Early in the morning, at the airport. Still sleepy, confused. Embarking procedures are slow, people are restless. We will be taking off for Catania shortly. My decision to visit the city was taken over a cup of tea in the Old Town of Bucharest just after my Sicilian friends called saying that they will wait for me, ready to show me their city and the stunning surroundings that they are so proud of. So here I stand, ready to go to Sicily, with all the excitement of a new adventure and the irrational fear I have every time I am flying. On the other hand, how many times in life you get to climb an active volcano?
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily. Founded in VIII century BC, it was destroyed by Etna and covered by lava more than seven times (last time in 1669) but it seems the town learned how to survive its neighbor. Unlike the other towns of Italy such as Rome, Venice or Milan, Catania will charm you with the brutal beauty of the surrounding landscape and the irresistible taste of traditional food.
For the locals the volcanic eruptions have become routine, the last eruption taking place in December 2015. They got used to leaving each day at the foot of a volcano that can destroy their home and the city within a few hours. Perhaps that is why, wherever you go in Catania, people are smiling. They take life each day at the time, enjoying the present moment as much as possible.
The magma walls of the gardens, the black shoreline and hardened lava slabs of the streets are the first thing you, as a tourist, will remark when getting to the region.
The people in Catania took the lava which the volcano generously shared and transformed it into working material. You will find few concrete streets here. Mostly everything is paved with magma, one of the most resistant and less demanding building materials. But watch out as the streets are very slippery especially if it rains. And difficult to walk on if you have high heels (ladies, pay attention when packing your holiday shoes)
I turn my attention to the buildings. The city seems cramped, stripped of the grandeur and opulence that I have encountered in other Italian cities. And then a walk in the center, along the via Etnea, reveals me the true greatness that this city once enjoyed. Painstakingly restored and dug out of the lava, the city center holds carved marble cathedral facades, picturesque cafes and shops, inviting you to relax and satisfy the thirst for shopping. Inevitably, I reach the fountain of the elephant – u Liotru – created out of lava in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. It stands as a symbol of the city and a meeting point for the young people. A good place to take a break, sit on the steps at the base and rest my legs while enjoying the local architecture.
Tolerance in traffic, one of the aspects that surprise you most
As a driver you will instantly notice that traffic is crowded, the streets too narrow and the parking space is almost inexistent. However,things go pretty smooth, due to the tolerance and good will of the Sicilians. In this maze of one-way streets and traffic lights, cars, motorcycles and scooters sneak through traffic without hurry and agitation. I do notice that most cars I encountered parked or stopped at a red light, are showing slight traces of accidents. What they tell me is that this is a common thing for Sicilians – nobody cares much about cars. They buy small practical car models able to fit through the cramped streets. Sometimes you will also see cars from the 60s, like Fiat 500, well maintained and fully functional. The best way to spot them is during weekends when their owners go for a drive along the sea shores.
Just remember! The Sicilians strictly respect the parking spaces, mainly due to lack of space. If you rent a car it is compulsory to buy your parking ticket, valid for several hours, at any newsstand met on the way. Without it, you risk a hefty fine and the removal of the vehicle.
So, what I recommend after the first day in Catania? If you rent a car just go for the small vehicles that can squeeze through the narrow streets. Take your parking ticket, it is highly useful. Put on comfortable shoes and go downtown, it is a good place for afternoon coffee. And finally, stop by one of the cake shops and buy yourself crafted orange peel covered in chocolate. It is insanely good 🙂 .