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27 June 2020 - Day 77 –Catania

With a busy day planned for my day in Catania, I was up at 7:45 in Caltanissetta, getting clean and dressed for another warm day. After packing the jackets and parka away, I grabbed my rucksack and roller and waddled them down the stairs to reception. After getting the all clear, I rolled the several streets down a slight slope to the train station. My departure time was 8:41, so being 10 minutes early, the platform had been posted. Down and up via the tunnel, I boarded my east bound train, keeping my roller near the door and staying standing.

The train ride of 115km involved a train change at the next stop, 10 minutes after departure. At Caltanissetta Xirbi I crossed the platform and waited for the through train to Siracusa, which arrived 8 minutes later. I had to lift the roller up to the upper bin in the luggage area, and then sought a seat by a window on the north side, hoping to see Etna. I wound up siting backwards in a double with a table, but I had my view.

Two stops and 90 minutes later, after seeing the clouds at the top of Etna at Paterno, the trained pulled into #Catania Centrale.

My walk to my lodgings took me southwest along the train tracks and waterfront a quarter kilometer and then due west for a half kilometer, taking 15 minutes or so. The B&B Opera, three levels of rooms, was ready for me at 11, so I checked in and paid the €2 city lodging tax (something I’d done for most of the previous 40+ lodgings, since it’s not included when booking.)

My booking was for a double room with AC, a balcony, TV and en suite bathroom; it was up two levels. I offered to take a smaller room without balcony if I could be only one flight up, and this actually pleased the receptionist. What I found out afterwards, WiFi is only in the public spaces, and my room was over the lounge so I had internet. Plus they offered me breakfast tomorrow for no charge. Win-win all around.

Looking at schedules and sites, I headed off to the former cathedral first, as it was open only until noon. Less than a kilometer, and only two turns, the ex-cathedral Chiesa Cattolica di Sant'Agata al Carcere faced out onto the narrow Piazza Santo Carcere. With gated and wrought iron fencing around a ramp and sets of stairs, the entrance is a good 3m above the street. The façade has an interesting history: following the destruction of the cathedral by an earthquake in 1693, the portal was removed to the Senate Palace.

About 80 years later, it was returned to the church which had been built in its place. It shows no Arab-Norman influences as other Sicilian churches do, but the style is medieval.

Sant’Agata is a smaller church with a single nave and three apses. The central apse has a glass-faced tomb of the martyred saint; to the left is the Eucharistic altar with a painting of the martyrdom. There is an interesting geometric pattern laid into the floorings’ marble tiles. Below in the crypt are enactments of the trials of St Agatha, as well as the reliquary and the lava stones bearing her footprints. The enactments include the prison confines, giving the church its name.

My next appointment was at the opera house at noon. The Teatro Massino Bellini was back towards the B&B on the Piazza Nuovaluce. While nearly 200 years from concept to inauguration, the opera house named for Vincenzo Bellini opened with his Norma in 1890.

The exterior was built in 17th century Sicilian baroque style to match the neighboring buildings. The English tour started at noon, so I bought my ticket as I came into the foyer. Our group was about a dozen, with a young woman guide who took us onto the stage to start. Yes, I did sing (softly) my one line, adding another opera stage I’ve sung on. Following Giulietta, we came and settled into the seats in the orchestra and she told us about the 325 years of history regarding this building, and then pointed out the features of the auditorium, pit and stage visible from our seats.

Out and up to the first level, where we had a chance to view the Royal Box (nice view) and then we returned to the foyer and saw where the hoi polloi hobnob during the intervals. A pleasant 45-minute interlude, it was humorous to be immersed in royal red and gilt.

Two blocks south and three blocks west delivered me to the Piazza Duomo. Passing the Panificio San Placido, a bakery, I saw sandwiches through the window so I stopped and picked one up with a bottle of water. There is a park just north of the cathedral’s nave where I sat under a tree and quickly ate my lunch, as public consumption of food is discouraged in some places in Italy.

The Basilica Cattedrale di Sant’Agata has a long nave to the west of the domed transept and three semicircular apses at the east end. Initially constructed in 1078-93 on the ruins of Roman Baths following the Norman conquest of the Islamic emirate in Sicily, reconstruction following earthquakes, fires and eruptions has changed its look and function. Now presenting a baroque façade following the total devastation of the 1693 earthquake, the notes say I should find some minor remnants.

Mainly shades of gray and white, darker classic columns support porticos on the three tiers of the west façade. Marble statues are on the posts of the surrounding fence, the tops of the first level, between the doors. A lantern cupola is at the crossing, and a bell tower with a clock is to the north of the apses.

Entering, off to the immediate right is the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini. There are several more tombs, primarily religious leaders but not names I know. Over the central door entrance is a choir loft with a beautiful baroque pipe organ. Down the south aisle, behind a gate and in the apse is the chapel of St Agatha, a seriously ornate rococo expression in darker shades than the rest of the interior. There are two side aisles, defined by solid piers supporting arches and the upper clerestory windows. A great deal of natural light fills the nave, enhanced by the off-white color of the walls, columns and vault. At the crossing is a step-up platform, empty, under the dome. Into the presbytery, up several steps to the main altar, with a domed half circular apse painted in gold and pale blue fresco. Dark wooden choir stalls line the floor, with the cathedra and royal seat opposite each other on the outside edge. A Norman pulpit and Pascal candle stand of lava are mounted on the steps.

One thing I couldn’t figure out was the reasoning and purpose for roping off large sections of the interior pews. I had to stand and plot my transits to visit side chapels, position for photos, even just to find a place to pray. No guides or assistants seemed about, with minor security chasing after boys with their hats still on or clowning together. Finished, I left with the intention of walking the outside circuit, but the cathedral seemed to anchor a significant number of interconnected building in a rather large block.

Not quite three in the afternoon, my next item was a walking tour with #FreeTourCatania at 4pm, meeting at the Piazza Università. With time to kill, I checked out the vicinity of the rendezvous point, and found Tinkitè, a wine bar.

Great place to relax for 45 minutes, at least in my book. With 6 local reds open for tasting, I requested a sampler of 3 small pours, plus a small basket of bread and a glass of water. I pulled out my journal and began recording the day, and probably mixed up my glasses at least twice, so, I’ll say that I liked all that I tasted. About 10 minutes before 4, I paid up and headed out to find my group.

Daniela, a co-founder of FreeTourCatania was rounding up her English tour group as I approached the ATM that was the meeting point. She had 9 names, and prebooking was required. By 5 past, the other 4 couples had arrived, so with a brief round of self-introductions, we were ready to head out. [One couple from outside New York City, two Irish couples from Cork, and a pair from Gibraltar] Heading north on Via Alessandro Manzoni, our first point to see was the Anfiteatro Romano di Catania.

Ruins of the Roman Amphitheater, Daniela was able to discourse on the preChristian history of the city, as well as Italy. This amphitheater is one of the larger, grouped with those in Rome, Capua and Verona, and used to be on the outskirts of the city, while now it is in the historic center.

Crossing the Piazza Stesicoro, we stood in front of the city’s monument to one of its most famous sons: Vincenzo #Bellini. A bel canto composer, he is known for writing long, complex melodies that beautifully match lyrics and mood. Known today for his operas, I was able to name 3, of 11. He also composed songs, orchestral works including 40 sacred works, and keyboard pieces. While born in Catania, he studied in Naples and spent most of his life in northern Italy, dying in a Parisian suburb at the age of 33.

We turned south and walked down Via Etnea. This is a major thoroughfare through the retail and commercial district. As we approached our starting point, we veered to enter the Basilica della Collegiata, the Collegiate church.

Yet another Sicilian baroque church, its three levels are up a flight of stairs. Green doors were a noticeable change, as well as the crowning third level which contained bells. Inside, the paintings in the nave vault are dark, contrasting with the beige and white plaster work, and the apse of the main altar is filled with a wooden organ.

We passed through the University Square on our way to the Piazza Duomo. Daniela talked about the historic elements of this cathedral, pointing out the Norman elements of the rear of the apse before we entered and headed to the tomb of Bellini. We then made our way to the shrine in the Chapel to St Agatha. The group wanted a little time to wander the church, so Daniela and I sat in a back pew and talked while they explored for 15 minutes.

A tourism graduate from the University, Daniela and her co-founder Agata had put the tour company together a few years ago. With a staff of 2 more local guides and 3 in Palermo, they offer this guided tour for “free” and guide in Palermo as well as private tours. She drilled me about my Sicilian itinerary, asking my feelings about the places I’d been, and if there were any places I feel I missed. She found the concept of being driven by seeing cathedrals interesting, and thought she might put together a concept plan to offer religious groups a similar package.

Our group slowly returned, and we left for the Fontana dell’Amenano. Daniela explained that Amenano is the name of the now underground river, and that the young male in the center represents the river, while 4 tritons are positioned at the corners. It was carved from Carrara marble in 1867, and is usually the favorite of any youngsters who take the tour.

There is a lava stone staircase we descended from the fountain to get to the Pescheria.

In the fish market, there were more vendors than just fishmongers, but the scent of the sea was pretty overwhelming. Vegetables and fruit, meat and cheese, as well as every variety of seafood was out on display, even this late on a Saturday afternoon. Daniela had a route for us to see a portion of the vendors, but soon took us on to the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata.

A Franciscan church, St Francis of Assisi of the Immaculate Conception looks similar to the Collegiate church we visited. Two bracketing bell towers on this smaller looking church is reached up lava stairs inside wrought iron gating. We made a brief visit inside, and I found that the simpler fixtures and toned-down flourishes left me in a more peaceful mood. I guess right then, simpler is better?

The tour would conclude as the group walked up Via Crociferi through the St Benedict's Arch, with its line-up of churches on both sides. It was getting close to my next paid-for tour, so I thanked Daniela (and tipped her) and bid the others a great evening. Back to the Piazza Duomo at 5:45, I rendezvoused with a young woman carrying a red pouch bag who was standing with four others. The guide for the “Food tour of Catania by Night” is named Regina, and my four fellow foodies were an English couple from Bologna and two women from Holland.

We would be spending 3 hours together; per the Viator post: “strolling around the backstreets of Catania city center to find the best local street food. Your Catanese guide will walk you around her favorite food spots to try the traditional beloved food, such as the rice arancini, the horse meatballs, some tasty fish recipes and finally end with the refreshing granita. This is an off the beaten path walking tour. You will step in places you would have hardly found on your own such as the secret lava tunnel situated downtown. This is the ideal tour for foodies and adventure travellers who want to discover the real local culture skipping touristy stuff! The Sicilian street food consists of snacks served in deli shops and eaten by hands. No restaurants, no fancy places! This tour is perfect for greedy eaters, not for picky eaters :) Come join us and discover the real street spirit of Catania. Not only food! your guide will also talk about history, traditions and daily habits.”

It was a fun 3 hours, probably a dozen stops for food and another half dozen just for a drink. There were some cool spots where Regina entertained us with history and folklore, including one or two scandals. We ended up at the Opera House square where we had three samples of granita. No notes, no pictures – I was just having fun, letting go and experiencing something different. I headed back to the B&B, chatted with the front desk for about 5 minutes. Then up to the room to finish today in the journal and then get cracking on writing this blog. Late-ish start in the morning before heading to Siracusa.

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