I’ve been to Sicily twice over the years. The last time I was there I stayed in the seaside city of Catania, which lies at the base of Mount Etna. I was really struck by this place. It has a quality I would describe as chaotic, mysterious, and raw. Catania hasn’t been overrun with tourists and from a photographer’s standpoint it very much has the feel of “old Italy.” This feel is something I’ve been anxious to experience again and capture in classic Italian street scenes. I knew for sure this was the place to go to get what I wanted.
The history of Catania is fascinating. Walking down a random street and you could be looking at structures built in the Greek, Roman, or medieval time periods. In addition to Catania, I’ve been really intrigued by the small hill towns scattered around the base of Mount Etna. Due to a declining population, some of these towns are even abandoned.
I felt some urgency to get down to Catania before the end of spring because it gets really hot there. I booked a flight from Prague which had a layover in Naples. On my return I would spend a couple days in my old hometown of Napoli. I didn’t do a lot of research for this trip, but one thing I did do was pick up the latest Lonely Planet, Italy book. From this, I made a reservation at the 5 Balconi Bed and Breakfast for my first few days. This turned out to be a great move. The B&B is run by a couple, Rob is British and Cristina’s a petite Sicilian firecracker. They were incredibly helpful in so many ways. Rob has a background in sound engineering and location scouting for music videos. He actually worked with Bowie once on an album in the 90s, so of course he was immediately my new best friend. Because of his experience with location scouting he pointed me in the right direction when it came time to figure out what hill towns I was going to explore.
I arrived in Catania in the evening and took a bus from the airport to the city center. Rob and Cristina greeted me when I arrived and helped me get settled in. The 5 Balconi is located in an 1800s era apartment building and is impeccably decorated with a Victorian/Mediterranean feel. My room had a small balcony that overlooked a busy neighborhood with lots of life happening on the street. I got up early the next morning and hit the streets of Catania to start shooting.
Catania is very much about the markets – so many and so many different types. The first thing I did was head to the historic fish market. I arrived just as they were starting to set up. This market has been happening for literally hundreds of years. It’s definitely been happening since 1669 when Mt Etna erupted and the subsequent lava flow reshaped the city, pushing out the shoreline. The sea once came to just beyond the walls of the market where fishermen would unload their catch, not after 1669. This market is quite an experience which will put all your senses on full alert. The smells, sounds, the intense bartering, arguing, and socializing that take place are an authentic glimpse at true Sicilian culture.
Catania has a subterranean river (Armenano) which once flowed on the surface but was buried by the eruption of Mount Etna. The river comes to the surface by one of the entrances to the fish market. In 1867 a fountain (Fontana dell’ Amenano) was crafted where the water comes to the surface. The beautiful white marble came from the same region of northern Italy that provided the marble for the statue of David.
I spent that whole first day wandering the streets of Catania. By the end of the day I was feeling really inspired and really exhausted. I captured some beautiful moments and went through a slight learning curve as I put a lot of new photo gear to heavy use. I had only planned to stay in Catania for 3 days and then rent a car to go explore the hill towns. The second day I started to feel a cold coming on so I reassessed my whole plan and realized I needed to stay in Catania a few more days. I needed to take care of myself, and there was a lot more I needed to experience here. Fortunately my room was still available through the weekend.
So for six days I explored Catania. I explored the many markets and took a lot of photos. One of the biggest markets occupies a huge square and spills over into the narrow streets that feed into it. Here you can find almost anything you would ever need. All types of fresh produce, meat, clothing, household items, textiles, and on and on. In one part of the square, vendors, their voices hoarse from out-yelling each other, oversaw tables with huge piles of clothing, some new and some used. With a few euro and a little diligence you can find some real treasures here.
Near my B&B there was a street lined with funeral homes. They don’t actually have funerals here, but rather it’s a place where grieving families can pick out a coffin and make arrangements. Apparently the funeral business is big in Sicily. These funeral offices are literally open 24 hours, someone sitting behind a desk just waiting to get the call.
Rob was giving me ideas of where to get some interesting photos and told me about a part of Catania called the bordello. It’s a small neighborhood where prostitution is still legal. Apparently, this is one of the last remaining legally sanctioned bordellos in Italy. The twist here though is that the prostitutes are all transvestites. I decided to check this place out and what I found really surprised me.
It’s a small neighborhood with narrow streets. It actually had a very calm, almost peaceful feel away from the noisy main streets of Catania. It was clean and there was a lot of art painted on the walls and doors. And yes, there were transvestite prostitutes hanging out in front of their little apartments trying to get your attention. I even had a fake boob flashed at me. The ladies interacted with each other as if they were all one big family, looking out for one another. I asked one of the ladies if I could take her picture and offered her 15 euro. She insisted on 30, so I agreed. This whole interaction was translated by a man of African descent who happened to be walking by and spoke Italian and broken English. I had just a couple minutes to get a few shots. Her name was Tatiana, and she was impeccably made up but seemed sad. When I was done the man kept standing around, and I realized he wanted a cut for his translation services. He said he also wanted 30 euro, of course I said “no way!” But I did end up giving him a couple euro to avoid any issues.
Catania was everything and more I had hoped for, now it was time to head for the hills.
I needed to rent a car to go explore the hill towns and Rob and Cristina had a great resource – a local guy with his own company, not one of the major rental chains. Cristina called him and made all the arrangements for me. He even brought the car to the B&B which was a huge time saver.
One thing that you notice in Catania right away is that the cars are pretty beat up. If a car doesn’t have scratches and dents, it’s just a matter of time before it does. Rob told me that the unspoken rule when two cars come face to face, the newer car lets the older one go since the older one has a lot less to lose! In the 20 minutes my rental car was waiting, parked on the street as we finalized the rental paperwork, it actually received a couple scratches from someone driving by. Fortunately the owner caught it so I wasn’t held responsible. Driving in large cities in southern Italy can be a precarious undertaking. I’ve done it many times before and wasn’t looking forward to it again. However, it didn’t take long and I got right back into the groove. Within a couple hours I was swerving in and out of traffic, cutting people off, and tailgating right along with the best of the Sicilian housewives!
I stayed in the little seaside town of Giardino-Naxos which is just a couple hour drive north of Catania. This seemed like a good base to explore the North slope of Mount Etna. Most of the towns I wanted to explore were within roughly an hour drive of there. Rob told me about several towns that sounded really interesting. A couple of them are where some scenes from the Godfather were filmed. I only had 3 days so I had to make the most of every minute I had.
Close to Giardino-Naxos is Taromino, which is an ancient Greek settlement. There’s a stunning, partially intact Greek theater perched on a ridge that overlooks the sea. I’ve seen photos of this and really wanted to check it out. After I got settled into my hotel I hit the road to Taromino, which is just a few minutes north. When I arrived I quickly found the place to be be overrun with tourists. It didn’t take long before I decided to move on, this was not going to have the feel of what I want in my photos and clearly the Greek theatre has already been photographed a million times.
About 30 minutes north, perched really high up on a hill is the town of Forza d’Agro. I arrived in Forza d’Agro, parked my car, grabbed my gear and started hiking through the town. I was immediately enchanted with this place. It was exactly what I had envisioned. The sun was starting to set so I didn’t have much time. I wandered through the quiet narrow streets. There was a very special moment when someone was practicing their clarinet, the sound carrying through a square, and a cool breeze coming off the sea.
One of the challenges of photography is to try to convey an experience with just one dimension. The moment a photo is taken there’s so much more happening. This was definitely one of those moments, the smells, the sounds, the feel of the wind. It was truly a beautiful moment.
Over the course of 3 days I explored 6 different towns. Rob gave me a list of several towns that were actually abandoned. I thought about checking these but decided I really wanted to have a human element in my photos. It was amazing to me how these towns were built on these steep mountain sides long before the internal combustible engine. It was truly old Italy at it’s most authentic.
Most of the towns I visited are rarely visited by tourists. In one of them I actually was approached by two Carabinieri officers questioning what I was up to. The Carabinieri is the national police of Italy. They can have a menacing presence, carrying their standard issue Oozie machine guns with leather straps. These two were pleasant enough, and I of course made sure to be as polite and respectful as I possibly could be. I was just standing in the square of this small town with all my camera gear when they approached me. They asked for some form of ID. They took my passport and recorded my info into some type of log book. I think the fact that they approached me was as much because my presence there was an oddity as it was that they really didn’t have anything else to do. Not a lot of excitement in these small towns.
I drove almost half the circumference of Mount Etna. The region is stunning this time of year with the wild flowers being in full bloom. The geography of mountains and rivers, the many vineyards, the flora and fauna, the small medieval towns, it all seemed surreal.
I had to get back to Catania Thursday afternoon to return the rental car, though my flight didn’t leave for Naples until that evening. I had some time on my hands so Rob and I went and had a couple beers. His good friend, a Sicilian, had just opened a British themed pub in downtown Catania called ‘The Boozer.’ He did a great job, every detail down to the fabric of the chairs authentically recreated a true British pub. It was nice to talk to someone in my own tongue, and Rob had the same feeling. We talked a lot about the challenges and joys of living in a foreign land. I definitely have two new friends with Rob and Cristina and can’t wait to get back to Catania!
Now, it was time to head back to Naples. In my next blog post I’ll share about visiting the ancient Roman fishing town of Pozzuoli north of Naples. I was there when I was about 14 when the town had been abandoned due to extensive damage caused by earthquakes. It was amazing to get back and see it again.
And so the journey continues.