After driving around Sicily we are in a tiny basement apartment in the center of Palermo recovering from the 12 consecutive days in ruins and churches, and six months of almost constant movement on Viking that took us from the northeastern part of Netherlands to a small city in France on the Belgium border. We need a bit of a rest, but not before I get some of my memories down.
We started in Catania after winterizing the boat and spending a few days with friends in and around Paris. From Versailles we went across Paris to Charles de Gaulle. It took an amazing three hours, expecting no more than two. They’d changed things since we were last there. It was unclear what the E line from San Lazar was now doing. Did it still always go to Gare d’ Nord? Once we got off at Gare d’ Nord it was hard to find where you would need to go to get tickets for de Gaulle. When you found a machine (no people in ticket booths within sight) there was only one and a line there. In the meantime the clock was ticking. We eventually made it with plenty of time but by then I was well frazzled. The rest of the journey proceeded without incident- Paris to Catania on Easyjet, from whom we have multiple vouchers. Then it was just a matter of finding the apartment we rented for three nights with four other friends. That was easy. We even came upon two of them walking up the hill towards the apartment.
Catania was founded in the 8th century BCE by Greeks. It is at the foot of Mount Etna, which has made many unwelcome visits to the city. The eruptions of 1169, 1669 and 1693 caused severe damage as well as loss of life. There are over a dozen other recorded lava flows into the city. As a result of the 1693 eruption the old town has lots of fine examples of late Baroque architecture, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Cathedral is one of the better examples but there are tons, secular as well as religious.
The original Cathedral was finished in 1093. Basilica della Collegiata was also destroyed and also rebuilt in the Baroque style. Needless to say once you have visited either one or seen the photos, the artistry of both the buildings’ exterior and interior are nearly beyond the imagination, but wait until you see Gesu in Palermo.
The Greco-Roman amphitheater is still with us and a must see. I always find it rather amazing that things of this size were buried. This one was excavated 1500 plus years later, in the 19th century. It seats 7000. Impressive, no? Yet it is fewer than the amphitheaters in Taormina and Siracusa, both smaller cities.
There were 6 of us in a very nice three bedroom apartment. It only had one bathroom so we had to do a bit of shuffling. Also there was only one key, a common practice here that can make matters difficult at times. For example, one person or group plans to arrive before another but then is delayed, leaving the second locked out.
Just outside our door is a tabac- they sell tobacco products, bus tickets, this and that, somehow eeking out a living a euro at a time like millions of other small shop owners in Italy. Out front is a marijuana dispenser. Naturally we were curious so tried to buy some. It asked for a card of some sort, apparently a health card (tessera sanitaria) so presumably the law relates to medical use.
None of us have such a card. No problem. The shopkeeper swiped one for us and out came a product. I avoid inhaling anything that burns as much as possible so I can not account for the quality of the weed. There are many choices and I have no idea what any of it means.
There’s a lovely restaurant up the busy street we are on. The service was welcoming, very friendly and nearly perfect. The offerings are fine examples of typical Sicilian cooking. Caponata is on the menu, as it will be in most every restaurant we visit from here on. It’s one of my favorite dishes. It’s eggplant (aubergine) based, with onions and garlic, capers and more in a vinegar-sugar mix. There are tons of variations, some including pignole (pine nuts) and others walnuts instead, or none at all. The wine was very good and there’s a good selection of beers. In regards to beers, Italy has come up in the world. In previous visits all you had were basics like Peroni, not bad but not outstanding and all more or less the same. Now there are lots of domestic and imported craft beers.
The restaurant across the street was the opposite of the first restaurant. So so food, mediocre service. I did not think Italians could mess up Italian food. They can, but even then it isn’t bad. And this was not in a tourist zone, so no excuses there. They even served lousy bread. That should be a crime. It was a crime that was repeated in a number of the restaurants we ate in. It was even hard to find good bread in the supermarkets we used. It was all wrapped in plastic, turning the fabulous crust into near mush.
There are a large number of churches in Catania. We missed almost all of them. Here’s a partial list
- San Michele Arcangelo ai Minoriti (Franciscan) church
- San Nicolò l’Arena (1687), unfinished basilica church and extensive Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena (1558)
- San Nicolas al Borgo
- San Placido (1769) church
- Madonna delle Grazie Chapel
- Santa Rita in Sant’Agostino church
- San Sebastiano (1313)
- Santa Teresa, Carmelitan church and convent
- Santissima Trinità
- Santa Ursula
- Chiesa delle Verginelle di Sant’Agata
- San Vincenzo de’ Paoli, church
- Santissimo Sacramento al Borgo church
- Chapel of the Blind’s Housing (Ospizio dei Ciechi
- Santissimo Sacramento al Duomo, church
- Church of the Holy Child
- Our Lady of Providence
- San Berillo in Santa Maria degli Ammalati, church
- Our Lady of the Poor
- Little Saviour’s Byzantine Chapel
- Church of the Santissimo Sacramento Ritrovato (1796).
- Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ognina (1308).
We’d parked in a lot near the apartment in Catania. I retrieved the van with someone to help just in case I had to detour. The last block is more an alley than a street but lots of cars and pedestrians squeeze through simultaneously. Turn right and our friends are there waiting so it could not be much more convenient.
Taormina is an hour or so by car. It dates to around the same time as Catania but it’s on a hill rather than being a port. The town is most notable for its Greek theater still used for plays and concerts and the lovely restored town center (mostly tourist shops and eateries). Nothing but willful destruction will ever destroy the seating in the theater, I should think, since it’s lasted this long. The views of the coast from the seating areas are marvelous, the clear blue waters of the Med spread below. There are excellent videos off one side of the stage, displayed on high resolution monitors. You get a better sense of what things were like at the theater in ancient times.
We found a quick, inexpensive yet decent place for a light lunch right in town. Then we returned to the pickup spot. You have to park outside of town, then call when you are ready. Better have an EU ready phone and having a least a bit of Italiano really helps. My B level does the trick most of the time.
From Taormina we drove high up the side of Etna, aka Aetna, Etnea (in Catania only near as I can tell), and then there’s my own version, Edna, which makes her sound so human, an explosive Sicilian one for sure. Here we were treated to dramatic views, sharp switchbacks and a clamber over volcanic rocks and flows, boulders frozen in place where they cooled. We are still a good bit from the top, and I think we saw smoke coming from the crater there, or a constant cloud. I vote for the smoke. Edna needs to let off steam on a regular basis.
Next: Siracusa, an ancient Greek port city