Continuing our family FIRE travel series, we spent the third week of our early 2022 European travels in the Sicilian city of Catania, a historic Italian town with the second largest population on the island.
The seaside city’s history is intertwined with that of Mount Etna, the nearby active volcano that has shaped the city with massive lava flows and disruptive earthquakes over the centuries.
Catania isn’t a tourist mecca like so many other places in Italy. Still, we found ample opportunities in and around the city to do some sightseeing and absorb the rich history.
We also absorbed some extra calories. Our kids were delighted to dine in a place where pizza and pasta appeared on practically every menu.
It’s Not a Vacation. It’s a Lifestyle.
We don’t take vacations anymore.
That sounds really sad with no context, but I no longer think of our travels as vacation time. We’re just living our lives in a variety of places, experiencing different cultures, and exploring things that can’t be found close to home.
It was a month-long round trip toward the beginning of a stretch of three trips of similar length to kick off 2022. We were making up for lost time after so many of our travel plans were canceled due to the pandemic.
We chose Sicily for stop number three for a few reasons.
One, it was easy to get to from Malta. There were very cheap flights on Ryanair from Malta to Sicily and from Sicily to Rome. I’m talking €15 to €20 Euro per person, although we did have to pivot to a €50 flights from Malta when RyanAir canceled the one-way flight we were scheduled to take to get to Catania.
Two, Sicily is the backdrop for The Godfather and is referenced in so many other mafia movies to come out of Hollywood. It felt awfully familiar for a place I’d never visited.
Three, it was refreshing to take it a bit easier as a tourist for a week. Catania, with about 1.1 million people in its metro area, has some touristy things to do, but it’s not on any shortlist of must-see Italian cities. With an itinerary that included Rome, Athens, and Malta, we were not opposed to a slower week in the middle.
Our travels are a mix of sightseeing, work, and everyday life. The kids have school work, I have this blog, my wife helps with the site, and we don’t view our travels as pure vacation. It’s just a more experiential way to live.
Accommodations and Transportation in Catania
Like we did throughout this trip, we stayed in an Airbnb convenient to the town center. For $574 USD, we got a week in a 2nd floor apartment with 3 bedrooms, each with their own small balconies, and 2 bathrooms.
Oddly, there was no actual living room, but there was a dining room that served as a de facto gathering place when we weren’t in bedrooms.
The kitchen was small, and it might be the only Airbnb I’ve stayed in that had neither an oven nor a microwave. I learned how to reheat pizza in a frying pan, which worked better than you might expect.
We were one block off the main north-south artery, Via Etnea, and a few blocks north of Piazza Universita and its elephant monument.
For transportation, we mostly hoofed it around town. We did take buses to and from the airport, as well as up to and back from the nearby small towns of Aci Castello and Aci Trezza.
Food and Drink in Catania
With pizzas on the menu at Al Vicolo for €6 to €8, I figured they’d be on the small side. I could not have been more mistaken.
When in Italy, one eats pasta, and we did that most days. Even the small, neighborhood grocery stores sold inexpensive, fresh, refrigerated pasta that was good and al dente in three to four minutes of boiling. I wish that were true in The States!
We tried cacio el pepe a few times at different restaurants, and it was fine, but I was underwhelmed. The best pasta I had was a gnocchi dish from Il Sale Art Café, where the menu that was all in Italian.
I don’t know much Italian, but I know that gelato is like ice cream, and yes, there was a dollop of frozen gelato in my pistachio pesto gnocchi dish! It didn’t seem as out of place on the plate as it sounds, honestly.
This restaurant was surrounded by other lively indoor / outdoor restaurants, bars, and cafes a few blocks north of our apartment. In this neighborhood where Via Santa Filomena becomes Via Gemmallaro, the Christmas lights stay up year-round.
A taste treat specific to Catania is Cassatella di sant’Agata, a sugary pastry that looks unmistakably like a woman’s breast, and that’s no accident. The dessert celebrates Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania, a woman who is said to have had her breasts removed among other indecencies during the Decian Persecution of Christains in the 3rd Century A.D.
We were in town a couple weeks before the Festival of St. Agatha, but we managed to find ourselves a boob cake at a fancy bakery in Aci Castello.
I’ve read a number of articles about the growing craft beer scene in Italy, but wine still dominates as the alcoholic drink of choice, especially in Sicily.
National beers like Peroni and Moretti are ubiquitous and cheap; the big bottle of Peroni (roughly two 12 oz. beers’ worth) can be found for €1 or less at supermarkets. I did find a “crafty” IPA sold by Penny supermarket called Birra Santa Marzio IPA that was rather tasty and affordable at under $2 USD a bottle.
Penny became our go-to supermarket due to the convenient location and combination of price and quality. It was the closest thing to Aldi in a place with no Aldi, and the nearest Lidl was not at all convenient to the city center, although we did stop in at a Lidl to the south by the beach.
New friends of ours hooked us up with a pale ale from Bruno Ribadi, a brewery with great label art to go with their variety of craft beers. These were friends of friends that moved to Sicily to work at the nearby Sigonella Naval Air Station.
It turns out that my wife had met the husband briefly when they were moving away; we bought a tall bookshelf from them via Facebook Marketplace and he helped load it into our vehicle. We had a great evening meeting them and their family over dinner and drinks.
We learned a lot from them, including why there seemed to be more garbage in the streets than I’m used to seeing. It turns out that the mafia controls the garbage pickup, and the locals’ propensity to let litter fall where it may is a little “eff you” to the mob.
The “Cosa Nostra” may also be manning the parking ramps, asking for a Euro or two to watch your car for you, which is what happened to our friends when they came to town that evening. They gladly paid the protection fee to avoid an untimely flat tire or door ding. Personally, we had no known interactions with the Sicilian mafia, but their presence remains strong on the island.
A 13th Century castle that stood over the ocean when built, but is now a kilometer away thanks to lava flows from Mount Etna and earthquakes, Castelo Ursino now houses a three-story museum housing fine sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and inscriptions.
Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena
This expansive monastery that is now partially a University is a must-see in Catania. We opted for a guided tour, given in both English and Italian. It’s amusing and cute to see how difficult it is for a native Italian speaker to end a word with a consonant. That just doesn’t happen in their language.
The library is particularly fascinating, as parts of it are suspended above Roman ruins that have been excavated and illuminated. The 16th century kitchen beneath the former mess hall was also quite interesting.
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I mentioned the main plaza with the Elephant carved of volcanic rock earlier. It’s a lively gathering spot both day and night.
A few blocks to the east you’ll find the magnificent Teatro Massimo Bellini. We didn’t have an opportunity to see the interior, but the imposing 1890 theater where composer Vincenzo Bellini was once showcased is quite stunning to see from the piazza, or plaza.
Just south of the Elephant plaza, you can find a fish market, or La Pescheria, most mornings. In addition to every sort of seafood imaginable, you can also pick up fresh fruits and vegetables among other goods like roasted artichokes and peppers.
Throughout the city center, you’ll encounter many plazas and pedestrian areas where cafes and restaurants spill out onto the stone streets and sidewalks. This marriage of indoor and outdoor spaces is something that was noticeably absent for the most part in Malta but common throughout much of Europe.
Being Italy, there’s no shortage of grand Catholic churches. Via Crociferi, a short street just above our Airbnb, contains several large, baroque churches in a few short blocks.
The most notable churches in Catania are not on the “Street of Crucifiers.” The Cathedral of Sant’Agata (Saint Agatha), also known simply as the Catania Cathedral, is in the heart of the city in Piazza del Duomo, adjacent to the Elephant plaza. A church has existed on this site for more than a thousand years.
The largest church in town, and in all of Sicily, is the Church of San Nicolò l’Arena. on the grounds of the Benedictine Monastery. It’s not the prettiest church, inside or out, with it’s half-built columns out front and mostly white interior, but hey, it’s really big, and it costs nothing to visit.
Aci Castello and Aci Trezza
We didn’t make it up to Mount Etna, but we did get out of town via a scenic 30-minute bus ride up the Mediterranean coast to the nearby twin seaside villages of Aci Castello and Aci Trezza.
This made for a great day trip. In Aci Castello, the castello refers to the 11th century Norman castle overlooking the sea.
In Aci Trezza, which is walkable from Aci Castello, the main attraction is the Cyclopean Isles, a series of tall rock formations jutting from the sea. According to Homer’s Odyssey, these rocks were hurled at Ulysses’ ships by Poseidon’s son Polyphymus, a beastly man-eating cyclops.
Both picturesque villages have plenty of places to grab a drink or bite to eat, and we spent most of our time just wandering the streets and admiring the views. This is also where we sampled the aforementioned boob cake as we waited for a bus to take us back to the city.
On to Rome
The fourth and final installment of our European adventures will detail the 8 days we spent in Rome. We were glad to have had some low-key days in Catania the week beforehand, as Rome wasn’t built in a day, and can’t fully be seen in a week or so, either.
After returning home, we agreed that by making Rome our fourth stop, we had saved the best for last!
If you’ve read this far, I want to thank you for humoring me and reading our travel posts. These tend to get one quarter to one half the readers of a typical money-focused post, and they take as long or longer to put together, but they’re the posts I enjoy sharing the most.
This blog is about early retirement, and even though I still “work” by writing about personal finance and travel, I enjoy showing what life can be like without a normal job or with no job at all. Slow or extended travel is where it’s at for us.
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