Our Cities

Catania, the city under the Volcano

Article by: Free Tour Catania

The story of our city begins about 600.000 years ago in a big gulf in the Mediterranean Sea, in an area now corresponding to the eastern side of Sicily. Announced by violent earthquakes, a submarine volcano started erupting boiling lava from the seabed up to the surface.

With time, the Volcano rose higher and higher, increasing its volume and becoming Etna, the famous highest active volcano in Europe. Meanwhile, the overlapping of different lava flows created a deep rocky layer which extended its surface from Messina to Syracuse, thus moulding the land of Catania.

The innate and profound connection between Catania and the Volcano is still enclosed in the name: Catania comes from the two Greek words κατά and Aἴτνη (Kata-Aitne), meaning “next to Etna”.

The city owes the Volcano not only its origin and its name, but also most of its features. The historical centre of Catania presents a massive use of volcanic stone: basalt. In fact, Catania is often referred to as the city in black and white due to its main building materials, that’s to say, the black volcanic stone and the white limestone of the southern coast.

Volcano: the iron smith and sculptor

Its proximity to Etna has also signed the story and destiny of Catania: a city destroyed and compromised several times by earthquakes and eruptions. According to the tradition, Catania has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 7 times, yet preserving the soul and the inheritance of its various dominations and civilizations in the name of its streets, the coat of arms on the facades of its palaces, the details of its corners, the citizens’ somatic traits and gestures, in the words and stress of its dialect and, last but not least, its FOOD!!

One of the most significant changes in the shape of the city occurred in 1669 and 1693, respectively the year of the Great Eruption and the year of the devastating Val di Noto earthquake of 7.4 magnitude

During these two events, the city was almost completely destroyed, losing much of its population and its ancient and medieval buildings.
However, the great misery and destruction were the price to pay for a new start, a new dawn, the rebirth of Catania under the shiny and solemn light of the Baroque.

Today the Sicilian Baroque is part of the Unesco World Heritage and it is one of the main attractions of Catania. Our Baroque style is indeed the pearl of the historical centre: solemn churches, majestic domes, elegant palaces with statues and richly decorated facades full of movement and chiaroscuro effects.

The Benefits of Etna

“For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

No, it’s not physics, neither karma. It’s the condition of living next to a volcano.

Despite Etna’s destructive force, we owe the volcano the endless richness, intense taste and surprising variety of our territory. 
After an eruption, lava and especially volcanic ash, releases a great amount of minerals and soil nutrients, such as silica, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, iron and potassium. All of these chemical elements increase the levels of fertility, thus contributing to the biodiversity and fruitfulness of our land and resulting in nutrient, abundant, healthy and tasty products. Just try it to believe it!

Most of Etna’s territory is destined for an ancient tradition: viticulture.  The slopes of the volcano are moulded by the presence of vineyards arranged according to the Arabian terrace system.

Etna’s grapes ripen at different altitudes, from 400 up to 900 metres above sea level, taking full advantage of Etna’s strategic and desirable position: the height of Mount Etna (about 10990.81 feet, 3,350 metres), combined with its proximity to the Ionian Sea, provides a great range of microclimates, thus enabling the cultivation of different grape varieties of unique colour, fragrance and taste!

Catania, the Queen of Sicilian culinary tradition

“Never drink on an empty stomach!”. Do you remember the saying?

The generous land of the volcano provides an extraordinary variety of products that will inebriate your 5 senses.  Cheese, cured meats, sun dried tomatoes and appetisers of any kind will whet your appetite during a SICILIAN APERITIVO.

Sustainable and free-range farming provides a great quantity of local natural products that keep the original and traditional taste, while respecting the territory.

Throughout history Sicilians have expressed gratitude to their land and its products through creative recipes which are now part of the Sicilian tradition

Talking about the famous Sicilian street food, the “arancino” is probably the most popular celebrity of the island: rated among the 5 MUST DOs in Sicily, it’s a unique explosion of flavours!
At a first glance, its shape may seem quite unusual. You can indeed eat thousands of “arancini” all over the island, but the “pointed one” is the original Catanese.
The shape clearly refers to Etna, while the inner ingredients contain a mix of different old cooking traditions and flavours that words cannot describe.

Traditional Sicilian Pastry-making

According to the Sicilian etiquette, a meal is always to be ended with a sweet treat
The Sicilian pastry-making tradition can be experienced in every cafeteria of Catania.  Among the unmissable are: 
cannoli”, tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough usually filled with sweet ricotta or chocolate cream;
minnuzze” or “cassatine”: small round-shaped sponge cakes covered with sugar glaze, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with the unmissable red cherry;
mignons”: small pastries flavoured with cream and fruits.
frutta Martorana”: traditional marzipan sweets, in the shape of fruits and vegetables. 

We have so far explored the connection between Catania and Etna within geology, history, culture and food. But the city and the volcano are also intrinsically linked within religion. Catania is indeed the city that celebrates every year the 3rd biggest religious feast in the world:

Saint Agatha’s commemoration

Saint Agatha was a Christian virgin martyr persecuted and brutally killed on burning coals during the Roman domination in Sicily. A Saint who has been celebrated for almost twenty centuries by her citizens.

We are talking about one of the most amazing feasts ever, a perfect mix of faith, passion, self-sacrifice, folklore, candles, religious processions and spectacular fireworks. But what is the connection between the Saint and the Volcano then?

As every hero, Catania has a secret “protective talisman”.

Tradition and some historical documents ascribe to Saint Agatha various miracles, such as unexpected recoveries and the end of the plague in the 16th and 18th century. But the most remarkable ones that have passed down from generation to generation are those linked to Etna’s terrible and dangerous eruptions.

According to these stories, Saint Agatha has saved Catania and its citizens from countless disasters. In fact, following people’s prayers, vows and great faith several lava flows have suddenly stopped or just changed their route, sparing many lives. 

Since then, Saint Agatha has been considered as the Saviour and Protector of Catania against natural disasters and her relation with the people of the city has become deeper and stronger. 

To sum up, fire is the main element in common between the volcano and Agatha’s life: through fire she lost her life, from fire she guards her beloved Catania

Now stop reading about it, and just come to experience a multitude of emotions in the city under the volcano.

κατά Aἴτνη (Kata Aitne) is waiting for you!

Thank you for reading the article. For more travel tips from our local guides around the world, check the blog section of our website! We release unique travel recommendations every week. If you like this article or have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below!

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