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Catania had a large Benedictine monastery of San Nicoló l’Arena dating from the 16th century it was one of the largest monasteries in Europe and it is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. The buildings are now used by the department of Humanities of the University of Catania.
We met my husband’s parents for a delicious lunch at Trattoria del Cavalieri, which had been recommended to us by a friendly man in a supermarket. The ingredients and the cooking were great and the portion sizes were surprisingly large with low prices. I know that Sicilians eat horse meat and although I was a strict vegetarian for over 10 years I now have a flexible approach to food. However I didn’t order horse for lunch.
I know that it’s hypocritical of me to eat pigs, which are intelligent mammals, and cows especially considering that I raised a calf as a child and it was when one of my pet steers was slaughtered that I became a vegetarian. It’s a conscious choice that I make and I really love to eat meat. Most of what we eat at home is vegetarian and I normally only eat meat when I eat out, which isn’t often living in expensive Trondheim, Norway. It just seemed unnecessary to order horse at a restaurant but considering that I tried whale at a Norwegian birthday party and camel at a celebratory lunch with Arab colleagues in Saudi Arabia, I would probably eat horse if it was offered to me by a Sicilian. Do you feel conflicted about food choices?
After lunch we rolled, I mean walked, as quickly as we could up the hill towards the Benedictine monastery. We went to the right and followed the signs, which led us into a dead-end alleyway. We were overly warm by then (it was 32C and humid and the walls and paving relentlessly radiated heat) and becoming irritated by the constant smell of piss that is inescapable in Catania. We asked a man which way to the monastery and he gave directions that sent us exactly back to where we had been, to stand again looking at the side of the monastery and a huge impenetrable wall.
Allow me a brief complaint that this is not the first or last time that a Sicilian man has given us useless directions. I don’t understand what’s wrong with simply saying, I don’t know. If I seem a bit harsh, please take as evidence that when we asked a bus driver where the Guinta bus leaves from, he gave one incorrect answer then 2 nearby stooges gave different but equally incorrect answers. Honestly, when it’s a family, on foot, trying not to tread in the dogshit or have their bag stolen, and feeling hot, isn’t the kindest option to just admit that you don’t know rather than guess? Rant complete. By the way, even when we accidentally walked through a seedy, stinky, shabby set of red light alleyways, or walked past and through the bus station daily, or through crowded markets in Catania, no one ever tried to steal anything from us, which is contrary to what we expected because we had been warned by a few different locals to beware of pickpockets. Perhaps those locals are overly protective of us or overly pessimistic of their city, or repeating hearsay or perhaps they are right and the pickpockets gave us a wide berth as we talked loudly, complained or bickered our way around town.
We were rushing to get to the monastery in time for the hourly guided tour but we gave up, slowed down and tried approaching from a different side. Success was ours! We enquired about the next tour but it was in Italian and went for an hour. I thought that the chances of our children enjoying it were negligible and I didn’t want to make everyone wait while I took the tour and then only understand >40% of what was being said. So, instead we took a map and had a look at the sections of the monastery that are open to the public.
University students were sitting in window bays quietly studying and were presumably disturbed by us as we walked past but that’s to be expected when one studies in what is doubling as a museum.
I was surprised and disappointed to find opulent columns, decorations and other extravagances in the entrance to the monastery. I expected an austere building without ornamentation to better allow the monks to perform their spiritual tasks without distraction. Also, the doors to what were presumably the monks rooms were widely spaced, indicating that the rooms were quite large. Either my assumptions are incorrect or my expectations need to be altered.
So upon reflection, we definitely enjoyed visiting Catania. This was the first time in Sicily for me and our children. It’s less chaotic and safer than I expected. The sea breeze and the beach provide welcome relief but otherwise it is a bit nutty to go exploring the alleyways of Catania in the middle of the day in summer. The lack of public toilets means that the entire city stinks like a men’s urinal. It also funnels travelers into bars just to use a toilet. But, that’s typical of Europe in general and I have been spoilt by the abundance of free public infrastructure in Australia, so my expectations merely need adjusting. We bought a football for us to kick around in a park in town but we discovered to our dismay that the parks in Catania are only designed for strolling through or loitering in (but not for long because of the lack of toilets). We didn’t ever find anywhere to kick our ball! We did have fun in a park with a bubbler with the plastic water pistols that we bought with the ball.
Our day trip to mount Etna was the biggest highlight for all of us, followed by granite and gelati, a day at the private beach, watching a Euro cup football game in a bar in a piazza, eating delicious Sicilian food, fresh fruit and vegetables, and the great joy of constant warm weather, giving us respite from the cool and often wet weather in Trondheim.