There are a million reasons why you should visit Sicily at least once in your life, and one of my favorite reason is Catania, a city that was built and rebuilt on the lava trails of a volcano. It is chaotic and crazy, and at times, calm and contained, a city on the edge of the Ionian sea and more often than not, on the edge of reason. Catania is as unpredictable and inspiring as Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano, which just happens to be Catania’s ever-looming backdrop. And Catanesi are vigilantly faithful to the city, in a vibe that found across oceans in New Yorkers and Philadelphians.
A weekend trip from Rome to Catania is easy- a 45-minute direct flight over coastlines, sea and volcano to Madreterra, where Catania overflows from its center all the way to the sea, in waves of history from Greek colony and Roman city to Islamic Emirate, Spanish Empire to Garibaldi and the Italian Republic. Once you arrive in the Centro Storico, Catania and its history are palpable. Dark lava stone line the streets and panel beautiful Baroque buildings, modern apartment buildings weave around crumbling city walls, and just when you think you are walking in Baroque history, you stumble across ancient Roman- an arena, theatre and baths. And if you talk to any Catanese, they will tell you the legends and lore of the area from the black magic of Eliodoro to Odysessus and the cyclops Polyphemus.
But we didn’t weekend in Catania for a history lesson, we came for cult ritual.
Every year for nearly five centuries, Catania celebrates its patron saint Agatha, or Sant’Agata, a Catania-born woman martyred in the 3rd century. The celebration is a three-day festival of folklore and rituals, and family and friends. If Catania is puslating organism, the festival of Sant’Agata is heart, a three-day city-wide street party with masses, fireworks, processions from midday February 3 to the morning of February 6. And we deliberately go ourselves caught up in it.
Who was Agata and why are we celebrating her? According to legend, Agatha was a young noble woman who, at the age of 15, decided to dedicate her virginity to God and Christianity only to be brutally tortured and killed five years later on February 5, 251 AD. Over the years, decades and centuries, people prayed to her, venerated her, built churches dedicated to her, until it all turned into a street celebration, a solemn festival and, if you ask Darius, a pagan-ish ritual. Considered one of the oldest and biggest street festivals in the world (the other two are Holy Week in Seville, Spain, and the feast of Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Peru), Sant’Agata is one of those lifetime experiences, and if you are an Italian kid like me with a NYC-Nonno, you know it’s fun and emotional. San Gennaro times one million.
We arrived in Catania on February 2, and caught up with some cousins on the edge of Etna, before heading to Catania proper. The festival hadn’t even kicked off and the streets were colored with lights, candy vendors on every corner, and a circuit of churches kept their doors open until midnight. Catania is not bashful. We caught up on Agata’s history with a visit to the Church of Santa’Agata alla Fornace, the supposed site where Agata was ask to roll over burning coals, and then walked to via dei Crociefieri, a beautiful road lined with Baroque churches and monasteries.
On February 3, we skipped what our friend Salvo called the solemn part of the festival- a mass, offering and presentation of the cannalori– 12 large, gilded candelabra-light structures that represent the artisan guilds of the city. It didn’t matter, we’d seem them later as they wold parade through neighborhoods and around the city in what I eventually called Catania Critical Mass. Salvo wanted us fed and rested up for the evening, when the city is afire in an extraordinary and extremely theatrical fireworks spectacle. By seven pm, we made our way to a corner of Piazza del Duomo where we waited with babies and nonni, students, parent and police, for a few hours until a battle broke out over our heads- a 30-minute long rainbow firefight, accompanied by incredible music arrangements. The fireworks were loud, explosive and perfectly-time to the accompanying score that brought us from sadness to joy. Salvo told me that yeah, it’s a big deal and yeah, the fireworks were good, but Catania does this every year. Once over, we jumped into the street party, walking around all corners of the city, bumping into cousins and friends, and eating cedro (citron) slices with salt. Could we get a restaurant table? Not at all.
February 4 was game day. We grabbed a coffee and cannolo, bumped into devoti, white cape-wearing St. Agatha devotees who help in the procession, and immediately jumped into the party . . . that would continue for another 36 hours. Salvo made a few calls and next thing we know, we’re on a second-floor balcony with our own Agata (Salvo’s seatmate from high school), eating olivetti, drinking prosecco and watching the mass of devoti pull Sant’Agata, in her silver-cage float, down the street. Salvo grabbed the kids (did I mention Sant’Agata is very kid friendly), and pushed through the crowds so they could give the priests the yellow candles they purchased as a Sant’Agata devotional. An iPhone fell from the fourth floor, grazing the woman next me and crashing to the street. Everyone below shouted us and we shouted back. I felt at home. And in honor of Sant’Agata, we headed to the beach with everyone else, and ate pranzo seaside. Perfect day in Catania.
We returned home while the festa continued through Monday February 5th (and the early hours of February 6), literally reaching the heights of worship as the cannalori (each group carrying an 8-ton sculpture) run up the Salita di San Giuliano, racing to the church in the soft light of dawn.
Like I said, we came for a ritual. Viva Sant’Agata.
Tips and Tricks
Getting there: Alitalia (my preference) and RyanAir. From Rome’s FCO, it’s an easy and beautiful 45 minute flight to Catania Fontanrossa CTA. Set your timer for 30 minutes into the flight and make sure to look out the windows for Mount Etna. On the return, my friend Salvo insists that the flights always leave late from Catania so be prepared to wait. Getting from the airport to the city center require planning. We’ve rented a car (Hertz, and WInRent are on site), hired a transport service, taken the bus and the train. It will depend on what your plans are. If you’re not planning any day trips, take the train, otherwise, rent a car.
Sites: If you’re not here for the Festa, you’re here for the culture, and Catania is so rich in culture that it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Its (first-timer) line up of sites is like the best of every era of old world architecture. You like old? There’s Ancient Catania, as in the many archaeological sites of the city including the Roman Amphitheatre, a mini-colosseum which could hold 15,000 spectators, the Odeon and the baths. You like bling? Well, that means you will love Sicilian Baroque, lavishly detailed Baroque palaces, churches and monasteries all over the city- Piazza del Duomo, Cattedrale and Palazzo Degli Elefanti, Palazzo dell’Università, Via dei Crocifieri (this may be my favorite street in Catania) and Giardino Bellini. You want to see something more floral? There are Liberty (similar to Art Nouveau) buildings hidden in plain sight.
Day Trips: there is so much to see in Catania, and also much to see around Catania. If you have the itch for a day trip, here are some spots definitely worth more than 24 hours: charming cities that show off the best of Sicily’s culture from ancient Greek history to Baroque and more like Ortigia/Siracusa, Taormina, and Noto, nature lovers should head to Le Gole di Alcantara (an incredible, natural gorge that was setting for Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales) and Mount Etna, yes, the volcano is active, so much so that on my last visit, we had to leave. And for beach lovers, just drive up the coast and pick a town like: Acireale, Acitrezza, (good enough for Odysseus!), Giardini Naxos and Isola Bella.
Sleep: I am always up for suggestions on where to stay in Catania. I’ve stayed at friends’ and relatives homes, but only one hotel: Mercure Excelsior, a standard corporate hotel that service Alitalia crew. Mercure is in a great location (and has an onsite parking lot)- with a great view of Etna and an easy, invigorating walk to Via Etnea, Villa Bellini and Piazza del Duomo. However, it’s not charming and in the charm/boutique category, I have only recently come across Asmudo di Gisira, but have yet to stay.
I am not even going to pretend to be an expert on eating in Catania- I’ll leave that up to the Catanesi. In fact, I just close my eyes and let my friends lead me around. They are never ever wrong. And that’s because Catania has amazing food everywhere – on the street, in bars and caffes, and in restaurants all day and all night. What if you don’t have a friend ? Make a friend. And no matter what come prepared with the basic ABC’s:
A is for Arancini, slight smaller than a softball, arancini are stuffed rice balls (ragù, mozzarela and peas) coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. In other words, they are the Sicilian powerball, a snack and a meal at the same time. In Catania, arancini have pointed ends which are meant to be at the base when you eat them.
B is for Breasts. Yes, breasts but not just anyone’s, but Sant’Agata’s – le minne di Sant’Agata . Patron saint of the city, Saint Agata endured many tortures included having her breasts cut off. In her honor, the Catanese created the pastry whose shape is reminiscent of the perfect boob- a small rounded pastry filled with ricotta cheese, coated in white icing and topped with a candied cherry. If you’ve enjoyed a casatina, you will love minne.
C is for Caffes and Cipollina. Catania, like all Sicilian cities and towns, has great caffes, and in most you’ll find a wide selection of sweet and savory snacks, including arancini and quite possibly minne. My favorite caffe in Catania is Savia, an elegant, old school caffe on the Via Etnea across from Villa Bellini where the waiters where coppolas. My friends love the arancini, but I head there for the fassoletto, Catania’s bad ass, sweet ricotta filled answer to the mille feuille. But when I am need of savory, my one true love is a Cipollina, a light filo dough square filled with cooked onions, prosciutto and mozzarella. It’s a game changer.
It’s important to remember that Catania is hot- temperature and mentality, which means that everyone wants to cool down at all times. That’s why there are charming chiosks all over the city, and what’s I’ve discovered is late night in summer (or anytime), nothing quenches my thirst better than a limone selz- fresh limon juice, mandarin syrup and seltzer water. Everybody agrees.
PS. C is also for seafood. Catania is a port city, and up down the coastline are tiny beach towns with great seafood restaurants. Take a 20 minute drive to Capomulini and listen to the waves hit the rocks at La Stiva.