Catania, they say, is a pearl forged from water and fire. For more than two and a half millennia, the metropolis has flourished on the white beaches of the Ionian Sea.
The “city under the mountain”, which is what the word Catania actually means, lies at the foot of Mount Etna, the largest volcano on our continent. With its more than 300,000 inhabitants, it is the second largest city of Sicily in Italy, after Palermo. It is also the capital of the metropolitan city of the same name. The metropolis is one of the late Baroque cities of the Val di Noto, which have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNSECO.
The city is a highly interesting and attractive destination for several reasons. Both its rich history and its intercultural diversity make it possible to experience a piece of ancient identity. The baroque buildings, the colorful and noisy markets and the numerous restaurants invite you to stroll around the city. Moreover, the convenient local transport allows to explore the region around the city. Catania is also an excellent seaside resort due to its proximity to the coast.
Tip 1: Castello Ursino
Castello Ursino is a fort in the Sicilian city of Catania, built on the walls of a Norman fortification. The fort was founded in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick II.
The Castello Ursino has a square ground plan. Four wings are grouped around the inner courtyard. Three halls per wing and the four corner halls are located here. In addition, the building has four large round corner towers and originally also four semicircular towers in the center of each lateral outer wall.
In 1932 the fort was bought by the city of Catania and restored. Since 1934 it has housed a museum. The museum houses an extensive collection of works of art from ancient times to the present. There is also an interesting collection of ancient sculptures and bronzes.
Tip 2: Catania Cathedral
The Norman origins of the Cathedral of Sant’Agata in Catania are not evident from its imposing, Baroque west façade. It is dedicated to St. Agatha, the Christian martyr and patron saint of the Sicilian city. Inside the cathedral are the relics of the saint in a jeweled shrine of silver, as well as the tomb of composer Vincenzo Bellini. Also, sarcophagi of the royal house of Aragon and a collection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings. Like Catania, the church has a varied history, some of which is visible architecturally.
Between 1078 and 1093, Sant’Agata Cathedral was built over an area of Roman baths as a Norman fortified church. Earthquakes and eruptions of Etna made partial rebuilding necessary several times. After the severe earthquake of 1693, Girolamo Palazzotto built the church in its present baroque form from 1709 on the ruins of the Norman church.
From the fortified church are preserved parts of the transept and the semicircular altar aisles, the apses. The western façade was designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, who left his mark on the city with his Baroque style. Already the Norman church was built in honor of Agatha, who, according to legend, defended her Christian innocence against a pagan Roman governor around 251 and died of torture for it. Today she is venerated as a patron saint. At the beginning of February, the inhabitants of Catania commemorate the Lady of Sorrows with a procession and a three-day street festival.
Tip 3: Elephant Fountain
Sympathetic landmark of Catania is the Elephant Fountain in the heart of the old town. On a high pedestal decorated with putti and other baroque sculptures, the central monument is an elephant made of black lava stone. Its trunk is raised high and white tusks protrude from its smiling mouth. He is adorned with a saddle blanket made of white marble. The most striking ornament of the elephant is the 4 m high Egyptian obelisk made of granite, which he carries on his back. The inhabitants call him Liotru, derived from the name of a sorcerer who, in legend, used an elephant as a means of transportation. The elephant is also the heraldic animal of Catania.
Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, appointed city architect in 1730, planned Catania in the Baroque style after the devastating earthquake of 1693, following the Roman model. He is said to have rescued both the elephant and the obelisk from the rubble of the quake.
Inspired by Bernini’s elephant statue in Rome’s Piazza Minerva, he fashioned a monument all his own from the finds, placing the obelisk, decorated with hieroglyphics and symbols of the Egyptian Isis cult, on top of the elephant. The Christian cross on top is dedicated to Catania’s patron saint, Saint Agatha. Thus, the elephant fountain is decorated with religious, pagan and Egyptian symbols. Many legends surround the origin and meaning of the elephant. It probably dates back to Roman times and formed the end of a racecourse. It symbolizes strength and longevity. Qualities that also characterize Catania, which has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt by natural disasters.
Tip 4: Mount Etna
If you are on vacation in Catania, you should plan at least one day for excursions to Mount Etna! The volcano is excellently developed and very easily accessible from the city by bus, cab or private car.
Depending on whether you want to climb the summit or visit one of the countless side craters of Etna, there are various tours available. Here you will be guided by a knowledgeable guide safely and reliably through the rugged landscape of the highest volcano in Europe.
Tip 5: Roman Theater
As in Syracuse and Taormina, the Greeks once built a grand theater in Catania for their theatrical performances. Later, the Romans rebuilt it and turned it into a venue for gladiatorial and animal fights. For Catania visitors, the theater is one of the main sights of the city.
Next to it is the Odeon, a smaller theater, also built of black lava rock.