Luke Sharkey shares his experience of the Sicilian city Catania, bad gesticulation and tells you the best place around to buy fish heads.
I knew exactly when I fell in love with the city of Catania.
We – that is, myself and my girlfriend Aislinn – were stood outside of Catania Central, the major rail station in the city. We had planned to voyage from the city to the nearby seaside area La Playa. Obviously we had not planned well enough. We couldn’t figure out which local bus to catch and we certainly couldn’t figure out enough Italian to make our situation known to the ticket salesman in front of us. Up until this point an online dictionary and the right hand gestures had seen us through but it was clear that all the gesticulation in the world wasn’t going to cut it this time.
The ticket salesman looked bemused at my flapping and an on-looking taxi driver saw the situation as a chance to get an easy fare. You can easily imagine my poor Irish complexion filling with a deep red blush as I stood there, constantly under assault from the 35 degree dry heat. I wish I could say we left the scene with a shred of dignity but it just was not to be. Aislinn dropped some change and the taxi driver picked it up, presumably to offer it back to us. I said thank you in French and it sealed the deal. A crowd of Sicilians had gathered round, exchanging smiles and cigarettes. We fled the scene. Finding respite in a nearby air conditioned café, we sat in silence for a time. This might seem a strange choice of a moment but it was there in that café that I fell in love the second city of Sicily.
Never before in any of my travels have I felt as totally immersed in a culture as I did in Catania. This is why it ranks among my favourite cities in the world. The city remains mostly untainted by masses of tourists, who tend to head for the beach areas of Sicily instead. This offers the traveller the unique chance to experience a city which has not a pre-established tourist itinerary. There are few Temple Bar-esque areas or prestigious art galleries which one feels obliged to visit. To really get a sense of Catania you have to put your adventure boots on, turn trip advisor off and immerse yourself in the everyday life of the city.
The first thing to grab your attention as you enter the city is the presence of Mount Etna looming toward you from across the bay.
The first thing to grab your attention as you enter the city is the presence of Mount Etna looming toward you from across the bay. The city and the volcano have a troubled relationship. While it is true that Etna has helped defined Catania’s character it has also been responsible for much destruction in the city.
Volcanic eruptions in 1669 and an earthquake in 1693 meant that much of city had to be rebuilt. As a result of this Catania boasts a stunning collection of Baroque architecture intermingled with modern city tower blocks. The city feels metropolitan but it wears its heritage on its sleeve.
The city by day is alive with commerce and the activity of everyday life. Fashionable youths smoke cigarettes outside cafes and shout to one another from across the streets. Cars and motorcycles swoop down both main roads and side streets at unbelievable speeds. Pedestrian crossings serve more as suggestions than fixed locations. Restaurants, some serving exquisite traditional Italian food and others more foreign, leave their doors open and the smells drag you almost unaware from one location to another. Nobody sits inside to eat during the day, the heat does not allow it. The market which runs from Monday-Saturday nearly all day is a spectacle to behold, selling everything from fish heads to aerosol deodorants.
The market which runs from Monday-Saturday nearly all day is a spectacle to behold, selling everything from fish heads to aerosol deodorants.
By night, the city is filled with the sounds of merriment. All the restaurants and bars off Main Street via Etna compel the onlooker to come in. Restaurants are rarely too expensive and the Italian house wines are usually excellent. I would recommend Caffè Curtigghiu on Via Santa Filomena for friendly service and a beautiful location. Once you’ve finished your meal go to a late night bar and do you best to mingle with the locals over a cocktail. Practice speaking Italian at home before you head out. Even a little can go a long way.
The city is small enough to become familiar with over the space of 4 or 5 days and you will find that it creeps into your heart during your stay. The lack of tourism tends to make you feel like you’re not a visitor but a temporary resident. The locals will treat you the same way. By the end of the trip, my heart was heavy in leaving. Do not overlook the city of Catania, in it you will find the makings of a second home, and a happy one at that.