Holidays in Sicily: Part 5 – Catania’s Treasures

Fruit stand in Catania
Fruit stand in Catania

We arrived in Catania and we left from Catania.

On our way to Catania, we made a bit of a detour through some of the most depressing country side I have seen. Add to that the garbage and it makes you realise that Italy is not always that dream place we know from the images.

Burning garbage in Sicily
Garbage quietly burned off. We saw this in many places. Result of cut backs? Lack of pride? Maffia? All of the above?

In order not to bother with a car in a city where we were going to walk anyway, we dropped off the car at the Catania airport where we rented it, and took a bus in town to spend the two last days in Catania. We found a nice AirBnB: an apartment with high ceilings near the waterfront, in the old core. From there everything was in walking distance.

We really liked the arancini
We really liked the arancini

The city is definitely worth a visit for its massive Benedictine monastery and its Greek theatre alone. It is not a picture poster quaint old town with colourful medieval streets; instead it feels a bit like a working class town. The many blackish buildings built with Etna’s lava rock are not like the pretty sugar cake type palazzo’s you see elsewhere in Italy. It feels more rough and tumble than other places.

Street life in Catania
Street life in Catania
The smallest bike repair 'shop'
The smallest bike repair ‘shop’ I have ever encountered

It is hard to figure out how much is pollution and how much is black igneous rock: the black buildings and the often black pavement give the city a bit of a sinister look. We walked all over the place, and visited the gigantic former Benedictine monetary, the fort, now an archeological museum and the fish market. And we liked the city.

Benedictine monastery

The massive Benedictine Monastery
The massive Benedictine Monastery

We decided to take the tour in the monastery as we would get to see a lot more than just the outer court. The English tour wouldn’t be on until the next day, so we opted for the Italian one. I am sure we missed some parts but we could figure out enough from Italian that we thought it was worth it. They did give us a summary on paper in English, which was very helpful. Note: Sicily is not really used to catering to non Italian speakers. Translations are usually soso, and many are too shy to try their English. It helps to encourage them to try and I’d add that their English is likely better than my Italian and French combined. In turn, I suggest to speak as much Italian as I can to them.

the inner court
The inner court
Part of the library
Part of the library

The monks in the monastery used to be the sons of wealthy families. The eldest one was to receive the father’s property, the other sons could choose to go either into the army or become a monk. Many choose to become a monk and live a peaceful life while pestering their wealthy brothers for money to buy art. When the monastry was nationalised eventually, the art ended up at the state and can now be admired in the museum.

Escher like image
Don’t you think this looks like an Escher drawing?

Lava threatening Catania

But the art collections could have been buried under lava forever, had the monks not worked hard to protect their monastery. When Etna erupted some 360 years ago, the lava slowly rolled into town. I have always thought that that would happen in a matter of hours, like massive amounts of deluded maple syrup poured into a valley, but it took two months for the lava to reach the monastery. I always have visions of being caught up by lava while trying to run away, but it sounds like even I could outrun lava. And I ain’t fast.

The city used a lot of igneous rock to rebuild itself. It gives it a bit of sinister look, especially at night.
The city used a lot of igneous rock to rebuild itself. It gives it a bit of sinister look, especially at night. I didn’t Photoshop this image.

The monks, realising the monastery was under serious threat, started to pile up sand and stone around the perimeter of the building and they succeeded to keep the lava at bay. Once the threat had passed they shoveled the sand and stones away, but the lava behind it had hardened into molten rock (think porous black glass) and a 12 meter wall about ten meters from the buildings wall remained. The Benedictine monks quickly realised that it would save them a lot of back breaking work if they would just leave that wall of lava and ever since it has been sitting there, now with a hospital built on top.

The basilica, part of the monastery.
The basilica, part of the monastery.  The acoustics make you want to sing out loud.

The tour fills you in on a lot of details, and shows the many rooms: the library, the hallways where the Benedictine monks used to stroll, the kitchen in the basement and the inner courts. Well worth the money. Entrance fees in Sicily are very reasonable anyway.

Greek-Roman theatre

The very much hidden Greco Romano theatre. So hidden in act behind a nondescript building, that lots of people likely miss it.
The very much hidden Greco Romano theatre. So hidden in fact behind a nondescript building, that lots of people likely miss it.

Hidden behind a row of apartment blocks in the centre of Catania lies a fantastic Greek-Roman theatre (lots of Wiki commons photos here). It is so hidden that you could walk right past it without knowing there is this large hidden gem just meters away from you.

The ticket counter guy, taking a smoke break inside the museum at the theater.
The ticket counter guy, taking a smoke break inside the museum at the theatre.

In the second half of the last century, the theatre was slowly uncovered after citizens over the centuries had simply used the sturdy theatre as a foundation to build houses on top. There is a smaller theatre (Odeon) up at the top, which we couldn’t see from the inside. We managed to stick our camera above the wall though and were able to snap a few pics. While the main theatre, built perhaps in the 2nd century BC, seated 7000 people, the Odeon is considerably smaller.

Catania’s Fish market

pork legs
Mmmm, meat at at room temperature….
Sword fish
Although no unprovoked attacks on humans have been reported, swordfish can be very dangerous when harpooned. They have run their swords through the planking of small boats when hurt. In 2015, a Hawaiian fisherman was killed by a swordfish after attempting to spear the animal (CNN)
Still looking surprised. What was that chop behind my head?
Still looking surprised. What was that chop behind my head?

Everyone told us to go and see the fish market. We are not big fish people, but the pressure of everyone to go and see it made us decide to check it out. And to be fair, it is something to see. Men yelling loudly to sell their wares, from beheaded swordfish to tiny shrimp. There was pork at room temperature and fresh vegetable stalls. The whole ambiance is something to be experienced.

Overwhelming choice of seafood
Overwhelming choice of seafood
Artichoke at 50 Eurocents each (CAD 0.70). O, those melons……

Catania is a city where you just want to walk around and get a bit lost. And walking we did. Our Strava app counted no less than 34 km in 2 days. The weather was perfect (low 20’s C/low 70’s F) in mid May) and we feel that there is no better way to enjoy a city then walking it.

Via S. Michele, where a number of artists attempted a bit of an urban lab type thing.
Via S. Michele, where a number of artists attempted an urban lab type thing.

We would have loved to bike here, but it is just not realistic for us. It doesn’t mean that no one cycles, but you’d see more bikes in Ottawa on a summer week day than on the entire island of Sicily in a year.

PIazza Giuseppe Mantini where Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Santa Maria della Lettera meet.
PIazza Giuseppe Mantini where Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Santa Maria della Lettera meet. That little car on the cross walk is an effect of the panorama photo. Cars are not *that* small.

Wonderful trip

Bumped into a Microsoft promotion team at the main square. I am not sure if they were sure what they were doing there, but we had a fun conversation in Italo-English. Note the bike and the cargo bike.
Bumped into a Microsoft promotion team at the main square. I am not sure if they were sure what they were doing there, but we had a fun conversation in Italo-English. Note the bikes and the cargo bike.

Looking back

We look back on a wonderful trip. We highly recommend Sicily in spring, when the crowds are not there and the weather is lovely. Food is very affordable: pizza is anywhere between 4 and 9 euro’s in a restaurant, a nice sized gelato is 2 euros and groceries prices are similar if not lower than in Canada – and you have to eat anyway). Wine: lots of it in the supermarket and at rock bottom prices. Our overnight stays were anywhere between 50 to 90 CAD a night for two. That would be an apartment with a kitchen and a garden, patio or balcony.

Reclaiming public space.
Reclaiming public space.

We feel that every place we go should have an outdoor place to enjoy the weather. We are sitting inside enough as it is back home.   The weather is stable and not overly hot for most of the year.

Most of Sicily's weather is fairly stable. This is Mid June's weather forecast.
Most of Sicily’s weather is fairly stable. This is Mid June’s weather forecast for Catania. You might be swallowed up by lava though…

Our trips are usually a mix of guide book stuff and unexpected encounters. There is still so much to see that we hope we can go back one day. And if you want to move there, there is lots for sale. It isn’t as cheap as one would expect and you likely have to do a lot of renovation. If you can find someone to do it.

Nob and Tube systems for your stone built house.

Hope you enjoyed the series. Read the first four installments:

Part 1 The southeast UNESCO sites

Part 2 Villa Romana del Casale and Morgantina

Part 3 Castelbuono, Madonie and Cefalú

Part 4 Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples and Siracusa

Hans

 

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