First, there’s the natural beauty…an island in the middle of the Mediterranean with miles and miles of beaches, both smooth and sandy and rough and rocky. Then there’s Mt. Etna, one of only a few active volcanoes in all of Europe, reaching nearly 11,000 feet above sea level … which, by the way, the sea is only a couple miles away, which makes the difference all the more drastic. Various eruptions of Etna through history have combined with the moderate climate to turn the island into an agriculturally-rich region. Likewise, being surrounded by the sea, Sicily can take advantage of the wealth of goodness found below the surface of the Mediterranean.
Add to the natural beauty the cultural richness of this little island. Starting in at least 3,000BC, Sicily has been inhabited at least once by nearly every European empire: starting with ancient tribes who landed there from various parts of modern-day Europe, there’s the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, the Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spaniards, and finally, the Italians. With the presence of so many varied cultures, each one has left its mark in so many ways: language, cuisine, architecture, and clothing to name a few.
All this makes Sicily, which today forms part of the democratic republic of Italy, a fascinating place to visit, and taking advantage of a travel weekend, that’s exactly where a few of us Lincolnites decided to head for a few days. With the flight being less than an hour, it’s basically the same as flying from Omaha to Chicago for the weekend … basically the same. To that end, I thought I’d share just three little adventures from the weekend in Catania, Sicily.
After celebrating Mass at the beautiful Cathedral in Catania at the tomb of St. Agatha, a virgin martyr of the early Church who was executed in the mid-200’s AD, and the obligatory cappuccino and cornetto, we set off for the famous fish market, which was just around the corner. Turns out that it’s a sort of everything market: fish, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, fresh meats, coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, and other goodies too numerous to count. What words and photos cannot begin to capture was the atmosphere. If you’ve every been to Italy, you understand the beauty of chaos and disorder which is only problematic to those of Germanic descent; the Italians simply thrive in it!
As it turns out, this market went on for at least 6-8 blocks. The smells, sights, and sounds combined to produce a masterpiece … though, it probably takes a special kind of ear to appreciate it. Among the things more striking, at least to someone from the “land-locked” Midwest was the sea food: everything from large tuna steaks to sardines, oysters, squid (so you can make your squid ink pasta – no joke), and octopus. Most of it was readily identifiable, but some of it … well, who knows, but I’m sure if you put it with enough wine, cheese, or pasta, it’ll taste great!
With great surf, you always need a little turf; there’s the usual: beef, lamb, pork, chicken (complete with heads and feet). There’s also the local favorite: horse. If you don’t ask too many questions and just try a little, it’s not much different than beef. I don’t think it’ll be catching on in the states, though, any time soon. Then, of course, you’ve got all the other ordinary goodies, but it’s not your ordinary farmers’ market because, well, they’re Italian, so they’ve got to tell everyone for two blocks why their products are the best around. That’s where you get the “beautiful chaos”.
Then there was the visit to Mt. Etna. After winding up switchbacks through clouds and mist for almost an hour, we arrived at a “visitors center”; frankly, it was a bar with some souvenirs for sale and some remarkable sights. Unfortunately, the clouds and mist took away the views, but we could still see the ground under us and the craters nearby, formed by the activity of the volcano. The whole area was nothing but black dust and volcanic rocks. As you can see, a few plants had managed to set root, but I imagine it was something like walking on the moon! Of course, when the clouds broke for just a split second, the whole area opened up in a majestic way, and we were able to get a glimpse of what the clouds had managed to hide.
Lastly, and perhaps the most beautiful part of our trip, was a morning spent in a little town north of Catania along the coast called Taormina. Complete with a Greco-Roman amphitheater, Taormina is partly nestled on a short plateau at the base of a small mountain, guarding it from the forces of the sea, but also climbing up that same mountain in a remarkable feat of engineering. At the top of this mountain stands a little sanctuary dedicated to our Lady of the Rock, which dates back to the 800’s AD!
Here, we were able to enjoy the views of land and sea (see the first panoramic above with Mt. Etna) as well as celebrate Mass with some delightful locals who not only arranged everything for us, but also had to “take us behind the scenes” … mostly to get a better glimpse of the sea, the valley, and the volcano. How fitting that, while celebrating Mass in this tiny chapel of our Lady, the responsorial psalm for that day recalled these words:
I love you, O LORD, my strength, O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer. My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold! Praised be the LORD, I exclaim, and I am safe from my enemies. The LORD lives and blessed be my rock! Extolled be God my Savior. – Psalm 18
Ah, the wondrous ways of Divine Providence!
I’d go on about the cannolis and other such wonders of this magical land, but that might tempt you to start checking Google Flights repeatedly for cheap travel to Sicily, so I’ll just stop there!