From Agrigento, the lovely people at Doric B&B were kind enough to drop me at the bus station for the journey to Catania. Travelling along the southern coast, I found the scenery somewhat boring. Every square metre was cultivated as we rolled along gentle hills, valleys and plateaus. At least I saw where the fruit and vegetables I buy at Ventimiglia come from. If there are small farms in this region, I didn’t see any. The agriculture was on a monumental scale.
As it was Sunday afternoon in Catania, the streets were nearly empty. My B&B was XXMiglia in a neighbourhood that I would describe as “seedy-trendy”. It reminded me of Tribeca in the 70s. The owners of the B&B had bought several apartments on various floors of an older building. The breakfast room and a few others were stunning. Ten-foot domed ceilings were adorned with 18th or 19th-century frescoes of cherubs and country landscapes.
I stayed in several rooms but mostly this one:
Dig the crazy ceiling! It dates from the 19th century.
Although I had planned to stay a couple of days and then move to Syracuse, I was so comfortable there I decided to stay four nights. The owners were delightful, breakfast was like a four-star hotel and I loved Catania. The ambiance was different from Palermo. Although there were not the architectural sights, there was a vitality and energy that I found invigorating.
Plus, Catania was within easy reach of other sites: Piazza Armerina and the Roman Villa; Syracuse; Taormina. And there was an opera opening at the opera house! I’m in. And, I found such a wonderful restaurant, I didn’t want to go anywhere else.
Sunday October 18
After walking about town, I headed to Trattoria di des Fiori, run by 70-something Roseanna and everything a Sicilian trattoria should be. I ordered homemade pasta with black squid ink sauce which was divine. I fell into conversation with Narelle, a charming young Australian designer, discussing everything under the sun. Neither of us was sure of our plans for the next few days as I still hadn’t decided whether or not to stay in Catania or move on to Syracuse. She mentioned something about Rigoletto playing in the Opera house. “Go!” I said. You’ll love it. We parted without exchanging contact information though.
Monday October 19
Research revealed that visiting the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina via public transport was a dubious proposition. Back to Maggiore at the airport to pick up a car. Papers, waiting, papers, car.
It was a good 1&1/2 hour ride to the Villa Romana but the Roman mosaics made it all worthwhile. The artistic quality of the mosaics was extraordinary.
So much of it involved hunting, it should have come with a trigger warning. The saddest were the “wild animals” captured in North Africa that were destined to be displayed and killed in gladiatorial “games”.
It’s nice to know the ladies of the house were keeping in shape. I guess this was the gym room.
I drove back to Catania thinking that the Romans were basically dreadful people. I imagined conversing with the patrician owner of the villa.
“Do you have to massacre every man, woman, child and dog in a captured town?”
“Losers, losers and losers!”
“No free handouts here!”
“Watching gladiators murder each other?”
“Torture? Crucifixions? Beheadings? Drawing and quartering?”
“Evildoers, enemies, traitors and bad guys. Your point?”
It was dark when I got back to Catania. Dinner again at Trattoria des di Fiori. This time I chowed down pasta alla Norma, Sicily’s national dish. Topped with grated ricotta salata and thick slices of fried eggplant, the chewy pasta and light tomato sauce was filling without being heavy.
Tuesday October 20
It was pouring rain when I left the hotel, intending to take a bus to Taormina. But first I needed to buy my ticket for Rigoletto at the Opera House. As I hadn’t heard of any of the singers, I decided on a cheap ticket in the upper balcony.
On the way to the station I changed my mind reasoning that Syracuse with a lot of interiors to visit would make more sense on a rainy day.
After trudging around the bus and train neighborhood for 20 minutes looking for the ticket booth, I finally found it and bought a ticket for the hour-long trip to Syracuse. I consulted maps and guidebooks along the way trying to figure out the best way to see the Greek ruins and the old town of Ortigia in an afternoon. They are several kilometres apart.
I got off somewhere in between in a commercial district and hunted around for an ATM. Unlike many countries, ATMs are not on every other street; you have to know where they are.
By the time I got to the Greek ruins, the weather had cleared up and it was quite warm. Contrary to other sites, there were no explanations for the major highlights except for a Qcode that opened onto a site in Italian. Also disappointing was the fact that the Roman amphitheatre was closed. The Greek theatre was impressive though.
Plato sat there!
I hopped the free shuttle to Ortigia, a handsome town that was certainly well-trodden by tourists. Lined by shops, the main road led to the bulwarks.
There were a lot of nooks and crannies I would have liked to explore.
Plus majestic piazzas and buildings.
But the most impressive of all (where pictures were not allowed) was the Cathedral built on the site of an ancient temple to Athena. Seeing Christian forms sprouting from the massive 5th-century BC pillars was stirring. That it was still an active church provided a sense of connection to past worshippers that was more attenuated in the temples at Agrigento and Segesta. Odd, how once a site is recognized as holy, it remains holy for hundreds of years.
Before catching the bus back to Catania, I checked out the ruins of Apollo’s temple.
Then it was back to Catania in time for the opera.
Who should I see outside the opera but Narelle? Reunited!
Buzzing around the entrance we fell into conversation with an usher who beckoned us to follow him. Suddenly we were backstage (which was really an interior alley) where singers were milling around in costume and we could hear other singers warming up. Then we found ourselves actually onstage where our guide helpfully took a picture of us with the grand old auditorium in the background.
The production was traditional in terms of staging, costumes, acting. The baritone, Alberto Gazale, sung Rigoletto quite well. The other singers were competent and greatly helped but the excellent acoustics. I was surprised and disappointed that the opera house didn’t sell out though.
Wednesday October 21
It absolutely poured rain in buckets all day. There was nothing to do but rest, contemplate my ceiling and read news reports about the monsoon that swept across the region causing flooding and washed out roads. I crept out for lunch (€5 for pasta, water and coffee) and narrowly managed to avoid drowning.
That night I might Narelle again at Trattoria des di Fiori where she arranged for a special birthday desert. Sweet!
Thursday October 22
The fact that the highway from Catania to Palermo was partially cut off prompted me to take the long route back and stop at Taormina. The town center was swamped with tourists, tourist shops, tourist restaurants but the setting was dramatic.
I did not visit the Greek amphitheatre (shocking I know). I had already seen three; the line was long; the Guide Routard found it overpriced.
I strolled around for a bit and grabbed a slice of pizza before heading to the car. How could a €2 slice of pizza be so well constructed with a soft, chewy crust and just the right amount of fresh tomato sauce and roasted vegetables?
Something to ponder on my trip back.
For my last night in Sicily, I stayed in Cinisi, close to the airport at stunning B&B Antichi Colori.