Friday, 18 September 2015

Postcards from Italy: Catania

We spent three days in Catania, Sicily, in the shadow of the mighty Mount Etna, which rises high above the city. It's a pretty city, baking under the 35+ degree sunshine with great views, architecture and culture. It reminds me a bit of Lisbon and Barcelona with a big chunk of southern Italy thrown in. 

The elephant statue in the main square
The Cathedral in Catania

It's a vibrant place and its residents are a proud people laying claim to all Sicily's delicacies (over rival Sicilian city Palermo) - if you speak to a local they will tell you that they invented (insert name of delicacy) and that it's much better in Catania than elsewhere on the island!

The driving situation hasn't improved much, in fact if anything the crazy driving has got worse the further south we have travelled! Amusingly this is something the locals seem to be quite proud of too! So again, we were keen to park the car and hold off driving until we moved on to our next destination!

The culinary scene is excellent in Catania - as I mentioned before the locals are very proud of their cuisine and are keen to promote it if ever you're unsure of what to order in a restaurant. 
Despite obvious similarities like pizza, pasta and gelato, the foodie scene in Sicily is quite different to mainland Italy. 

So far we have tried horse meat and buffalo burgers (the restaurant staff were keen for us to order the donkey burger but we felt we had to draw the line somewhere!) The burgers were fantastic, though I'm not sure I would say that either horse or buffalo is all that much different to beef!
Horse burger!
We also sampled arancini, 'granite' and some fantastic fresh seafood, including fresh pasta with a sauce made from fish eggs, cuttlefish, octopus, swordfish, tuna, sardines and other local seafood.

In addition to the cuisine we have also enjoyed sampling the local wines - apparently the best reds are grown on the inhospitable slopes of Etna, though the whites are pretty good too. We're looking forward to trying whites and dessert wine from the Marsala region as we travel across the island.

Most bars and restaurants don't open before 8pm and the city really seems to sleep during the day - probably due to the heat. Only a handful of restaurants open for lunch (mostly for the tourists) and they are probably busiest between 10 and 11 at night, with queues going out the door even on a Monday or Tuesday evening. 

We went out at midnight one night midweek and the square behind our apartment was buzzing - ok, so it was the main student quarter but as a rule people don't start going out until late and many bars/restaurants open late and don't close until the small hours to reflect this.

No visit to Catania would be complete without a trip to Etna so we booked on to a day tour with a guide to trek the volcano, with great views of the active crater, a walk down an old lava flow and a visit to a lava cave.

Etna is constantly 'smoking' and the clouds above the volcano are in fact water vapour and carbon dioxide from the active crater. It's not uncommon to have rain at the top, as the vapour condenses - despite the scorching sunshine and blue skies all around.

Mount Etna
Etna experiences regular small eruptions, with big eruptions occurring approximately every ten years. The last one was in 2002 so the next big one could be anytime soon - sadly though we didn't get to experience this during our time in the city!

From the top, the best way down the lava field from our crater vantage point at 2000m was to run down it - a bit like running down sand dunes, though this soon filled up our shoes with volcanic sand, which we are still emptying out on a daily basis! So we will be taking a little big of Etna home with us - but plenty more where that comes from!

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