Catania is one crazy town. La citta è pazza. I think that comes from living beneath one of the world’s most active volcanos. We flew into Catania from Florence and as we cruised down past Mt. Etna looming 3,330m above them, I wondered about the cumulative effect on their DNA of countless generations growing up under the brow of a fiery volcano.
Tuscany was cold and wet when we arrived in early May, so on the spur of the moment we decided to have a few days in Sicily to thaw out and visit the city of Catania which faces the Ionian Sea, at the eastern edge of the island.
Etna has for eons given generously and taken ruthlessly. The Catanese can’t ignore her and yet they’ve learned to live with the ‘good volcano’ whose abundance enriches the soil, flavours the remarkable wine and all growing things within her domain. Volcanic activity leads to earthquakes. Earthquakes dish out death and destruction. To grow up within the shadow of that power must create a certain fatalism; a respect, acceptance, grit and determination to live life to the fullest. We discovered that there is nothing bashful or reticent about the Catanese. Hell no, life is to be grabbed with both hands and lived with gusto.
This sure is one tough, resilient city. Settled by the Greeks 800 years before Christ and invaded by just about everyone, it was destroyed by earthquakes and Etna’s eruptions at least seven times. Catania, like the legendary Phoenix, just kept on rising from the ashes, the rubble, the molten lava and refused to die. The survivors always regrouped and rebuilt. They dug through the rubble. They dug into the cooling rivers of lava and carved out their roads, hacked out the stone into blocks to use for building materials and remade their city. No doubt each time it was rebuilt it emerged with a whole new persona, but the gritty determination of the people is the all abiding life force.
In the early 1700‘s after a massively destructive earthquake and eruption in the late 1690‘s, Catania was rebuilt and Baroque Architecture being the fashion of the time, saw the city develop her own exuberant and elegant style. There are wonderful buildings using lots of stone, particularly the prized creamy white stone from nearby Syracuse and of course the black volcanic basalt hacked from lava flows. The city, officially the hottest in Italy, has streets of stone and could really do with a concerted tree planting agenda. Wherever there are trees and shade, people are drawn to the green coolness.
We stayed in a little Airbnb apartment and our nearby main road of Via Plebiscito was full of life. Cars and scooters, parked every which way, were jammed on footpaths. We walked past people making furniture, repairing vehicles, shoes, machinery; Bars and cafes, little shops, people cooking, selling, making. Impromptu market stalls, the original Pop Up shops, seemingly appeared wherever there was a space in the street. A man selling oranges from the boot of his car. Many an old man’s club (which can be seen all over Italy) where the men gravitate to a corner, a bar, even sitting on a posse of scooters, anywhere that they can sit in a group. They have the ability to make a small espresso last for hours while they solve the problems of the world, enjoy a good gossip and rib each other endlessly.
The traffic was totally MAD. Traffic lights were ignored and yet amazing tolerance was displayed. You’re going the other way but want my side of the road? No problem, I will slow down, pull to one side and let you squeeze back in! No matter how dense the traffic, the slightest gap gave anyone with wheels the opportunity to put the pedal to the metal and roar by in short manic bursts of speed. Catania is a university city with a student population of over 60,000 who are busy studying, partying and revving the old place up.
We became friends with the Gelato Man who appeared with his little three wheeled l’ape, a motorised wheelbarrow, with the back tray set up like an old fashioned icecream vendor from long ago. He parked in the shade, occasionally ringing a bell and selling his exquisite gelato. A generous serve of limone e fragola (lemon and strawberry) gelato made from fresh fruit, icy cold and delivering a delicious blast to the senses, came served in a crisp cone for the princely sum of one euro.
We often passed the old man with the BBQ on the footpath outside his shop. He had meat for sale and would obviously cook it for you. He sat there hour after hour waiting for a customer. Occasionally he would light the charcoal in the BBQ and the billowing smoke signalled he was cooking, but we wondered, was it only to order?
Catania is famous for its Fish and Fresh Food Markets which operate six days a week and are pure Theatre. Filled with noise and people, throbbing with life, beautiful produce and an amazing assortment of prepared deliciousness. I watched as great trays of whole roasted onions cooked in their skins along with trays of roasted capsicums were being brought out from a wood fired oven. These slow roasted vegetables, smelled divine. I immediately thought of what you could do with them, cooked and delicious, added to whatever you wanted to make with them. The sausages, endless loops studded with meats, fresh herbs, onions, and cheese and trays of arancini, the famous Sicilian rice balls. Involtini seems to be a major delicacy of Catania, a finely cut slice of meat rolled around a tasty filling and then dusted with breadcrumbs. Cooked in a pan or oven baked, pollo (chicken) or vitello (veal) involtini have a delicious crunchy exterior surrounding a delectable melting interior.
Our excellent hostess suggested a cluster of ristorante in our area serving great food at low prices. However, when we explored the famous market I longed to cook the delicacies on offer. To my great joy our local wine shop sold wine by BYO bucket which you could fill with Vino d’Avola wine of the gods, delicious bounty bestowed by Etna. We carried our edible treasures home, cooked and ate out on our little terrace under the stars.
I am a great fan of the really old Italian churches, the plain ones, who have the bones of where they’ve come from; recycled columns from ancient temples, Greek basilica origins, Roman influences, with a few additives from other epochs, Byzantine mosaics, story telling frescoes, worn patterned tiled floors, pock marked stone and some unexpected glory. There are many famous churches in Catania but they proved to be very elusive. We managed to get into the Duomo when we discovered that it opened at 4pm, but every other church we tried was shut tight, no signage and often with serious iron fences and gates protecting whatever was within. Not for them easy access for the succour of the common people. We did not crack the secret code of entry.
As we walked around the city we kept looking for Etna, who hid her height and power under beguiling shades of blue. We did not see the fire breathing monster. To us the mountain of legend and myth seemed deceptively benign and a surprising will ‘o the wisp, appearing suddenly at the end of the street or hiding from view.
The patron saint of Catania is Sant Agata. The saint is one of Catania’s main protectors from the wrath of Etna. Agata was a young maiden, who in AD250 bravely rebutted the unwanted attentions of the extremely nasty Roman Quintian, and for that temerity she was tortured and martyred most gruesomely. You can see little shrines to St Agata everywhere, set into wall niches, all over the city. Mostly it is the same image, where Agata looks blonde and to my eye rather Flemish. Agata it seems is very much a saint for the people, the makers of things, Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker as well as Fishmongers, Sailors and Vintners. Every February for three days the people celebrate their St Agata in one of the great religious festivals of the world. An astonishing one million people come together in this city to honour the life of a young girl who defied a powerful man and they are still doing this over 1700 years after her death.
Ancient Catania was apparently a bilingual, multicultural society that had trading links with the East and with Africa, as well as the Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians, whose influence and mythology all form part of the cultural mix. The prime example of this is ‘Liotru’ the smiling black elephant carved back in prehistory from volcanic rock, perhaps when Sicily actually had pygmy elephants roaming the island. In 1736 Liotru was bizarrely conjoined with an ancient Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk, which venerates the Goddess Isis, was placed on top of the elephant’s back. Together this unlikely duo formed the Fontana dell’ Elefante and were placed in pride of place in the centre of the Piazza del Duomo, the spiritual centre of Catania. Liotru the elephant, named after an 8th Century wizard by the locals, is believed to possess magical powers. He is the Bearer of Good Fortune and is Protector of the City against earthquakes and Etna.
The origins of the smiling elephant may have been lost in the mists of time, but fortunately he was not lost to voracious Etna. Since the 13th Century he has been the heraldic symbol of Catania. As he once acted as the finishing post for the races held inside the Circus Maximus of Roman Catania, he has had a lot of experience with the fickleness of Fate and Fortune. Wedding him to the Goddess Isis, the revered Egyptian Goddess of Earth, Nature, Life and Magic was no doubt a stroke of genius.
The canny citizens of Catania have thus combined the might of three powerful Protectors of the City whose aid can be invoked when needed and they have grouped them together in the spiritual heart of the city. The wisdom and authority of Isis, the Earth Mother is wedded to a Wizard of Magic and Good Fortune and their ancient power is fortified by the miraculous, spiritual clout of Catania’s very own Christian Saint. You don’t coexist with a fire breathing monster without learning how to protect yourself.