One of the liveliest cities in southern Italy, Catania is a bustling town with much joie de vivre. Many visitors to Sicily bypass this baroque gem on the way to Taormina, but Catania merits at least 2 full days for its art treasures, church museums, and Roman ruins, if not for its liveliness as well as its to-die-for fresh foodstuffs such as those you’ll find at the lively fish market (la pescheria).
The city has suffered natural disasters throughout the centuries. Much of the history of Catania is linked to its volcanic neighbor, Mount Etna. In 1669, the worst eruption in Catania’s history occurred when Etna buried much of the city under lava that literally ran through the streets.
The architects Giovan Battista Vaccarini (1702-68) and Francesco Battaglia (1701-1788) helped turn the city into one of the baroque capitals of Europe. Builders used solidified black lava in the masonry, which also fortified the buildings. The result was so unique that word spread, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Catania was a compulsory stopover on the “Grand Tour” of Europe.
Catania’s industry has earned it the appellation of “the Milano of the South.” The city’s airport has always been the island’s largest, and many department store chains open up in Catania long before heading westward. It is also a cultural capital of sorts, having provided to the Arts its favorite sons, Bellini, Verga and Greco. Catanians are deeply proud of their heritage and have gone to great lengths to restore antique palazzi to their original splendor. They are also crafty at putting abandoned buildings to good use: An exhibition complex occupies a former sulfur refinery at Il Ciminiere, a contemporary art foundation has taken over an old licorice factory, and the old tobacco processing plant is slated to become the home of the long-overdue Archaeological Museum.
The Duomo at the very heart of Catania is dedicated to the memory of the martyred St. Agatha. The Duomo was originally ordered to be built by Roger I, the Norman king, but it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and had to be reconstructed. Its facade is its most enduring architectural feature, the work of Giovan Battista Vaccarini (1702-68), who redesigned the city after the earthquake. For the granite columns of the facade, the architect “removed” them from the city’s Roman amphitheater. Only the lovingly crafted medieval apses, made from lava, survived the devastation of that earthquake.
Many opera fans come here to pay their respects at Bellini’s tomb, guarded by a life-size angel in marble. It’s to the right as you enter the Duomo through its right door. The words above the tomb are from Sonnambula, and in translation read, “Ah, I didn’t think I’d see you wilt so soon, flower.”
In the Norman Cappella della Madonna, also on the right, precious metals envelop a magnificent Roman sarcophagus and a statue of the Virgin Mary, carved in the 1400s. To the right of the choir is the Cappella di Sant’Agata. In the sacristy is a fresco, said to have been created in 1774, that depicts the horrendous eruption of Mount Etna in 1669. Admission to the cathedral is free; it’s open daily 7am-noon and 4:30-7pm.
Perhaps the most stunning part of the Duomo lies underground: The Terme Achillane, an Imperial Roman thermal spa discovered after the devastating earthquake in 1693 that miraculously conserved some of its stuccoed decorations, including animals and grape bunches. The part of the complex open to the public is a rectangular hall with four pillars, surmounted by vaulted ceilings. At the center lies the original marble bath. (Admission is 5€, half price for adults 60 and over, free for children 9 and under.
To book a visit www.museodiocesicatania.it
The Duomo is not the only attraction on this landmark square. Lying in the very heart of Catania, the Piazza Duomo was also created by the city’s planner, Vaccarini. The baroque elegance of Catania’s heyday lingers on here. The symbol of the city, the Fontana dell’Elefante, was created in 1735. It was obviously inspired by Bellini’s monument in Rome’s Piazza Minerva. The elephant was hewn from black lava spewed forth by Mount Etna and stands on a Byzantine platform. The elephant is a beast of burden here, carrying on its back an Egyptian obelisk lettered with hieroglyphics celebrating the cult of Isis.
The less-imposing Fontana dell’Amenano lies on the south side of the piazza. Water cascades down from its top basin, evoking a sheer veil that caused the Catanians to dub it acqua a lenzuolo, or sheet water. On the north side of the square are the facades of Palazzo degli Elefanti (today the city hall) and Palazzo Senatorio. Palazzo degli Elefanti is usually open Monday through Friday from 8am to 7pm.
Standing beside the Duomo is the Badia di Sant’Agata, again dedicated to the patron saint of Catania. This is another stellar example of Vaccarini’s mastery of baroque elegance. This church is one of seven in Catania dedicated to its patroness.
Lying east of Piazza Duomo is Teatro Massimo (or Bellini), one of the grandest and richest in Europe. Directly uphill from Piazza Duomo lies the entrance to the Teatro Greco Romano, Via Vittorio Emanuele II 266, dating from 415 B.C. The Roman theater, where gladiators battled wild beasts shipped from nearby Africa, was constructed on the site of an even earlier Teatro Greco. At its apex, 7,000 spectators could view the grisly entertainment here. The marble was coated by Mount Etna’s eruption in 1669. In the back of the theater is a similar but smaller Odeon, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. Concerts are sometimes staged here. The site is open daily from 9am to 1:30pm and 3 to 7pm; admission to the Odeon is 4€.
The Green Lung of Catania. Escape from the city heat and congestion to newly revamped Villa Bellini, the “Central Park” of Catania, reached by heading north along Via Etnea. Planted with such exotics as Brazilian araucarias, the park sprawls over several hills. This is one of the most attractive public parks in Sicily; the Catanians claim that the fig tree planted here is the world’s largest. Unique in Italy is the floral clock and calendar on the hillside. Stand on a hill here and be rewarded with a panoramic view of Mount Etna.
Where Gladiators Battled Lions. Lovers of antiquity should head to the Piazza Stesicoro, Via Vittorio Emanuele 260 for a very evocative site, the ruins of a Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century A.D. Although the ruins lie below street level, the gladiator tunnels are still visible. This is one of the largest of all Roman amphitheaters; it is believed that some 17.000 spectators were once entertained here by blood games. Only a tiny part of the theater survives, so you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure up the ancient gore. The reason? The Ostrogoths, not devotees of Roman glory, used the amphitheater as a quarry. In fact, the Goths found the Roman gladiator contests too vicious and outlawed them. They converted the stones into churches and public monuments. The site is open daily 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm. Admission is free.
Nightlife. Unlike Palermo, Catania has a really kicking nightlife, perhaps influenced by the fact that it lies closer to the mainland than the capital does, or that the university has more students. Pick up a free copy of Lapis (www.lapisnet.it), a bimonthly bulletin in Italian listing all that’s buzzworthy in local entertainment and by night, published both in Catania and in Palermo. It is available at hotels, bars, cafes, and tabacchi. Pubs and dance clubs rule the night, especially in the historical center of town. A fantastic way to start off the night and mingle with the locals is to head for an aperitivo. Enoteca Sud Est, at Via Di Sangiuliano 171, is a quaint, cozy little wine bar where hip Catanians flock to for a glass of red or white coming from the well-stocked cellar, accompanied by a platter of local delicacies. For something a bit more rambunctious, The Stag’s Head in Via Michele Rapisardi 7-9 is one of Catania’s most jumping pubs with wall-to-wall go-getters, and no shortage of beers; even local brew is on tap. If after all this hopping the night is still young, cut the rig over at Discoteca Red Light on Via Michele Gioia 16 where techno sounds and retro hits fill the dance floor quickly.
Begin your tour amid the palms and palmettos of the piazza in front of the massive and forbidding-looking:
- Castello Ursino. Built on ancient Greek foundations, its towering, austere interior has some of the most impressive stone vaulting in Catania. The inside is devoted to a municipal museum that contains everything from archaeological remnants to 19th-century landscapes and portraits. When the castello (castle) was built in 1239, it directly fronted the sea although, since then, lava flows from Etna have raised the ground level to the point where it now lies some distance inland. Look for patterns of both menorahs and crosses set into the medieval masonry, a hallmark left by the masons. After your visit, with your back to the castello, walk diagonally to the right, across Piazza Federico de Svevia, heading to a point immediately to the left of the iron fence that fronts the railway tracks. Pass through an alley that funnels into an unnamed triangular piazza, and from there continue onto Via Auteri. At Via Auteri 26, note the 18th-century facade of the privately owned Palazzo Auteri. Said to be haunted, and long ago divided into private apartments (none of which can be visited), it’s just one example of the many grand buildings dotting this historic neighborhood.
From Via Auteri, turn right onto Via Zappala Gemelli, site of the beginning of Catania’s:
- Outdoor Fish, Meat, & Produce Market. I can’t begin to describe the cornucopia of sights, sounds, and smells in this warren of narrow streets. Pay attention to your footing: Don’t slip on the slime from fish guts or rotting vegetables.
Continue downhill, through the souk, to the bulk that rises on the right-hand side of Via Zappala Gemelli, the:
- Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo. Its elegant baroque facade — punctuated with a garish neon sign declaring VIVA MARIA — stands above a square (Piazza dell’Indirizzo) that rises above that part of the food market dedicated to meats. This is not a showcase church destined for the art books or tourist trade; it’s the parish church of the meat- and fish-market district, with an evocatively battered interior, crumbling stucco, and scads of dusty baroque/rococo ornamentation. Opening hours are erratic, but are usually daily from 8am to noon and 3 to 6pm.
After your visit, walk to the church’s southern side (the one on the left as you face it from the teeming meat market outside). Here, separated from the square by an iron fence, lies the ancient Roman ruins of the:
- Terme dell’Indirizzo. Constructed by the ancient Romans out of black volcanic rock and terra-cotta brick, with only a few of its original vaults and arches still intact, these baths are best admired from outside the fence. Look also for a tiny domed Greek-cross building, constructed of black lava. It’s virtually never open except to accommodate qualified archaeologists.
After your visit to the ruined baths, descend along basalt cobblestones in front of the Church of Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo. They lead downhill into the bowels of the rest of the food market. The largest open space in the market — a mass of parasols, blood, humanity, and grime — is the Piazza Pardo (also known as the Via Pardo), at the edge of which is the hard-to-see facade of a highly recommended restaurant, Osteria Antica Marina.
With your back to the restaurant, turn left, noting the massive soaring archway, built of dark lava rock, on either side of which the food market teems wildly. It’s the:
- Porta Carlo V. Punctuating the entranceway to the indoor section of the city’s food markets, this is one of the few structures of Catania that survived the earthquake of 1693. Pass beneath it and then turn left. After a few steps, you’ll emerge into the open air again, into a neoclassical, traffic-free square filled with more food vendors selling, in this case, fish. Your map might identify it as the Piazza A. di Benedetto, but there is no sign. Most of the buildings date from the early 1600s. At the distant edge of this piazza, at the top of a short flight of stone steps, is a small stone obelisk marked FONTANA DELL’AMENANO. Built in 1867, it marks the location of a powerful underground river.
Visible at the bottom of a steep masonry-sided chasm from the obelisk’s rear side is the:
- Fontana dei 10 Canali (Fountain of the 10 Rivers). For years, this was the only water source in this neighborhood, and many local residents remember when a flood of water from this underground canal was diverted, thanks to conduits and channels, to an aboveground curtain of water used liberally by everyone in the food market. Today, because of urban renovations and difficulties with the plumbing, the waters remain mostly underground.
From here, walk to the top of the previously mentioned stone steps for a view over the:
- Piazza Duomo. At the edges of this piazza sit several of the monuments that will be visited as part of this walking tour.
Before you start your visits of the monuments, look left (westward) along the wide, upward-sloping vista of the:
- Via Garibaldi. At the most distant point on the street’s faraway horizon, beyond the masses of people and cars, note the decorative triumphal arch that was built to celebrate the marriage, in 1768, of the Spanish king Ferdinand de Bourbon and Princess Carolina of Austria. About a century later, in 1862, it marked the processional route of Garibaldi for his triumphant entrance into Catania during the agonizing process of unifying Italy into a coherent political whole. The event marked Garibaldi’s utterance, for the first time, of what eventually became a unifying political slogan, “O Roma, o morte” (“Give me Rome, or give me death”).
- Caffè del Duomo. Caffè del Duomo, Piazza Duomo 12 (tel. 095-7150556), is the most charming of the cafes flanking the square. Built in the late 1800s, it has a marble counter, hints of the Belle Epoque, and a lavish tavola calda (buffet table of hot platters) adjacent to the bar. You can choose from at least 15 different snack items, most priced between 1.50€ and 3€. The cafe also sells some of the most artful almond candies in Catania, shaped like berries, pears, and apples. For a quick pick-me-up at the bar, do as the locals do and ask for seltzer water doctored with a tantalizing scoop of fruit-flavored granita. The cafe is open daily 5:30am to midnight.
After your refueling stop, walk across Piazza Duomo to the:
- Palazzo degli Elefanti. This palace is now the Municipio, or town hall, of Catania. If it’s open, walk into the building’s central courtyard, where you’ll see lava-rock foundations; bas-relief wall friezes dedicated to Catania’s patron saint (St. Agatha); and a pair of 18th-century ceremonial coaches that are used every February to carry Catania’s ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries (including the mayor) down the city thoroughfares for the Festival of St. Agatha. If the security guard allows it, proceed into the second courtyard. Here, note the wall-mounted 19th-century copy of an ancient Greek sundial. Proud Sicilians claim that the ancient Romans learned the art and science of sundials from the Greek colonists of Sicily. Regrettably, the rest of city hall is usually closed to casual visitors.
After your visit, cross the Piazza Duomo and take time to admire:
- Fontana dell’Elefante. This fountain was created from black lava, and it is Catania’s most famous monument. It stands on a Byzantine platform and carries on its back an ancient Egyptian obelisk covered with hieroglyphics. On top of that is an iron ornament that includes, among other symbols, a cross devoted to the patron saint, Agatha.
Piazza Duomo is dominated, naturally, by the:
- Duomo. Begun by King Roger in 1070 and rebuilt by Caccarini after the earthquake, this cathedral used many ancient monuments of Catania in its construction, including stones from Roman theaters. Pause to admire its lugubrious baroque facade with its granite columns. Norman apses can be viewed from Via Vittorio Emanuele. The church was built over the ruins of a vaulted Roman bath, and inside, a Romanesque basilica lies under the Duomo’s nave. The cathedral is a pantheon of some Aragonese royalty. After you exit from the Duomo, with your back to the entrance, turn immediately left and walk a few steps to a building that functioned for many generations as a seminary for theologians and is now the:
- Museo Diocesano (Catania Diocese Museum). Located at Via Etnea 8, this museum gives insight into the lavish traditions associated with one of Sicily’s most powerful undercurrents of religious ecstasy, the Cult of St. Agatha. Inside, you’ll see photos of modern-day religious processions as well as the massive silver sledge that holds the iconic effigy of St. Agatha, which is hauled through the streets every February as part of the mystical rites associated with this powerful cult.
After your visit, with your back to the entrance of the Diocese Museum, turn left and walk a few paces to the south, passing beneath the massive ceremonial stone portal known as:
- Porta Uzeda. Originally built by Sicily’s Spanish overlords during the early 18th century, this archway contains some interesting shops selling folkloric pottery. On its opposite side is a pleasant and verdant park, Villa Pacini, where you can rest. Now retrace your steps back into Piazza Duomo, walking diagonally across it toward Via Vittorio Emanuele, which flanks its northern edge. Continue westward. A point of minor interest en route is at Via Vittorio Emanuele 175, immediately adjacent to the Hotel de l’Europe. Here, note the hidden doorway, crafted from wood, whose panels were painstakingly designed to look like a continuation of the stone mullions of the building that contains it. Continue west along the Via Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza San Francesco, site of three important attractions, each noted below. You’ll recognize the square thanks to the contemporary-looking statue devoted to Cardinal Dusmet, a 19th-century benefactor of Catania’s poor. The inscription on its base translates as “Because we have bread, we give it to the poor.” The three attractions flanking the square include:
- Museo Emilio Greco. Located at Piazza San Francesco 3, this archive-cum-museum displays the major artistic contributions of Catania citizen Emilio Greco (1913-95). He is most famous for his grand sculpture. For more information,
Accessible via the same entranceway on the western edge of the square is the more interesting:
- Museo Civico Belliniano. The great Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) was born in this house, which displays memorabilia and portraits.
Facing both of these museums at the eastern edge of Piazza San Francesco is:
- Chiesa San Francesco Immacolata. The most interesting objects inside this church are the six massive, richly gilded candelabras (most at least 3.3m/11 ft. high and incredibly heavy), which are proudly displayed in the nave. Carved at the beginning of the 20th century, they’re carried on the shoulders of the faithful during the Feast Day of St. Agatha. The largest and heaviest of them was carved in 1913, gilded in 1935, and donated to the church and to St. Agatha by the city’s bakers’ guild.
After your visit, continue westward along Via Vittorio Emanuele, turning left in 2 short blocks onto Via Santa Anna. On that street, you’ll find the small-scale baroque facade of the tiny Chiesa Santa Anna (it’s almost always closed to casual visitors) and a few buildings later, on the left, the former home of one of Sicily’s most famous writers:
- Casa di Verga. Known for his naturalistic fiction, Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) became one of Sicily’s greatest writers. He was celebrated in his day, making friends with such greats as Emile Zola. Much of Catania turned out for his 80th birthday, where Luigi Pirandello appeared as orator.
Retrace your steps to Via Vittorio Emanuele and turn right, back toward the Piazza San Francesco. En route, along that street’s northern edge, see the deceptively modern-looking stone entrance to one of Catania’s most cherished archaeological treasures, the:
- Roman Amphitheater. Draped with ivy, and overlooked by a ring of 17th-century buildings and apartments, this charming theater at Via Vittorio Emanuele 260 is an ancient oasis concealed in the midst of an urban neighborhood. During classical times, it held as many as 17,000 spectators for plays and — to a lesser extent — water games, when boats would float on waters funneled in from nearby streams and aqueducts. It was also a site for gladiator contests. Ironically, part of the theater’s graceful, crescent-shaped seating structure is blocked by a black-lava bridge added during the early 17th century as the base for the since-demolished Via Grotte, once a densely populated street within this residential neighborhood. Via Grotte, most of its bridge-like foundations, and all of its buildings were demolished in the 1950s by Catania’s historic buildings committee as a means of returning the ancient theater to some semblance of its original purity. Vestiges of the street remain within the circumference of the Roman theater, however, cutting surreally across one edge of the theater’s sweeping, crescent-shaped bleachers. Come with stamina, a good sense of balance, and sturdy walking shoes. Sandals are not recommended because of the steep, uneven steps, which lead visitors through ghostly tunnels that wind their way through and beneath the bleacher stands.
A smaller theater, the Odeon, is accessible near the back side of the Roman theater. To reach it, follow signs from the theater and walk uphill through some tunnels and steep vaulted stairs. Admission: 4€, free for children under 17 and EU, Canadian, and Australian citizens aged 65 and over.
After your visit, return to Piazza San Francesco, stand in front of its mammoth church, and turn uphill to face the lowest end of one of the most richly embellished baroque streets in Catania:
- Via Crociferi. Above its downhill entrance is a soaring stone bridge, L’Arco San Benedetto, which allowed nuns, many of whom were in seclusion, to access the buildings on either side of this street during the convent’s heyday (17th-19th centuries). Via Crociferi is so authentically baroque that it was filmed by Franco Zeffirelli for Storia di una Capinera, his cinematic tale of love during the baroque age. In order of their appearance on this fabled but relatively short street, you’ll see the following churches, convents, or monasteries: (1) San Benedetto, (2) San Francesco Borgia, (3) San Giuliano, and others whose facades aren’t marked with name or number. Three blocks from where you first entered Via Crociferi, turn left onto Via Gesuiti. Walk 4 blocks to reach Piazza Dante and the mammoth, never-completed:
- Chiesa di San Nicolò All’Arena. The biggest church in Sicily was never completed, and it is almost ringed in scaffolding to keep it from falling down. Immediately adjacent is an abandoned monastery once intended as a library. Surrealistically large, this complex is Catania’s symbol of the folly of large-scale projects gone awry. Retrace your steps to Via Crucifero, turn left and walk about a block, and then turn right (downhill) onto Via San Giuliano. You’ll be heading down the steep slope of a dormant volcanic crater associated with the geology of nearby Mount Etna. After 2 blocks, turn right onto Via Etnea and walk 2 blocks. On the right is a church with a baroque concave facade:
Collegiata (Santa Maria della Consolazione). Designed by the Jesuit Angelo Italia, a few decades after the 1693 earthquake, this royal chapel from 1768 is one of the masterpieces of the Catanese late baroque style. The facade was completed by Stefano Ittar. Inside the church, the frescoes of the vault and the dome, painted by Giuseppe Sciuti at the end of the 19th century, seem to give lightness to the interior space and emphasize the verticality of the building. It’s dearly beloved by many Catanians who attended religious celebrations here during their childhoods. In the north-western, corner there is the Palazzo San Demetrio, the first building renovated with the approval of the citizens after the 17thcentury earthquake. It was bombed in 1943 and its subsequent reconstruction was based on the original plan.
After your visit, continue another block south along Via Etnea to the:
Piazza Università. This elegant urban piazza is often the site of political demonstrations. One side is devoted to the back of the previously visited Municipio (town hall), the other side to the symbolic headquarters of the University of Catania. The university was founded in 1434, but the bulk of it lies in a modern educational complex 3km (2 miles) to the east, in the suburbs. The square was constructed at the request of the duke of Camastra. It’s dominated by the Palazzo Sangiuliano, built in 1745, and by the main university building, Palazzo dell’Università, which was finished at the end of the 1700s. One of the richest libraries in Sicily is housed in the Università degli Studi di Catania, founded by Alphonese of Aragon in 1434.
Palazzo Biscari. It is one of the finest private building in Catania. The Palazzo was erected in the early 18C and it owes its richness Ignazio Paternò Castello II, Prince of Biscari, a man of eclectic interests and a lover of art, literature and archaeology. The entrance to the Palazzo is through an elaborate portal. Inside is a splendid room with frescoes by Sebastiano Lo Monaco, complemented by stuccowork, gilded mouldings and mirrors. The ceiling’s centre opens into an oval dome, complete with gallery. Musicians once played here, so the notes seemed to descend from the heavens. A pretty spiral staircase provides access to the small platform, where an admirable view extends over the terrace. www.palazzobiscari.com