The Lava Elephant (U Liotru) – Catania’s symbol
I’ve been pondering and mulling over how best to describe this city for the past couple of days. The truth is that all places have their good and bad points. In a lot of places, the good points far outweigh the bad ones. In other places the negative vibes leave a rather sour reminder of an otherwise interesting city. But in the interest of anybody reading this post, I need to be truthful.
First of all the place is chaotic and I blame this on careless motorists who will run a red light and will not stop at a pedestrian crossing unless you throw yourself into the middle of the road. Then they may decide to stop or swerve around madly so as not to hit you.
Secondly the city is quite dirty – and I am not talking about the natural grimy look that comes from being so close to Europe’s most active volcano and the fact that many buildings are built out of black lava bricks. What annoyed me was the graffiti everywhere and anywhere, without any respect as to a building’s historical or architectural significance. That spoilt things a lot for me.
And finally, the people running the major transport companies were very unhelpful and many times gave us conflicting information. Now I speak Italian so I wonder what it was like for other visitors who were trying to cope in English. Gripe over. Now for the more interesting stuff …
Catania was founded in the 8th Century B.C. by the Greeks and was later populated by the Romans. This is evidenced by the remains of an amphitheatre (built of blocks of black lava), part of which is still visible in the city today.
Side by side – Roman and Baroque architecture
Catania’s closeness to Mount Etna has been both a blessing and a curse. The ash spewed by the volcano is very fertile and farmers in the area surrounding Catania makes use of the fertile soil to grow vines. On the other hand, frequent volcanic eruptions have damaged the city a number of times. In 1693 the city was decimated by an earthquake (that was also felt in Malta and which destroyed a number of buildings in Mdina) and was rebuilt in the Baroque style.
Catania’s main street, Via Etnea, is a mecca for shoppers, as is its lively open-air market. The street is lined with shops, hotels, palaces and churches and is a wonderful place to take a leisurely stroll and do some people-watching.
In Piazza del Duomo, sightseeing trains are available to take visitors around the city’s main attractions but most of them can be reached on foot.
Piazza del Duomo is dominated by an imposing Norman cathedral that was given a new façade by Vaccarini in 1736. The duomo is dedicated to St Agatha, the patron saint of Catania.
In this same square is a lava elephant (known as U Liotru) carrying an Egyptian obelisk – the symbol of Catania.
To the south of Piazza del Duomo is the only point where the underground river Amenano is visible in the city.
At around the mid-point of Via Etnea, Giardino Bellini (Bellini Garden) provides an oasis of peace and greenery in an otherwise chaotic and rather drab city.
Other buildings of note include the unfinished church of San Niccolo’ (reputed to be the largest in Italy), Teatro Massimo (a 19th century opera house) and the Odeon.
Church of San Niccolo’
And with that I will end this rather long and rambling post. Hopefully none of you have fallen asleep by now …