If the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word Sicily is the Mafia (or as its also known ‘Cosa Nostra’) or the Godfather, then it is certainly about high time to visit the island and its second largest city located on the east coast, Catania. One thing is sure, you will be surprised. Those seeking grumpy-faced individuals with cold eyes and guns hidden under their coats will be greeted by the reality that, nowadays in Catania, it’s more a case of ‘Cosa?’ (What?) than Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) .
Despite what one might imagine, visitors to Catania certainly won’t encounter any ‘mafioso’ walking around the city scaring the locals with their powerful presence. Indeed, Catania is anything but scary.
Catania is a proud city and its people are full of joy and laughter. Expect to find tasty Mediterranean delights such as sun-ripened fruits and vegetables, almond pastries, chiosci (kiosks) offering several types of aniseed beverages, and its diverse range of seafood served in numerous places spanning from simple local eateries to high-end modern restaurants. And that’s just the food! Then there’s the city’s sandy beaches that stretch for kilometres, and its incredible architecture, which has earned Catania a place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as one of the Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily), and Mount Etna, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which silently and protectively rises above the city’s horizons.
Etna, that impressive mountain on the horizon, the powerful great Mother standing above Catania that gives the city the greenest landscape in the whole of Sicily and one of the most, if not ‘the’ most, fertile grounds in Europe. Catania is a place where aubergines grow all-year-round and where sweet orange juice is freshly squeezed every morning, 365 days a year. ‘Mama Etna’ is what locals call ‘their’ volcano. Contrary to what one might think (here we go with another surprise) Etna is not dangerous, despite being the largest volcano in Europe (its highest peak reaches 3,323 metres above sea-level) and one of the world’s major active volcanoes. When it errupts, which rarely happens, the lava is so slow that a visitor to Catania would have time to complete an expensive trip round the world, before being in any danger from Etna.
Therefore, it makes more sense to embrace Etna’s eruptions and take one of the spectacular and famous evening trekking tours to see this impressive phenomenom. On the way down it is possible to stop at one of the cellars, scattered around Etna’s slopes, that stretch from dense green forests to dark volcanic caves, from fertile fields and vineyards to the Star Wars-like lava desert, and get some Etna Rosso or Etna Bianco – wines from vineyards that grow in the fertile black volcanic soil that gives them a distinctive taste. A truly rare delight.
Etna serves its residents so well that one of the villages on its slopes is known for having one of the longest life expectancy rates in the world – the average age in the village is 95! This is thought to be connected to its Mediterranean climate, nutritious food, good wine and siestas. Etna, though, not only provides good soil, but its unique biodiversity also provides a home to many hundreds of animal species, as well as the locals who live in its shadow.
Catania is known as the ‘black city’, since through the centuries most of it has been built using black volcanic stone. In contrast, its neighbouring city, Syracuse, is called the ‘white city’ because it was built from white marble stone. However, despite being called the ‘black city’, Catania is full of colour. Its history is a mixture of cultures passing through time.
Catania was founded in the 8th century BC by the Ancient Greeks and then went through many rulers – Ancient Romans, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Germans, Spaniards, etc. The influence of its diverse and colourful history can still be seen, heard, smelt, touched and tasted. The origins of many of the city’s foods date back to ancient times, as well as its architecture, monuments or symbols, such as the lava sculpture of an elephant that throughout history has been the city’s talisman and the reason why Catania is also called ‘The City of the Elephant’. Some if its words are a reminder of its eventful history still bearing a mixture of early influences, like Greek and Arabic. The rich colourfulness of the city is additionally emphasised with red and blue balloons and triangle flag banners which, together with other such visual feasts spread all around town, give Catania a really festive vibe. In fact, this explosion of colours and senses is there for a reason – one of the biggest festivals in the world.
No, it is not a typo. VV stands for ViVa, S for Saint, and A for Agata (Agatha). Banners can be seen hanging everywhere when Catania, not Etna (surprisingly so), erupts every February when it stages one of the biggest celebrations in the world. The celebrations are dedicated to St. Agatha from the 3rd century. The Roman Proconsul Quintianus wanted to marry her but she rejected him, defending her honour and her devoted faith. The insulted Quintianus subjected her to horrific torture by rolling her over hot coals and cutting-off her breasts. As a mark of respect, Catania holds three days of solemnity every year from 3-5 February, when the reliquary statue of St. Agatha is on a fercolo (a silver carriage) brought from her spot in the Cathedral out onto the streets among people and all around the city pulled by around 5,000 people.
And now we finally come to the hundreds of thousands of people and the candles. People that visit Catania in early February come from throughout Italy and also abroad. It certainly is one of the biggest festivals in the world. The crowds had already started to gather on 2nd February, on the 3rd there were 250,000 people on the streets, a day after even more, and on the last day it was estimated that around one million people would be in the city.
It sounded like it might get a bit busy, but in reality it was surprisingly well organised, everyone was very composed, there never seemed to be any trouble (a day after the festivities it was barely noticable that a million people had been through the city in the past few days) and there was no mass hysteria among the crowds. It was all very pleasant and peaceful, people were very happily taking to the streets in what seemed complete devotion to their patron saint, to their other protector next to ‘Mama Etna’. On the last days of the festival, the candle bearers – people with heavy burning candles on their backs – show their devotion to Agatha by walking and running in a procession. It’s an otherworldly sight. Not a scary one though, but rather one evoking utter amazement and respect.
The procession is not just religious, it is part of Catania’s soul, tradition, culture, and character.
The Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò, protected by UNESCO and today home to part of the University of Catania, holds events in its many rooms, including in the lobby, auditorium and in the most impressive Lava Room, where real lava on the floor juxtaposes the modern metal-made depiction of lava on the ceiling.
The Teatro Massimo Bellini opera house is famous for having a river running beneath it, which makes it one of the best acoustic theatres in the world. In addition to the auditorium part of the opera house, its stunning foyer can also be used for hosting events.
The Lava Room in the Benedictine monastery offers space for theatre shows – it recently staged Dante’s Hell, which saw actors performing barefoot on old lava. This was to ensure that their facial expressions were more realistic.
Visit the opera house to find out about its impressive history and technological advances, dating from the period before electricity, or listen to one of the world’s most famous operas.
Visit Palazzo Biscari, where its owner, Prince Biscari offers a humorous guided tour through the palace’s halls and past the portraits of ancestors. A special opportunity to stand in the same places where Dumas, Goethe, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and even Coldplay have stood.
The Myda Cooking School is where the acclaimed chef Loredana Crisafi teaches cooking classes in a modernly equipped kitchen. Learn, for example, how to make home made Cavatelli pasta and almond pastries, while being served wonderful wine and spirits. Pure educational fun!
Streaty Tours. A great chance to find out about Catanian food and its hidden treasures. From street food featuring fried seafood to coffee shops serving arancinos, from confectionery shops all the way to chiosci with refreshing Seltz drinks, and stands on the vivacious open market packed with several dozen different kinds of seafood and Sicilian grown fruit and vegetables, … the most authentic and surprising culinary experience you can imagine.
And, of course, a visit to ‘Mama Etna’. In winter it is possible to ski on its slopes, while all-year-round 4×4 jeeps with experienced guides from Etna Finder take participants on an off-road adventure to see the hidden corners of Etna and its lava valleys. You might be interested to know that those very jeeps have also driven people like Jerry Seinfield, Justin Bieber and Kate Moss to Etna too! A perfect incentive to find out that you are sitting in the same seat as they did!