Catania – Palermo
Whether in the foothills of Mount Etna, the hills of the Madonie, or the narrow alleys of Palermo, Sicily embodies what the world imagines Italy to be. Hospitality, optimism, and a glimpse of the beauty that life has to offer – this is the soul of the south.
A grey powder falls silently from the azure-blue sky, descending in slow motion upon Catania and covering buildings, streets, and cars in a fine dust. Our
The busy Via Etnea provides a view of the source of the powder, where clouds billow from the belly of Mount Etna. They rise incessantly with no end in sight, as more and more steam ascends from the crater that forms the peak of Mount Etna. Measuring around 3,300 meters in height, it’s the tallest active volcano in Europe. Every morning, the people of Catania look up and wonder what the day will bring. The locals call Mount Etna Mongibello, which means “mountain of mountains.” The word is a combination of the Italian and Arabic words for mountain and thus says something about Catania, Sicily, and the many cultural influences that have shaped life here on the island.
The Greeks were here, as were the Romans, the Arabs, and even the Normans, all of them leaving their mark. But most of all, it’s the lava that has shaped this southern Italian island, which is impressively visible in the restaurant A Putia Dell’Ostello. Located just a stone’s throw from the famous La Pescheria fish market, which is surrounded by old palazzi and displays its delicacies from the Mediterranean Sea on mountains of ice, the restaurant can be found at the bottom of a narrow set of stairs. Here in the candlelight of opulent candelabras and below centuries-old lava, Catania’s history is actually tangible. Decline and rebirth; enjoyment and disaster.
From here, if you pass the fish market and the famous Fontana dell’Amenano, where the water is expelled from the bowels of the earth, you will reach the Piazza del Duomo with its unobstructed view of the city icon: the imposing and comforting Fontana dell’Elefante (Elephant Fountain), which is supposed to protect the city from lava.
Roberta Capizzi knows the history of her hometown inside and out. She worked as a lawyer in Milan for ten years, before listening to her heart and returning to the island. She opened a restaurant at Piazza Turi Ferro and called it Me Cumpari Turiddu, where guests are made to feel like friends, or “cumpari.” Capizzi has tastefully modernized Sicilian cuisine – but only to a degree, as you can actually feel the soul of Sicily at Turiddu. Here, couscous with mint (Arabic influences), Crudo di Pesce (marinated raw fish), and cannoli (the famous Sicilian dessert with ricotta) taste spectacularly traditional and yet surprisingly different. “We’re proud of our roots,” says Capizzi. “But we’re also looking to the future. No matter how often we’ve struggled, we’ve always managed to get back on our feet again. That connects us to each other and our home.”
This home is always Mount Etna, which embodies both worry and yearning. We’re driven by yearning. With the powder of ash removed from the car, we’re on our way. While the route from Catania to the volcano passes through many towns, the name of the road always remains the same: Via Etnea. The grey road that leads to the colossus is almost straight and climbs from sea level to over 2,000 meters. And all the while the steam never stops billowing from the monumental dome.
Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez once said that, “Going to Sicily is better than going to the moon.” It must have been on a day like this. The blinding white fields of snow on the rugged flanks of the mountain are now covered in a fine dust of black ash. Strada Provinciale 92, another Via Etnea, leads deep into the snow behind Nicolosi. Antonio Rizzo has been navigating this route for 37 years, which is how long Mount Etna has been his workplace – first as a ski instructor and now as a volcano guide. Few know the area better than him. “Everything here is always in motion,” says Rizzo in the cable car, as we ascend to the crater. A new landscape opens up at 2,500 meters and should never be explored alone. “The mountain is always changing. New craters are always forming, and there’s the occasional landslide.” The mountain is alive and, nearly four decades later, is still teaching Antonio Rizzo new things. “I experience new emotions every day when I look up to the mountain in the morning,” he says. Steam is coming out of a small hole in the snow under our feet, and there’s an ominous cracking sound. The view is absolutely breathtaking.
Later in the afternoon, we meet Domenico Moschetto, the landlord of the Rifugio Sapienza hotel, who says that the volcano simply doesn’t let you go. At his refuge, he offers travelers a cozy room and an extensive menu. Years ago, the mountain destroyed Moschetto’s hotel on the northern slope. Now he’s back, this time on the southern slope. “It’s a fateful mountain,” says the Sicilian. Mount Etna can do it all: it can be dangerous and comforting; angry and fertile.
An old custom says it all: when the lava starts flowing, the table is set, a bottle of red wine placed in the center, and an extra place setting added, as Mount Etna is received like a guest. And then you escape to safety.
We resume our journey the next morning and continue following the ash that scatters nutrient-rich minerals over the hills and thus ensures fertile slopes – and special lava wine. Sicily is Italy’s largest wine-growing region, known primarily for its Cottanera Winery located in the idyllic foothills of Mount Etna. The Cambria family has cultivated traditional varieties here since the 1990s – most notably Nerello Mascalese, which doesn’t taste quite right anywhere else. Francesco Cambria, who was named winegrower of the year in 2019 by the magazine Gambero Rosso, refers to this as “a marriage of fruit and soil.” “Everything about our wine is special,” he says. The climate is cooler here than in the rest of Sicily, the sea is close by, and the soil contains deposits of volcanic stone that are rich in minerals.
We continue to the sea and along the northern coast towards the west, past the inviting coastal town of Cefalù with its sandy beaches and imposing fortress from the 12th century. What just might be the most spectacular racecourse in the world is located just beyond Cefalù. From 1906 to 1973, the
Behind Collesano, the
Admission to Palermo museums is free on the first Sunday of the month. A special tip: the Stanze al Genio museum at Palazzo Gangi, where Luchino Visconti filmed his masterpiece Il Gattopardo, is an unforgettable world full of spectacular, centuries-old majolica tiles, referred to as Mattonella.
Palazzo Brunaccini is a boutique hotel with an outstanding restaurant nearby, Da Carlo, located in the heart of the old town’s twisting alleyways. Here you will catch a glimpse of Palermo’s innermost soul – for example, in Italy’s largest opera house, Teatro Massimo on Via Maqueda, a breathtaking building for equally breathtaking voices and a symbol of Sicily’s impressive vita.
In his famous Italian Journey, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” We were able to experience Italy’s soul for ourselves: Sicily.
By Frieder Pfeiffer
Photos by Markus Bolsinger, Stefan Bogner
Massimo Borchi, Giuseppe Lombardo, Tullio Puglia, Reda&Co (alle Getty Images)
Liubomir Paut-Fluerasu (Alamy)
gaemau, Brad Pict (beide Adobe Stock)