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    Italy | Sicily – Catania – More than just a stopover for Etna

    Catania, Sicily, Italy – more than just a stopover for Etna.

    Located on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, Catania is more than just the starting point for tours to the famous active stratovolcano Mt Etna.

    The second largest municipality in Sicily, after Palermo, Catania has been home to the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spaniards. Black and worn around the edges but with a teasing glint in ‘her’ eye, Catania is imbued with a rich cultural history making this destination of a kind.

    When you arrive in Catania, don’t expect it to be love at first sight. Catania isn’t Paris, Florence, or Venice, but it certainly does have its own allure. It’s multi-faceted, exuberant, dark, and entrancing. Spend a few days here and you’ll find many things to love about this incredible city.

    The historic port city centre is full of palazzi and Sicilian baroque piazzas that are so ancient it will make your mind boggle. A UNESCO World Heritage treasure, it is often referred to as the city in black and white due to its main building materials – black volcanic stone and white limestone. Despite its dramatic late-Baroque architectural beauty, Catania is more known for its location; it sits at the foot of Mt Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. Founded in the 8th century BC by Chalcidian Greeks, Catania has survived multiple geologic catastrophes, including the catastrophic earthquake in 1169, Mount Etna’s eruption in 1669, and a devastating earthquake in 1693.  Over the centuries, it has been home to famous artists, writers, and composers.

    Rose-coloured glasses on, spirits high, we couldn’t wait to experience the next stop in our Sicily adventure. Our first port of call was picturesque Ortygia, Syracuse. After 90 minutes by bus from Syracuse, we pulled into Borsellino Piazza. Lugging our overloaded suitcases behind us, we turned on the GPS. It seemed to go haywire directing us through the famous fish markets to our hotel one street away. The market’s pungent odour had me panicking. If our accommodation is this close to the fish market…? Strangely, our arrival was the first and only time I noticed the fishy smell.  

    We had Catania on our Sicily destinations list because we deemed Mt Etna was a ‘must’, yet over the four days we stayed in Catania, we never went near the volcano. Why? Because there’s so much to see and do we decided Mt Etna can remain on our bucket list as we plan to return to Sicily one day.

    SEE

    To get your bearings start at Piazza Duomo.

    Piazza Duomo is the main square, where major architectural sites are located (the cathedral, Elephant Fountain, City Hall, and Amenano Fountain). It’s the starting point for your exploration of the city, including the famous fish market located behind Amenano Fountain.

    The Cathedral of Sant’Agata is built over the remains of ancient Roman Baths. The Baroque-style cathedral has been rebuilt several times, destroyed over the centuries due to catastrophic earthquakes.

    The Elephant Fountain is the focal point of Piazza Duomo. Made in lava stone, it is the symbol of Catania – the elephant. Draped with a marble saddle cloth and surmounted by an obelisk, the legendary elephant’s origin as Catania’s civic symbol is wrapped in mystery. 

    Palazzo degli Elefanti, Catania’s Town Hall, is home to two 18th century carriages.

    Fontana dell’Amenano (Amenano Fountain), rafted from Carrara-marble, features a large shell in which a young man stands, flanked on either side by a triton. The young man holds a cornucopia, from which water flows. It’s quite spectacular even though it’s neither large and nor as visually dramatic as Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Tucked away in the corner of the Piazza Duomo, the fountain is literally right in front of the famous fish market.

    Badia di Sant’Agata Church, a few metres from Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, is a must-visit. The church’s interior isn’t spectacular, but its rooftop views are breathtaking. The climb to the top isn’t too overwhelming; there are a couple of levels to reach (which makes the climb doable for the not-so-fit) before you find yourself on the rooftop and the stellar view. I counted 100 plus steps from the ground to the terrace, another 19 to the landing, then another 58 steps (in the spiral staircase) to the top.  Cost is 2 euros to access the stairs. Address: Via Vittorio Emanuele II

    Anfiteatro Roman, the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, are the largest in Sicily. Not like the Colosseum in Rome nor the one in Pompeii, but certainly worth the visit. Address: Stesicoro Square

    Giardino Bellini is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe. After extensive retail therapy, this is an idyllic location to rest your feet and enjoy an icy-cold gelato. Address: Via Etnea

    Castello Ursino is an 13th century castle built as part of the coastal defensive system. In 1669, Mount Etna’s volcanic eruption changed landscape; the castle was now more than one kilometre inland due to the massive lava flow.  Formerly the royal seat with the Aragonese, then the Spanish Viceroys, it has been used as a prison and today it’s the municipal museum and venue for art exhibitions. Address: Piazza Federico di Svevia.

    La Pescharia is an experience for the senses. Men calling out the prices for their catch of the day. Slithering creatures in deep plastic containers poking flipping their tales above the water. Molluscs of all shapes and sizes glistening in the sunlight. Oysters, larger than you can imagine, freshly shucked for your to devour on site. Nearby, sellers of spices, pastas, and other edible necessities for your at-home evening meal.

    EAT

    When in Catania, you must try gelati and brioche and cannoli stuffed with pistachio and ricotta cheese. For an extraordinary dining experience, reserve a table in the grotto cave at A Putia Dell’Ostello. Remember, the locals don’t think about dining out until 9pm; an earlier booking should ensure you’ve got a table. Ask for a table that overlooks the underground stream. Address: Piazza Currò, 3

    Looking for a quick bite to eat, head to Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab. Walk a little further and you’ll find yourself amongst a canopy of colourful umbrellas and a multitude of restaurants.

    Scirocco Address: Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto (overlooking the Pescheria di Catania – fish markets)

    Images: Razamataz (left) A Putia Dell’Ostello (right)

    DRINK

     Aperol Spritz, of course. Our drink of choice because everyone understands the words ‘aperol spritz’. You can’t order the wrong thing. Certainly, you will get variations – some stronger than usual, some without prosecco, some with dried orange, some with thick slices of fresh orange, or pieces of quartered orange…but always with orange in some shape or form, and maybe too much minerale spritz (soda water equivalent), but they’re all thirst-quenchingly perfect to help appease the effects of the Sicilian heat. A Putia Dell’Ostello’s  ‘happy hour’ is worth noting.

    The perfect place for a quiet drink off the beaten track is Razmataz Wine Bar. Sit under the umbrellas in the square or grab your aperol spritz and wander indoors and take a step back in time amongst vintage finds.

    Wine can be expensive but carafes (quarter, half or one litre) house wines are unbeatable for value and taste.

    Water is very reasonable too. Most restaurants serve water in large plastic bottles, some in glass bottles. Prices range from 1,50 euro. On the streets you can buy refrigerated one-litre bottles of water for as little as 1 euro.

    Fresh fruit juices are available on most street corners; they’re squeezed while you wait. Sicilian blood orange is particularly popular.

    Our hotel overlooking the piazza and the view!

    STAY

    We stayed in the heart of Catania – the old town. Our hotel’s French doors opened out onto Piazza del Duomo. We looked directly at the city’s famous cathedral Cattedrale di San’t Agata, down at the iconic Elephant Fountain, and to our left, Palazzo degli Elefanti (town hall). To our right, although obstructed from our view, Catania’s Amenano Fountain.  Google images of the piazza and you’ll see our hotel flanked by large restaurant umbrellas stretching across the building’s façade. When it comes to location, we struck gold. Les Suites del Duomo House Address: Via Guiseppe Garibaldi 6

    Good to know

    Getting around. Hop on Hop off vs walking:

    There two modes of transport created for tourists to reach the major sites. The Hop on Hop off bus and the Tourist Train. Both are ideal if you’re not inclined to see the old city on foot. It is perfect to experience ‘on foot’, but if the heat is too much or you’re somewhat exhausted from sightseeing and want to sit back in comfort, these are your best options.

    The Hop on Hop off bus. Not as good as the ones we have experienced in Rome, Paris, London, New York, but then again, Catania isn’t a major destination like these other cities. Judgements aside, it does the job. The main benefit is to catch an early Hop on Hop off bus as the ticket is valid for the whole day. You can use the bus as your main mode of transport to get you from one place to another. One of the routes took us north, taking in the glistening coastline, historic ruins and ancient castles. www.touristdream.it

    The Tourist Train has become a regular mode of transport in most cities; however, it isn’t Hop on, Hop off. Once you are on board, you stay on board until the ride ends, 40 minutes later. The tourist train mirrors the Hop on Hop off bus route. The commentary is similar, just an abridged version. Both are run by the same tourist operation. www.touristdream.it

    Another bus company operates tours from Catania’s Old Town to Mt Etna. Departing at 11.30am returning around 6.00pm. It appeared to be a reasonable option for 30 euro. Google reviews revealed more negative than positive comments. We walked past the bus company’s office (also the tour departure site) and the bus was still there at midday. The link for this company isn’t included as we didn’t experience the tour. Do your research first before booking any tours.

    Top tips:

    Our recommendation before you set out to discover to wonders of Catania, do you research. Create a list of the top cultural sites you want to see. It would be impossible to experience Catania in all its forms in a one-day visit, so please don’t try.

    Four days in Catania will see you through; keep the fourth day for a trip to somewhere nearby. Take a bus to another town. Taormina was our pick, but we missed out because of language-communication issues. We could have taken a set tour, but the prices didn’t appear to provide value for money.

    Mt Etna is an option should you feel like hiking around the crater sites. We couldn’t find a tour that ticked all the boxes. Plus, there’s no guarantee your views will be spectacular when you’re there. If the day is overcast, you may be disappointed. Most tours stop at Mt Etna’s base; there you’ll stay for three hours before departing. You can take, for example, the chairlift to the next level. The price is additional.

    Don’t let the fish market odour put you off. Late in the afternoon, on a hot day, it can be a little overwhelming. By night fall, the area is clean and bare. The restaurants in this precinct are impressively good and well-priced.

    Skip high heels (unless you’re a local). The streets can be unforgiving even for people in sneakers and Birkenstocks. If you must have ‘height’ where espadrille-style wedge-heeled sandals.

    Don’t try to see everything. It won’t happen. Too many ancient buildings, historic sites, shops, ristorantes, bars… take it easy, wander the streets and enjoy finding those hidden delights that you hadn’t read about before you arrived. And enjoy the shopping! Check out Agosta Salvatore Emilio. Service is a little rushed but their linen shirts and dresses are excellent quality. Address: Via Etnea 54.

    Remember, not everything you read on the net is necessarily correct. Sometimes it’s best to create our own experiences. After all, not everybody likes the same food, wine, movie, or book!

    Vicki Montague is a freelance writer with a predilection for travel, European fashion, architecture that oozes history and charm, and objects that tell a story. She and her partner John are empty nesters - their three adult children have left the comforts of home to carve out their own paths in life. Vicki’s professional background is in marketing and public relations.

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