Turn your gaze north at any point on Via Etnea, and you will be looking straight at the volcano that gives this long road its name. The main shopping street in the city of Catania is trained on the mountain like the barrel of a sniper’s rifle, although it is not oriented that way for the sake of the view, much the reverse. Via Etnea was built broad and straight to provide an easy evacuation route for the inhabitants of the city should the volcano blow its top. It is the emergency exit, not the front row of the stalls.
There are two fine spots in Catania from which to contemplate this sleeping tectonic dragon. In the morning you might go to Giardino Bellini, one of the city’s few green spaces. In the heart of this peaceful urban garden there is a high plateau that provides a perfect vantage point. Etna is grey and ethereal at first light, like the ghost of a mountain. Shallow slopes to either side and a dent in the crown make it look like an enormous felt fedora.
At this early hour there are wisps of vapour around the summit, but it is impossible to tell if they are twists of mist or scraps of smoke. At dusk, I go to the rooftop bar of the Una Hotel Palace. The volcano is a more solid presence now; it appears to sail on a sea of terracotta rooftops while ranks of cloud no less mountainous than the mountain itself march on behind. I watch for the time it takes to down an aperitivo, and find myself wishing that Etna would choose this moment to come alive – as if travelling to Sicily and not seeing the sky filled with a poisonous column of hot ash was like going to Lapland and missing out on the northern lights.
Not that there aren’t other sights to see in this fine town. Sicily’s second city is an architectural riot – and it owes that too to Etna. In 1669, swathes of the city were destroyed by a lava flow; and 24 years later, in 1693, there was an earthquake that flattened the place. Those two terrifying events in the course of one generation defined the visual character of Catania. It led to the wide sluice-like streets, yes, but it also meant that most of the new buildings were designed to be squat and solid, tremor-resistant. At the same time, the rebuilding of the city coincided with the height of baroque, so the decorations on the chunky palazzi are all limestone froth and frills and lacy white tracery. That contrast might have been very odd and incongruous, like weightlifters in tutus. But Catania pulls it off, partly because many of the buildings are made with dark lava quarried from the volcano itself. This charcoal palette, which could make the city look as dull as a business suit, is to my eye as chic as a little black dress. And when I get a gaudy eyeful – such as the pink flowering oleander trees next to the Duomo – the effect is thrilling, like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film switches from black-and-white to glorious Technicolor.
Sicily’s beautiful south-east
The fish market is the beating heart of Catania: the people here love to eat, and to eat fish above all, and the Pescheria is a kind of cacophonous everyday festival of seafood. The shouty hawkers constantly palm water from metal bowls onto their catch, keeping it fresh and glistening. Even at the height of a Sicilian heatwave the market is as wet as a Manchester Monday and as cool as a Catholic church. And at every stall there are generous displays of swordfish, chopped across the middle like pink logs; silvery little fishes, laid out on slabs like jewellery on a baize; vats of cockles that rattle like pebbles on the shore when the fishmongers turn them with their hands. On the fringes of the market there are vegetable stalls, with produce that is preternaturally large: aubergines as taut and leathery as boxers’ punchballs, red peppers that you could slice the top off and use as a dufflebag.
There are two old but jumping restaurants next door to each other inside the fish market, La Paglia and Antico Marina. Shouting over the bellowing stallholders and the constant thwack-thwack of cleavers is part of the deal at either, but whatever fish you order could not be fresher, or the wine rougher. The restaurants in the market are best at lunchtime. For dinner I head a couple of hundred yards up via Etnea to the trattorias behind the Siculorum Gymnasium on piazza Università. Osteria Antica Sicilia has a little courtyard set back from the road, where a bel canto singer drops by to do few numbers – some operatic arias, some crowd-pleasers: ‘When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…’ I am happy to listen while waiting for my grilled espada and dinky half-bottle of the house white, Bianco di Nera. It turns out to be frizzante, and once its cork is popped it sits on the table like a miniature Etna, releasing delicious little gas bubbles into the atmosphere.
Like every corner of Italy, Catania has its signature pasta sauce. It is called alla Norma, and is named after an opera written by Catania’s most famous son, the composer Vincenzo Bellini. Order a Norma, and what you’ll get is a tomato sauce with aubergines and ricotta, found on menus everywhere. But a more hardcore local delicacy is carne de cavallo, horsemeat, served in the form of sausages, steaks and burgers. On a single stretch of via Plebiscito, west of piazza Stesicoro, the trattorias set up barbecues on the street after the sun goes down. The area is recognisable for a sign advertising the macelleria equina (horse butcher) and by the galloping steeds painted on the restaurant frontages.
You don’t have to eat a horse in Catania (however hungry you are), but you really should get close to the volcano. I take a tour in a four-wheel drive. For an hour, the car toils up slopes covered with broad, leafy chestnut trees, passing on the way the lumpy remains of the crater that destroyed the city 300 years ago, now a wooded picnic spot. Above 1,000 metres the villages peter out, giving way to exposed outcrops of fractured black rock. We stop to inspect the roofless shell of a house destroyed in a 20th-century eruption. Whitened tree trunks lay in the old ash, like the bleached antlers of some extinct mega-antelope. We stop again in Rifugio Sapienza, where a cable car leaves for a point close to the summit. You’d think it would be hot on a volcano, but a fiercely cold wind is blowing. People who have come up unawares from the baking streets of Catania stand shivering, their arms wrapped round bare, sun-browned shoulders. For some reason the chill wind raises no black dust, it lies there undisturbed – I don’t know how that can be. I watch as a cloud comes rolling down the mountain like a damp and chilly pyroclastic flow, blocking out the sun.
Sicily’s most romantic hideaway
On the way back down the mountain we visit the village of Zafferana Etnea. This is where the main lava flow came to a stop after a massive eruption in 1991. Underfoot, this young lava trail is brittle and aerated, like a fossilised Crunchie bar. Its solidified tip is a threatening presence in the back garden of an outlying house: anyone standing on the balcony could almost lean out and touch it. In the village there is a shrine dedicated to the Madonna of Divine Providence, thanking her for saving Zafferena in the nick of time. You would think that the brooding danger of eruption would make people wary of Etna – but no. On the lower reaches there are dozens of villages like Zafferana, and all of them cling lovingly to the mountain’s skirts. ‘She is a mother to us,’ says one Catanian to me. ‘We miss A Montagna when we go away, and she is the first thing we look for when we come home.’
Upper Etna is majestically bleak, fascinating like the moon, but I’m happy to come home to Catania’s warm embrace. I still want to see one thing in particular: an amphitheatre long enjoyed by the Greek and Roman inhabitants of this sunny coastline. Along the way, I stop at the dilapidated house of Catania-born erotic poet Domenico Tempio, a contemporary of Bellini. Tempio seems to have believed that a poet’s home should be an expression of the work that goes on inside, because the balcony of his house is decorated with carved figures that hold up the floor with one hand while quite patently using the free hand to play with themselves.
The amphitheatre is further along via Vittorio Emanuele. It is a huge semi-circle, built into a slope. Later buildings have fused to it like barnacles on the hull of a ship. The sunken stage is flooded with clear water, so this is an inner-city lake as well as an ancient monument, and has its own eco-system of frogs and birds and bats. It turns out that a stream has always run through here, making it possible for the Romans to stage Busby Berkeley-style water ballets, a spectacle they were especially partial to. There is a small collection of finds next to the ruins: half the foot of some god or hero, just toes sticking out of the end of a sandal; numerous noseless heads… somehow Romans’ noses never make it down the ages.
A step away from the amphitheatre is via Crociferi, a wholly untouched parade of grand, 18th-century palaces and churches. Like Etna, it seems to change with the time of day. In the morning it is quiet and imposing, but at night it becomes a kind of open-air junior common room for local students. They sit on the pavements, chatting and smoking, oblivious of the architecture around them. The best place to eat here is Locanda Cerami, a pizzeria where the outdoor tables are right on the steps of the Church of St Camillus. A marble saint looks down beneficently from on high as I tuck into a pizza so big I could screw legs on it and call it a coffee table. I am halfway through my quattro stagioni when, along the entire length of Crociferi, all the ornamental street lanterns came alight at once. For a second everyone looks up in wonder, as if they had suddenly realised what a lovely place they’d found themselves in.
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Noto, Sicily’s sun-drenched city
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