The glorious, spring-like weather the day prior felt like a figment of my imagination. Stepping out of our bed and breakfast in Zafferana Etnea, gray skies and persistent rain coldly greeted us. The forecast mentioned light rain not a downpour, but then again, it’s a forecast.
We still kept hopeful, and faced with gusty and rainy conditions, we foolishly drove through the pounding rain and howling winds, forewarning us of the undesired outcome. Mt Etna was in no mood to welcome visitors and as we ascended to 1,900m to reach Rifugio Sapienza, we knew we had come in vain. The massive parking area was vacant and without any signs of life, the place was eerily deserted. It was just us versus the forces of Mother Nature.
Clinging on to fragile hope, I stepped out of the car to capture the tempestuous conditions, and to gauge if it was even thinkable to head up to 2,900m as we had intended. The wind was eager to do battle, and with the rain as an ally, furiously lashing down on me, I knew I was on the losing side. In one swift blow, the weather had snuffed out our plans to visit Mt. Etna.
On paper, the Mt. Etna was to be the highlight of our 7-day trip to south-eastern Sicily. Despondent and with no signs of the weather improving, we were left with driving to Catania much earlier than we had expected. I balked at this idea, hesitant to head down to the city. For reasons unknown, I fervently snubbed Catania.
A few days before our trip my husband had asked “We’ll also see Catania, right?”
I frantically searched to offer a justifiable reason why I left Catania out. I knew it didn’t make a lot of sense as we would be flying in and out of the Catania Fontanarossa airport, yet I couldn’t figure out my aversion to the city. A few discussions later, to appease the other half, Catania made the cut.
The itinerary included an evening and a morning in the city, a far more than generous concession. And to then think we would spend even more time in Catania, it obviously didn’t go down too well.
As we rounded the corner to our bed and breakfast, the grimy sight of graffiti and grungy look of some buildings, further accentuated by the gloomy skies, confirmed my apprehensions. The city felt like it needed a rigorous scrub to strip off the layers of soot spewed by Mt. Etna through the centuries.
Feelings of unease deluged me until I met our warm and welcoming host Anna, from Bed and Breakfast nel Cuore di Catania. She opened up the gates to the internal courtyard, where we were privy to a private parking space, and upon entering our cozy apartment, the bleakness of the morning began to slide away.
Still with no clue how we would spend the next 24 hours in the city, Anna, as if reading my mind, pulled out a map. She highlighted the main attractions, along with a handy list of museums, and kept it real by warning us that places can close without notice.
Armed with a map, an umbrella, and a trickle of hope, we walked out on Via Crocifieri, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site lined with Baroque churches. Stopping every few hundreds meters to figure out the map and orientation of the city, we found ourselves at the corner of a spacious piazza. As my blurry sight came into focus, I squinted to peer through the veil of rain.
I stood speechless.
No dull day could conceal the beautiful and elegant Baroque composition of Piazza del Duomo. The piazza was rebuilt by Vaccarini after the 1693 earthquake that flattened the city and wiped out two-thirds of its population.
In its center, is Fontana dell’Elefante, an elephant sculptured from lava rock carrying an obelisk on its black – taking inspiration from Bernini’s “Elephant and Obelisk” in Piazza della Minerva – and in the background, the lofty Cathedral dedicated to St. Agatha, the city’s patron saint.
Extending out to the north of the piazza, is Via Etnea, a wide, bustling road lined with shops, serving as the main artery of the city. Keep heading north and in vast contrast, you’ll find Giardino Bellini, a verdant oasis that boasts a stunning view of the city.
On the southern end of Piazza del Duomo, lies Fontana dell’Amenano. The fountain, made of Cararra marble featuring a young boy with a cornucopia centered between two tritons, serves two purposes.
First, it marks the location where the river Amenano once flowed before it was buried by the eruption of Mount Etna in 1669. The audible lapping and rushing sounds as you approach and the visual evidence of the river when you are in front of the fountain, affirm that the river still flows today but below ground.
However, this is not just any river. This river runs deep into the history of the city as it was on the banks of Amenano that the city of Katane (Catania) was founded as a Greek colony.
Second, it’s a decorative feature for the gateway to the pulsating heart of Catania: the lively, and rambunctious fish market. Step in and you know there is a spectacle to behold. Spectators lined the rails, eyes fervently hooked to the pandemonium below. I too was curious, and joined them in catching a glimpse of it from a distance. Amusing as it was, I wanted in on the action.
I took the lava stone staircase down and verve in my steps, I walked onto the choreographed chaotic stage. The dizzying variety of seafood, from silky, slivery fish to curious, crawling crustaceans, played the protagonist, with support from a wide array of characters. The crowd, from all walks of life, gracefully maneuvered through the jumble of makeshift counters, all in tune to the melodic cries of the vendors.
We weaved our way through the crowds and as it thinned, we stumbled across the fresh produce area filled with a riot of colors, from the mesmerizing purple cauliflower to the delightful oranges. Unlike the symphony at fish market, here, we heard the lone cries of a spirited orange seller.
Not only is the market wildly entertaining but it also boasts several excellent restaurants. Anna had recommended dinner at Antica Marina, and last minute research online landed us in Mm! for lunch. Just a few steps apart, both restaurants offered friendly, efficient service and phenomenal dishes.
To delve deeper into the city, head west of the Piazza del Duomo, along Via Vittorio Emanuele II. Obscured by Baroque buildings is an astounding site that stands as a testament to the rich history of Catania.
Teatro Romano/Odeon, a crumbling Roman theater that once sat 7,000 spectators, was built from black lava stone in the 1st century AD upon an existing Greek one. I’m not sure if the weather had kept visitors indoors, but it was shocking, and at the same time staggering to have the place all to ourselves.
Less than 24 hours in Catania, and the city had me singing praises. It felt as if she was testing our fealty before drawing open the curtains to reveal her intense beauty.
But don’t get me wrong.
Catania is far from the perfect. Her imperfections are clearly visible yet she holds her head up high. She is unashamed of her grungy appearance, partly attributed to the black lava stone from which its buildings are made of – the same element that has played a role in her destruction many times over. Yet she is oddly at peace in this precarious place, where she has proven resilient time and time again.
Look beyond the superficial and behold her underlying elegance. Let go of the judgment, and feel her charisma, energy, and passion. I shudder at the idea that I had even thought of excluding Catania from our trip – that blunder would have been an inconceivable loss.
Disclosure: Our entire 7-day trip to Sicily was entirely at our own expense. The links to the places mentioned are not affiliate links. None of them were aware that we were planning to write this post and we are happy to recommend them based on our experience.