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Catania, Sicily’s “Grey City”

Catania’s port is very near the city center, making it a short walk – about 20 minutes  – from the pier.  The city also has a 6-stop Metro system that runs from the Port to Borgo.  Tickets are available at any tabaccheria and cost € 1.50.  The Metro runs above grade along the coast to Galatea, then goes underground to Borgo.  You can make connections for the Ferrovia Circumetnea at Borgo, if you’re of a mind to see any of the villages that ring the volcano.  Links below take you to the railroad’s website and to a longer write-up on the journey itself.  Bear in mind that the entire journey from Catania to Riposto (which is on the coast) takes 3 hours.  http://www.circumetnea.it/mainen.asp

http://www.sicily-holiday.com/en/train-and-subway-sicily/circumetnea-around-etna

This link takes you to a detailed walking tour of Catania:  http://www.frommers.com/destinations/catania/3216010008.html

Here’s a link to the City of Catania’s website, with more detailed information on the sights as well a welcome video and 8 different routes for a one-hour tour:  http://www.comune.catania.it/la_citt%C3%A0/turismo/monumenti-and-musei-itinerari-turistici/catania-in-one-hour/

Arriving in Catania

Cruise ships dock at Catania’s Stazione Marittima, a short 15-minute walk

Living in the Shadow of Death

Proximity to Mt. Etna has shaped Catania through the ages.  A frequent target of Etna’s wrath, the city was almost destroyed several times, most notably by earthquake in 1169 and by volcanic eruption in 1669.  The older part of town owes its appearance to the devastating earthquake of 1693:  the destroyed medieval city was rebuilt in the “new” Baroque style, using traditional Catanian material – blocks of grey lava stone.

The buildings of Catania’s main square, Piazza Duomo, were designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.  The Duomo itself stands on the ruins of the Roman Achillean Baths.  The original Norman church, built in the 11th century, was largely destroyed in the 1693 earthquake; what remains of it are part of the transept, two towers, and three semi-circular apses.  (The steps at the end of the naves make the border between the Baroque and Norman buildings.)  The Duomo is dedicated to Catania’s patron, Saint Agatha, and holds her remains in various reliquaries.  A jewel-encrusted silver bust of the martyr contains her torso, and is moved across Via V. Emanuele to the Badia di Sant’Agata (Abbey of St. Agatha) on February 4, the eve of her feast day.  The other sides of the Square hold the Diocesan Museum and the Municipio (Town Hall).  At the center of the Square is Catania’s symbol, u Liotru, an 18th century confection that showcases an ancient basalt carving of an elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk.  Both these elements decorated the spina of the Circus Maximus, and were united by Vaccarini in imitation of Bernini’s Minerva Elephant in Rome.

Further west on V. Emanuele are relics of the city’s Greek and Roman past – the Roman Theatre and the Odeon.  The ruins of the Roman Theatre occupy the site of an earlier Greek Theatre (circa 500 BC) and date roughly from 300 BC.  Follow the wooden gangways from the nearly-hidden entrance into the corridors of the theatre.  In antiquity, the cavea (seating area) could hold 7,000 people.  An aisle divided the cavea into two horizontal sections, which were sub-divided vertically by stairs and wedges.  The limestone seats were clad in gleaming white marble, while the wedges were made of black lava rock, giving the theatre a sort of checkerboard look.  A marble balustrade separated the cavea from the orchestra area, while the stage (which was built over in the 18th century) was richly decorated with niches, columns and statues.  The Odeon, a smaller theatre used for musical and dance performances, can be reached from the Theatre via tunnels and stairs; signs are posted near the back of the Theatre.  Via V. Emanuele 266, near Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi.  Open Mon-Sat, 9:00 to 1; 2:30 to 7, Sun & Holiday, 9:00 to 1 – Admission € 4.

There are, of course, other Roman sites in Catania.  In the Piazza Stesicoro (corner of Via Etnea and Corso Sicilia) are the remains of a huge Amphitheatre, one of the largest in Italy.  The arena, constructed in the 2nd century BC, accommodated upwards of 15,000 people; today, it is located below ground level, and usually closed to the public.  The remains of several of the city’s Roman baths have been incorporated into the foundations of more recent buildings, and are not open to the public, but the domed Rotonda Baths (north of the Theatre complex, on Via Rotonda) are at least visible from the street.  Over the centuries, this building was transformed from Roman bath to Christian church; recently restored, it is only open during the spring “Culture Week.”

After the 1693 earthquake, the land in the eastern part of the city was more valuable, and became the province of the nobility and the ecclesiastical orders as well as the administrative center of the city.  What was left of the old medieval town was to the west and south of Via Plebiscito.  On the south side of Piazza Duomo are the 17th century Porta Uzeda and the Fontana dell’Amenano, the only spot where the underground Amenano River (which provided water for the Roman Theatre and the Rotonda Baths) emerges.  Beyond this is the Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto and Catania’s fish market, and in its center the Charles V Gate, which used to be part of the 16th century fortifications.  To the southwest of the market is Castello Ursino, a 13th century fortress that overlooked the sea until a massive lava spill in 1669 pushed back the shoreline and rendered the fortress obsolete.  The Castello was restored in the 1930s, and today houses the Civic Museum and an art gallery.  Open Mon-Sat, 9:00 to 1:30, 2:15 to 7; Sun 9:00 to 1:30 – Free.

Via Crociferi, which intersects V. Emanuele near the Roman Theatre, holds some of Catania’s most stunning Baroque buildings, including the churches of San Francesco Borgia and San Benedetto, and has been designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The exuberantly Baroque San Benedetto was built in 1693; it is flanked by its two Abbeys, which are joined by an arch.  The Benedictine sisters moved to this location, which was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, in 1355.  Following the 1693 earthquake, the monastery merged with St. Magdalene’s Monastery (the smaller of the two) and the connecting arch was built.  The monastery now holds the Museum of Contemporary Art, but remains home to 28 nuns.  (Open 10:00    to 7; Closed Thurs – Admission € 5, including audio guide)  Further down the street is the former Jesuit complex (now the Institute of Art) and the church of San Giuliano.

A walk up Via Gesuiti brings you to the church of San Nicola l’Arena and the enormous Benedictine Monastery on Piazza Dante, at the top of the ancient Acropolis.  The Monastery is now home to the University of Catania’s Departments of Literature and Philosophy.  (Catania’s University was founded in 1434, the first in all of Sicily.) The original 17th century monastery was destroyed in 1693; the current palatial building dates from the early 18th century, and holds many surprises, including an ancient Roman bath, caves, catacombs, and a frozen tongue of lava, as well as the University’s museum and library.  San Nicola is undergoing restoration, but a glimpse of the interior can be had from the galleries of the monastery.  This place bustles with students and faculty during the school year, and it’s easy to get lost, so take one of the guided tours, which are available on the hour.  If an English tour is not scheduled, pick up the English brochure and tag along with the Italians.  2 Piazza Dante.  Tours available Mon-Fri, 9:00 to 5:00; Sat-Sun, 9:00 to Noon – Admission € 6.

Via Etnea runs for 3 KM from Piazza Duomo through Piazza dell’Universita and Piazza Stesicoro to the Villa Bellini (Municipal Gardens) and Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens) beyond.  This is Catania’s preeminent shopping district, and many high-end stores are located there.

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