Spotlight

Colour and chaos in Catania, Sicily’s ‘other’ city

9 March 2020

The streets are paved with volcanic rock that braid the city, and crumbling houses wrap around outcrops of ancient lava flow. Plastic crates and buckets hang from cast-iron balconies ready to be hauled down for the weekly veg, and mopeds carrying those plump and colourful vegetables swerve between the lava-like traffic and mini barbecues lining the edge of the pavements. And finally, smoking artichokes and blackening peppers destined for antipasti make the entire city smell like an active volcano. 

Walking from the bus station to our pensión in the working-class neighbourhood of Barriera del Bosco was everything I imagined it would be – glimpses of Etna puffing away in the distance too. We’ve just landed in Catania, an ancient port city on Sicily’s east coast, sitting on the edge of Mount Etna hoping she won’t blow. The whole city is around the size of Madrid Centro, with a similar population and density, though it’s mostly men I see on the streets.

This is quite visibly a traditional, patriarchal society, which struck me more than I’d expected because Sicily is not dissimilar to Spain, so it was unusual to see so many men hanging around the local egg shops, butane suppliers, garages and bakeries (the no-frills bars of Sicily). And that’s another thing that struck me: Sicilians don’t drink much, despite being famous for their wine. Yet, predictably, we found ourselves on a mission to track down the dodgy men-only bars for a no-frills glass of wine and being stared at.

THE MISSION TO FIND A NO-FRILLS BAR

And success! Here it is, with men everywhere (forgive the poor photography, I was trying to be subtle)…

I didn’t take a photo inside because sometimes it just doesn’t feel right, but step in and see five giant, aluminium wine barrels lining the walls. A litre to take away is €2 and a glass is just 50 cents. The bar was beautiful with bright white tiles wall to floor, a zinc bar with local memorabilia pinned all around and a mini shrine to ‘Our Lady’.

The bar is small, taking maybe only 10 people at a time with the rest spilling out onto the street, and was the only truly no-frills bar we found during our three-day trip to Catania and its popularity suggested it really was a rare jewel.

Location: Via Belfiore, 4, 95121 Catania CT, Italy

Across the road was another bar a bigger and quieter, with a very fun mosaic facade…

SICILIAN STREET FOOD UNDER THE RUMBLING RAIL BRIGE

On the menu today: barbecued artichokes, aubergines, mushrooms and potatoes…

Who even knew it was possible to do such incredible things to vegetables with just lemon, salt and smoke? I’m sold. Adiós Madrid! Hello Catania No Frills! Just joking… I ain’t going nowhere.

CATANIA’S DAILY FOOD MARKET

I love the buzz of a busy Mediterranean souk of silver fish, unpackaged cheese, carefully balanced vegetables and beaches of legumes, with the morning church bells ringing overhead.

Here’s a local market stall holder making toffeed almonds right here right now…

And then a cheese truck pulled up…

I’d heard that lemons in Sicily are some of the sweetest in the world, so when we stumbled across this little lemonade kiosk, it was the moment to try some fresh lemonade whether we fancied it or not…

It was like a kick in the teeth, but I recommend it. Something I also enjoyed soaking up (far from literally) was the fish market…

Location: Pescheria di Catania 95131 Catania, Province of Catania, Italy

CATANIA’S GENTRIFICATION STARTING POINT: THE FISH MARKET

It was at the fish market where I spotted gentrification is creeping in, at a row of expensive “street food restaurants”, whatever that means, serving small portions of international food on cardboard plates, while both Italians and foreigners attempted to simultaneously eat standing up (independent of a table) and take a photo of their food – all the while listening with music so loud it was impossible to speak to your friends.

I just don’t get it.

But at least there are plenty municipal fountains nearby to wash your hands after your awkward lunch…

ETNA EVERYTHING

Here she is as we were flying in. It was a bumpy landing…

Volcanic rock formed by lava flow is some of the strongest, most stubborn and most robust rock on the planet, and on Sicily, it’s everywhere – in houses, monuments, pavements – but the most exciting outcrops are on the coast. Where other rock has been eroded away, the ancient lava flows remain…

Etna’s black volcanic rock visible in the Porta Garibaldi

And inside the residential buildings, wherever the facade has worn away…

But the best thing about Sicily?

PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST

Three mornings in a row, I found myself being the only woman inside this fabulously no-frills cafe. This can be a little intimidating but most of the time, no one makes a thing of it, and I get to eat pizza for breakfast on one of the only seats in the bar, like the no-frills queen that I am.

Location: Via Salvatore di Giacomo, 3, 95121 Catania CT, Italy

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