The good and the ugly, Catania, Sicily

Catania is gritty and big, an ancient seaport and the second largest city in Sicily.

Being on a budget we arrived with the locals at the main bus terminal. We were in for a shock. Pulling our carry-on bags behind us, we were forced to run an obstacle course of people begging for money. To make matters worse, we could not find the accommodation that we had booked the night before. (That’s when you get the best deals!) Our GPS indicated we had arrived but we were lost until a young Libyan loitering in front of a King Falafel joint felt sorry for us and pointed out our place. And there it was 20 stories up, a giant sign on the balcony. Lesson learned: Look up.

Catania, Sicily waterfront.

Our travels in Italy had not prepared us for the onslaught of desperate humanity and we beat a hasty retreat into the apartment. The room was spacious and had a fantastic view of the ancient harbour. The manager gave us a map and pointed out the Old Town sections we should visit. He was friendly enough but in the three days we were there we never saw him leave the apartment. He lounged about in jogging pants looking like he had just woken up, no matter what time of day.

Downstairs an endless flow of people pushed into the night. At 2 am a scream pierced our dreams and went on in a drug-induced paranoia all night until empathy had vanished and I just wanted them to “shut the fuck up”.

One day in Catania, Sicily and my humanity was already slipping?

A short evening walk, a fast food dinner downstairs, and we understood. A large empty tract of land was covered with litter and cardboard. When night fell these sheltered the homeless. And there were many. 

Night time in Catania, View from our room. This was an area where homeless people took shelter.

We tentatively stepped around a pile of human excrement on the street. Catania had shown her ugly side.

Just outside Catania is a major refugee camp holding thousands of refugees. Many would bus to Catania to beg or look for ways to make some money. We understood what it was like to come to a country where you had nothing and you could not speak the language. Our parents had also fled a country with us kids in tow, too young to appreciate the risks they had taken for the chance of a better life.

Old Town Catania charmed us.

Catania has a long history and so has lots to offer in the historic downtown centre.

White rug covers the steps of Saint Biagio Church – Sant’Agata alla Fornace. Below are ruins of an ancient amphitheatre.

Its Old Town is a World Heritage Site, protected by UNESCO. Established in 730 BC, today visitors appreciate it for its baroque buildings and its Piazza Duomo with the Elephant Fountain in the front of the Catania Cathedral. Constructed in 1078 over the ruins of a Roman Baths, the cathedral has been restored many times due to earthquakes in the region. While there we visited opera composer Vincenzo Bellini‘s crypt inside the Catania Cathedral. In fact, I am listening to the “Swan of Catania” as he was known, composition  La straniera as I write this.

The Swan of Catania, Vincenzo Bellini, a famous composer was from Catania.

Fontana dell’Elefante is the lava sculpture over the fountain in Piazza Duomo. Created by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini in the 1700s, the elephant with an obelisk is a symbol that protects the city from enemies and keeps away misfortunes.

Fontana dell’Elefante, sculture in the fountain of the main plaza.

Another renowned building is the Benedictine Monastery also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded in 1558.

In its long history, Catania was a place where philosophers, writers, artists and musicians would find inspiration. It was a city that has been buried in lava and ash, smashed down with earthquakes.

Adriane in the main square, Catania Cathedral behind her.

Catania sits in the shadow of Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In the 16th century, it was completely destroyed by earthquakes and eruptions. When we were walking through town we came across a public emergency preparedness demo in one of the plazas. I couldn’t help but think back on our visit to Mount Vesuvius and what had happened to Pompeii. Mt. Etna continues to rumble.

Emergency Preparedness display in downtown Catania. Residents take these seriously given Catania’s history.
Basilica Collegiata is elegant with a concave front wall.

Old Town charmed us. We walked the streets, admiring the architecture, the parks, the waterfront. We ate the best Arancini there and drank Sicilian beer. We explored other nearby cities from here. As we came back from one of our side trips we noticed refugees positioned in the streets every so many meters. They held a spray bottle and waited patiently for the drivers that would request a window cleaning.

As we left Catania I thought of the elephant protecting the city. Perhaps it will shed some good fortune to the migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe. Perhaps they will find an opportunity to make a new home. And then maybe the screams in the night will fade to silence. My humanity restored, we carried on to our next destination.

Marina enjoying one of the fountains in the Plaza Doumo
Tree in park reminds us of Catania’s resilience.


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