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We start our city stroll very early at the main square, the delightful Piazza del Duomo. This square and its surrounding buildings were designed by the architect and builder Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, who was born in Palermo. At its heart is Catania’s symbol, an elephant carved out of lava, balancing an Egyptian obelisk, called “U Liotru” the Sicilian pronunciation of Heliodorus, an 8th-century sorcerer, who is tied by legend to the origins of the statue. The Cathedral is dedicated to the city’s patron saint St. Agata. Inside are several ornate chapels and a fresco recording the 1693 earthquake. Catania’s most famous son, the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini is buried here, as are also three Aragonese kings: Louis, Frederick II (not to be confused with Frederick II of Hohenstaufen) and Frederick III. Across from the Cathedral are the underground ruins of Greco-Roman baths. At the square we will find the town hall and the Diocesan Museum. The Catanesi love their Saint Agata so much that they also named a church just across the square and 15 other churches after her.
Each year in from 3rd to 5th of February Catania honours its patron saint with the Festa di Sant’Agata, one of Italy’s biggest religious festivals. Streets and squares are packed with people watching and following the processions. If you are in Sicily do not miss this festa – three days music, dancing, art, theatre and street partying are waiting for you.
We are heading south now towards the port, going under the arch of Porta Uzeda and then turning right to “La Pescheria”. Catania’s bustling, colourful and odorous fish market is the oldest market of the town and one of Italy’s most memorable, where we can admire and buy the most incredible fish. Famous are the “oxeyes”, huge pearly mussels, which are eaten either raw or grilled with olive oil and garlic. Everywhere extend the long dagger-like noses of swordfish in the air. Surprisingly, most of the customers in traditional markets are men. The fish purchase is a very serious matter, men stand in groups together with the traders and discuss extensively. Of course this does not mean that women are met with suspicion, they just do not participate in the discussions, but buy their fish without the said ceremony. Don’t wear leather shoes, rubber boots are more appropriate. In the Pescheria market we enter a different world, that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Best time to visit: early in the morning.
There is another important daily market at Piazza Carlo Alberto, the “A Fera o Luni”, where you can buy vegetables, meat and fruits and meanwhile also the inevitable cheap textiles and bag imitations.
Are we still together? Nobody lost in the hullabaloo of the market? Then let’s head south west to Piazza Federico di Svevia and his old fortress Castello Ursino, which was built about 770 years ago on a rocky cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea. It does not overlook the sea anymore – the enormous lava spill of Mount Etna in the year 1669 pushed the sea back, you will find Castello Ursino now more than 500 m away from the coast. Today the castle houses a gallery of local art and the Catania Civico Museum with a rich collection of artworks from antiquity to the present. In the large ground-floor rooms, an outstanding collection of antique sculptures and bronzes is shown..
After a little detour to stunning Piazza dell’Università we are now walking back northwards – to have a look at Catania’s ancient origins, dating back to the 8th Century BC when the city was founded by Greeks from Chalcis. It then became Roman and three theatres have survived. Amazingly enough, considering the volcanic eruptions and several strong earthquakes. The Teatro Romano in Via Vittorio Emanuele was built in the 2nd Century AC on the site of a Greek theatre and is an excellent example for the use of lava stones even in ancient times. Nearby is a small theatre, the Odeon and at Piazza Stesicoro at the crossroads of Corso Sicilia and Via Etnea, we admire the Amphitheatre, but only from outside, because it is closed to the public. It was the Sicily’s largest amphitheatre, that could accommodate around 15,000 spectators! Underneath it runs a warren of passages which remind us of the far better known big brother in Rome, the Coliseum.
Our next stops are at the birthplace of Catania’s best know son, the opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, which is nowadays a museum, the Museo Civico Belliniano and a short walk away at the gorgeous opera house Teatro Massimo Bellini, a magnificent building with an even more pompous interior. You can request a guided tour by phone. The opera season starts in October and runs until June, so if opera is your thing it is well worth a visit.
In the area are many restaurants, so what do think of a bite to eat? It’s lunch time and the perfect place to try THE Catanese specialty – Pasta alla Norma – dedicated to Bellini and named after his best known opera “Norma”. Penne (noodles) with a rich tomato sauce, fried chunks of eggplant, sprinkled with grated salted and smoked ricotta cheese. Buon appetito!
After lunch we head back north, direction Piazza Duomo to Catania’s most beautiful street, Via dei Crociferi, where baroque churches are strung like pearls on a string and continue to wonderful Villa Bellini. No, it is not a villa, it is the town park, a green oasis of peace, the lung of Catania. Relax before the hardest part of the day starts: Via Etnea – Catanias shopping street with dozens of small shops and boutiques, bars and cafes. Since some parts of Via Etena are closed to the traffic, so it is really fun to stroll around – and it is even more fun to find out that prices are much lower than in Taormina.
Oh yes, and whenever we are thirsty we stop at one of the numerous chioscos, which are part of Catania’s urban culture. Freshly squeezed fruit and veggie juices and other liquid delights, the most refreshing institutions.
Sicily has a lot of beautiful squares (Piazza is a ‘Square’ in English) which are amongst the best Sicily attractions, and here at My Destination Sicily, we would like to share few of them with you. Piazzas are immersed in thousands of years of history, so definitely worth checking out on your next visit.
This is the all-time best piazza in Sicily and should you make the journey here you might well recognize it from Cinema Paradiso. The 1980s classic movie made the square famous and indeed it’s one of the largest and most beautiful squares you will see in Sicily – complete with churches and cobbled stones.
Piazza Scammacca, Catania
Catania’s best place to hang out is Piazza Scammacca. Here you will find large television screens showing football matches, or there could be a live band playing. Restaurants in this area serve anything from steak to pizza or you could simply get an ice-cream and sit and do some people watching. A good evening out in Catania.
Piazza Umberto I, Erice
Erice has so many lovely nooks and crannies it’s hard to choose just one, but Piazza Umberto I is the central square at the topmost part of the town and a great place to rest if you’ve headed up through town. The square also has cafes and a wonderful medieval ambience.
Sicily Piazza, by nodeworx (Flickr)
Piazza del Duomo, Cefalu
This tiny little fishing town has gleaned more tourists than most small places in Sicily in recent year’s thanks largely to its seaside location, excellent fresh seafood choices and its wonderful square featuring the beautiful cathedral in which you can find some splendid mosaics. What’s particularly spectacular about the main square in the old town of Cefalu, is that the cathedral backs right up against a rocky outcrop that almost seems to hem the whole town in between cliffs and coastline. It is quite a sight and the cafes have made the most of the square with seating available to enjoy the views.
Piazza Principale, Chiaramonte Golfi
Chiaramonte Golfi has often been called the “balcony of Sicily” for its phenomenal views over the Ragusan countryside. There are wonderful views everywhere in this lovely town and the air is far cooler here than deep down in the valley below.
Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina
Taormina has many pretty squares and piazzas but one not to miss is the Piazza IX Aprile with its fine views of the gulf and Mt Etna. However it’s not just the superb view of Mt Etna that attracts locals and tourists alike here – there are even cafes with tables on the terrace. The square is also enclosed on three sides by fabulous buildings including the churches of San Giuseppe and San Agostino plus the Clock Tower whose arch provides access to the old town.
Piazza del Duomo, Ragusa Ibla
One of the most delightful corners of Sicily is this delightful piazza made famous by the television series Montalbano. The Baroque duomo that fills the top most part of the square is a particularly good feature of the architecture of the region. If you were just passing through Ragusa Ibla this church and piazza would be the one thing that you should definitely come and see.
Ragusa Ibla, Piazza del Duomo
Piazza Scandaliato, Sciacca
This lovely piazza has several cafes and splendid views of the sea and is well worth stopping into. At night it is filled with couples and families out enjoying an evening stroll. Just back from the piazza is the Duomo that was first erected in 1108 and rebuilt in 1656.
Piazza Margherita, Castelbuono
This delightful village in the Madonie Mountains is only 40 minutes from the coast but could be miles away. Piazza Margherita contains all the main sights – the tourist office, the gloomy Matricia Vecchia church with its bold frescoes and the squat 4th century Il Castello de Ventimiglia. A number of cafes, restaurants and shops border the square featuring fine food and liquors of the region.
Piazza Margherita, Castelbuono
Piazza Fossia, Savoca
This has to be one of the most famous piazzas in Sicily – even those who’ve never been to Italy will have seen it. Piazza Fossia is where Bar Vitelli is located that was used for filming during the Godfather movies. It was here where Michael Corleone’s betrothal scene to Apollonia was set. The interior is also colourful featuring vintage sewing machines, beaded curtains and pictures from the movie. The granita and liquori di limone are also famous here.
The Easter period (pasqua) is one of the busiest Sicily events periods outside of summer and for good reason. The weather has normally started to lose its icy chill after the winter, there are sunny days, the wildflowers start to bloom and produce becomes more plentiful – in short it’s one of the most beautiful times of the year. However, it is worth noting that it’s also one of the high seasons for travel in Sicily, so if you’re planning to come you do need to book well in advance to secure your transport and accommodation. You also need to be prepared for higher prices. Banks, shops, schools, public offices typically close on Easter Monday.
The actual Easter week is referred to as Settimana Santa or Holy Week and features some of the most vibrant processions and festivals in Sicily. Many of these have roots in traditions that can be traced back to Spain and are incredibly colourful, taking place against a backdrop of atmospheric narrow streets and squares. The mixture of religiosity, mysticism, lights, costumes and good food makes this one of the best times to visit.
Some of the most well known Easter events include Trapani’s procession of I Misteri, a procession of 18th century wooden images representing the last days of Christ’s life. Each of the images are made from cypress wood and cork and associated with a town trade. They are carried throughout the streets of Trapani on Good Friday by representatives of the trade. This is without doubt one of the best events in the province, although Erice and Busetto Palazzoo have similar processions. In Erice they carry statues while in Busetto it is a costumed recreation of the Stations of the Cross.
Another famous Sicily Easter event is the Settimana Santa in the interior town of Enna on a blustery hilltop. From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday penitents from 15 fraternities march in absolute silence from the church towards the duomo. Dressed in long robes and hoods resembling the Klu Klux Klan this is an eerie and moving event.
There are similar excellent processions in Marsala (west coast), Piana degli Albanesi (a more Orthodox celebration), Prizzi in the western interior where residents take to wearing read and black masks in The Dance of the Devils, and San Fratello on the Tyrrhenian coast. Gangi (Madonie Mountains), Caccamo (Palermo), San Martino delle Scale (Palermo), Mondello (Palermo), Adrano (Mount Etna), Bronte (Mount Etna), Forza d’Agro’ (Taormina) and Noto, Scicli and Ragusa Ibla on the south east coast have noteworthy events.
Another colourful Easter event is the Madonna Vasa Vasa procession in Modica in the Baroque region. This involves carrying around a statue of the Virgin Mary until she encounters a statue of Jesus and kisses him.
For gastronomically interested visitors, Easter is a good time to visit for some of the delights on offer celebrating the bounty of spring. Even if church attendance is declining on the island people still eat and one of the signature dishes of this time of year is the Martorana, a marzipan confectionary shaped to resemble fruit. Cassatta made from sweetened ricotta cheese is also a favourite and particularly good in spring because the sheep’s milk is at its best thanks to the plentiful grazing in this season. Other dishes might include peas, fava beans, artichokes and tuna fish. Typically Italians will eat seafood on Good Friday, sfinicione (a thick Sicilian pizza) on Saturday and roast lamb on Sunday.
Sicily is a pretty unique place full of fascinating people, landscapes, history, architecture, and other unique Sicily attractions. It’s also a real world apart from the Italian mainland and yet very uniquely interconnected. In fact Wolfgang Goethe said of Sicily: “L’Italia senza Sicilia non lascia immagine nello spirito: qui è la chiave di tutto” or in other words – “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”
Once you’ve been there you no doubt agree… and just to reinforce the point, here are some unusual facts about Sicily that you might not yet be familiar with:
– Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean with 600 miles of coastline and yet it is still somewhat undeveloped for tourism. It takes roughly 3 ½ hours to cross the main island from east to west and 2 ½ from north to south.
– Sicily might be like another world but it’s actually only three kilometers from the Italian mainland across the Straits of Messina.
– People in Sicily consider themselves Sicilians first and Italians second.
– About 70 percent of people in Sicily actually speak Sicilian not Italian. In fact Sicilian is so different from Italian that even though it is referred to as a dialect, it could be a language in its own right.
– Who hasn’t lived in Sicily? The Arabs, Normans, Byzantines, Greeks, Romans and Spanish – you name it they’ve all been here.
– One of the world’s most famous mathematicians, Archimedes, was born in Sicily.
– The Republican movement to unite Italy started in Sicily.
– The majority of Italian-American immigrants hailed from the south – Naples and beyond into Sicily.
– The term “mafia” originated in Sicily and this is indeed home to the infamous and illicit Mafia criminal organization. However another kind of “mafia” exists in Sicily and that is mafia culture – or a system of bribes and kickbacks by which government and business often function.
– Sicily is home to two out of three of Italy’s active volcanoes: Stromboli and Etna. The other volcano in Italy is Vesuvius near Naples. Mt Etna is also the tallest volcano in Europe and about 25 percent of the Sicilian population live on its slopes.
– Italy is considered to have the biggest “black economy” in Western Europe, much of this thanks to goings on in Sicily. Economically, Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest areas with an average wage about half of that in the north. The official unemployment is double the national average and sits around 20 percent.