In the 13 years since Catania and I began our romance, it has become my second home outside of London. When I land at its airport, I feel a little bit fuller. For all its energy, chaos and noise, it makes me feel calm. A city that obstinately sits under the shadow of a live volcano and looks out over the sea holds a unique position in the world. As strangely quiet as its streets are on a Sunday afternoon, it is explosively alive on a Saturday night or a Monday morning. It is a city of extremes, a place whose motto reads ‘Melior de cinere surgo’ – ‘from the ruins, I emerge stronger’.
Back in 2008, I had spent time in Italy but had never met Sicilia, the chaotic, hot island off its foot. As part of an interrailing trip, a friend and I travelled in an AC-free bus from Palermo to Syracusa where we were romanced by a young baker and fireman; they told us to shorten our planned trip to Taormina and head to Catania instead. Catania is livelier, cheaper and has incredible nightlife, they said. Taormina, even 13 years ago, was no place for two 21-year-olds with a budget of 20 euros a day, so – after two incredibly sticky nights in a youth hostel where we lived exclusively off bruschetta – we jumped on a train to Catania.
It was hot, so punishingly hot. We had backpacks that felt like wearing an oven and cheap sandals that already formed blisters on our worn feet, but we eventually made it to Agora, a youth hostel in a square-cum-carpark. We dumped our backpacks in our dorm and went exploring. Catania was so different to anywhere I had ever visited. Its grey buildings are mostly made from volcanic rock which has been painstakingly moulded and carved in the Baroque style. It was and still is covered in street art and graffiti. It felt creative and interesting. We walked through the fish market which, although closed for the day, was still left with an unforgettably fishy smell. As the evening arrived, the streets began filling up in a way I hadn’t seen in any of the other Italian towns I visited. If you’re never far from a pub in the UK, you’re never far from a bar in Catania. Students, families, couples and teenagers huddled outside drinking carafes of wine, morettis and espressos, sometimes at restaurants, cafes and bars, but also on doorsteps and by monuments so beautiful they made my eyes water. We walked along Via Etnea, the city’s high street, where I saw Etna, a towering volcano with smoke rising above her top, for the first time. It was so loud – Italians are not known for their quietness, but the Sicilians, specifically the Catanese, are noisier and more direct and passionate above all others. They are either wildly overfamiliar or nonplussed to the point of complete rudeness. I once made the grave mistake of ordering a cappuccino after midday and the waiter scowled at me and brought me a glass of wine instead. This extremity is one of my favourite things about them. They are so very much alive.
We walked back to the hostel to find that the cars had gone, and instead the square was filled with tables and chairs of young people enjoying drinks and pizza. Someone was playing the guitar and I vaguely remember an accordion, not that you could hear much – the sound of people talking and laughing was that loud. It was dark, but the square was lit by golden glowing streetlights. It smelt of pizza, limoncello and cigarette smoke. And that was it, the city wooed me that year and every year after with its chaos, bustle and bohemia.
It’s a place that is often overlooked in favour of the more photogenic Taormina, Palermo and Syracuse. Catania is not the most beautiful destination in Sicily, but it is the most interesting. It has a few sandy beaches, but you’ll find better elsewhere. What she does have is grit (Catania is definitely a woman), scruffiness and darkness that makes her fascinating to get to know. While year after year the city’s essence remains the same – her non-conformity and beautiful raggedness – there is always another layer to unpeel. Ex Rimessa AMT, former bus garage now used as an outdoor art space. The harbour arm is perfect for morning runs. Macondo wine and book, a tiny bar where DJs play reggae out a window. The San Berillo district, another plant-filled square serving the best pasta you’ve ever eaten (it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve tried to recreate the penne alla norma, it is never as good as the stuff they serve at Pentolaccia in the San Berillo district). Nievski, a communist bar where the plastic-coated menus feature an imagined illustration of Che Guevara having a drink with Fidel Castro and Frida Kahlo. Palazzo Biscari, a little-known Baroque palace with frescoed halls and a staircase designed to look like the sea. Palestra Lupo, an abandoned building turned into an upcycling project. A secret nightclub hidden in an old palazzo’s courtyard. Afrobar, another beach club to dance at until the sun rises over Etna. Mercati Generali, Sicily’s best nightclub, housed in a 19th-century wine pressing warehouse, which spills out onto a courtyard surrounded by orange trees. Palazzo Platamone, an arts space that celebrates avant-garde artists and musicians. Zo, a new cultural centre offering theatre and jazz music housed in a former sulphur refinery.
One autumn evening last year in Catania, I went out for dinner alone. As I walked along the street, I heard the sound of opera from one of the churches. I paid five euros and watched one of the most sensational pieces of live music I have ever seen. As the singer concluded with Nessun Dorma, I cried, overwhelmed by the emotion and the power of his voice. The Catanese rose to their seats and applauded for five minutes straight. My hands stung from clapping so hard for so long. But that’s the thing with Catania, just when you think you know all there is to know about this sizzling bohemian enclave, she surprises you with something so unexpected that you are forced to come back for more. To quote one of my favourite songs, she has a face with a view. Ci vediamo presto, Catania, ti amo.