The best way to describe Catania is as a city built for wandering. It’s a completely walkable city, fairly small and crammed into a very tiny area. Every block you walk down is full of alleyways so narrow, you can almost stretch out your arms and touch the buildings lining each side of the street. In fact, it feels as if you are walking through a maze. There is so much going on in such crammed areas, it’s really difficult to take it all in and process it. But you want to walk down each and every street.
And each alley leads to countless little piazzas, each with its own amazingly detailed baroque church. Sicily, like the rest of Italy, is a majorly Catholic country. Many of the building sides have little shrines built into them, and the insides of the churches are so ornate and detailed that they create a stark constrast with the wooden plank pews and kneelers that congregation uses.
The first floor of the buildings lining the streets are full of trattorias – small (often family-run) restaurants consisting of maybe 8 or 9 tables each (more on these later; food will deserve its own entry). There are also tons of little shops and coffee houses. The upper levels of the buildings are flats. Each has its own little balcony, often complete with drying laundry. The buildings and streets are old and a bit run-down, but the resulting atmosphere is a strange mix of quaint and rustic romance (THIS is what I imagined Sicily would look like), plus a bit of a sketchy, back-alley kind of feel.
Via Mt. Etnea is the main street of Catania. This street is a bit wider than the others, and full of higher end shops. The street ends in the Piazza Del Duomo, a beautiful and surprisingly spacious piazza whose main centerpiece is the St. Agatha cathedral.
Catania is literally a city built upon layer after historical layer. The ancient Greeks were here for awhile, followed by the Roman empire. You can still see quite a few ruins throughout the city. My favorite was the ancient Roman ampitheater, built on an even older Greek theater.
Then there are medieval castles. This one was built in the 13th century. It managed to remain standing during the 17th century eruption of Mt. Etna, with the moat literally acting as a decoy for the flowing lava.
Catania seems to be a city that draws people out into the streets, probably in part because, well, it’s December and it’s in the upper-60s. People just like to hang out on the streets. All ages, local and tourist, seem to walk along the main streets. But the piazzas and parks slightly off the main areas are filled mostly with older men.
Then there are the markets and street vendors. Unemplyoment is pretty high in Sicily, and about 30% of the jobs are “off the record”, so to speak. Peddlers sell everything from fruit and vegetables to socks. Many of these vendors are from Tunisia (Africa is literally just across the pond). But not all. These areas are loud and interesting and filled with loud shouting and haggling.
The streets are also really loud because of the abundance of motorbikes. Every bad-ass teenage boy has one, and they like to race each other. The boundaries between street and sidewalk become indistinguishable. They like to weave in and out of cars that are going way too fast to begin with. Lots of honking and shouting ensues.
The best part about Sicily though: orange and lemon trees everywhere. So fresh and delicious.