Thursday, November 10, 2016
Leaving Early for Italy:
Because I was able to find a budget airline offering a flight to Catania in Sicily for peanuts that left Gatwick at 7.25 am, I made the mistake of booking it! Question was: How could I get to the airport by 6.00 to make my international flight? The Answer: I spent the night in Battersea at my friend Roz's place. She had driven me to Clapham Junction last night to buy myself a train ticket to Gatwick. On discovering that there was a 5.00 am train to Gatwick form Clapham Junction, I called a mini-cab to her place to pick me up at 4. 30 am! This meant waking at the unearthly hour of 4.00 am--but wake I did! The cabbie arrived on time, deposited me at the station in under ten minutes and there I was. The station was practically deserted when I arrived there, so I sought refuge from the cold and found company in a Waiting Room on a platform. Just before 5.00 am, I discovered that there was a platform change. I raced off with my backpack to the next platform where a sizeable number of people had gathered to take the same train. Five minutes later, it arrived and less than an hour later, I was deposited safely at Gatwick, well in time for my flight. We departed on schedule on an Easyjet flight and at 11. 00 am local time, I was touching down at Catania airport ready to begin my exploration of Sicily with slight twinges of anxiety being insistently quelled.
Getting to my Hotel in Catania:
Catania is a major city on the east coast of Sicily. It makes a good base for exploring the area and I had made a booking through Hotels.com at Hotel Gorizia which seemed very well located. Following directions given to me by the hotel, I took the airport bus called the Alibus and for 5 euros I was dropped off at a central spot just behind a big Cathedral.
I had a bit of a challenge trying to find my hotel from this point on as I was not familiar with the layout of the area--it turned out it was not too far away from where I was dropped off, but because I do not speak a word of Italian and there no one to speak English to me, I had to struggle until I did find my way using my picture of the map that I had taken on my phone.
Hotel Gorizia turned out to be located just behind the major square of the Cathedral of St. Agatha which is known as Piazza del Duomo.--a very well-known part of the city. But, to my disappointment, I discovered that the entire Reception area was under renovation. The Receptionist, a very nice man, was also involved in the painting and wall-papering and, to make matters worse, he did not speak a word of English. However, we managed to made ourselves intelligible to each other and he took me down a steep flight of stairs to show me my room--fortunately, he did have my reservation listed in his books!
My room was adequate. It had a TV set that carried no English programs (which made it useless, as far as I was concerned). It also had an attached bath that was clean and new with a shower cubicle and toiletries. My bed was comfortable and since I carry my own pillow, no matter where in the world I travel, I am reasonably sure of a comfortable night. It was by then a little after 1.00 pm, so I lost no time in stashing my bag away and going out in search of a few of the sights that Lonely Planet extolled.
Sightseeing in Catania:
I kicked off my sightseeing in the Piazza del Duomo which is a city landmark because it is focused around a very strange fountain known as the Fontana dell Elefant. It is basically an obelisque that protrudes from the back of an elephant. Right in front of it is the magnificent Cathedral of St. Agatha, patron saint of Sicily. I would keep a visit to the church for another day.
I walked down the main artery of the city called Via Vittorrio Emanuelle with the idea of getting to the main attraction of Catania, the remains of the Roman amphitheater. In getting there, I passed by the other famous square comprising the buildings of the university--beautiful Baroque buildings in a very good state of preservation. When I did eventually find the amphitheater, I spied the remains of two lovely columns behind which the amphitheater itself is concealed underground behind a vast wrought-iron circle. There are many posters providing information in English and in Italian about Imperial Catania that can be gathered from looking at the ruins. I would soon realize that Sicily has so many such ruins that these were really not very special compared to the grand monuments I would see in the days to come.
The next place I headed to were the streets behind the amphitheater known as Via Crociferi where old medieval churches lined both sides of the street. It was a lovely afternoon with only a few people strolling around. I walked under the arch of St. Benedict and arrived at the Church of St. Francis. Sadly, none of the churches were open, but viewing them from the outside made me feel as if I was well and truly in Italy. On this street, one also comes across a number of museums and the home of the Italian composes Bellini who took his inspiration from his surroundings.
Leaving this area behind and following the map in my hands, I went in search of the Greco-Roman Archeological Park which is a great example of classical ruins in a superb state of preservation. You can see the remains of a second-century Roman theater and an adjoining rehearsal theater known as the Odeon. What is interesting is that the ruins sit right in the middle of a busy residential district. As you scale the various levels of the Odeon, you are actually looking into modern homes! There are also banyan-tree covered ruins in another section for nature has encroached upon this area and make it very atmospheric.
In Search of Dinner--Pasta Alla Norma:
Since the night comes early in this season, I did not have much daylight to work with after 5.00 pm. I, therefore, set out for dinner and having read guide books that told me not to leave Catania without tasting Pasta alla Norma, I found the best kind served in a little trattoria on a side street. Pasta alla Norma is named after one of the operatic characters in an opera by Bellini. It is a delicious concoction of penne pasta topped by tomato sauce (which is said to replicate the fire on Mount Etna), ricotta cheese (the snow on the volcanic mountain), basil leaves (the green vegetation on the mountains) and black olives (reminiscent of the lava formed by the volcano). I have to say that it was simply delicious and with a glass of red house wine, it was the perfect first meal in Italy. I had no room for dessert after eating that large bowl of pasta.
During dinner, I shared conversation with a couple from Denmark who had just completed medical school and were ready to begin their internship back home. We were on the same route for the next few days and were also deriving all our tourist information from the same source--Lonely Planet.
I walked back home along fairly crowded streets to get back to my hotel where I had a shower and prepared myself for my travels of the morrow.
Until tomorrow, cheerio...