Friday morning we got up early and at around 8am left for Catania. It's about a two-hour drive and we wanted to be there before the parade (procession?) started at noon. This was a good test for our new GPS system (TomTom) and we programmed it to take us via the fastest route. Since we have gone in this direction before, several times now, we had a good idea how to get there but the GPS knew a few different turns and it was interesting to see the route it planned as we approached the city. It's cool the way it re-plans the route too, if you turn down a wrong street or if the street it wants you to go on is closed (as happened a few times), it figures out where you are and tells you where to go.
We parked by the train station and walked about 10 minutes to the center, near the Duomo and were quite delighted with the festive atmosphere we found! All the streets radiating from the center had decorations and there were balloon sellers and street vendors and people lined the sidewalks in anticipation. It was a gorgeous blue-sky day and the snowcapped volcano, Mt. Etna is a very visible part of the landscape. Catania is a big city with a population of over 350,000 people. Its origins date back to around 700 BC, when it was founded by Greek colonists, but it was also destroyed by that 1693 earthquake and completely rebuilt. The streets are straight and broad and the center is lined with many beautiful baroque buildings. The Duomo is in the heart of the town, in the piazza where the delightful "Fontana dell' Elefante" can be found. This is the symbol of the city, a fountain sculpted in the 18th century by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, where, on a pedestal in the basin there is an elephant made of lava rock and on his back an Egyptian obelisk with a globe on top.
The city felt bright, open and clean. Even though it is large, the center seemed manageable on foot, but our goal was to observe the festivities of the day and just get our bearings so that we could return another day to explore. Right on time the parade started, accompanied by the sounds of fireworks, loud in the air at either end of the route. In the procession were representatives from all the trades and clubs in the city. The firefighters received a bigger applause than the bishop! There was a group of people carrying a sign that said "España," dressed in period costumes and playing musical instruments. Every group carried the banners we have become used to seeing, identifying each organization and the event was often accompanied by the sounds of hymns being sung. At the end of the procession came the 11 "ceri" or candlesticks - more like giant vertical chandeliers, each of them a little different in gold with crystals, baroque details, angels and little dioramas depicting the events leading up to the martyrdom of Santa Agata, who had her breasts removed and was put to death for not renouncing her faith and marrying some guy with a lot of power. The fancier the better. Because my family is Sicilian and I grew up with my dear sweet Aunt Celeste who would love this very much, I have to smile to myself seeing all this fancy stuff. Bob and I say to ourselves "In Sicily, there is no such thing as 'over the top'." This is especially evident in the interiors of the Baroque churches and really true in these golden candlesticks! It was fun to see this event and the strength of the men carrying these heavy things from one end of town to the other, wearing these burlap headpieces that had a cushion at the back where they would rest the handles of the carts carrying them. We met a woman from Milan who overheard some of our conversation and in perfect English answered with a "yes" when Bob wondered aloud if one of the groups was made up of local politicians. She and I exchanged email addresses before the procession ended and she invited us to get in touch with her when we were in Verona.
Once the parade ended we wandered around a bit and found the fish market, about to close down for the day - something else to come back to on a future visit. Our plan was to drive to Acireale in the afternoon to try to get information about Carnevale, to take place in that city during the month of February. Acireale is not far from Catania and we found it easily, with the help of TomTom. The folks in the information office were friendly and gave us maps of the city and a list of B&Bs in the area. It is evident that a festival is about to take place as the streets are already decorated with holiday lights representing Carnevale,
Picking up some snacks to eat, we tried to make our way to the sea but took a few wrong turns (getting directions from a police officer and not using our TomTom) and never made it there! By this time it was getting dark and we decided to turn around and head back to Catania for the fireworks show. Scheduled to start at 8pm, we got back there around 7 and joined the crowd that was gathering in Piazza Duomo. There was to be a singing of hymns, followed by a fireworks show. We love fireworks!! The choir started to sing but the people in the piazza could not have cared less and were talking among themselves with the music simply a background distraction we found kind of frustrating, but which does seem to happen at these types of events. However, after a few songs (which did not really sounds like hymns to me at all) two violists stepped up on a platform to the left of the Duomo and the most amazing, well synchronized, fireworks show began, choreographed to the music, in the most dramatic and dynamic display we had ever seen!! These two artists could not have had more different styles of playing! It reminded us of the song "When the devil went down to Georgia" about a competition between the Devil and Johnny, a hot fiddle player. They started with a beautiful Ave Maria punctuated by soaring streaks of gold and silver rising to the heavens! After that a rousing Eastern European classical piece complete with crescendos accompanied by an explosion of light, color and sound. I do not have the vocabulary to properly describe the music but we were spellbound throughout the performance, the best we have seen so far. (and we were blown away in Siracusa by Santa Lucia's fireworks!) The music and the fireworks so perfectly married to each other, right above our heads, made it quite remarkable, unique and totally unforgettable, especially against the backdrop of the Duomo.
When the spettacolo ended we found ourselves in the crush of people leaving the square and slowly made our way to one of the side streets, where we could walk comfortably towards our car. I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of an enormous vat of boiling oil with what looked like sfingas bobbing in the hot oil!! Sfingas, for those of you who do not know, are little balls of dough deep fried in hot oil and then sprinkled with powdered sugar that we used to get during the Feast of St. Fortunata in Brooklyn near my grandparents' house. We could never get enough of them and everyone loved them better than any other treat. The ones in Catania had ricotta in the center and were delicious, but very greasy! I asked for powdered sugar and the woman behind the counter frowned at me and said "NO! miele!" meaning honey. We ate some in the car right away and kept a few for eating the next day. We warmed them up and tried them with honey and it was yummy I must say.
The drive home, with no traffic at all on the main roads went very quickly and we made it back to Marina di Ragusa in about 1-1/2 hours. I felt a bit uncomfortable driving on some of these very dark roads and was glad our car is dependable and did not let us down. Never really did we feel threatened and I guess I am a bit more anxious than I would have been before my journals were taken but all was well. We arrived home safe and sound, tired from our long day.
Coming up: Agrigento and the Sagra del Mandorlo Infiore! (The festival of the blooming almond trees). Our trip for this coming week!
Are you still with us? It would make us so happy if everyone who is reading left just a small comment so we know you are out there. Grazie!
Rosemary e Robert
(photos of the Feast of Santa Agatha to follow soon)