In November I handed in my PhD thesis and spontaneously joined my parents on their holiday to Sicily. Hello free pizza! Oh no, I mean, hello family, long time no see! I am sure I have mentioned this before, but I love travelling with my parents. In fact, they are probably at least partially accountable for the amount I travel myself. Anyway the reason I am uploading this blog post around six months later is because I did the thing no one does: I got a job straight after finishing my PhD in Obscure Middle Eastern Archaeology, and got too busy to write. That said, it is a short-term and terribly paid job, and no reason to neglect my poor blog. So, I have some catching up to do!
I found some over-priced and horribly-timed flights from Munich, which was about 3.5 hours from where I lived with no options to go there that early in the morning… so I went the day ahead. Good call, because a bunch of trains were cancelled and delayed and I would have almost certainly missed any flight that departed 12 hours before I left the house. German public transport being smooth and on time is such a myth.
Anyway, I made it to Catania pretty much for breakfast, and joined my parents for a coffee and some delicious pastry in the main square. Yes : D It is super chill when someone else arranges your accommodation, so I had no check-in times, reviews, and other details to worry about. Also cannot remember exactly where we stayed, but if you are interested, let me know, and I will find out. (/travelblogfail.) It was very central, and, knowing my parents, reasonably affordable. To my mum’s dismay the BnB did come with beds but not with breakfast so we quickly adopted a daily diet of baked goods. As far as I am aware, Italians are not big breakfast people, preferring to dip biscuits in their coffee in the morning. Being Dutch, we like yogurt and fruit with the coffee. This is not to be explained, or found culturally appropriate, anywhere in Catania.
We went on a little walk around the place, seeking shelter from the rain here and there. This was the end of November after all. The Sicilians themselves seemed rather surprised by the amount of liquid coming from the sky however, promising that usually the weather is better. I do not know – I have lived in the UK for the past seven years, so it all seemed pretty good to me. A colleague asked me the other day why I always wear sunglasses. It is because even if it just rains softly, as opposed to buckets coming from the sky, it is a nice day in my book.
Catania stands out for its wonderful Baroque and Rococo architecture. Pretty much every other buildings reflects some of this influence, and I can recommend looking up as you walk (although, carefully!). That said, I am also a big fan of Catania balconies, windowsills, window-frames, and, in particular, fantastic arches and doorways. Not to mention the beautiful mosaic-like quality to most streets and cobblestones. I guess besides looking up… looking around will do too.
Oh hey, by the way – this blog post comes to you entirely without the aid of Wikipedia, since the Turkish government is blocking it at the time of writing.
So, onward to the Roman amphitheatre! This magnificent ruin of the ancient Roman world sits right in the city centre, surrounded by buildings of various much later centuries up to the modern age. When I was there is was not possible to go inside, but by the looks of empty bottles and miscellaneous other trash it would have been a rather dirty expedition anyway. So, I did the sensible thing, and walked around it. As I recall a couple theatres were built in this spot over the centuries, but what you can see now was initiated around the 1st century BCE (pre-Empire) and expanded in the early Imperial period, staying in use until c. the 4th century CE. It has a very dark look to it, being constructed out of lava rock (due to vicinity to large volcano). It was one of those cool theatres that you could fill up with water, to re-enact naval battles. The internet (which is not Wikipedia) tells me it seated around 14 to 16 000 spectators.
The Romans came to Sicily in the 3rd century BCE, making Sicily one of the first Roman provinces. But let me back up a few steps. Before the Romans, there were Phoenicians, and also Greeks and Carthaginians. Around 260 BCE a conflict between Rome an Carthage broke out: the First Punic War. Rome had a great army, but Carthage had a fantastic navy – which comes in handy, when you control an island. However, after fighting stubbornly for two decades Rome did not only manage to conquer Sicily, but Corsica and Sardinia on top of that.
Besides the amphitheatre, Catania also has a not-amphi Roman theatre, which is possibly the better known of the two This was originally a Greek theatre but the Romans landed a new one on top of it in the 2nd century CE. This cozy theatre would have seated around 7 000 spectators, and connects to a small Odeon too. What really makes it stand out is its present-day urban setting, surrounded by the new buildings of Catania. It is not often that such a clear but also beautiful contrast between the ancient and the modern world can be observed. Since these new buildings are Sicilian architecture, not of the super-futuristic variety, they blend in with the old almost perfectly, the different types of stone slowly decaying and crumbling into one another. (Sorry if this is too poetic for you. Moving on.)
The theatre also comes with a newly designed museum and several exhibition spaces, including old photos and maps of the city. The carving of a dolphin, with teeth, stood out to me in particular. During Late Antiquity the orchestra of the theatre was adapted for water shows. It is possible to see lots of nice drainage works, and also a cistern. Please try to spot these if you ever visit!
Sooo… food. Sicily is famous for a multitude of dishes. Vegetarian editions I tried include pasta alla norma (aubergine, tomatoes, basil, ricotta), pasta al pesto di pistacchi (what it sounds like: pesto including/made of ground-up pistachios), pizzolo (round, stuffed pizza) and granita (ground ice). Since Sicily is an island I am sure there are also many fish-oriented delicacies, but I did not test those!
One of the highlights was vegetarian-friendly restaurant A putia dell’Ostello (or, the other side of the Agora hostel) where my food came accompanied with the most delicious young, soft, mozzarella I have ever tasted. In addition, this restaurant-hostel comes with a secret cellar, which has an underground river flowing through it. This is the ancient river Amenano, banished to the underworld by a 17th century earthquake. You can also catch a glimpse of it overground, in the Piazza Duomo – and its beautiful fountain / waterfall.
We only stayed in Catania for a week and while I feel like I covered all the major ancient sites, there is a lot left to explore. I would love to come back some time and rent and apartment for a couple of months. Maybe on a nice research fellowship, who knows. Until next time, Sicily!