in black and white but they’re not, that’s just the colour of Catania. The city makes up for its shadowy hues with the vibrancy and atmosphere of its colourful markets, sunny disposition and the energy of a student population.
I’d heard that Catania was ‘a bit shabby’ – ‘not too much to see’ and as I had just one free day I decided I’d take the hour-long bus ride north to Taormina to visit the ancient Greek theatre. Well that was the plan. Until we took a stroll the evening we arrived and discovered that it’s actually a rather grand, lively and buzzy place. I wanted to know more so the bus trip was cancelled and I stayed in the city. So, what to see in Catania in just one day?
Catania’s old town centre is fairly small and ideal for walking. The avenues and the Piazza del Duomo are wide and spacious, a reaction to a volcanic eruption in 1669 where the lava flow reached the city and beyond, followed 24 years later by an earthquake which levelled it. Catania has literally risen from the ashes and rebuilt itself from the lava rock that once destroyed it. The wide streets are not only lovely to look at but allow for ease of escape and shelter in the event of another disaster. Architecture is Baroque with imposing concave churches and an ornate cathedral built from basalt lava and limestone.
Catania has its fair share of quirky and the emblem of the city, an elephant, can be spotted peeking out from many an unlikely place but the most obvious is in the Piazza del Duomo. The smiling Fontana dell’Elefante, built from dark basalt in 1736, is known as Liotru and stands guard over the city as a symbol of strength to protect it from enemies, misfortune and natural disaster. The Egyptian obelisk on its back was one of two once used in the amphitheatre to mark the start and finish lines for the chariot races.
Cathedral of Sant’Agata
The main sight on Piazza del Duomo is the imposing Cathedral of Sant’Agata. The cathedral was built over the Roman Baths of Achilles on the place where the holy martyr Agata died in 251. You can still see the entrance to the baths inside the cathedral gates to the right. The first cathedral was built by Normans in 1090, restored after the earthquakes of 1140 and 1169 and finally completely rebuilt from scratch after the earthquake of 1693. You can wander in to see the tomb of Bellini and the relics of Sant’Agata.
Basilica della Collegiata
There are many concave fronted churches in Catania and I must have spotted at least a dozen but the prettiest one was Basilica della Collegiata situated on Via Etnea. It was seeing this and the Cathedral all beautifully lit up on the first evening that persuaded me to spend the next day in the city.
There’s an underground river running underneath Catania, you can catch a glimpse of it at the Fontana dell’Amenano by the entrance to the famous fish market, La Pescheria, but our guide told us the best place to see it is in the bar of the Agorà Youth Hostel. Here you can sit at your table in a lava tube and watch as the water flows through. Nearby are the remains of the Roman baths and the colourful fruit and vegetable area of the food market which is a must-see.
Castello Ursino was originally a coastal fortress guarding the city from a high vantage point; however, during the Etna eruption in 1669 the lava, after destroying much of the city, flowed around the castle moving the coastline to the east, leaving the castle landlocked and removed of its strategic position. Today it houses the town museum.
The Roman & Greek Theatre
If you walk west from Piazza Duomo and to Via Emanuele 266, look carefully for the entrance to the Roman theatre. It’s easily missed with no view of the theatre from the street. The Greek theatre was once located on the southern slope of the former Acropolis and was rebuilt by the Romans into a Roman theatre with a connected smaller Odeon. It’s made from black lava stone and once housed around 6000 spectators with rows of seats and steps overlooking a small stage. There’s also the remains of an amphitheatre on Via Etnea which once sat 16,000 – there’s little left above ground but the underground tunnels still exist and it’s sometimes open to visitors.
The church below is the one you can see backing onto the Roman theatre above – Saint Francis of Assisi Nigh the Immaculate.
Renovations in the early 2000s restored much of the Centro Storico but areas of decay and neglect remain giving the city an edgy but interesting feel. I loved this balcony harbouring overgrown cacti – even that looked grey!
This is just a taster of what we saw in Catania – we visited Via Cuciferi with its arch bridging the street below and the tranquil town’s park, Villa Bellini for some colour. We stopped by some of Catania’s cafes and sampled some delicious Sicilian pastries and local food. We also had a memorable visit to La Pescheria, the circus that is the town’s fish and food market – a visit there shouldn’t ever be missed! After buying our ingredients we enjoyed a Sicilian cooking class in Eleanora Consoli’s kitchen where we learned how to make the city’s signature dish Pasta alla Norma.
Have you visited anywhere that completely took you by surprise? Where was it and why did it grab you?
Many thanks to Sicilian cooking class for hosting my visit to Catania. All views, opinions are, as always, entirely my own.