Two day’s in Catania, Sicily

Article and Photos by Paula Wheeler

Admiring the scene before me, from the fifth-floor studio apartment in Catania, Sicily, sheer joy surges through every inch of my being. Not only is The well-equipped studio vogue, it has a view that I could wake up to for the rest of my life. Off in the distance the Ionian Sea glistens; between me and the sea, is a skyline that is decorated with three church domes that form a triangle above the labyrinth of relic avenues. Sandwiched between the newer buildings upon my right and left are dilapidated homes with decaying terracotta roof tiles.

Visible through the exposed ceiling, still pegged to the line, gritty laundry lies on the crusted floor. Hooves upon asphalt catches my attention, looking ver the railing, I spy a pair of policemen on horseback before they disappear into an alleyway. Santo, the apartment owner, suggests a walking tour of the surrounding streets; it’s an offer I enthusiastically accept.

As we enter the view from my apartment, Santo advises me that it is the cities red light district. Prostitution is illegal, but it doesn’t stop business. Reclaiming the neighborhood, it is now known as a hip art district. Beneath twinkle lights, Santo’s other tenants wave us over from their table to thank him for his dining recommendation.

Tucking near my guide, I follow across the road with eyes wide and breath held. It’s not cars I am only cautious about, but Vespas that zoom from every

direction; the local isn’t fazed as he crosses confidently. Inside the church of the Badia di Sant’Agata, chandeliers radiate above the couple renewing their wedding vows. It’s a gorgeous sight and I want to snap some photographs yet withhold to enjoy the moment. We watch the love birds reinstate their undying love in front of their guest, then we recede as quietly as we entered.

Piaza Universitá is bursting with chatter, its early evening, which means it’s time for locals to take to the streets to enjoy the cooler weather and to catch up on the daily gossip. Santo gives me a quick history lesson as we stroll through the piazza, then onward up Via Etnea. The volcano that the street is named after, looms nearer than I imagined. I silently pray that the sleeping giant doesn’t wake up any time soon.

Discovering Catania

It’s 6 AM and I’m mesmerized as I witness a new days beginning. The floor to ceiling blinds were left up overnight to enjoy the city lights for as long as my eyes stayed open. I watch sunbeams brighten the city, street by street. within minutes the City of Catania is highlighted and my anticipation to wander gets me out of bed. Free walking tours given by locals are the best way to start exploring a new city. Guides love showing off their city with pride, providing uncommon facts and useful information. The tour starts at 0 AM at the Piazza Universitá. Drop-in’s are welcomed, so I join the growing group.

Sicily’s history, as a whole, revolves around being invaded and conquered many times over the centuries by a variety of countries, this is why Sicilians welcome refugee’s with open arms and has such an international display of citizens. Catania has two periods of buildings to admire, before and after the 1693 earthquake. If you are a lover of visiting churches, Baroque Churches are abundant between more modern buildings. The inside of St. Francesco l’Immacolata, Saint Francis of Assisi, has on display an array of holy works of art and six “candelores,” artistic handcrafted carriages decorated with candles that are carried by traditional craftsmen in procession for the celebration of St. Agatha every year on February 5th. The festival brings in approximately one million pilgrims and tourist to Catania over the three-day feast.

The open market dates back to the beginning of civilization on the island. he floors are slick and the air is heavily perfumed with the scent of fish. Everything from squid to swordfish to mussels to tuna can be bought, some are still swimming in buckets. I contemplate purchasing jumbo prawns for dinner, but since I am on tour I hold off. Leaving the fish section of the market, we pass by numerous fruit and vegetable stands; it’s when we come to a deli with racks of cheese and meats I decide to buy containers of the biggest green and black olives I’ve ever seen.

The group of nine follow the guide, eager to hear the next story told: the secret underground tunnels (so the nuns and priest whose families chose that life for them could rendezvous without prying eyes), there’s a river that flows under Catania and the cave restaurant, A putia dell’Ostello, has seating next to it, and also, that each lamp-post in the university square was inspired by folk tales.

The three-hour tour ended at the Roman Amphitheater. Only a fraction can be seen, the rest is hidden under pavement and buildings; Daniela has a pair of virtual glasses in her backpack, allowing us to “see” the whole structure. In its heyday it was the largest amphitheater in Sicily, holding 15,000 spectators. It is hard to believe its original size, since now all that is left are some pillars and brick tunnels.

Meandering alone again, I decide to find a Roman Theater I read about. Sometimes my GPS gets a little “off” and this is one of those times that I start to think it’s crazy. I’ve walked down Via Vittorio Emanuele, twice, and I do not see an ancient theater. I’m pretty sure it’s something that wouldn’t go undetected passing by. I submit the attraction name again and retrace my steps; immediately my device notifies that I have arrived, so I start reading business names. Two doors down the window states “Museum.” I peak in the window and lo and behold, the Roman structure is behind the building’s facade.

Entering the excavated structure, I realize how easy it was for me to walk right on by; for centuries the theater was buried under the residential neighborhood. As with most of Italy, there’s a treasure trove beneath the surface that is long forgotten. A half-hour later, I finish examining this piece of history.

Without any destination in mind, I zig-zag the streets to see what I could find, until my feet are tired of pounding the pavement, then I head home. I stop at the grocery store a few doors away from the apartment and buy fresh ravioli’s filled with asparagus and pine nuts, along with a jar of pistachio pesto. I don’t feel like having wine, so opt for a can of Radler lemon beer instead. Popping into the delicatessen I ask for a small portion of eggplant parmesan to go. With the olives that I bought earlier at the farmers market my dinner is complete and I have the perfect terrace to savor it.

Day Trip Outside of Town

Catania is a fantastic location as a base to visit the surrounding areas. I don’t have proper clothing to hike Mt. Etna and I’m not keen to take a bus to the base of the volcano for a day trip. My interest is along the coast. I hop aboard the train to see what Taormina and nearby seaside towns have to offer.

Arriving at the station I set myself on a Hop On Hop Off bus, which cost a lot more than the city bus, but allows me access to each town without any thought involved. I conclude easily that Taormina is the only village I need to investigate further on my next visit to Sicily. It offers romantic buildings, Castello di Taormina and the famous archeological site Teatro Antico di Taormina, the ancient Greek-style amphitheater, which is still used today during the summer.

The other coastal towns I found drab and only beneficial for relaxing on the beach, which is not my interest. I ponder a minute if I want to head back to Taormina for dinner, but decide to hold off and return to Catania for Santo’s recommendation.

I cannot leave Sicily without eating pizza. In the apartment there’s a small stack of referrals from Santo, locating a pizzeria’s business card I head out. Ale’ Restorante offers a pizza menu unlike any before, starting with a choice of special flours: Timilia, Perciasacchi, Rice, Wheat and Majorcan. All grains come from the heart of Sicily for a crust that reflects the taste from generations ago. There are many odd, yet enticing concoctions that I am curious about, but when I spot my favorite nut leading the star role, I know my order. A creamy pistachio sauce is spread over the perfectly baked heat rust, along with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and crushed pistachios. What a heavenly manifesto.

Back on the balcony, my sanctuary of serenity, I relish each bite of cannoli that I ordered to go with leisurely delight as I ponder coming back with my beau. To enhance my desire to share this experience with him, all church domes lights flicker on, illuminating the structures and my inner peace.


Paula Wheeler

Paula Wheeler has been living a nomadic life, sonce June 2017, as a freelance writer and videographer. You can find her adventures at

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