Up and out early, since this was the day we had to return the car. We had no trouble finding the road to Siracusa, and then north towards Catania, though the autostrada that our atlas said was to be completed in April 2005 is still nowhere near being done.
Just outside of Siracusa, a truck in front of us that was towing two trailers full of sandbags lost control, and the trailer in back overturned! We thought that we’d be sitting there for a while, but, this being Italy, people just started weaving through the debris, and we were through in a matter of minutes.
After having to drive the Smart Car over a sidewalk to reach the rental return (the airport, true to form, was very poorly marked) we were in a bus on the way to central Catania and our hostel.
Our first act after settling in was to walk to Catania’s famous fish market, which turned out to be right around the corner from where we were staying. It was amazing.
Everything from eels to snails was on sale, with some specimens that looked completely unfamiliar,
While others were familiar though very unusual, like these sea urchin.
The bounty everywhere was overwhelming, especially given that this was late in the day (the market is supposed to run from 5-11, and we were there around noon.)
Everything was insanely fresh as well – eyes bright, gills red, all that good stuff.
The market wasn’t limited to fish, either – there were wonderfully bright vegetables as well and enormous sides of cow and lamb and goat and pig.
We couldn’t help ourselves, and went to a man selling beautiful oysters and asked if we could buy some to eat. He said no, that the police wouldn’t allow it, so Husbear asked if he would be so kind as to open a few that we could then have “to go”. Of course, that was fine, so we bought a half-dozen oysters and went to snack on them in a nearby park.
On the way, we found a little drink stand that was selling sodas made with any of a giant array of syrups, so we got a tamarind soda to go with our oysters.
I can’t even tell you how good those oysters were.
With some time on our hands before the restaurant we wanted to go to opened for lunch, we walked over to Catania’s main square. We visited the symbol of the city, this adorably happy elephant made of lava (being on the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano, means that half of the city is made of lava)
As well as viewing the front of their lovely Duomo, made of white and gray marble.
Catania’s Piazza del Duomo is probably the prettiest we’ve seen in Sicily, with its shades of black and gray and its Baroque buildings. Off in the corner is a lovely fountain that is a tribute to the river where the Greeks first built the city of Katane.
We walked what turned out to be quite a way to the train station, where we picked up information on Mt. Etna for the next day, and then back through the fish market (which was almost entirely packed up at this point) to Trattoria la Paglia, a small restaurant right smack in the middle of things. Specializes in seafood, oddly. There were three people working there – one a fifty-something woman in the kitchen doing all of the cooking, one youngish waiter guy, and the owner, who spent most of his time chatting with the regulars who were smoking outside.
We started with their caponata, the traditional Sicilian eggplant/pepper/caper dish that turned out to be a little boring in this incarnation, as well as a dish of frighteningly fresh raw marinated anchovies and shrimplets (Oh my god- she wasn't even going to tell you that they were marinated with tiny wild strawberries, arugula, and hot chili peppers. Holy crap! Does a ceviche get any cooler than that? Have you ever heard of anything like it? It was yummy, although the white anchovies kind of popped strangely in your mouth. -L.Pants)
Moving on, we ordered the spaghetti ai ricci, or spaghetti with sea urchin sauce. The sea urchin turned out to be completely raw, and delicious – nothing like the probably not fresh sea urchin roe I’ve had in sushi restaurants. It tasted a little of peanut butter and a lot of the sea (So good! Maybe the best thing I've had on the trip so far. You must eat this at all costs. -L.Pants)
We also ordered a zuppa de cozze e vongole (clam and mussel soup) which was good, but not great. All in all, we were very happy with our meal – I mean, eating fish freshly caught that morning and prepared with a minimum of fuss. What’s not to love?
We washed the meal down with lemon sorbet and a couple of glasses of amaro, bitter liqueur (not at the same time, though they were delivered together – ew).
After this enormous lunch, it was starting to get a little late in the day. I wanted to go see the Roman theater, one of the few remnants from ancient Catania.
We met some cats along the way. This one loves pasta?
And we got a little lost, but somehow ended up on a beautiful street lined with Baroque buildings. I was totally captivated by the lava rock everywhere, being used to pave roads and strengthen walls.
Eventually, we got turned around the right way and found the theater, which is also made of volcanic rock. It apparently used to be covered in marble, but that’s long gone.
There was also a small museum with some bits of marble sculpture that have been found in the area, but it was completely unsigned, so rather useless. Corinthian capitals and whatnot.
Definitely the reason it’s of interest is because of its building material, especially right now what with it being covered in scaffolding.
Having seen what there was to be seen at the sight, we walked back by the Duomo and the big happy elephant.
This time the Duomo was open, so we went inside and poked around for a bit. It’s a nice interior, much more spare than the churches we’d seen in Ragusa and Módica. Plus, it has an extra creepy guy decomposing quietly in a box.
We took our passeggiata up the main street, Via Etnea, which was crowded with people. This amazing marzipan caught our eye.
This is most unlike us, but we actually returned to our hostel for dinner. It is attached to a nice restaurant that has its own little underground grotto, though we were discouraged from sitting in it. (“Too humid,” the waitresses said, though I’m pretty sure they just didn’t want to navigate the stairs.)
The restaurant was sort of American in execution, with a strange collection of antipasta bruschettas as well as a couple of piatti unici, meaning plates that were all-in-one where you didn’t have to order your vegetable separately. The food was pretty good, and certainly reasonably priced.
Definitely tired. Tomorrow Etna!
Trattoria la Paglia, Via Pardo 23, Catania 095.346.838