Under the volcano in Catania, Sicily (Part One).
“Nowhere has truth such a short life as in Sicily; a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, squashed, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves onto the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.”
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, “The Leopard”
Based on our scant week’s residency in Catania last November, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s reflection about the brevity of Sicilian truth might better describe adherence to traffic laws, which in practice tend more toward vague suggestive recommendations than ironclad do’s and don’ts … and soon vanish altogether.
Consequently, we chose to walk as often as possible. Even so, I experienced an alarming weight gain, attesting to the reality that in Sicily, diets also abruptly vanish.
Catania is a city of 325,000 people, second largest in Sicily behind Palermo. It perches by the Mediterranean Sea on the island’s eastern side. The citizenry resides atop the volcanic detritus of millennia, with suburbs ascending steadily to where the slopes of Mt. Etna begin.
The volcano’s perpetually smoldering 11,000-foot crater looms on one side of Catania, and a vast expanse of salt water on the other. Numerous other settlements, villages, vineyards and farms dot the landscape. So it has been since ancient times.
During our holiday in Catania, the region’s typical autumn weather – high humidity and rain from clouds trapped by Mt. Etna’s height – produced misty, overcast days that almost continuously obscured the volcano from our vantage point on the ground.
Luckily, we were aloft and seated near the aircraft’s windows during both of our clear, sunny days, first on a Wednesday trip to nearby Malta, and then during the first leg of the journey home. Seeing the snow-covered volcano from the air was stunning, and ranks with my greatest ever travel thrills.
As an adult, scientific pursuits have not been a priority for me apart from a rudimentary knowledge of fermentation. However, as a child, I was fascinated by dinosaurs, geology … and volcanoes.
At some point along the way a transition occurred, and my focus shifted to the humanities, history and geography. These have served me well in barroom debates, but when the opportunity came to visit Catania, suddenly I experienced overlapping chronologies. Can old publicans learn new tricks?
Prior to leaving the States, we booked a Mt. Etna van tour with an English-speaking driver/guide. Unfortunately, Monday proved to be the worst weather of the trip, although our man Tomassino was an entertaining and authoritative source of information about the volcano and its surroundings. It was a welcome refresher course, absorbed with wine and occasional nibbles from local farms.
Taken together, volcanoes, earthquakes, fault lines and rifts are interrelated aspects of a planet in constant movement. In fact, Mt. Etna is continuously active. It vents and breathes, and occasionally lava will work its way through a fissure and begin flowing somewhere down the mountainside. The scene was placid in November, but minor eruptions occurred in February, 2017.
If only we’d been there then!
Catanians refer to Mt. Etna as “she,” and to themselves as her children. Residents of the region have learned to live with the volcano because in terms of probability, constant minor rumblings tend to forestall a Mt. St. Helens-style epochal explosion borne of long-term pressure unrelieved.
However, this has not always been the case. A little over 300 years ago, Catania suffered through both a volcanic eruption and an ensuing earthquake, an unfortunate combination resulting in the destruction of much of the 2,000-year-old city.
The urban core was rebuilt in the then-current Baroque style, with ash-gray lava basalt used strikingly as exterior embellishment, only to be damaged yet again when the Allies bombed the port during WWII. Today, Catania’s compact Baroque city center is surrounded by rings of subsequent construction and development.
Catania is a working city, with less of a tourist presence than other more famous Italian locales. It is lived in, well used and frayed around the edges, not at all pristine in a Scandinavian kind of way. There is litter and graffiti in Catania, and the street lights don’t always work. At first glance, the scene is chaotic. Sicily has numerous issues. Perfection doesn’t exist.
But give it a few days, and Catania starts making sense – and a visitor can eat and drink like royalty at reasonable prices.
We arrived at our hotel at around 6:00 p.m., following three flights totaling 22 mind-numbing hours, enlivened by the stereotypical hair-raising taxi ride from the airport, which is located about as far from downtown as Louisville’s.
According to the helpful hotel desk clerk, the perfect spot for our first evening meal in Catania was La Terrazza del Barone, located in the same neighborhood, just around the corner and two short blocks away.
However, we couldn’t eat quite yet, because in the Mediterranean tradition, restaurants close after lunch and don’t reopen until 7:00 p.m. at the absolute earliest. After freshening up, a brief orientation walk revealed our crucial proximity to Via Plebiscito, a lengthy, curving and utterly illogical street hosting numerous neighborhood trattorias, such that the smell of food was never very far away.
Many of Via Plebiscito’s trattorias are renowned for grilled horse, offered by the cut like beef, or ground and made into meatballs and burgers. Measured on a per capita basis, Italians are the European champions of horse meat consumption, and on Sicily, Catania is the acknowledged leader in equine gastronomy.
It happens that 27 long years had elapsed since my previous Italian meal. I’ve never knowingly consumed horse, and neither of us had visited Sicily, so the Baylors were fully prepared to go “all-in” on opening night, and the results were fabulous.
It was necessary to relearn the consummately civilized, enduring principles of Italian dining. Menus in Italy tend to be organized by course, intended sequentially, as constituting a philosophy of relaxed dining and perhaps a guide to living as a whole.
Antipasti (appetizers) are followed by pasta, then a main course and dessert – sweets, perhaps coffee or liqueurs, or a second bottle of wine.
The object is to refrain from one’s evening meal until 7:30 or 8:00 at the very earliest, and devote a large portion of the evening to leisurely working your way through it – unless you’d rather grab a quick drink and a few nibbles before getting into mischief elsewhere. This also is allowed. Sit and linger, or eat and run. Bring the kids and spill out into the street. Enjoy.
La Terrazza del Barone proved to be a classic family institution, staffed with professionally attired servers tending garrulously to business. Despite a language gap, they were unfailingly helpful during our first evening’s meal, as well as two subsequent visits.
My horse meat came unadorned, in the form of a mixed grill. As I’ve always maintained, once we’ve made the decision to eat meat, parts is parts. Horse has a flavor just like beef, pork or chicken, and while describing it isn’t really possible, I found it tender and succulent, tastier than expected.
I’d do it again, and hearty red wine didn’t hurt, either. It was almost 10:00 p.m. when we finished, and the place was still packed. The festive meal compounded our exhaustion, fueling ten hours of much needed sack time, followed by a copious hotel breakfast on Sunday morning prior to the requisite orientation stroll, and an introduction to cannoli.
(to be continued as time permits)