By Julianne Homola, Marist Italy Staff
I have been living in Italy for over 4 years now and I have to say that visiting Sicily was a completely different experience than any other part of Italy that I have ever visited. Friday night I took a flight right out Florence to Catania, a small town right under the shadow of Mount Etna. Landing into this small airport I knew instantly that Sicily was going to be something different. Reading up on Sicily I knew that their public transportation was somewhat lacking and inconsistent so I took a taxi straight to my B&B which wasn’t too expensive but would have been made a bit more reasonable if I had been splitting the cab fare. Once arrived I was greeted by a charming British couple and a hot cup of chamomile tea. I knew right then and there I was going to enjoy my time in Catania. Here are my top reasons why you need to visit Sicily!
1) When I think of classic Italy – I think I may have been picturing Sicily! Between the winding streets, yelling Italians and abundance of food this was definitely a hit in my book.
2) The food is just better. Grown in the shadow of a volcano, the fruits and vegetables just
have this rich taste which I cannot compare to anything else I have ever experienced. The high iron content in the soil tints everything red so you get these deep red hues streaking through your veggies. For example, a very popular dish in Cotania contains the red cauliflower grown native in the area. I saw farmers on the side of the road with red cauliflower the size of basketballs – I was amazed by how big they were – how big all the vegetables were really! Popular dishes include pasta nona which has salted ricotta and eggplant, southern lemons and anything with seafood in it.
3) See an active volcano! Mount Etna defines the landscape of Catania, the main road in the city is actually named after Mount Etna and as you walk down it – the volcano grows in your line of sight. There is a great park where I sat and watched the sun set and bounce colors off of the volcano as a soft stream of smoke rolled out of the center.
4) Climb an active volcano! I mean check one thing off the bucket list. I took an all day off-roading tour and got to actually climb through the craters on Mount Etna. It was really incredible. The craters themselves looked otherworldly, as I scrambled over lava strewn paths and heard the crunch of lava-stone under my foot I could have sworn I had been transported into a sci-fi movie. As we ascended the mountain we climbed into a deep cloud cover so you couldn’t see much however the black lava stone against the thick fog created just another layer to my otherworldly experience with Etna. At some points the fog was so thick I could stick my hand out and my line of vision was dimmed. I had wished I could have seen the amazing panoramic views I know that this area was famous for but fog did not ruin my hike at all. In fact I really had a phenomenal time and would recommend that anyone who visits take an all day hike. I went through a local tour guide my B&B suggested but you can get there on your own if you would like via the bus/cable car. There are sparse public transportation methods here so there was only one bus out in the morning and one back in the afternoon if I wanted to get there by myself. Honestly I was glad for the guide, he answered any questions I had about Enta, he took us deep into the craters (father than I would have wandered on my own) and he took us up into a refuge deep in the mountainside for lunch where I enjoyed the best Sicilian pasta.
4) Take a step backwards into time. When I first sat down in my B&B in Catania, I felt a bit off – I guess I didn’t know what to expect of Sicily really. Although the town is much younger than Florence physically (being rebuilt several times of the past century due to Etna related disasters) it felt older. There is no way to describe this other than saying it was just the feeling I had. From the sputter of the motors outside my window to the way people talked I knew I was in a very ancient place. There was a slow way of living here that cannot be faked or exaggerated through false pretenses.
5) crazy antique market – Every Sunday in Catania there is a huge open flea market where you can buy all sorts of goods. Walking around I smelled the aroma of delicious foods everywhere I went. There was all sorts of interesting things that if I had been home in New York would have most certainly been snatched up to decorate my apartment however restrained by a single carry-on bag and a modest budget I had to set my eyes a little lower. Beautiful terracotta painted ceramics were strewn all about the road, everywhere I looked was another hand painted bowl or decoration. There was everything from jewelry to old electronics. I ended up with a nice hand made pot made in Catania for 4 euro and a medallion of St. Agatha which I was really happy with.
6) Awesome traditions. Sicily has a deep respect for its artisans and craftsmen which I absolutely love. Walking through Catania I felt as though there was a great respect for the individual businesses in the area and for those who crafted products. I got to spend some time talking with some of those artisans at a piazza devoted to them where they sat crafting their wares (pictured to the left is a man doing metal work). They all seemed so nice and where happy to speak about what they were doing/how they made their goods.
7) climbing/swimming/spelunking – You can sit on the beach in the morning, grab lunch in city center and then climb a volcano in the afternoon. Boom.
8) Seafood – being that Sicily is an island they have access to amazing seafood. And I seriously suggest trying some. Wow. Most of their seafood dishes were just to die for. I had some fresh pasta in Piazza Duomo – a little more expensive than perhaps I would have paid outside of Piazza Doumo but the view was totally worth it!
Overall I have to say Catania is a must see for anyone looking to have a fun weekend exploring a different side of Italy.