Buon giorno! It’s been a while and I had hoped to have something ready earlier, but it has taken me longer than usual to transition back to ‘reality’ after my last trip. And before settling down to the blog, I had to do the rounds of the local nurseries before they ran out of plants. Then there were the annual, local garden tours. Finally, everything is more or less apposto (in its place).
This May, hoping to escape the unusual downpours and chilly temperatures that had plagued my last two trips, I had decided to go to Sicily. But it seems that weather patterns are changing there too.
Fortunately, it didn’t rain every day and the downpours – these weren’t nice, little tropical showers, but full-blown deluges – often started or ended at the most opportune time, like the one on my last day. I was in Catania and it started to rain just as I was beginning to flag and was glad of the excuse to sit down.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Catania, but if getting into gardens in Italy is a challenge, it’s close to impossible in Sicily. (I know, Sicily is part of Italy, but spend enough time on the island and things start to look quite different.) Of the four gardens I had hoped to visit from my last base, I was only able to see one, so I ended up with nothing planned for my last day.
I had been told Catania was rough. Best to stay clear of it. But it had a botanical garden. Surely I’d been fine in that part of the city. Besides, as I was pondering whether to go or not over breakfast, it crossed my mind that I had met quite a few people who had lived their entire lives in Toronto without ever venturing to Allan Gardens, because it’s in a ‘rough’ neighbourhood. In ogni caso, as soon as I saw the Jacaranda trees, I knew that whatever else I saw that day, it wouldn’t matter.
I had never been this far south in May. I had been to Puglia years ago, but that had been in December. There was a most unusual tree at one of the agriturismi I stayed in and I had asked the owner. It was obviously one of his favourites, but as far as its name went, he just called it the ‘Tree of Paradise’. When I saw the Jacarandas in bloom last May in southern France, I wondered. Now I knew.
Before I set out, the young woman at ‘Reception’ had shown me how to get to the Botanical Garden. Driving in Catania, it turned out, was only marginally less challenging than in Palermo. She especially warned me about the parking. There were only a couple of spots anywhere near the garden where I could park without getting a ticket. But I got lucky. Eventually. First I drove by the street where I was to turn left. She had warned me I had to count the streets because there probably weren’t any street signs, but what with the local drivers and then the Jacaranda Trees I lost track, which meant I had to circle back through the labyrinth of narrow, one way streets to my turn. But maybe all that extra stress-laden driving was all part of a grand plan, for when I finally got back to the street, I saw a woman putting groceries into the trunk of a car – parked in a legal spot – right by the entrance to the garden.
My euphoria was short-lived. Two young tourists were already standing by the entrance, looking at a sign on which the opening hours were posted. The garden was closed on Sundays. Now you might be wondering why I hadn’t checked this out beforehand. Well, I had, at least I’d tried to, but after spending a fair bit of time wandering around the internet, had come up with nothing regarding opening hours. Since the people who had set up the various websites I looked at were not concerned about this detail, I assumed visitors should not be concerned either. Obviously it was open to the public all the time. Like the Toronto Botanical Gardens. However, just to be sure I hadn’t missed something, I asked the young woman if she would mind having a look. She couldn’t find anything either, which, I could see, was a bit awkward for her, and she offered to call. There was no answer.
The young couple and I stood in front of the sign for a while, as if willing the numbers and letters to change, the way they do on those Visa bill ads. Then we started to discuss options. I had no sense at all of where I was. Unlike me, they had a map provided by the hotel in Catania they were staying in, while I was in an agriturismo close to Etna.
They steered me in the direction of the centro storico, with a warning that I would have to pass through a big park, which might normally be quite pleasant, but today was ‘ruined’ by some kind of cycling event.
I had read about this park – the ‘Green Lungs of Catania’. Right in the heart of the city, it owes its existence to a few, far-seeing individuals. In 1860 the city council had purchased the land – at that time a park attached to the manor of the Paternò Castello family – in order to create a green space everyone could enjoy, regardless of their station in life. A huge success, the Catanesi often refer to it simply as ‘la Villa’.
I wasn’t happy when I entered the park and saw what looked to be entire areas of the park cordoned off for races. But I quickly discovered how well the event had been planned and how big the park really is. Even with the cycling events, there was still lots of room for everyone.
A large crowd was gathered under an enormous tree, although ‘tree’ seems a rather paltry word for the colossus before me. I had seen an even bigger one a few days earlier in Palermo’s Orto Botanico (which, by the way, very nicely posts its very user-friendly opening hours on its website), but coming across another one was just as mind-boggling.
It was domenica (doh-may-knee-kuh) – Sunday, and a large group, mostly young people, had come out to celebrate their faith under the shelter of the enormous tree. I watched for a while and then continued on my way.
Lining the east side of the park were two wide avenues, which I assumed would normally be filled with families and friends out for the leisurely Sunday passeggiata. Today they were filled with cyclists of all ages and riding styles.
I was frustrated for a while because I could see people on an upper level, but the path up was cordoned off at the north end of the park where I had entered. Eventually I found another path. From up here, even on an overcast day, Etna was clearly visible.
I was tempted to linger in the park, but the clouds were gathering, so I slowly made my way back to the main street. Without a map and no sun to at least give me a sense of direction, I didn’t dare venture down the side streets.
When Orazio Licandro, Head of Culture and Tourism for Catania, read the statistics published by the optimistically named ‘Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’ and learned that literacy levels in southern Italy, and Sicily in particular, were, to put it diplomatically, poco confortanti (of little comfort), he decided to do something about it. The AMT, Catania’s public transit system, was persuaded to donate a bus that was no longer in service. The exterior was repainted, the seats taken out, book shelves installed and filled with books donated by a wide assortment of individuals and institutions.
Licandro’s goal is to ‘take culture to every corner of the city’. It costs the city nothing and is run on the honour system. There is even a website where individuals can track the journey their donated books take.
I learned all this from the fellow in the blue shirt. He didn’t have any distinguishing logos or buttons on him, but as I watched people get on and off the bus, I noticed that he was also watching and when the woman with the dog got on, he rushed over and told her the dog would have to stay outside. In addition to telling me all about this wonderful roving library he also gave me a brochure on Catania. I quickly flipped through all the usual ‘important’ cultural information, and finally, on the back page, there was a map.
I felt much more comfortable strolling around now that I knew where I was – and how to get back to my car! And I was delighted to see that I was not far from the centro storico. I continued along what I now knew was Via Etnea.
Down one of the side streets I could see a lot of activity. With my new, map-based confidence, I decided to check it out.
No matter how much time I spend in Italy, it always surprises me when I come across a butcher shop open on Sunday, when virtually all the other stores are closed.
I didn’t feel all that comfortable in the market – nothing untoward happened – I just felt uneasy, so I made my way back to Via Etnea.
At one point the wide avenue opened up even further. Off to one side were the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.
To the right of the above photo is an enormous palazzo which has been ‘repurposed’ into retail stores on the ground floor and a Scuola Media (Middle School) in the courtyard beyond the grand central door. Like many of Catania’s buildings, the façade is essentially a series of white highlights against a black base, made from the lava that covered the city when Etna erupted in 1669.
It seemed to me that all that black stone would take some getting used to, although it did have a sombre elegance about it, no doubt heightened by the overcast sky. How different would the buildings look on a sun-filled day against a clear blue sky?
And what it was like for the locals, who never refer to Etna as a volcano, but as Mungibeddu, from the Latin ‘mons’ and Arab ‘gibel’, both of which mean ‘mountain’ in a kind of linguistic deference to Etna’s power, to be surrounded by reminders of the ‘mountain’s’ reach?
I got as far as Piazza del Duomo.
When Eastern Sicily was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1693, Catania was especially hard hit. Two thirds of the population lost their lives and those that survived lost their homes and livelihoods. A young architect from Palermo, Giovanni Vaccarini, was brought in to rebuild the city. After he had designed the new cathedral, in the centre of the piazza Vaccarini placed the Fontana dell’Elefante in honour of Catania’s ancient symbol. Even if you know as little as I do about such things, Vaccarini’s elephant looked a lot like an elephant I had seen in Rome.
Vaccarini had studied in Rome, where he had become enamoured of the light, some would say frivolous, nature of Bernini’s, and especially Borromini’s baroque designs. On his way to the Pantheon nearby, he would have passed through Piazza della Minerva countless times.
As things turned out, the photo above is the best – the only – one I ended up taking of Vaccarini’s elephant. I got totally distracted by the goings-on in the piazza. First I saw a very serious-looking mother and young boy walking towards the cathedral. This was the season of First Communions of which I had seen many in northern Italy throughout the years, but there the young boys had always worn suits, not robes that looked rather Dominican to me. Was he instead on his way to a ceremony that would mark the beginning of a new life as a monk in training or maybe a priest? Was this the last walk he would take holding his mother’s hand?
I asked a friend who knows a great deal more about customs in southern Italy than I do. She confirmed that in this part of Italy, boys often wear robes like this for their first communion.
Then there was a huge commotion at the other end of the piazza.
I, and many passersby watched in amazement. The girl in pink was obviously the centre of attention, but the outfits didn’t look like anything I had seen at First Communions before.
I asked the same friend if she had any idea what was going on here. She thinks it is the ‘spillover’ from the wedding, which would have been held the day before. But why all the fuss over the girl in pink? If I had watched a while longer, I might have seen something that provided a clue or two, but the clouds had been getting darker for some time and when I felt the first drops of rain I decided to head back to the little trattoria I had seen earlier. I arrived just a few minutes before it started pouring.
I had set out that morning filled with misgiving. I tried to cheer myself up with the thought that at the very least, I would know how to get to Fontanarossa, the airport just south of Catania the next morning. But in fin dei conti, while it is true that the garden I had come to see was closed, and it did rain, for a day that had started out as a blank, rather dismal slate, it had turned out surprisingly well, full of surprises and fascinating sights. And a wonderful public garden!
Next – Il Limoneto, the ‘Lemon Grove’ where my Sicilian adventure began.