The small port of Aci Trezza is dominated by several lava formations which surge out of the water. One is 60m high and features a statue of the Virgin Mary, while another shows traces of early settlement including Sicel tombs. Legend says that the blinded cyclops Polyphemus threw the rocks at Greek ships as Odysseus escaped from his land.
The next day I take the bus to Catania. When we reach the city, two inspectors board and noisily remove two locals who do not have validated tickets. The terminus, at Piazza Borsellino, is next to the lively fish market and I wonder how many of the vendors might be from Aci Trezza. They display their fish and shellfish on metal trays, the pungent fishy aroma filling the air and salty sea water soaking the floor. Close by, enterprising souls are selling fresh dill and lemons to enhance your fish dish.
I climb up a wide stairway topped with an impressive ornamental fountain, which is spraying anyone who passes due to the strong wind, and emerge into Piazza del Duomo. In the middle is a small elephant carved from lava stone and topped with an Egyptian obelisk. It is said to protect the city from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The last big one in 1693 destroyed most of the city.
The Duomo has a beautiful, baroque façade and a clean, white interior. Churches in Italy seem rather plain after the ornately decorated orthodox churches in Greece. Near the entrance I find the tomb of composer Bellini, who was born in Catania in 1801. His name can be found across the city adorning roads, parks, hotels and restaurants, as well as the main theatre. He also has a pasta dish in honour of him – spaghetti all Norma.
My guidebook is 5 years old but I’m still shocked to discover that the Civic Museum in the Urbino Castle, which was free in 2011, is now charging €10. So, with the help of some lovely ladies in the Tourist Information office I decide to try and find some alternative and cheaper places to visit.
Their recommendation of the St Nicolo Church and the adjoining Benedictine Monastery turns out to be a good one. The church is cavernous and in front of the main alter is a very long, marble calendar, decorated with signs of the zodiac. At noon each day, a hole in the roof allows the sun to enter and it falls on the spot which marks the day and the month.
Attached is the huge monastery complex, the second largest in Europe after Mafra in Portugal. Today it is part of the university and so open to the public for free. It’s also empty, save for a few students seeking out sunny spots to study. I wander the long corridors that surround ornate former cloisters and wonder what it would have been like 300 years ago when the offices were monastic cells and the lecture halls were full of feasting monks. When I go to use the toilets I discover that they have been built over the remains of the original ones!
Despite having found some hidden gems in Catania, I have to say that the city is really a shithole, and I mean that quite literally. The walls are covered with graffiti and the streets are strewn with litter and dog shit. Traffic fumes choke the air and soil the church facades, and shady characters lurk at street corners. I’m quite relieved to return to Aci Trezza where people are strolling along the promenade and fishermen are sitting in the main square drinking coffee and playing cards.