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Of Romans, Cyclops and “Mama Etna”

Catania on Sicily’s east coast is the city of Mount Etna. Its inhabitants treat the world’s second-most active volcano like a good friend – almost like a mother: fiery and grumbling at times, the fertile soil that “Mama Etna” so abundantly supplies, and tourism, are what the livelihoods of a majority of the locals are based on. The volcano, the city and the surrounding area have won a place in our author’s heart.

I have never seen anything like it! As our aircraft approaches Catania International Airport, the fireballs spewed in the air by Mount Etna light up the evening sky. My face is glued to the aircraft window. This infinitely beautiful natural spectacle takes my breath away. Anyone who has seen Mount Etna in action will know what I am talking about – and the sight is to be recommended to those who have not yet had that privilege.

Photos: Edelweiss/Shane Wilkinson

The elephant as a symbol of the city’s strength

I am staying at the “Romano House” hotel in the centre of town – a house that could not be more typical of Catania. A historic city marked by the former presence of the Greeks and the Romans, Catania was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1963 and subsequently rebuilt in baroque style. “Romano House” is a 17th century palazzo with modern and individually designed rooms that are integrated into the historical building in cube-like fashion. In sum, a wonderful combination of historic architecture and contemporary design!

On my first morning in Catania, I set off to explore the city. I am delighted it can be done on foot, as this allows me to stop at a bar from time to time, to satisfy my secret craving: Italian espresso! The general availability of good coffee is something I hugely appreciate about Italy. Every house, every palazzo and every attraction in Catania, including the amphitheatre, bear witness to the city’s vibrant history. The square in front of the dome is home to the “Fontana dell’Elefante”, a fountain that features an elephant and is also Catania’s landmark. Its meaning is not entirely clear. However, some say the elephant symbolises strength and longevity – two properties that, following the disastrous earthquake and the ensuing reconstruction, are characteristic of the city and its people.

Along the “Riviera dei Ciclopi” to Taormina

After a detour to the market (the fish market is especially worth visiting), it is time for lunch. This does not necessarily have to be in a restaurant – even if Catania is home to several very good ones. The city is known for its street food, and Sicilian take-away specialities are available on every street corner. The fact that most of them have little in common with light Mediterranean cuisine is best ignored for a few days. The dishes on offer include “arancini” (fried rice balls with meat and vegetables in every imaginable variety), “cannoli” (sweet filled pasty rolls) or “granita” (a semi-frozen made from water, sugar and flavourings). Fortunately, having toured the city on foot, I have burned off some calories and am ready to refuel!

I spend the afternoon at the seafront. The “Riviera dei Ciclopi” is shrouded in myths and legends. According to Greek mythology, the region was home to a one-eyed Cyclops who held Odysseus captive. Odysseus managed to escape by fooling and blinding the Cyclops who, (literally) blind with rage, threw rocks into the sea. Today, these rocks (aka “Isole dei Ciclopi”) protrude from the sea off the shore of Aci Trezza and are the origin of the name given to the entire coastline. My destination for the evening is Taormina, also referred to as the “Saint-Tropez” of Sicily. Set on a hill overlooking the sea at approximately 200 metres above sea level, and with sweeping panoramic views, Taormina’s streets are lined with luxury boutiques and fine restaurants right up to the famous “Teatro Greco”. Nowadays, the Greek Theatre serves as a venue for music and film festivals. Taormina’s first hotel, the “Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo”, is situated right next to it. Once frequented by kings and queens, the Belmond is today a choice place for heads of state and film stars. After dining on pasta, and with plenty of excitement scheduled for the following day, I decide against immersing into Taormina’s pulsating nightlife, albeit reluctantly…

Walking on lava and listening to the sound of a volcano

Today’s highlight –and indeed of my entire Sicily trip– is a guided tour up Mount Etna. Our journey in a well-equipped four-wheel drive jeep starts at the foot of the mountain. A layer of ash has settled on the roads, houses and trees up to the mountain, reminiscent of dark snow. The volcanic ash is, indeed, the most dangerous feature of Etna: whereas lava flows very slowly, thus cooling down before reaching populated areas, the ash is as slippery as snow and known to cause numerous traffic accidents during an eruption.

Following an adventurous drive on tracks and through forests, we continue our journey on foot. We hike across cooled lava fields and make our way to some no longer active volcanic craters. We are accompanied acoustically by the sound of rumbling “Mama Etna” and the occasional rattling beneath our feet. On the day of our visit, the 3300-metre high summit is draped in clouds, so we cannot actually see “Mama” spew fire. Instead, we catch sight of something equally spectacular: ski lifts, ski hotels and ski schools! Closed during the warm seasons, skiing is possible on Mount Etna in January and February when the slopes are covered in snow. Skiers who are fortunate enough to be on the mountain on a clear day may also relish magnificent sea views. What a wonderful treat!

Purple broccoli and unique wine

We stop at a vineyard on our way back to Catania. The lava clay of Mount Etna is very fertile, which is why everything, from citrus fruits to vegetables, grows in the area. Much of what grows is unique in appearance and taste – including broccoli, which features a slightly purple colour. Several wine-growing estates set amid extensive vineyards are testimony to the area’s industrious winemaking. The grapes include varieties found nowhere else in the world, including the white wine grapes “Carricante” and “Catarratto”. Wine from these grapes tastes even better when savoured with local olives and salami. Simply divine!

Sadly, my sojourn in Sicily has come to an end. Time to make my way back to Switzerland, armed with a bottle of “Carricante” wine, a pack of “cannoli” – and a plethora of unforgettable impressions.

3 tips in and around Catania

Hotel Romano House: Set in the centre of town, this hotel is perfectly located for sightseeing, but also an ideal point of departure for excursions. (Via Giovanni di Prima, 20, 95100 Catania CT, Italien, www.romanohouse.it)

Tour of Etna: Whether in an off-road vehicle or/and on foot: a tour to the world’s second-most active volcano is a must-do! Bookings via www.trippingsicily.com

Taormina: A visit to Sicily’s “Saint-Tropez” is another must-see. Perched on a hill by the sea, this picturesque little town offers not only sweeping vistas but also a luxurious shopping street and a legendary nightlife scene. (www.taormina.it)

Text: Sandra Casalini