Catania, the volcanic city of Sicily: why the city is unlike anywhere else

Meltingsisters - the volcanic city of Sicily - palm trees and the entrance to an estate home

We are at the foot of Mount Etna. In Catania. The volcanic city of Sicily is born from the ashes of its mythical volcano. Lava is said to have become the raw material of this city facing the sea. The bay of Catania is a string of farniente places. Blue waters where the horizon touches a cloudless sky. Bright blue sea and bewitching steep trails all competing for attention. Why is Catania unlike anywhere else? What drives locals?

September weather is predictably unpredictable. Even in Sicily. Weather conditions are not kind to us this evening as our flight makes its way towards Catania. Varying winds and turbulences; At times our flight feels nothing short of roller coaster. With fears and screaming of fellow passengers over-riding the thrills of flying.

The downpour takes on freakish proportions once firmly on the ground. Heavy drops of rain continue to create havoc with mood. Our hair and clothes getting soaked as we make our way through the hilly streets. Our accommodation is here somewhere.

The volcanic city of Sicily is unlike anywhere else 

We kick off bright and early in the heart of the atmospheric old part of the city. Our airbnb located here overlooks the tiniest of streets. A street so tiny the balcony opposite is a mere 2m from ours. 

Catania is located in eastern Sicily. Mount Etna dominates the area. The city was created more than 2700 years. Threatened, damaged, it has survived lava flows and earthquakes. Down here, locals adore the volcano and the land. They also fear it.

La muntana is how locals calls Mount Etna. They love her for her generosity. Because she offers the most fertile soil. And Catania’s sprawling open-air market is the perfect vision of that richness. It is mind-blowing. 

Banks of locally grown vegetables and fruits. Three-wheeled Lambrettas truck stacked deep with myriad of old wooden crates. Melons; Stems and leaves of indigenous gourds. Various variety of beans “like Jack’s beanstalk”; Choc full of seeds and beads. We meander trough this raw and unfiltered chaos to the other side of the market. A sense-exploding food market. The sun gently pouring down onto stalls of brightly coloured flowers is enough to work up the biggest of smile. The separate smells of freshly baked bread and patisseries reaches me; And I know for sure I will smell them again in my memory. 

Noisy, raucous and endearing

At la Pescheria behind the Piazza Duomo, the traditional fish market is noisy and raucous. I was unprepared for the loud and raw crowd of locals. Laud and raucous but at no time trouble. And also kind of endearing. The slight pungent smell hanging in the breeze quickly disappears as freshly caught fish is grilled. Smoke filling the air. I am expecting a huge part of my time here will be taken up with eating. Eating the Sicilian way. In short, Catania, the volcanic city of Sicily is a sense-exploding exploration.

We proceed towards the Duce chimneys, remnants of the industrial era. These are in the the heart of the city. The view over the volcano is one of the greatest. And now the area is a cultural hub and home to museums. Which makes it all the more seductive.

Our original intention was to use the volcanic city of Sicily as a stepping stone towards the southern part of the island. It sounds cliché but the journey is part of the experience. Places you did not think can seduce you show their charms unexpectedly. Catania is one of those. You wake up in the morning and you just sit. Because the familiarity with the city grows. You start living. The ugly sides of the city also hits you. Such as the pungent racism we encountered in a restaurant.

Basalt stone. The fine-grained volcanic rock as a symbol of the city

Where there is a will there may be a way. Catania is not your hit a jam place. And that is what makes it special. It takes time for the city to reveal itself. For the non explicit culture to reveal itself. Here it is the role of the Agata. The saint patron of the city. Local believes she watched over them. As such every time the city got destroyed, it was rebuilt even more beautifully. Catalians have as a consequence grown more resilient than ever. Just like the phoenix engraved on the arch located on Garibaldi gate.

Catanians will often say that La Muntana is agitated. That is when she is spewing smoke. Because the volcano is never idle. As our exploration deepens, it appears life here very much evolves around mount Etna. For a start they cherish La Muntana for the richness of the lava stone. Basalt lava stone. It is found everywhere. Streets; Buildings; Squares; The Arco; Or the Elefante which is the symbol of the city. There is much more that meet the eye here. And am really warming up to Catania. The city and Catalians is very much like the character of Sicilians: a lot a tradition. Deep rooted traditions. 

Heritage and traditions

Catania is packed with heritage. La Muntana is a constant and stark reminder that the volcano can destroy everything in a second. On one hand, locals fear her devastating powers. On the other hand, that same Earth is revered for the abundance of miraculous water she provides. 

Some places in the middle of the city inspire awe. Before us are the remnants of Rotonde thermal baths. A reminder of past Roman dolce vita. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the “frigidarium”. Also known as the “swimming pool”. This was the place to be for a cold bath in addition to steam sauna and hot water pools. These thermal baths are a heritage of when the Romans ruled the city. 

This exploration of Catania to me turn out to be educational. It was not obvious to love Catania at first. Noisy and trafficky. What is mostly fascinating is the fact that the city is all about a way life around the volcano. Firstly the century-old vines seating at an altitude of 1200M (the highest vineyards in Europe). Second the impressive cuisine that came out of poverty; Third the baroque architecture. In time, the charms slowly emerges.

Really you only know true passion when you are on the road. You can follow the next steps of our road trip exploration here.

xoxo M. Let’s share our travel inspiration