We’re in Catania.
Freshly dropped at the not-so glamorous bus stop of Catania, the first thing we look for is a coffee bar. No matter where you find yourself in Italy, chances are you’re not far from coffee…. or wine. Lucky me.
In a nonstop stream of movement, the barista serves me my double-espresso with a friendly smile as he packs coffee, steams milk, and makes snippets of conversation with the ever-changing faces at the bar as they quickly order, sip, and drop their change on the way out. The cups are whisked away and another delicious cup of espresso or cappuccino takes its place. I love the sound of busy coffee bars. Sipping my espresso at the bar, I’m given another chance to practice my barely there Italian with fellow patrons while Jenn enjoys her fruit bowl.
Like in almost every other city, we drop our bags at the hostel (not yet knowing how much we’ll come to love our little temporary “apartment” and the people there) and head out to explore.
It is Sunday morning; everything is closed. Our walk around the city feels a bit apocolypse-like. Adding to the feeling, is the fact we’re hungry; starving in an empty, unknown city! Ok so, while it certainly was difficult to find an open restaurant, I actually enjoyed the quiet streets. The normally busy and fashionable, Via Etnea, was an abandoned boulevard stretching before us with a view of the active volcano, Mount Etna, just beyond. Seaside Catania sits at the base of the volcano, which is looking pleasantly harmless today, though it recently erupted in January. I later learn that it is the world’s 2nd most active volcano! Casually unknowing in this moment, we continue walking along window shopping; picking out shops to return to and pastries to try later.
Our afternoon stroll takes us past many of Catania’s highlights. Piazza Bellini hosts the grand opera house, Teatro Massimo Bellini… named after its famous, hometown composer. A bit further along, we enter the main square, Piazza Duomo, where we find, not surprisingly, the city’s giant Duomo in all its Baroque splendor. Inside is the tomb of that same hometown composer, Bellini, guarded by a “life-sized angel.” This guidebook description is curious. What does a life-size angel look like? Is it human sized? These random questions plague me a lot when I travel and I never do get the answers. But I digress…
Directly across the street from the Duomo is St. Agatha’s Abbey which is oddly facing the side of the Duomo rather than the piazza. After leaving the beautiful, deserted piazza with its shockingly sinister lava elephant (complete with white eyes) atop an obelisk, we soon find ourselves finding the Anfiteatro Romano di Catania.
This partly excavated Greek Theatre, casually found in the middle of another piazza dates back to the 2nd century. The now crumbling coliseum, made of black lava rock, was the second largest Roman amphitheatre (the largest being THE Coliseum in Rome) seating over 16,000 spectators. Because it’s only partly excavated, from the street today we only see a fraction of the large structure. I feel like in Rome, this could never be! I imagine archeologists going crazy over the still-buried ruins.
Soon the city starts coming back to life and the streets start filling with cars, scooters and people. During our routine stop for gelato, I enjoy the Italian fashion of the passersby for a while, and then soon the architecture. The buildings have a french flair with iron balconies jutting from the pale pastel-colored buildings. Sicily has a distressed, sometimes almost ruined façade to its structures, but with brightly colored flowers overflowing from the windows and balconies; it all just add to the charm for me.
Before heading back to the room, we “take the air” in the city park, Villa Bellini. I’m seeing a trend here, Bellini… “Catania’s favorite son.” Feeling a bit Victorian,we stroll through the beautiful green park, enjoying the fresh air. The villa boasts a pretty little gazebo, a lovely fountain and lots of peaceful shaded places to sit and enjoy the surroundings.
Catania is winning me over.