Saturday, April 2, 2011

Catania, Taormina, and Mt. Etna

Our first impression of Catania was that it was not the garden spot of Sicily.  However as it turned out, the town was special for us.  We are staying in a quiet alley at a B & B called The Globetrotter, a cute little place off the main roads where we felt as if we were staying with friends. 

Baroque Duomo Square in Catania

Catania is a city of faded glory with beautiful baroque buildings, many sporting a good coating of graffiti, and a place to keep a good eye on your belongings.  But Catania is also quite atmospheric, and having survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as one guidebook puts it, “The most amazing thing about Catania is that it is still here.”
One of the reasons we came to Catania was to visit the home town of a favorite operatic composer of ours, Vincenzo Bellini.  Located in the house where Bellini was born, the Bellini Museum is small but powerful with Bellini’s death mask on display along with various old-style pianos and memorabilia including the original poster for the first performance of the opera “Norma” at La Scala in Milan.  Anne told the woman at the Bellini museum, “Mi piace Bellini.”  ( I love Bellini.)  And the woman showered Anne with gifts of informational booklets on Bellini and the city of Catania (which, after we digested, we left at the B & B for future tourists).  The Sicilian people love to give presents!  (You almost hesitate to be too nice because you know if you are, a present will be coming your way!)

Fisherman with machete prepares fish for sale

Catania is renowned for its fish, and La Pescheteria (fish market) is one of the wildest markets we have visited yet.  The fish market has a real theatrical ambience – the fish vendors shout things out in Italian at a 100+ decibel level throughout the marketplace, as they chop up fresh fish for their clients, or delicately fillet small fish with that very same machete.  They wield these foot and a half long machetes, performing butcher work one moment, then surgery the next.  

View of the hubbub in the fish market from the balcony

A tiered upper street overlooks a busy section of the market, almost like a balcony – and the old men (old fishermen?) gather there leaning over a railing to observe and assess the daily performance below.

Coastline below Taormina

We took a day trip by bus to Taormina, a lovely hill town beautifully perched on a mountain top between Mt. Etna and the sea.  The highlight here was the Teatro Greco (which is actually mostly Roman), an ancient amphitheater with incomparable views of Etna, the sea, and the old buildings of Taormina. 

Teatro Greco in Taormina

The acoustics here are quite remarkable; in an extemporaneous moment of craziness, Frank belted out a verse of opera from center stage, and the folks high up in the seating area applauded him!  Now he fancies himself a budding opera star, and you can’t shut the man up LOL!  He’s already practicing “La Donne e Mobile” for the next Roman/Greek theater venue that we encounter.
Hiking up to one of the craters on Mt. Etna
Another reason for coming to Catania was to hike on Mt. Etna whose snow-covered, ever-visible presence looms over the town like an evil god watching the everyday happenings in Catania.  This is one impressive volcano.  We took a day tour called “The Volcano and Wine Tour” (how could we resist that combination?)  Of course, we had to earn our wine, so our well-spoken 42-year old Italian tour guide, Vincenzo Romeo, drove us to the volcano first.  He was a tall dude with a slender build made for climbing mountains – a nice guy and VERY knowledgeable.
Patchy, snow-covered trails on Mt. Etna
Vincenzo took us up on Etna (a mile high) where unusual yellow birch trees gleamed among patches of remaining snow.  We hiked around the lateral craters – Mt. Etna has 4 active craters up at the top, but these are closed to visitors.  The locals refer to Mt. Etna as the “good volcano” because, unlike Mt. Vesuvius (on the mainland) that tends to explode without warning, Mt. Etna has regular eruptions to relieve internal pressures.  And, when the lava flows, it moves very slowly giving people plenty of time to evacuate, or just sit on the sidelines with a cup of wine in hand and watch the lava dribble down the mountain side toward the ocean.
And this is no joke; Vincenzo told us about a villager who lost the middle portion of his orchard to the lava flow.  This man brought a lawn chair, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine out to his orchard where he sat to watch the lava flow on by.
Descending into the crater on Etna
This was a strenuous hike up and down parts of Etna, visiting several of the craters that comprise Etna.  We definitely earned our wine.  The nearby Gambino Winery offered a beautiful tasting room overlooking vineyards on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna.  Six wines were accompanied by a great selection of antipasti, cheese, salami, and bread.  Afterwards, we hiked into a lava cave, a perfectly shaped tube with a resident bat and lots of crumbly volcanic rock underfoot.  With the low ceilings, we were glad for the hard hats provided by our tour guide– and the large LED flashlights to find our way in the dank cold cave.

Around the city of Catania

Naturally, we have eaten a lot of fish here in Catania.  After seeing the fish market, we knew we had to try some red tuna, and the ubiquitous Sicilian favorite, swordfish.  Fish in Sicily is some of the most juicy and tasty fish we have ever had.  Plus, we needed to try some Pasta Bellini, here in Bellini’s home town – the dish features eggplant which is remarkably good here.  Of course, Anne continues her sweets kick (although she is trying to cut back – seriously!).  Casserta is a Sicilan delicacy not to be missed – white chocolate on top and ricotta cream with chocolate chips in the center, it is another highly caloric sweet worth moaning over.
And, the human interest stories continue.  The best part of our stay in Catania was the wonderful people that we met on the streets and at the B &B Globetrotter.  One day, we were standing at a bus stop wondering why no buses were coming by.  An older gent, 80-year old Salvatore, came to our rescue helping us to understand (eventually) that the buses were not stopping here, but running just a few blocks away.  Salvatore spoke Italian, French, and German (but almost no English).  We ended up communicating in a polyglot of those three languages.  Really quite entertaining – Salvatore got a good laugh out of it, that’s for sure, and we made a new friend!

New friends at the Globetrotter: 
Daniele, Gaetana, Anne, and Sophia

At the Globetrotter B&B, we enjoyed hotel staff members Sophia, Sylvia, and Daniele, and a fellow guest named Gaetana from Connecticut.  Gaetana was on her own in Catania studying Italian – it was great fun sharing the joys of Sicily with a fellow American. 
  When we left this morning, we took a lot of group photos.  In one of them, Frank was pleased to pose with 26-year old Sophia and wife Anne.  He said to Daniele who was standing nearby and watching carefully, “Every man needs two women.”  Without skipping a beat, Daniele, the young Italian proprietor of the B & B responded, “Why stop at just two???”  We all had a good laugh; there was definitely special camaraderie at the B&B Globtrotter in Catania.

Frank with his two women: Sophia and Anne

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