We arrived in Catania at 9.00 p.m. the previous evening on a British Airways flight from London Gatwick. Our flight arrived on time and as Catania Fontanarassa airport was very organised it took us no time at all to pass through immigration and only a few minutes to wait for our luggage. To get into the city centre we took the AMT ALIBUS which operates an airport shuttle every 25 minutes from 4.40 a.m. until midnight. Tickets cost €4 and can be purchased on board with the ticket being valid for 90 minutes allowing transfers to other buses if needed. The journey took around 20 minutes for the 4.3km journey.
Our accommodation was in a city centre apartment and we used Google maps to navigate to the nearest stop as the bus did not have illuminated screens. It was then just a short walk to our accommodation overlooking the Bellini Gardens. The apartment was just as described and we were happy with our selection. The flat was located on the fourth floor and accessed by an antiquated wooden lift about the size of a telephone box so we needed to make two trips up to it with our large suitcases. After quickly unpacking and making ourselves hot drinks we slept soundly, rousing from our slumbers early with the bright sunlight streaming through the large bedroom windows.
On leaving the apartment, we popped into a small cafe for breakfast and then called in a nearby supermarket for some local produce to keep us going. It was a lovely warm morning, with a perfect temperature of around 25 degrees as we began exploring Catania which is Sicily’s second city. Our apartment was located on a quiet street overlooking the Bellini Gardens yet only a five minute walk from Via Etnea, Catania’s charming main thoroughfare lined with historic stone buildings and interesting shops.
Reaching the end of this long road, we arrived at the main square, Piazza del Duomo with its landmark Elephant Fountain (Fontana dell’ Elefante) taking pride of place overlooking the cathedral. The fountain was built in 1757 inspired by the elephant of Minerva in Rome. Seated on a marble pedestal is the sculpture of a smiling elephant formed from centuries old volcanic rock. On its back, it supports an Egyptian obelisk brought to Sicily during the time of the Roman Empire.
There is no charge to visit the Cathedral di Sant’ Agata which is magnificent despite having been destroyed and rebuilt several times because of earthquakes and eruptions of the nearby Mt. Etna. It was originally constructed in 1093 and has subsequently been rebuilt in a Sicilian Baroque style.
In one corner of the main square is the Fontana dell’ Amenano which marks the entrance to Catania’s bustling fish market. A visit to any major city could not be complete without a trip to the local open-air markets and with Catania being a port, the city is famous for its traditional fish markets. La Pescherie is located behind the Piazza del Duomo and strolling through its numerous stalls we were filled with the sights, sounds, aromas and tastes of a traditional Italian fish market.
What all the varieties of fish on offer were, I have no idea, but we enjoyed the experience immensely. On a raised balcony overlooking the market are several small restaurants offering all manner of seafood including delicious sardine wraps, squid ink pasta and swordfish and all at very reasonable prices.
After sampling some of Catania’s seafood delights it was then off to the Tourist Information office located near the cathedral. We picked up some useful leaflets and maps and then explored the Catania Diocesan Museum which shares the same building. Standard admission is €7 including a visit to its roof terrace. The museum is divided into two sections with the first part containing furnishings of the cathedral from before and after the 1693 earthquake.
The second section is devoted to furniture and relics donated to the museum from other churches and is interesting to view despite little of the signage being in English. A lift leads to the museum’s roof terrace which affords some excellent views of the Piazza dell’ Duomo and across the city towards Mt. Etna.
It would have been an ideal place for a rooftop bar but as no facilities were available, we returned to ground level and made our way back through the fish market to A Putia dell’ Ostello, a cosy restaurant/ bar with a lava cave in its basement. This unusual feature was formed during the 1669 Mt. Etna eruption and since then the Armenano river has been flowing for centuries beneath the building.
Diners can descend some stairs to view the lava flow which has a dining area surrounding it, and for visitors not wishing to dine, a nominal 50 cents is charged to view the incredible sight.
After viewing the lava flow we enjoyed refreshing glasses of beer on the outdoor terrace before heading to the Palazzo Biscari at 4.00 p,m. for a guided tour in English. The Palace is tucked away down the narrow Via Museo Biscari and its large entrance gates lead through to an elegant inner courtyard featuring a double stone staircase.
This privately owned palace was built by the princes of Biscari starting from the late 17th century. It is one of the most spectacular Baroque palaces in Sicily and free guided tours are given by the current owner. He was extremely friendly and genuinely pleased to show visitors around his ancestral home, relating the fascinating history of both his home and family.
We were invited to explore the private apartments and the formal rooms along the ground floor of the palace. The huge ballroom is exquisite with its elaborate frescoes and artwork. Our attention was drawn to the small dome high in the ceiling where the orchestra used to sit and play. Preparations were underway for a forthcoming wedding to be held at the palace. A truly beautiful venue and certainly worthy of a visit when in Catania.
We rounded off our first day in Catania with dinner on the delightful roof terrace of La Capponina which was just along the road from our accommodation and overlooking the Bellini Gardens. It doesn’t have a website but I couldn’t recommend the restaurant highly enough, with its relaxed atmosphere, delicious Sicilian cooking and friendly service. It’s a certainty that we will be returning at some point during our stay in Catania.
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