Sicily With La RosaWorks: Surprising Catania
Catania is Sicily’s unexpected pleasure. Often dismissed as an industrialised urban area, that bland description belies the appeal of a city which functions as a real place for locals rather than a destination that has sold its soul to tourism. This aspect makes Catania appealing for visitors wishing to gain insight into contemporary Sicilian society while still enjoying access to the historical sights, Baroque architecture, and excellent food for which Sicily is famous. Catania is also home to Sicily’s largest airport, ahead of Palermo’s, thanks to the allure of eastern Sicily’s many attractions luring visitors to this side of the island to take in the region’s impressive scenery, most notably Mount Etna which on a clear day is visible from the centre of Catania.
That centre is full of interesting sights and vivacious atmosphere most vividly found at the morning fish market which has existed for hundreds of years in the same location and today includes many items beyond seafood. Strolls through Europe’s traditional food markets are among the most popular experiences for international visitors more accustomed to supermarket aisles and self-checkout kiosks; here in Sicily where life retains an emphasis on the importance of human interaction, the market experience goes beyond the mere perusal or purchase of produce. Vendors greet longtime customers with gregarious welcomes; they greet strangers the same way, usually offering a sampling of their products to entice potential customers to enjoy the cheeses, cured meats, baked goods, dried fruits, nuts, and other delectable food sold here. At the height of the morning activity, the market can seem both chaotic and quixotic, with tour groups wending their ways among locals (who are still the majority by far) up and down streets, sidestreets, lanes, and alleyways going in every direction in the area just south of Catania’s Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral Square lined on all sides by imposing buildings, including the ornate edifice dedicated to Saint Agatha that gives the square its name.
Across the square is Prestipino, a classic Sicilian café that serves as the breakfast room for the curiously named BAD Catania, a budget hotel owned by a young local couple who returned to their native city after many years working in other parts of Italy. The name comes from Bed&Breakfast And Design; a youthful vibe is apparent here in the series of rooms in a residential building located just one block from the fish market and within easy walking distance of all the sights in the city centre. BAD Catania is also one block away from the airport bus stop, making it even more convenient in allowing visitors to avoid the high cost of a taxi. The friendly staff do their utmost to ensure happiness among the guests, who are provided with vouchers for continental breakfasts at Prestipino. The café’s almond granita and fennel-infused hot brioche make a stellar start to the day.
Among the sights to see in Catania are the Botanical Garden and Bellini Park, where the belvedere provides romantic views of Mount Etna in the distance. There are several ancient Roman ruins around the city, the most impressive of which is the Teatro Romano; a walk through the complex is an evocative experience. For a wonderfully special Sicilian experience, attend a performance of the Fratelli Napoli puppet theatre, where the dexterity of the puppeteers as they manoeuvre the large puppets is matched by the intricacy of detail of the puppets themselves, handmade by generations of the Napoli family for nearly 100 years.
To make the best of one’s time in the market and in Catania in general, it would be wise to have a local guide who knows the city and can tailor walking tours to individual preferences. La RosaWorks, a tour company specialising in authentic Sicilian experiences, can make the necessary arrangements for food tours, wine tastings, culture tours, and other customised experiences, including private cooking classes. These very special classes take place in a kitchen at the sublime Palazzo Asmundo, a grand palazzo on the edge of the fish market recently transformed into a stunning five-star hotel. Each of the rooms of this intimate establishment is decorated to bring to life a different Sicilian legend; the outdoor areas are beautiful, and the kitchen used for cooking classes is not the hotel’s main kitchen but rather one used exclusively for guest experiences. La RosaWorks can also arrange excursions outside Catania such as private wine tours to vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna, coordinate arrival and departure transfers, and handle travel needs across the entire island.