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Catania

Sicily

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Gritty, grotty & plastered with graffiti

Catania is a full-throttle Sicilian city. 

 

It’s gritty, grimy and greasy. Parts are distinctly grotty. And plastered with graffiti. It has dark corners, dodgy characters and even dodgier traffic. 

 

And I loved every bit of it! 

 

Because alongside the grime, sits the sublime. Catanians seem to simply accept the edge and the flaws and get on with the business of living joyfully. Maybe something to do with being overlooked by an active volcano?

 

This is perfectly summed up by the journey to breakfast at my hotel, Ha-bi-tat. Up a dingy and jaded 18th century stairwell, elegant, but bearing the scars of time. Through an imposing and impossibly heavy door. And into a sleek, light-filled, Scandi-modern space. Perfectly jointed wooden benches, steel and slate counters,

floor to high-ceiling shelving, and down one side the most beautifully curated and extensive breakfast buffet you may ever encounter. As a backdrop, smooth grey intonachino comes to a clean, underlit break, shining a light on the patina of age-old plaster beneath. Texture and colour that any artist, myself included, would struggle to re-create.

Grey turns out to be central to Ha-bi-tat’s design concept. Who would have thought it could breathe such colour into a place? The tone is chosen precisely and perfectly to glow, but not glare. It sets off the rich sienna, raw umber and clay pink colours and unites a historic palazzo, a fish processing factory and a long courtyard. It even lends warmth to the staff uniform. Not that the staff needed it. They were some of the most convivial hosts I’ve ever met.

 

Boutique hotels aside, Catania has next to no grey. There’s either deep shadow, or vivid colour. Amber, fuschia, neon and ochre juxtaposed against ink, coal, tar and dense silhouette. And the same goes for opinions in this city. This is not a sit-on-the-fence kind of a place. Catanians are all too happy to state and debate  


The term ‘800A’ embodies the Catania spirit. It’s a synonym for the imperative ‘SUCA’, a mild profanity in Sicilian dialect, which I gather roughly translates as “Yes, it sucks, but get over it!”, or as my kids would say “That sounds like a ‘you’ problem” !  The phrase was emblazoned all over the city in none too subtle spray

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Deep shadow and vivid colour

paint. Until the Papal visit in 1994. Unable to remove all the offending graffiti, the city carefully annotated the letters ‘SUCA’ to form ‘800A’, saving the Pope’s blushes (and Catanians’ prospects of admission through the Pearly Gates). The alphanumeric imperative caught on and became the subject of dissertations, short stories and Instagram shorts. It’s now even a top-end fragrance. I bought the T-shirt.

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The Contrast, chaos and charisma

In that vein, exploring the city is all about embracing three ‘C’s; chaos, contrast and charisma.  

 

The chaos is ever present. Cars triple parked, things on the blink, constant sirens, obstructed pavements and suicidal scooters. But just as Manhattan teeters on the brink of complete malfunction, and yet never sleeps, so too Catania gets by with its chaos. Relishes it, actually.

 

Unlike NYC, though, this city does sleep. Mid-afternoon has a distinctly shut-up-shop feel. The contrast kicks in when the city wakes.


Catania does one thing incomparably well. It spills out onto the streets in the evening. Like nowhere else I’ve been. Restaurants that look shadowy, sombre and most likely insolvent are transformed. Tables fill every square foot of the sidewalk and beyond, bright tablecloths light up the alleyways, elegant couples

peruse wine lists, families gather, steaming plates of Pasta alla Norma are delivered with aplomb. It’s gourmet juxtaposed against graffiti.

I stopped for an early evening apero outside a modest, genial bar, taking one of their two small tables. As I sipped, the scene transformed around me, shutters rolled up, tables rolled out, the pizza oven fired up, queues formed, arguments broke out and were resolved amicably, I’m not entirely sure but there may even have been a proposal (!). Unwilling to give up my now prized table I lingered for a pizza. It was the cheapest dinner I’d had in Sicily and was utterly perfect. Thin and crisp and uneven. I was waved off like an old friend, with a generous shot or two of Limoncello for the road.

 

That’s the charisma at work. You may not see it at first. Just go with it when it hits you. 

 

On my way home, I discovered Catania’s Tango Club holding their Monday night practice in the elegant Piazza Vincenzo Bellini. The tango seems to be a dance that defies logic and demands passion. Many of tonight’s participants looked to

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Piazzo Vincenzo Bellini

be pushing 70, but were pushing, pulling and lunging each other around with aplomb. Pure charisma at play.

 

On the subject of dinner, do yourself a favour and hit up Ma-te-ria, site of my epic breakfasts. I sat with a prime view of the kitchen and watched plate after perfect plate leave the pass. Many of them heading my way, fortunately. This is an oasis of Michelin amongst the mayhem.   

 

After just three days, Catania left me invigorated and exhausted in equal measure. It would make the perfect gateway to the Baroque towns and blistering beaches further south in the ‘Sicilia Orientale’. In my case, I’d done it in reverse and was heading back to the big smoke of London for a bit of a rest.

 

Catania may not exactly be to everyone’s taste, but as Sicilians say, ‘800A’.

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Street scene, Catania

Arches, courtyards & graffiti

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Welcome

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

 

Ha-bi-tat boutique hotel;

www.habitatboutiquehotel.com/en/

This place is hang-out perfect.  It can be hard to choose between their room types, so I’ll make it easy for you; basically you want room 31.

 

And their restaurant / kitchen Ma-te-ria;

www.materiaspaziocucina.it/en/the-restaurant/

Small + Michelin listing = Book ahead

 

Boutique wise, there’s also Asmundo Gisira Art of Living Boutique Hotel.  You can stay in to a work of art.  At twice the price though, I can’t see it outdoing Ha-bi-tat (but I can’t say).

www.asmundodigisira.com/?lang=en

 

Although chaotic and crowded, the Alibus shuttle from the airport to downtown works just fine.  Good luck figuring out the timetable and the route though!

 

Walking tours on Mount Etna are aplenty. I was recommended EtnAround.

www.etnaround.com/

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Don’t miss;

The tourist bumph will point you to the various Duomo­, churches, piazzas, etc. I reckon it’s best to aim for one of these and then just let the charisma hit you, as and when it sees fit.   

 

The fish market is worth a nose. You can’t miss it. Just follow your nose.

Kicks off from 7am for oysters before breakfast.

 

Teatro Antico Greco-Romano di Catania. Atmospheric Greek amphitheatre miraculously sandwiched between city centre streets.

 

For oenophiles, round the corner, under Arco di San Benedetto, is Nelson’s wine bar. They began in a super little wine shop just up the road and had only been open two days when I showed up. Just long enough for me to sample.

www.nelsonsicily.com/

 

There are myriad day trips to Taormina on offer. You may know my views on group tours and my reluctance to day trip. So, skip the tours, check out the film ‘A Chance Encounter’, then decide if Taormina’s worth two or three days in its own right.      

 

The San Berillo art district just steps from Teatro Bellini will up your colour quota.  Worth a visit.  Combining it with lunch or dinner at La Pentolaccia might just make it worth a detour.

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