Catania, Sicily – Love at first sight

On leaving Rome, we intended to spend a few days at Pompei and to see Naples. By the time we actually got on the road, we decided that we couldn’t face it as we hadn’t got the energy to spend more time sightseeing. We wanted to get somewhere warmer and to settle down for a month or so.

We covered the journey from Rome to Sicily in one go – all 500+ miles of fairly unmemorable motorway. Yes, we did look at Vesuvius as we passed but, apart from promising to go back on the way North in the Spring, we took no heed of its presence.

Ferry from San Giovanni to Messina

We spent a night in a service station just outside San Giovanni so that we could do the last part of the journey in daylight.

As we drew into the port, a man came up to us and asked for details of the vehicle. We told him that the van was 7.6 meters, weighed 5 tons and that the trailor was another 4.4 meters and weighed about 1.5 tons. We told him we were British and that we were two adults. He wrote all this down and then said he could give us a discount and wrote on a piece of paper “5m” and showed it to us. Thinking he was the official ticket man, we just nodded acceptance of whatever he said. At this point he indicated that we should draw forward in front of the ticket office and get out to pay for the ticket. He came with us to the ticket window and explained rapidly to the rather tired looking man inside that he had agreed a discount for us. The ticket was issued and E60 was paid. Now we had heard from some friends who had a slightly larger van but no trailer that the crossing had cost them E75. We seemed to be getting away cheap so when the original man then asked for a E5 tip, we paid without questioning the process. Indeed, no-one questioned the loading of our 12m rig on a ticket that said 5m. Quite how this arrangement happens, we have no idea!

The trip across was quick at about 20 minutes but it was obvious why this stretch of water is said to be the busiest channel in the world for shipping. There must have been a dozen ferries crossing the path of all the merchant and passenger traffic that passes between North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean and the West coast of Italy. There is a lot of it.

A short trip down the coast took us out of the rather uninspiring town of Messina, under the spectacular towns of Taormina and Castel Mola (of which more later) and on to Camping Jonio in Catania. We had decided that this could be our initial Sicillian resting place because of its proximity to the airport, Mt Etna and the busy city of Catania, where we thought our Christmas visitors would find things to see and do, rather than just looking over a beach in the middle of nowhere.

One look was enough. The campsite is small and a little cramped. It is in need of some maintenance but is also right on the rocky seaside as well as being no more than 2 miles from the city centre. In fact, we have been told that last year, during a storm, the waves put the lower part of the site (where we are) underwater and everybody had to be evacuated.

Spare room

Camping Jonio, Catania

The view from the van window is looking towards the Lebanon. I get great amusement from looking at the ships going to and fro and being able to look at http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/ to see what they are, where they are going to and have come from. Maybe it is a bit like trainspotting but, hey, what’s wrong with that?

Liz in the front "garden"

Liz in the front "garden"

Siracuse

The Festival of Santa Lucia at Siracuse, an hour’s trip South, proved to be a fascinating event. Held in December, it is not done to amuse the tourists but is a genuine local celebration. St Lucia, a local martyr, is now kept in edifice as an enormous silver statue which is taken round the old city every year with much pomp and ceremony. The thing weighs a considerable amount and even with 30+ porters can only be moved about 10 yards at a time with a five minute rest between movings. Since she is carried about 2 miles, it takes from midday till late evening to complete the pageant.

Santa Lucia appears

Santa Lucia appears

It was a matter of some surprise as we found our way to the starting piazza that the first people we met were Lars & June, our Swedish neighbours at Catania! We had a good day occasionally meeting up with the procession but also exploring the rest of the old city, finally landing up eating roast chestnuts in the dark but crowded streets before coming home.

Cooking lessons

One day, we were invited to attend a demonstration about cooking fish Sicillian style in the campsite kitchens. Liz attended to cooking bit

Culinary discussion

Culinary discussion

and we all enjoyed the proceeds.  There were six different fish: Griddled squid salad; Fried Calamari; Mascolini as ‘Sicilian Sushi’; Pasta with Swordfish & Prawn sauce; Spatole; Griddled Trout (Liz thinks).  All this in a mixture of Italian, English, Dutch, Swedish & German – it was delicious.

Fish lunch

Fish dinner

Julyan & Georgia
These two came out to spend a bit of their Christmas holiday with us. Of course there had to be a real  Mediterranean storm that day so they put down in Palermo before coming on to Catania about 4 hours late. They couldn’t believe how close we were to the sea and the enormous waves but, by then, they the crashing surf couldn’t keep them awake.

By this time, we had become used to Catania and took great pleasure in taking them into the chaos via the famous fish market.

Fish market

Fish market

where they were offered unidentified raw fish to sample.
The city is not a pretty place. It has a few wide and majestic streets with the big shops but for the most part is run down almost to the point of dereliction. There are some 500,000 people living here and almost all of them seem to be out in their cars on most days. It is very live. It has an air of relaxed excitement and chaos and is almost irresistable! Double and even treble parking are common but you can always find a parking place – just draw up onto the hatched areas on the road or the pavement!

Etna
The largest active volcano in Europe, Etna is always there but doesn’t actually seem to dominate the town even though its summit is a mere 17 miles from the town centre.

Etna from Catania

Etna from Catania

It has many moods and most of them are unpredictable. Julyan had every intention of skiing on it but had sprained his ankle. We had to go up and have a look at it, of course. The day we chose was sunny and clear with a sealevel temperature of about 18 degrees. As we climbed up the 2000 meters (by car!) the temperature dropped to about zero, with a biting wind. It was damned cold up there and we couldn’t go up the rest of the way to the summit as the cable car was closed because of the wind!!!

Snowy Etna

Snowy Etna

Catania from Etna

Catania from Etna

We didn’t see it ourselves, unfortunately, but Etna was apparently spitting out sparks one night while we were here.

Taormina & Castel Mola
From Etna, we drove down to look at Taormina and Castel Mola, two towns perched improbably on a rocky promontory to the East of the mountain.
Many photographs were taken except, in a drastic error of navigation, we drove up the mountain to the very top of Castel Mola, way beyond the “residents only” signs, where none of us had steady enough hands to take them!

Taomina dressed for Natale

Taormina dressed for Natale

Seriously narrow street

Seriously narrow street

Towards Acireale

Towards Acireale

Three wise monkeys in a bar?

Three wise monkeys in a bar?

We learnt about bagpipes made of whole sheep. We were entertained by a local rock band. Although a town that earns its living from the tourists at other times of the year, it is unquestionably picturesque and we were almost the only non-Italians there.

Georgia returns to UK – just about…

A nightmare! The flight from Catania on Monday 21st December was cancelled because of bad weather and the next BA flight was not until Saturday (Boxing Day). The first task was contacting BA in London who arranged for her to go via Alitalia to Rome and then BA from there on the Tuesday. On presenting herself at the check-in, it turned out that the ticket had not been issued. However, the plane was very late departing and this allowed time to get that sorted out and off she went. Although late, the flight to Gatwick was also late and she just managed the connection in Rome. On arrival at Gatwick, she learned that her bag had not been so lucky. On top of that, she had missed her Megabus to Sheffield and she was too late to catch a train either. The only hotel able to put her up was the Gatwick Hilton at a cost of £150. At least they gave her a free upgrade to a 3-room suite. Just to make life even more difficult, her phone was running low on charge by this time and, of course, the charger is in her missing bag. Still no bags on the following morning so she had to get the train without it to get back to Sheffield. Poor Georgia, but she did seem to be able to keep cheerful despite it all. And BA are responsible for all the extra costs. Sometimes it pays to use scheduled carriers!

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