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Episode #186: Captivating Catania – Sicilian City of Charm

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The stunning island of Sicily has been receiving some justified attention recently, and its second city of Catania should not be overlooked when planning a trip to Sicily. Often in the shadow of her more famous sister Palermo, beautiful Baroque Catania sits at the foot of Mount Etna, overlooking the eastern coast of Sicily. Conveniently positioned as a great base for a trip to Sicily, Catania has a unique vibe and character in its own right. 

Show notes
In this episode, we talk to Sicily expert Karen La Rosa from La Rosa Works Sicily tours and travel. Karen has appeared on the show many times and her depth of knowledge of Sicily, its culture and its people always blows us away. In this episode, we head to somewhere Karen has a very special affinity – the city of Catania. Catania has many treasures and a unique vibe as well as a convenient position for any Sicily trip. We talk volcanic vibes, palazzi, puppets and Catania’s kick-ass lady patron Saint. 

 

If you’re feeling like you just can’t wait to jump on a plane and discover Sicily for yourself, we have Untold Italy Tours of both East and West Sicily with places available in 2023 and 2024. Our small group tours in Sicily (consisting of 10 guests or fewer) take travelers on a journey of discovery through the towns and countryside of this beautiful island –  offering surprises around every corner. Our Eastern Sicily Tour departs and ends in Catania while our West Sicily itinerary leaves from Palermo. Each trip is lovingly crafted to ensure you return home with a deep appreciation for the culture and people of Sicily – we can’t wait for you to join us. Visit untolditalytours.com for all the details.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Sicily is known for being the largest of the islands in the Mediterranean but technically there are actually three seas – the Ionian Sea to the east, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south
  2. Catania can be found right in the middle of Sicily’s East Coast, on the side of the Ionian sea
  3. It is not on the beach like Cefalu, but it’s close to beaches. There is a glorious lava coastline close by where the Sicilians have perfected the art of sunbathing and swimming from the rocks
  4. Catania is the perfect jumping-off point to visit the North of Sicily, the interior, as well as the south. You’re not more than an hour away from so many great places, and there’s good road access
  5. There’s also a good bus system.  Those living in the area travel by bus as the main public transport, though there are some trains to get your around
  6. The airport is only 15 minutes from the city
  7. There are misperceptions about Sicily, as a whole, with it only really being within the last 15 years or so that those have started to lift. Now there are lots of places in Sicily considered hot destinations but Catania has to catch up a little bit on that front
  8. Taormina was on the grand tour back in the 19th century and it’s been a haven for tourists forever. Ortigia is glorious and Palermo has its own beauty. But Catania was always a place that people just wanted to pass through
  9. Karen feels it is a great city and really underappreciated. It’s true that on the surface it can seem a little gritty with dark buildings, and lots of graffiti (most of which is professing undying love or is political), but you have to look deeper to understand a bit of the history and understand a little bit about the people
  10. There are 600,000 people in Catania, which sits in the shadow of an active volcano and it’s been around since 729 BC, so 2,753 years!
  11. Underneath the surface, there is an energy and a pulse. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among the young population. In some ways you can liken it to New York City, which is also gritty, has a lot going on under the surface – with a particular vibe
  12. Part of the young energy feel is because there is a university there. They also have a little tech thing going on there, like a mini Silicon Valley
  13. The young people on the island (and particularly in Catania) want to combine the old world culture and the images that go with that (nonna in the kitchen for example) with the modern age. They use the skills and education that many of them acquire by studying and working abroad to do things right and carefully but in a modern way
  14. Karen was recently at a wine panel discussion about another region in Italy that is trying to bring its wines to the forefront and they cited Sicily as a place that has done things right
  15. In Catania and that area in general there are lots of artisans doing great things with craft beer, craft gin and of course, wine. They’re trying new things but still trying to do it with the things they hold dear and that work well in Sicily
  16. The Greeks arrived in Catania back in, 729. The same people that settled Naxos but who weren’t strictly Greeks, as there was no Greece then, or Italy – but lots of city-states. Italy itself wasn’t unified until 1861
  17. They came to Sicily because they wanted to find new land to settle in, taking what they knew from home – to some trade and bringing their culture with them
  18. When they built, it was with the intention for the great stone buildings to stay there indefinitely
  19. Fast forward 500 years and the Romans had come along. After that came the whole parade of conquering peoples –  Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Anjouns Swabians, and then the Spanish.
  20. Mount Edna had a volcanic eruption of major proportions in 1669, and they had a devastating earthquake in 1693 that wiped out half the population
  21. Living around an active volcano is an important driver of culture. You get the same vibe in Naples – though they live beside a dormant volcano, they still have a sense of urgency about them
  22. When you’re walking up one of the main streets in Catania – Via Etna, you can see the volcano, and it is constantly emitting smoke
  23. When you are in Catania, Etna looks really close – like it’s only two blocks away though it is pretty distant. If it erupts it throws plumes of ash into the sky, then it rains black lava ash over Catania. That creates a dark sense in the city where there is sometimes ash on the ground
  24. They clean up ash like we might clean up snow, but they also use it – in the building material because the ash actually makes the cement sturdier. Many buildings have a pink coloring – ash pink or ash yellow, very beautiful and specific colors
  25. After Catania was destroyed during the earthquake in 1693, it was rebuilt by the Spanish in a very distinct,  Baroque fashion
  26. The Palazzo Biscari which you can see as you drive through the aqueduct and come into the town, is beautifully ornate
  27. There’s a street called the Villa Crociferi, on which there are various stunning churches –  all different. The Cathedral itself in the Piazza Duomo is amazing too
  28. It’s a very Instagram-worthy city with these incredible buildings. They have also adopted the use of these colorful umbrellas to shade the streets. It’s lovely to look at these vibrant colors on otherwise dark streets without a lot of trees and it also helps you stay a little cooler because of the shade
  29. They do have a couple of gardens that have fountains. Karen likes to walk all the way up Via Etna to the Bellini Gardens. There’s a beautiful fountain in there, lots of greenery, and across the street is Savia, which is the best place in Catania and in the area to get arancini
  30. The botanical gardens are also nearby for a nice, quiet place to walk. It’s not a major destination but nice nonetheless for some quiet and shade
  31. The Piazza Duomo is the center of things with all roads leading to the main piazza. The Cathedral is on one side and there are two old gorgeous palazzi flanking it that are now government buildings. The famous elephant statue is in the middle with the big fountain
  32. On the side of one of the buildings just off the Piazza is another gorgeous fountain that sits over what remains of the Amenano River, which ran through the city before the major eruption of 1669 when it was submerged
  33. The lava, which came down traveled very slowly, so there were very few casualties, but it came down to Catania and literally changed the landscape
  34. This fountain leads you right into the pescarilla, the fish market. It’s been around for about 900 years and is on six days a week – from dawn until about 1 o’clock. The vendors all have their catch, and they’re all shouting or singing about whatever it is they have today. You have the man walking around selling parsley or lemons. It’s quite a scene and is the perfect place for photography
  35. The market is in a sunken area and then there’s a mezzanine level. On this mezzanine level, a few years back, a guy Karen knows, Marco opened up a little stand called Scirocco (named after the winds). Here you can buy a cone of fish and a local beer. It’s fun to grab the tasty food and just sit on a stool and watch the people go by
  36. Marco did a big catered event for Karen in 2012 and is quite the entrepreneur. He’s got another restaurant called Vuciata which has the best muscles has ever had. That is in the streets next to the fish market. It’s wonderful and is underneath some of those umbrellas for added ambiance
  37. This is not a fish market designed for tourists. It is fish that is caught locally. They have been out at night and they bring it in the morning. They work really hard and that can be seen all over their faces
  38. Another restaurant nearby, where you can see the Amenano the submerged river, is called A Putia Dell’Ostello. You go downstairs in this restaurant and you’re in a little grotto with the little bits of what is left of the river underground flowing by. Karen has done a couple of wine tastings in there and loves to just sit in there and listen to the water
  39. Agatha is the patron saint of Catania and she is omnipresent in the city. There are so many statues, motives, icons and images of her all over the city. She was supposed to marry a Roman noble, and it didn’t work out so he decided to torture her for three days until she died. She is also supposedly responsible for stopping the plague in Catania. They could not hold her in higher esteem
  40. In the first week of February, there’s a big feast to commemorate her. Karen found it to be one of the most amazing things she has ever witnessed. They have all kinds of different things going on – people carrying the gigantic candelabra, the big guilt things that represent all the different trades – decorated and carried by men on their shoulders as they dance back and forth
  41. The Fercola carries her remains in a silver-encrusted bust and people are swooning in her presence, passing their handkerchiefs up to touch the Saint then bringing it back to you for luck and holding their children up to be blessed. It’s an amazing sight. Catania becomes this whole other city. Everyone participates. They have a part of it where these mostly men, are clad in these white robes with black hats, and they run up and down the street with giant candles on their shoulders
  42. It’s a tradition and a ritual that is pagan, it’s Christianity, it’s community – a phenomenal thing. Again, if you’re into photography the whole thing is a feast for the eyes and the camera!
  43. They have various floats in places around the city where they’re parked for the year. Her remains are in the Cathedral, and you can look through the gate and see the bling silver container that holds her
  44. Sicily also has a beloved tradition for puppets, made popular in the 19th century. People were poor and they entertained them with legends and histories and taught them about good and evil. They presented stories much like we would watch a film today. These people would invest themselves and could identify with these characters, take them on and go home and talk about them and argue about them. It brought real joy to the community
  45. There is Fratelli Napoli which is a family of real master puppeteers. They’ve made puppets for generations. You can visit their workshop.  It’s by appointment and you need a guide or a translator, but it’s just an amazing thing to see – how people dedicated their lives to this. Very passionate and very talented people
  46. They work in wood and in metal, they paint the scenes, and they do the scripts although in many cases it is ad hoc when they’ll have just a basic outline. For 6 months/a year, they would have a different show every night with these puppets. It’s an amazing history and to go and be in the presence of these people with these 100-year-old puppets hanging on the wall is really something special to do in Catania
  47. The Circumetnea is the train line that takes you from Catania up Mount Etna first to the Eastern part, and then over the Northern part. It’s a small gauge railroad, usually, it’s two or three cars and is very charming. It’s a great, inexpensive way to go up to Mount Etna. You just sit back and watch the landscape change as you gain altitude
  48. You buy your ticket and can hop off in Randazzo or hop off in Bronte, have a potter around, and then get on the next train that comes by. It’s also used by a wine tourism company now, and they take you to an area where there are a couple of wineries on the train. You get off, get on a bus, and they take you to a couple of wineries
  49. In Catania, there are bars around these side streets with people sitting out there watching soccer. They have a great passeggiata (evening stroll) up and down that Via Etnea, which usually ends up in the Piazza Duomo, where there’s often someone singing or performing
  50. Vinoteca Ostier is a wonderful restaurant and Karen usually does wine tastings there also because Vinoteca means they have great wines available. Tantikkia is another great option and Vinicolo for pizza
  51. Catania got their first Michelin star a few years ago at Sapio with chef Alessandro, who was pretty young when he got it. Even for Karen who is from New York City and has always had great options for fine dining, this was one of the finest meals she has ever had. She’s eaten there 3 times and it’s consistently good and she can’t recommend it enough if you are after something high-end. Sure you want to eat in local trattorias, and Karen and Katy love to do that but every now and then it is nice to have something special. It is good to mix things up
  52. Catania is one of the few places where you can see Roman remains. There are two amphitheaters in Catania, the big one and then there’s another one that is behind it, so you can’t see it from the street. They have the Roman baths underneath the Cathedral,  which most people don’t even realize is there. It’s on the right side if you’re looking at the Cathedral.
  53. They also have the Benedictine Monastery, which is part of the university now and is a nice tour to take. They take you through some of the university, the library, and things like that, which are interesting but (Top Tip) if you go on the weekends, the university is closed so they are able to take you into the staff offices
  54. When you’re in Catania, you’re 45 minutes from Ortigia, about an hour from Etna or Caltagirone, just a little further to Villa Romana in Piazza Armerina and you’re 45 minutes from Taormina. If you go up the Coast towards Etna and Taormina, you’ve got the Aci towns. Aci Trezza, Aci Castello are these very picturesque fishing villages with the lava coastline and flowers. So you’re right in the heart of so many things and it couldn’t be better positioned as a place to set off to other places and with a lot of things to do
  55. Palermo is a bigger city with about a million people and is in the western part of Sicily, which is still a little under-discovered and there are fewer tourists. Lots of wonderful things to see – lots of farms, vineyards and the largest archeological park of Selinunte, and there is Cefalu a smaller resort town than Taormina, but simply stunning
  56. Palermo has got a lot more historic buildings. It’s got the Opera House and the Politeama for concerts. They have many churches that have exhibits on. Palermo is a good choice if you’re particularly interested in exploring historical things
  57. For foodies, Karen would suggest Catania over Palermo
  58. Accommodation-wise, Palermo has its grand dams – the big old hotels like the Des Palmes and Hotel Wagner and those kinds of historic places
  59. Catania’s accommodation offerings are a little more intimate and unique. There are a couple of restored palazzi that Karen loves – the Palazzo Marletta and Asmundo di Gisira. Great location and the rooms there are neoclassical, fabulous rooms. The Liberty Hotel is a wonderful boutique hotel near Piazza Stesicoro a good area to base yourself to walk around
  60. If you’re driving Karen recommends Palazzo Bruca. It’s more of a budget-friendly hotel and has been renovated recently, but it’s got parking which is not common in Catania, which more often has valet parking. The big doors of this giant palace open up and you drive your car straight in and park there
  61. Driving in Catania is not for the faint-hearted but Karen does it all the time. You can get stuff behind two people who have windows open and they’re chatting like there’s no other car on the road. Or there are people who don’t stop at certain red lights because “well, there’s nobody crossing the street. Why do I need to stop?” Rules are optional. There are a lot of one-way streets and they are usually well-marked. It’s not that bad if you are used to city driving
  62. They have an electric bus system now which is forward-thinking and of course better for the environment
  63. Catania’s center is only 15 minutes from the airport and the Catania airport is convenient and a very busy airport with lots of international flights – more than Palermo
  64. There is a rumor that the nonstop from New York to Palermo, that was stopped during the pandemic, will be re-instated which will be great for visiting Sicily in general
  65. Sicily is getting lots of visitors right now. In part due to word of mouth, because of podcasts and Instagram, the wine business – because it’s wonderful and also because of the White Lotus TV show which really put Sicily on people’s radar
  66. Indiana Jones has just been filmed in Sicily and they’re filming The Leopard – a TV series of The Leopard, which Karen actually saw them doing in June in several locations
  67. Sicily does get incredibly hot in the summer. Right now it is particularly hot – in the 40 degrees centigrade, which is over 110 Fahrenheit. The shoulder seasons in Sicily are wonderful so do consider traveling then
  68. Typically, most people, particularly Americans did not visit outside of April to October main season but this year Karen has spoken to people who have enjoyed visiting in February and towards the end of November
  69. Although it is hot in summer if you are on vacation, you are maybe living differently – in the water, at a winery, or somewhere in air conditioning. But April, May and September and October are glorious and better for exploring
  70. Karen has seen photos of people grilling out at Christmas time. The difference is that you technically it is the rainy season. so it can be drizzly and overcast but with an umbrella, you can get on fine – it usually passes pretty quickly
  71. The Fall is a beautiful time because you’ve got the harvest with olives dripping off the trees and grapes off the vineyards. Every little town has some Sagre (food festival) dedicated to their local product – be it an artichoke,  chestnuts, or honey
  72. In Spring the hills are just carpeted in flowers and colors
  73. Karen loves all of Sicily for various reasons and in different ways, and her family ancestry couldn’t be further away from Catana in the Southwest area, but there’s an energy with the proximity to Etna – maybe with all the growing the wine, the lemons etc. She always feels at home there
  74. The Sicilians talk about Etna like she’s a member of the family. She goes to one winery and they’ll say “We don’t make the wine, she does. We just help it along”. And in some ways that’s true – the fertility that comes from all of her eruptions, each one unique, bringing different minerals and things landing in the soil
  75. Karen never gets sick of exploring Sicily even after all these years.  There’s always a new town she hasn’t been to or a new winery etc. She finds the people in Sicily so warm and wonderful. They surprise her all the time with how generous they are – especially with what historically was so little
  76. Karen’s website, larosaworks.com has a lot of great information and resources and you can find out more about her tours. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook at @LaRosaWorksSicily where she’s always posting amazing photos

About our guest – Karen La Rosa

karen la rosa - la rosa works

Karen is a tour operator and owner of La Rosa Works, specializing in travel to Sicily. For more than 10 years, she has been promoting travel to the island, bringing small to medium-sized groups to join her, and designing and arranging itineraries and tours for independent travelers.

Sicily is Karen’s heritage and her passion. That love evolved into a highly respected boutique travel business. Karen shares the island’s beating heart with her clients – from authentic, historical, and off-the-beaten-path experiences, to the contemporary and entrepreneurial efforts that represent the new paths in present-day Sicily.

Karen’s tours are immersive and fun with expert guides, wine, and food always the protagonists. Karen’s website, her YouTube channel, and social media presence are all aimed at engaging people interested in exploring Sicily’s fascinating history, stunning beauty, warm hospitality and some say, the best food and wine in Italy. Her clients write reviews that are amazing and a true testament to her kindness, generosity, and passion for Sicily.

Karen is an Italian Wine Specialist, speaks Italian, and has visited Sicily countless happy times.

You can ind Karen on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Catania – Sicily’s second-largest city
  • Ionian Sea –  bay of the Mediterranean Sea connected to the Adriatic Sea to the north, with Calabria, Sicily, and the Salento peninsula to the west, western Puglia to the north, and reaches the west coast of Greece
  • Cefalù – seaside town you can visit easily from Palermo by train, bus or private transfer
  • Taormina – a town on the east coast that has been a tourist destination since the 19th century
  • Ortygia – a small island that is at the historical center of the city of Syracuse. The island is also known as the Città Vecchia (Old City)
  • Palermo – Sicily’s largest and capital city
  • Palazzo Biscari – private palace on Via Museo Biscari
  • Piazza del Duomo –  main square in Catania
  • Piazza Stesicoro – square in great location in Catania for exploring the city on foot
  • Bellini Gardens (Giardino Bellini) –  the oldest public park in Catania with beautiful gardens
  • Savia – restaurant across from the Bellini Gardens that does amazing Arancini
  • Scirocco – fried fish stand in the fish market of Piazza del Duomo run by Marco
  • Vuciata – restaurant run by Marco not far from the fish market
  • A Putia Dell’Ostello – vibrant restaurant with a dining room in a lava cave
  • Fratelli Napoli –  the puppet show with master puppeteers
  • Ostier Vinoteca – great restaurant with amazing wines
  • Tantikkia – great restaurant
  • Vinicolo – for pizza
  • Sapio – Michelin-star restaurant in Catania
  • Caltagirone – inland city in Sicily known for pottery
  • Randazzo – small town situated at the northern foot of Mount Etna
  • Bronte – town on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily which grows the best pistachios
  • Villa Romana – Roman complex
  • Aci Trezza / Aci Castello – fishing villages with the lava coastline
  • Selinunte – archaeological site on the southwestern coast
  • Grand Hotel Wagner & Des Palmes – grand hotels in Palermo 
  • Palazzo Marletta, Asmundo di Gisira & Liberty Hotel – hotels Karen recommends in Catania
  • Palazzo Bruca – great budget option for accommodation in Catania if you are driving

Resources

  • Magna Graecia – the name given by the Romans to the coastal areas of Southern Italy that were mostly populated by Greek settlers (present-day Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily)
  • Phoenicians – an ancient, nomadic civilization originating in the eastern Mediterranean
  • Agatha of Sicily – Patron saint of Catana and other places int as well as the patron saint of breast cancer patients, bell makers, and bakers
  • Festival of Saint Agatha – elaborate festival in Catania in February celebrating Agatha
  • circumetnea – train line that goes to Mt Edna
  • White Lotus – comedy-drama series set in a tropical resort – it follows the exploits of various guests and employees over the span of a week
  • The Leopard – a famous novel set in Sicily that is being turned into a TV series

Resources from Untold Italy

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