Here concludes a three-part series with a third destination in two weeks: Catania, Sicily in Italy. After just over a week in Greece, with stops in Athens and Hydra, Helen and I tearfully parted ways with the souvlaki. But, that was okay, because our last stop overflowed with pizza, pasta, and pistachios.
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Sicily is an island just off the tip of the “toe” of Italy’s boot (not even 10 kilometers separates them in places). Formerly a province under the Roman Empire, it, like Athens, is littered with ancient ruins. Among them is a former Roman amphitheater that sits in one of the city’s busier intersections, along with other sites sprinkled through the neighborhoods.
For much of its history, Sicily was a separate kingdom, only unifying with Italy in the 19th century. The island’s deep historical roots touch the present, from the ever-present backdrop of Mt. Etna, a volcano enshrined in ancient mythology that continues to smoke daily, to its abundance of churches and religious iconography, to its still functioning Sicilian Mafia (or Cosa Nostra).
There’s also a personal history for me. When they were first married, my parents lived in Sicily for 6 months, well before I was born. My oldest brother was a baby at the time, and I’ve long heard stories of old Sicilian women simply picking him up with my non-Italian-speaking mother unable to stop them. Sicily has long existed in family lore, so I was excited to finally see it for myself.
The Sights of Catania, Sicily
While in Catania, one of Sicily’s most popular port cities, Helen and I stayed at Diletta Oasi, a charming B&B run by a talkative Sicilian woman. She kept the kitchen stocked with breakfast foods all day round and even left us a handwritten note at one point as a means of checking in on us.
Diletta Oasi is on the edge of the city center, just a few blocks away from the Catania fish market that bustles in the morning. Steps past the fish market is Piazza del Duomo, a central square filled with some of Catania’s most popular photo spots. Among them is the Fontana dell’Elefante at the center of the square, featuring Catania’s most iconic imagery, the elephant. (Elephant statues appear all around the city.)
The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants where you can stop for a drink and enjoy the gorgeous backdrop, including the Fontana dell’Amenano.
Also on the square is Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, one of the many Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout the city. Adorned with statues and sculptures, the church is a picturesque example of Baroque architecture. The towering dome of the Catania Cathedral can be seen from miles away.
The Churches of Catania, Sicily
Though the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata may be the most photographed cathedral in Catania, Sicily (due to its proximity to tourist hotspots), its just one of numerous impressively designed churches throughout the city. There’s a slew of them that line Via Crociferi, including Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia and Chiesa di San Giuliano. You can’t turn around without spotting a cross or statue of a saint.
For my money, the most impressive church I found was the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena. I had just been walking aimlessly one afternoon through a residential neighborhood when I came upon this massive structure dating back to 1687.
Inside, the church is filled with art, statues, and other stunning works of religious imagery. Paintings that depicted various saints and angels were displayed in ornate, marble altarpieces.
The most affecting room was a mausoleum dedicated to local soldiers who died in World War 1. In two alcoves, marble plaques told of the dead, while at the end of the room stood an imposing statue of an angel carrying a wounded soldier.
Adjacent to the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena is the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena. This enormous monastery, which took over 300 years to construct, is now used by the University of Catania. Its various rooms are used as lecture halls and along the marble-decorated hallways students read while staring out on two beautiful courtyards.
Sure beats the study halls at Kansas University.
The Beaches of Catania, Sicily
While the architecture and sculptures of Catania made for impressive views, it’s hard to compare with the wonders nature creates.
We, of course, had to spend some time at the coast. Our first stop was Catania’s southern beaches. A series of private beaches occupy a few miles of coastline, with free access to the water limited to random spots (we had to essentially sneak through a parking lot to get there). The major selling point of these particular beaches is the view of smoking Mt. Etna in the distance.
As nice as those were, though, we enjoyed the coastline up north more. Admittedly less beach than rocky coastline, Catania’s northern seaside is nonetheless awash in beautiful views and natural wonders. One cool feature of the coast are the Islands of the Cyclops, 500,000-year-old rock structures made of ancient volcanic lava. Like much of the land in the Mediterranean Sea, these jagged rocks played a significant role in Greek mythology.
The real feast for our eyes was the Castello Normanno (Svevo di Aci Castello), a former Norman seaside castle that was built upon a magnificent mountain of hardened lava. An imposing mix of human architecture and natural formation, Castello Normanno is nearly 1,000 years old.
As you approach it, it simply looks like a grandly designed, but somewhat modest castle. It’s only once you descend to the rocks below (in reality, a lava beach) that you grasp the imposing form of this millennium-spanning fortress. These images of Helen standing at the base of the lava mount will give you an idea of its size (you might have to squint to see her).
If there was any drawback to our accomodations, it was merely that there was no easy way to get to the coast. Going south took about a half hour bus ride (we didn’t realize we needed to buy a ticket ahead of time and ended up riding for free), and going north was roughly an hour on the bus. The views were worth it.
Swimming was difficult at these northern spots, though, because the lava rocks were sharp and the water was shallow for quite a ways (we kept forgetting our swimming shoes that we originally bought for Croatia). The sandy southern beaches were much easier to swim at, but they were, again, very shallow (I walked out maybe a quarter of a kilometer before I was no longer touching with my feet).
Thankfully, we found the “Danielino surf school” that let us sit on their deck for free so Helen could slip in for a brief swim.
Overall, the coastline of Catania did not disappoint.
The Best Food in Catania, Sicily
While the architecture and the beaches of Sicily are worth the price of admission, everyone knows the real reason to travel to Italy: the food.
The first thing we wanted was, obviously, pizza. Unfortunately, we arrived in Catania at an odd time, just after 5 in the afternoon. By the time we had checked in to Diletta Oasi and headed back out for food, it was around 6 and nobody was serving pizza. Most restaurants don’t turn on their pizza ovens until 7 or 8, which makes some sense. Spain is similarly strict about when certain meals can be eaten (don’t even try to get lunch at noon at most Spanish restaurants).
We did eventually find a restaurant just up the road from Piazza del Duomo that would serve us pizza. While it was good, my first mind-blowing pizza experience came a couple nights later when we finally got to try Pizcaria in Piazza Santa Maria dell’ Indirizzo: Diavola for me, and Norma for Helen. Under a canopy of colorful umbrellas, we enjoyed Italian perfection.
On our last night in the city, I had a third pizza, a pesto-based one. It was excellent, but Pizcaria won the trip. Naturally, we had pasta a couple places, including at Al Tubo near the Castello Normanno, all of which was delicious.
One evening, we walked over to Via Gemmellaro, a rapidly developed avenue of the city that is now a promenade of hip bars and Italian and non-Italian eateries. Based on the signs hanging from balconies above the road, not all the neighbors were happy with the transformation of their street.
Like revitalized neighborhoods in cities across Europe and the States, it’s clear from the surrounding, downtrodden areas that new development has transformed this portion of Catania into one that’s now making money (for whom, I don’t know). The gentrification vs. revitalization debate is certainly a worthy one, just not one I’m prepared to jump into here.
We went down to the area to try out a place called Vermut for, appropriately enough, a vermouth aperitivo. It was only 6:45 and we were told we had to be out by 9 because there was a reservation. We scoffed at the idea we’d be there that long; we were only having drinks, after all. But then, we smelled the food.
An intoxicating aroma was wafting out of the kitchen, so eventually we had to order something. We didn’t have a full meal there, just a couple rounds of drinks and what were essentially fancy Italian tapas. But that ended up being our dinner.
Rounding out our culinary tour were various pistachio-flavored pastries and desserts. There was the pistachio-filled croissant near the beach, and the salted pistachio gelato near Piazza del Duomo, and, finally, right before we left for the airport, a pistachio granita with brioche bread (a special shout out to the espresso granita we had one afternoon while we took shelter from the sun; think a Wendy’s Frosty, but about 2 times creamier and 10 times tastier).
Helen also partook of fresh oysters straight from the fish market a couple mornings, which she thoroughly enjoyed (not my thing). Sadly, a couple days later, her stomach got dodgy, so we won’t discuss the oysters any further.
Like Athens, Greece, by the time we left Catania, we had eaten enough food to last us a month.
Saying Goodbye to Catania, Sicily
As I mentioned, Helen had a bad stomach near the end of our trip, so on the second-to-last day, while she rested, I walked about the city solo, taking detours down random streets. That’s how I came across Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena.
One thing I often think when walking through the non-tourist, residential areas of many European cities is how much they remind me of parts of Brooklyn. It’s not so much that they resemble Brooklyn, it’s just a vibe. The non-trendy or picture-ready areas tend to have a similar, homey, lived-in feel. It always makes me miss NYC a bit.
They’re just normal neighborhoods where people go about their city lives, shopping at mini markets and local eateries.
But then I turn the corner at the mini market and come across a castle that’s older than America and I remember that I’m definitely not in Brooklyn.
After two weeks, the trip ends and I return to my home in Madrid. And I immediately start thinking of all the other places I want to visit. Eventually.
Thanks for reading along on my voyage through Greece and Sicily. Next time, I’ll post some bonus photos from my Mediterranean adventures. Cheers.