06 Oct Catania – pure Sicily
If you are thinking about visiting Catania – do it! This untamed, quirky and neglected city is the place to visit before it becomes flooded with the tourists.
So what about Catania? We could say that Catania is the capital of east Sicily, and that Etna is Catania’s most famous brand (we will write more about Etna and neighboring cities). Catania is an old port city, visible from the air as a green oasis from the skies. Along the coastline you can see old factories and ports, not beaches and promenades as it is common in other seaside places.
First Catania experience was our attempt to exit the airport, there are no sidewalks so we were walking on the street, pulling suitcases, praying that no car will hit us. We were trying to reach the bus station. But later on we found out that Alibus is stopping at the same station the local bus does, so our recommendation for airport transport is Alibus, they have many stations around the city and will take you directly to the terminals. But in the bus we had experienced the real Italy; even though no one speaks English, they were more than friendly and helpful, we asked for directions and with a little bit of Italian we made it to the Via Etna and our AirBnB.
If you ask as now, a month after our visit we are still not sure how to describe Catania. City looks like time has stopped a few years ago. Don’t get us wrong, that is not a bad thing at all. Due to the extreme heat city is empty early in the morning but so lively in the evening. While walking through different neighborhoods we saw many people hanging out on the streets, families with children playing outside, pensioners playing cards on every corner. We get feeling like they are really enjoying their life, and we could feel that their life flow is much slower than among people of Western Europe, or even Balkans. Sometimes we had a feeling that they are living life like our parents lived in Ex Yugoslavia, slowly, with a lot of free time for friends and family members. They don’t have restaurants with big screen TV’s, locals don’t use smartphones as much as we do, so it was really nice to log off. During noon hours rarely anyone works, and the start again after 5 p.m..
A brief history of Catania
Sicilian history is diverse and ever intriguing, and Catania falls right in the middle of it. Here cultures have mixed and created beautiful mix of Greek, Roman and Arabic heritage.
Katane was the village that was colonized by the Chalcidians, and after them the rulers changed from Athenians, Carthaginian, Romans, and in the Middle ages new rulers came: Vandals, Ostrogoths, Islamic emirate of Sicily and soon after would be a part of Unified Italy.
Two big natural disasters, an earthquake in 1663 and Etna’s most destructive eruption in 1669 have shaped Catania’s architecture. In city center you can visit old Roman Amphitheater and Thermal baths, and most intriguing thing about them is that after the destruction people have just continued building on top of the old ruins.
Monuments and important sights
At first you might perceive Catania as a run down city, but if you look up you will see all the baroque buildings and wonderful architecture. The whole Catania’s old town is listed as a World Heritage Site.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Agatha was built on the ancient Roman Achillean Baths just 20 years after the Roger I of Sicily conquered the city from the Arabs. The cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Also, inside you can visit the tomb of the composer Vincenzo Bellini.
Porta Garibaldi or Porta Ferdinandea is a triumphal arch located at the end of Via Giuseppe Garibaldi from where you can see the whole street with the wonderful Cathedral of Sant’Agata at the end of it.
If you want to see the rush, crowd, if you want to hear people yelling in Italian, waving hands; than go to the Catania fish market. We had such fun, even though we don’t like crowds and noise. We visited the market at Via Giacomo Puccini, probably the biggest street market we saw, you can buy anything from vegetables and meat to CDs and clothes, and the fish market at Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto near Porta Uzeda.
Roman Theatre that once was a Greek of Catania is located in the Via Vittorio Emanuele II, and it is not easy to find, entrance to it is just like a regular entrance, you could never tell that inside is an ancient theater. Built in 500 B.C. inside it feel like you can see the cities destructive history, and how they were building on top of the ruins.
More important sites:
- Bellini Gardens
- Roman Amphitheater
- Botanical Gardens
- Palazzo Biscari
- Castello Ursino
- Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena
Elephants in Catania
What was intriguing to us were statues and pictures of the elephants. The elephant is the symbol of the city known as Liotru or the Fontana dell’Elefante. The Egyptian obelisk from Syene stands on the statue of the elephant made from the lavic stone. But why elephants you ask, well apparently in prehistoric times dwarf elephant lived here. There are two legends about the elephants; one says that elephants are respected because they have saved local people from the attackers and second one is connected to Ancient Greeks who have mistaken the dwarf’s elephants skull large central nasal cavity for the large single eye-socket, and made up a story about the Cyclops.
It might sound unexpected but we had a great experience with the public buses and trains. You have to ask questions, and it is hard to find information online, so we went everywhere by foot and asked directly.
Beaches in Catania
We have tried three different beaches; volcanic rocks beach, public sand beach and secluded Copacabana beach.
Black beach made from big volcanic rocks is located at Viale Ruggero di Lauria street. We would recommend you to bring some sandals or slippers because these black stones and sand are really hot. Water here is amazing, refreshing and clean, it felt like the Adriatic sea. This beach is totally different experience so we definitely recommend it. There is a direct bus line that can take you there, but we decided to walk and it took us about 30 minutes.
Sand beach is long at least 5 kilometers and it is located south-west from Catania. There are more than 20 different private and public beaches with safeguards, bars, deck chairs etc. and the bus line that drives regularly on this route so you can visit different beach every day. These beaches are popular with locals and tourists, and we recommend you bring sunshade and refreshment.
And our favourite beach is the local one, close to the nature park Riserva naturale Oasi del Simento. We were the only tourist here, with only twenty locals. We even saw a group of fishermen with a net trying to catch some fish. This is wild beach, no shops, toilets or showers, only peace and wonderful views of Catania and Etna.
Culture and night out
We decided to try the local thing few guidebooks have recommended, an open air cinema. There are several options, and sometimes they show movies in English. But we weren’t that lucky, and the only option was to watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Arena Argentina. We were thinking that even though we don’t understand Italian we can follow the movie since we know the background story, and we just wanted the experience. We were shocked when we got there, the line to enter was going around the corner of the street, about 200 people waiting to get the tickets. We know that it is a popular place, but we didn’t expect to wait in line, luckily we came 1 hour earlier and were able to get a seat. When we entered, we were surprised by how huge the place is, about 600 sets. They have a small bar where you can buy snacks local bear or some juice, and at the middle of the movie they make a 10 minute break, also something we didn’t know. Also some nights local restaurants promote their food, and that night it was a vegan and vegetarian food degustation.
Catania is worth visiting, it is still developing and it is not a touristic place. You can walk for hours and always discover something new, interesting or some hidden gem. Food is amazing, but more about that on the next blog. Local bars with wine or beer are all around so you can always sit somewhere and relax.