Italia '23 part tre: Palermo
Edinburgh Festival 2023: Needs A Different Bit After The Colon

Italia '23 part quatro: Catania

To be fair, it's not the first theatre I've fallen asleep inside.[previously: June 14-18, June 18-20, June 21-23]

Saturday June 24

There are two things the guidebooks always tell visitors to Sicily. 1: don’t mention the Mafia (despite every tourist shop we encounter here having Godfather t-shirts on sale). 2: don’t trust the Sicilian train service to get you anywhere on time. Happily, the next leg of our journey has an alternative to the train, as SAIS Trasporti run a regular coach service between Palermo and Catania, only taking two and a half hours or so to get you from Sicily’s first city to its second one. You can even book tickets for it back home via Omio.

So we grab one more breakfast at BB 22, use our final two bus tickets to get us out to the coach station, and by ten o’clock sharp we’re on our way. It's a perfectly acceptable journey, right up to the point where the driver chooses to ignore the stop in Catania that we’ve got tickets to, and takes us straight to the terminus in the centre of town without stopping. Little do we realise at the time that this isn’t going to be the only time here that buses will screw us over. In fact, just one day later, a bus-related cock-up will result in a hundred or so Catanian citizens thinking that we’re racists.

With the extra distance added on by the bus overshooting our stop, it ends up taking the full traditional 25 minutes to walk from the station to our accommodation. And it has to be noted at this point that the further south we’ve been going in Italy, the hotter it’s been getting – temperatures in Catania will eventually peak around the 36 degree mark during our time here. Sure, one month later the temperatures would be ten degrees higher than that, and bits of Sicily would be in literal flames: but when you’re dragging a suitcase behind you on pavements that are barely wide enough for pedestrians, 36 is hot enough to drain all of the fun out of a holiday. And when we get to our hotel to find we’ll have to carry our cases up two flights of stairs, I believe the actual phrase ‘fuck this’ may have escaped my lips.

Once we get to the top of those stairs though, things perk up enormously. We’re staying at a place amusingly named BAD, which is sort of an acronym for Bed&breakfast And Design. It’s a fairly standard B&B, with some hostel-type touches in the communal area – shared fridge, water cooler, those sort of things. As the name implies, the rooms have some entertaining design touches to them: nothing especially fancy, but they all contribute to the fun vibe of the place. It’s nicely positioned, too: close to the market, near to the secondary bus station, and slightly less close to an interesting collection of restaurants.

Our first action is to grab lunch at one of them (the excellent seafood joint Osteria Antica Marina), and then check out one or two of the local shops. As our chocolate stash from Turin has now been used up, The BBG wants to pick up some of the local stuff, and we get a couple of bars of Modica from a shop called Agathae (not realising at the time that half the buildings in the city are named after its patron saint Agata). It’s got a fascinating layered texture all of its own, one that we subsequently discover is wrecked if you keep it in the fridge, although if you let it warm up again it recovers nicely.

A bit of aimless strolling eventually resolves into a more focussed visit to the Teatro Antico Greco-Romano di Catania. The old Greco-Roman theatre is a beautifully preserved bit of architecture, and we’ve got a lovely sunny day to wander around it and try out seating at various levels. But it has to be said that this is the point where the heat really gets to me, and I start seriously flagging – without the occasional nudge from The BBG, I suspect I might have actually fallen asleep in there. I have a theory that this might be indirectly down to Covid. Pre-pandemic, we’d be visiting hot places in Asia every year or two, and temperatures in the high 30s would have meant nothing to me – I even managed to clock up forty degrees or so on some of my work trips to the Middle East. But three years of not being able to travel very much seems to have wrecked my ability to cope with high temperatures. I’m just going to have to relearn it again over time, I suppose.

We use the hotel map (with, as is traditional, fabulously useful annotations from the guy on reception) to navigate our way around the centre of town in search of dinner. Before too long, we’re in Via Santa Filomena, which is crammed with eateries of every type – all we need to do is pick one. We end up at Fud, which on the surface is a restaurant whose USP is that all of the items on the menu are spelled wrong. Specifically, they’re using Italian phonetic spelling on English language names – it takes me ages to realise that Cis Burgher is actually their name for a cheeseburger, and not some sort of indication that all their other burgers now self-identify as rissoles.

This is the sort of gimmick that you’d imagine could get on your tits quite rapidly, and I’d agree with you: at least, I would if the food was bad. In fact, it’s terrific, and accompanied by some interesting Italian craft beers to boot, so we’re happy. The trick is that they take the food very seriously despite the zany names, and that goes double for their pride in local cuisine. The most entertaining aspect of the night is seeing the table next to us asking for four Cokes and being told ‘we only serve Italian things. That’s American.’ They have to make do with four orangeades, and to be fair you could do a lot worse in Sicily. We have an enjoyable walk back to the hotel from the friendly buzz of Santa Filomena, although we’re slightly disappointed that there’s not much activity to be seen on the streets beyond that on a Saturday night, apart from a small fight that we carefully cross the road to avoid.

The majesty of Etna. Sorry about the skip getting in the way.Sunday June 25

Breakfast this morning was always going to be a bit risky: we have an appointment to be at a specific location in Catania by 8.00am, so we need to have eaten well before that. This is where BAD’s self-service model comes into its own: pre-packaged pastries are left in your room every night, and yoghurts and drinks can be picked up from the communal area. Rough, ready, but exactly what we need in the circumstances.

Those circumstances are, since you ask, an 8am pickup from town for a tour up Mount Etna. Again, note that the time when Etna started shooting lava in all directions was several weeks after this, so we have no disasters to report. Nevertheless, because that sort of thing can happen at any time, there are rules: the general public can’t go up any higher than 2750m (at least that was the case when we went there - it looks like the maximum height changes ever so often, and in September 2023 was 2920m), and they have to be accompanied by accredited guides.

Our journey to 2750 is a three stage one. Florinda from Excursions Etna picks up her small tour group – the two of us and an additional family of three - and drives us to the cable car station. The cable car takes us to 2500, and wimps and wusses can stay at that point and hang around the souvenir stall. But for those prepared to fork out a bit more money, we get to ride the last 250m in a 4x4 and walk around the slopes under the supervision of a guide. It’s quite misty on the day, so the summit’s barely visible, but the atmosphere is something else. Because of the surface (pointy rocks and powdered lava) and the altitude (making this a good 20 degrees cooler than sea level), our holiday packing has had to include walking boots, a fleece and a waterproof jacket – all of which we've been carrying across Italy for the last ten days, to be used on this one occasion and then locked back inside our luggage again.

Florinda doesn’t join us in the cable car, but she’s still there when we get back, and makes sure we get our money's worth out of the tour. She has her own set of stories about Mrs Etna that she shares during the drive, saying that the locals see her as a friendly source of income rather than an ever-present threat. "You can usually outrun lava,” she insists unconvincingly. We also get to do a tiny bit of safe spelunking in one of Etna’s lava caves, and visit a shop selling local produce. The highlight of this is a free tasting of Etna wines, and when they suggest there’s an even better one you can try "but you’ll have to pay for it," well, what can you do?

We had a clearly defined thing to do this morning, and another clearly defined thing to do in the evening: the space in between the two is a bit more random and free-form. Needing something quick to eat after our Etna trip, we grab a couple of panini at the University Café before heading back to BAD to write out our last few postcards on its overly sunny roof terrace (no need for those fleeces by now). In search of some culture, we wander round Castle Ursino and its fine art collection, discovering that there are actually a few paintings of things we recognise from our five – count ‘em – days spent in Sicily so far. The highlight has to be Calcedonio Reina's painting Amore e Morte, combining the two subjects of its title in the least subtle way possible by depicting a couple literally making out in the middle of the mummified corpses in Palermo's Catacombe del Cappuccini. Sadly, we don’t manage to locate their Ferdinando Scianna photography exhibit before the castle closes. We compensate with arancini and other nibbles at Le Tre Botti.

And so to our evening activity, which initially seemed a lot less risky than the morning one. After all, we don’t go up volcanoes every time, but we go to gigs regularly: and this year we’ve made a habit of deliberately seeing artists we've never heard of before. So, armed with a couple of tickets to see local folk outfit I Beddi at the Zo cultural centre, plus an app to buy tickets for buses, we set off for the show. We screw up immediately: the bus station by our hotel is atrociously laid out, and we don’t realise until the bus has turned the wrong corner that we’re travelling in the wrong direction. We get off as soon as we can and cross a hellish multi-lane junction to get the bus going the other way. Unfortunately, the queue includes a shouty aggressive Bus Nutter who, over the course of 15 minutes, scares off everyone else in the queue as they walk on to the next stop. (We all nod to each other in recognition as we arrive separately at the stop.)

All these delays mean we get to Zo just as the show's due to start, so we're a bit flustered as we dash into the venue and take our seats. We then spend the next twenty-five minutes of our lives slowly realising that the people on stage in front of us aren’t going to start playing folk at any point. What we’ve actually blundered into is a private venue hire by a student theatre group, performing a piece called Il Viaggio – a collection of stories about migrants coming to Italy - to a bunch of their mates. And even in Italian, you can tell it’s absolute dogshit: the equivalent of those Saturday Night Live high school theatre sketches but done for real, with the abiding image being all ten cast members forming a line across the stage and yelling at the audience in turn. “Should we leave?” I whisper to The BBG at the 25 minute mark. “I don’t know,” is her reply. As if to answer the question, this is the exact point where a cast member walks to the front of the stage and starts singing Imagine.

We wait for a suitable break in the proceedings before getting out of our seats and exiting through what turns out to be the noisiest door in the room. Happily, with a bit of help from a Zo staff member, we’re directed to the part of the venue where the actual gig is happening: an open courtyard with a much bigger audience that’s having a lot more fun (though far too many of them are trying to film the entire show on their phones). It’s a relief to discover that I Beddi are entirely as advertised: a Sicilian folk group that takes inspiration from music the world over and mushes it all up into a danceable mixture, broken up with some poetry from a frontman who looks like Trevor Horn. They’re performing entirely in Italian, so I’m assuming (in both this case and that of Il Vaggio) that the attitude towards other races is generally favourable: it would seem like a lot of work to take the piss out of Africans by accurately recreating their polyrhythms.

So after a traumatic buildup, our trip to Zo turns out to be a success. It only strikes me on the walk home (no chance of getting a bus back) that the break in Il Viaggio where we chose to walk out was when the audience applauded one of the speeches. To them, it must have looked like we listened to someone talking passionately about the positive benefits of migrants coming to Italy, and said "sod this, we’re off…"

Was it religious ecstasy I felt in the churches of Catania, or was it all the fumes from the cleaning fluids those two guys were using?Monday June 26

We have one more breakfast in our room at BAD, and leave our suitcases there while we pop out for one more morning of exploring Catania. We’ve managed to get through almost two days without checking out any religious buildings, so we visit the Basilica Cattedrale di Sant'Agata as well as the confusingly-named Chiesa della Badia di Sant'Agata next door (the latter giving us one more excellent rooftop view across the city). We also hit the market to pick up some supplies for the journey home, as well as a quick decent lunch at L’Iska.

Technically, everything for the next fifty-odd hours after this is our journey home (admittedly, with an overnight stop along the way). We head back to BAD to collect our bags, and happily the man on reception carries them down the stairs for us. We head to the bus station that was the scene of last night’s embarrassment, with The BBG panicking that we’re going to get a bus the wrong way again: but we don’t, and arrive at Catania’s railway station in decent time. As we’re determined to get an ice cream in every city we visit, our last task in Catania is to grab a granita from one of the two vendors located outside the station. The unanimous verdict online is that one of them (Chiosco della Stazione) is good, while the other (Gelateria Stazione) is downright evil: we go for the good one, and it’s very nice indeed.

And so to the meat of our journey: another twenty-and-a-half hour epic, this time taking a single train from Catania to Milan (including a spectacular interlude when the train is loaded onto a ferry to get us back onto the mainland). We have a sleeper berth for the night – a pair of single beds again, but we knew that all along. We’ve heard that catering on these overnight services can be a little erratic: in fact, when I try to download the train's app to order food and drink, I’m blocked from doing so because my phone isn’t Italian. But we’re well prepared, thanks to our trip to the market earlier on: we have bread, cheese and peaches, plus a litre plastic bottle of red wine which we bought for two and a half euros, which turns out to be more drinkable than we could possibly have imagined. All that, plus previously downloaded episodes of Taskmaster watched on my phone, sends us to our bed happy and eager for what our first visit to Milan in 16 years will bring.

At this stage, of course, we’re unaware of the dead body.

[to be concluded]


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