Catania: A glimpse of the real Sicily

David Szmidt visits Italy’s tenth-biggest city and finds a much-loved rough diamond

The sun beats down hard on Catania’s streets, streets made of black, volcanic rock that only serves to further heat the steaming feet of the scattered groups of people milling about the Piazza Duomo.

The volcanic rock the streets of Catania are made of only serves to further heat — David Szmidt
The volcanic rock of the Catanian streets only serves to further heat — David Szmidt

As shirtless, suntanned children zip between them on bicycles, a group of teenagers play a lazy game of keepy-uppies with a football that’s seen better days. A group of elegantly-dressed adults wait in the shadow of the cathedral before a Mercedes pulls up. Smoothly, they vanish. 

All the while, just out of shot, behind the University building away to the left, a column of white rises. Mount Etna looms over the city like an uneasy thought; forgotten amid the bustle of the day, but always there to snag your attention when you least expect it.

We were going to climb it, but I’d knackered my foot.

Catania was not our first choice originally. Both Joe and I (who you may remember from various adventures published on this site previously, and who joined me for this trip) had been to central and northern Italy before, but never to the south. Initially, we’d fancied Palermo, Catania’s Sicilian rival on the north-west of the island, but after having read encouraging things, we decided that Catania was for us.

Mount Etna looms over the city like an uneasy thought — David Szmidt
Mount Etna looms over the city like an uneasy thought — David Szmidt

And so, you find your brave, handsome chronicler (and his much more practical and modest friend) dropping their bags at a nice AirBnB on Via Vittorio Emanuele II before heading out into the city.

First stop, the aforementioned street scene, and it was a perfect introduction to everything Catania is. It’s appealing in a scruffy way. The allure lies in endless shabby side-streets that, despite being covered in graffiti and badly-parked Fiats, mean there is almost no front door you wouldn’t wish to call your own; no balcony you wouldn’t like to gaze from.

It feels comfortably lived in, like a pair of old, ripped jeans. I had a moment of what I can only describe as Dramatic Stereotype Reinforcement when a young couple on a scooter exploded from a side street into the traffic, both helmetless, him shouting something back to her, at which she, in turn, was laughing uncontrollably.

As they veered away between the cars, her dark hair streaming behind them, I desperately wanted – if only for a couple of days – for that to be my life. I almost forgave them for forcing me to leap backwards into someone’s discarded kebab.

I the relatively untouristy Catania it is recommended to follow day to day activities of locals, such as going to the fish market — David Szmidt
Catania is a city where following the day to day activities of locals is a joy — David Szmidt

Our first full day was, as is our wont, taken up with wandering as aimlessly as you can when you know where the main sights of the city are. We’d been told to visit the fish market, so we did. I’m still not sure why, other than that Catania is so relatively untouristy, the most rewarding thing to do is watch people going about their everyday business, safe in the knowledge that you’re not.

So we picked our way among the stalls for a time before coming out into a park full of tables. At each of these tables were groups of retired men playing cards. 

Or at least, some of them were playing cards. The rest of them were gathered round, occasionally teasing each other in that way that you never need to explain if you’ve known and been comfortable around someone for that long. We watched them for a time, before turning to each other with a silent nod, and moved on.

The city’s cathedral is the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and has two parts. Facing the Piazza Duomo is the main body of the cathedral which, though grand, suffers slightly from being hemmed in on two sides, thus never giving it the size or the imposing thump of the equivalent in Turin say, or even Siena.

On the other side of Via Vittorio Emanuele II sits the smaller Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata. We arrived there now as this, not the cathedral, is the burying place of Saint Agatha, who is the patron saint of Sicily.

The cathedral Sant’Agata is named after the patron saint of Sicily who was imprisoned in a brothel — David Szmidt catania
The cathedral Sant’Agata is named after the patron saint of Sicily who was imprisoned in a brothel and tortured — Shutterstock

The story goes that she gave her life to God from an early age, despite being desired by many men. After a high-ranking official named Quintianus (“five-times an arsehole” if my Latin is as good as I think it is) was rebuffed by her, he ordered her to be imprisoned in a brothel, to be subjected to… well, I shudder to imagine the conditions of a brothel 2,000 years ago.

Seeing that even this wasn’t breaking her spirit, Quintianus had Agatha tortured, flayed, dragged over burning coals and, eventually, ordered that her breasts be cut off. Miraculously, she healed before quietly and peacefully dying around the year 251.

We strolled up the main drag, Via Etnea, and came to a park. It was a blessed bit of shade from the mid-afternoon sun, and we meandered along the gravel paths between the trees, admiring the occasional head-on-a-plinth (marble heads, before you start).

The parks are blessed with a bit of shade from the mid-afternoon sun — David Szmidt catania sicily
The parks are blessed with shade from the mid-afternoon sun — David Szmidt

Satisfied with having seen a bit of the city and with no particular plan other than a vague notion of a sit-down and something cold to hoover up, we sauntered back in the direction we’d come.

The Something Cold came in the form of granita. We’d been told that this was a Sicilian speciality, and it turned out it was, and was pretty much everywhere. It’s basically a sorbet, but slightly… not thicker, that’s not quite the right word… it held its structural integrity better. Grittier?

Maybe that’s just me subconsciously thinking of its Italian name. Either way, here my fledgling career as a food critic ends by telling you it was delicious. Mine was lemon flavoured, tooth-crackingly cold and so sharp it turned my face inside out. Perfect.

Then we drank some beers, obviously.

We’d been told about a bar called Gammazita, and it was there we headed. Situated on a small square, the bar itself is on one side, while its outdoor area takes up the entire middle of the square, with furniture made from reclaimed material, old bar stools, classroom desks and pallets; add that to the bottled craft beer and you get pure hipster paradise.

Grammazita is a hipster paradise with with furniture made from reclaimed material, old bar stools, classroom desks and pallets  — David Szmidt
Grammazita is a hipstery place with furniture made from old bar stools, classroom desks and pallets — David Szmidt

Actually, I’m doing it rather a disservice. Gammazita is, in fact, an entire organisation based in the streets surrounding the Ursino castle.

They aim to repurpose some of the area’s slightly scrubby spaces to be used as either bars (as here), free outdoor libraries, voluntary learning centres and places where local teenagers can come and play music, learn to dance or make art, or simply have somewhere cool to hang out.

Gammazita has managed – as far as we could see – to maintain the tricky balancing act between being young and artsy, yet still accepted by the numbers of elderly people we saw going into flats in which they must have lived for decades.

Although, maybe it’s not that hard. If you’re bringing life and vibrancy to an area, colour and a sense of purpose, while creating opportunities for people who had fewer before, what’s not to like? Different is not necessarily bad, just as tradition is not always good.

Problems arise when one side – either side – has an absolute sense that theirs is the only way to do something. Any -ism, no matter which way it leans, has the capacity to turn into a blindingly militant mindset.

David enjoys a cold one in his favourite his favourite paradise — Joe Lennon catania sicily
David enjoys a cold one in his new favourite paradise — Joe Lennon

There was none of that here. It was a gentle, friendly compromise in which those who had lived their entire lives in the area, had welcomed a group of people who had revitalised the area with colour, music and art but hadn’t aggressively imposed themselves. I loved it.

The next couple of days were spent in much the same manner. We’d wake up, look at a vague point on the map and head out that way, always happy to get sidetracked by an interesting-looking church, a shady park, a quaint alleyway, or just a chance to take a break and people-watch over a beer.

We also discovered that our foolish English (in my case) and American (in Joe’s case) brains had balanced our days in a most un-Italian way. If, in Rome, being on time can mean being an hour or two late, in Catania the next day is still fine.

This goes for eating too. You could always spot the tourists, as they were the ones who thought 7 or 8pm would be an acceptably late time for dinner, and were, therefore, the only ones out. It’s an odd experience to be halfway through your main course when people arrive at 9.30 and with, great noise and fluttering of arms, sit down and start handing out starters. To their children.

Ah well. At least this afforded us prime seats outside at a place called Curtigghiu on Via Santa Filomena, a narrow, picturesque street with ivy-covered buildings and tables out in front of every bar and restaurant, which was, seemingly, every building down one side of the street.

While Joe went for some sort of pasta thing, the specifics of which I don’t remember now, I had salmon, perfectly cooked; meaty enough to be really satisfying, but delicate enough that the lightest movement of my fork could pull it apart. (Remember that thing I said about not being a food critic? Applies here too). 

Gammazita is, in fact, an entire organisation based in the streets surrounding the Ursino castle, Sicily's dominant — David Szmidt
Gammazita is an organisation regenerating the streets surrounding the Ursino castle — David Szmidt

Washing the food down with inadvisable quantities of good wine and a conversation with some Dutch girls who sat next to us that ranged from linguistics to cycling via Joe being persuaded to sing the theme tune from Mr. Ed, and a fine evening was concluded.

One of the lovely things about walking through an Italian city in the late evening – and particularly one that, like Catania, is a city for locals first – is seeing people out and about, just doing their thing.

The restaurants start to get filled with locals after 9:30 pm  — Shutterstock catania sicily
The restaurants begin to fill with locals after 9:30pm — Shutterstock

It was coming up to 11 o’clock and people were slowly making their way out of the concert halls, restaurants and theatres. Kids were still playing impromptu games of football in residential squares. The city was alive, and not just alive, but living. It’s a small but important difference.

On our final full day, I decided to do something which I love and which very few people understand (stop sniggering at the back). I wanted to visit the Stadio Angelo Massimino, home of Calcio Catania, the city’s football club. Not that there was a game (it was the summer break), but just because I love football stadiums, particularly (and this might be the odd bit), when they’re empty.

People have accused me of flippancy when I compare them to cathedrals, but in my non-religious world, they’re very much alike. A vast building that exists for one purpose alone; a purpose which attracts people from all walks of life, people who have no connection to each other than a shared love or belief.

People who, for a couple of hours a week, use it as a place to release their passion in an all-consuming frenzy, hugging or comforting strangers who will then drift out of their life as normality returns.

Or at least that’s what I assume Italian churches are like.

The faded paint, the cracked concrete, the peeling stickers. Stadiums are spooky and quiet when not in use  — David Szmidt catania sicily
The faded paint, the cracked concrete, the peeling stickers. Stadiums are spooky and quiet when not in use — David Szmidt

Anyway, my point, in a way, still stands. These are buildings with one purpose, to come alive as a river of people flows into them, having completed their pre-match rituals and ceremonies (same pub, same time, lucky scarf) before the main event.

When not in use, they’re spooky. They’re too quiet. You see the details; the faded paint, the cracked concrete, the peeling stickers. They’re far less than their whole, and therefore more human. They’re a held breath, waiting desperately for the chance to release a wave of joyous relief.

This one was no different. I headed out into the suburbs and along the dusty back streets for about a mile and a half before I found the stadium.

There was, alas, an outer and an inner fence so I couldn’t get as close as I would wish, but I did a full lap, looking at the graffiti added by the different ultras groups, as well as the official stuff commemorating a selection of club greats (I only recognised Giuseppe Mascara, to my eternal discredit).

A reasonable advice froa local restaurant owner — David Szmidt  catania sicily
A reasonable advice from a local restaurant owner — David Szmidt

Two things caught my eye. One was something I’d seen around the city, the tag of the FDR ultras group (later I found out this stood for Falange d’Assalto Rossazzurra; I just thought they were fans of the New Deal), and the other was something I’d also seen around – a selection of anti-Fascist sentiments, as well as a bunch of Refugees Welcome slogans.

As a massive football fan, I dislike being tarred with the hooligan brush, and wear my pinko-lefty-liberal tendencies as a badge of pride, so these made me happy.

Catania made the news in July, when a ship chartered by activists (calling their scheme: “Defend Europe”) tried to stop attempts to rescue refugees, and was therefore refused permission to dock in the city’s port.

Enzo Bianco, the city’s mayor, told the press: “Catania, in these years, has received thousands of desperate people fleeing war and hunger, people saved from death by European ships in the Mediterranean who often have lost one or more loved ones crossing the sea. To talk of the ‘defence of Europe’ is demagogic and self-serving.”

The city has received around 10,000 migrants fleeing their homes and, despite Bianco saying that they were “starting to have difficulties” in housing migrants, he added that Defend Europe “are like vigilantes, taking matters into their own hands without any authority. The people on this boat are not welcome”.

Sobered yet cheered by this thought, I worked my way, in a rather winding fashion, back to the city centre where Joe was to be found after having politely but insistently declined to join me, and had gone to the beach instead. He’d returned with a vast and garish beach towel that he seemed very happy with, so, all in all, we’d both managed to have a successful day.

Visiting the Roman amphitheatre affords a view like no other — Shutterstock
Visiting the Roman amphitheatre affords a view like no other — Shutterstock

We rounded off our last evening by heading to a pizza place we’d walked past the last couple of evenings which had always been packed with locals, so we assumed it was good (pro tip there!) and, what do you know, it was.

After eating a pizza the size of a tractor tyre for seven euros and a waiter telling me when he brought my wine that “I bring you something cheap, but still you enjoy it more, si?”, I felt that the Italians had got me pretty much sussed.

There was but one more thing to come. Joe had noticed that down the road from where we were staying was the entrance to an unseen Roman amphitheatre. We investigated and discovered that that night they were showing an Italian silent film based on a vaguely Faustian theme, but with the added delight of a full, live orchestra playing the soundtrack.

Did we want to go? Well, having done nothing of any massively cultured significance the entire time, of course we did. And it was wonderful.

As is Catania. I loved its honesty. I loved its sense of civic pride, despite not being the most handsome or eminent place. I loved how it could make vitality seem so effortless, or effortlessness so vital.

And we wouldn’t have had time to climb Etna anyway.