As part of my mission to ‘Take 12 Trips’ in 2014, I’m taking at least one trip each month – which can be anything from a local day out to an international trip. So far this year my trips have taken me from the North of England to the souks of Morocco and then back to my old hometown of London. But May was my busiest travel month yet. A few days after getting back from the Norwegian fjords and before I’d even finished unpacking, I was back at the airport again. This time I was heading off for a quick jaunt to one of my favourite countries – Italy – for a couple of days of culture and cookery in the Sicilian city of Catania.
Earlier this year I got the chance to chat to TV presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle, who’s been working with Celebrity Cruises to develop a range of new ‘Great Adventures’ shore excursions. They include all sorts of things, from kayaking through the Stockholm archipelago to making gelato in Sorrento. But one that caught my eye was the Sicilian Gastronomic Tour, with a tour of Catania’s markets followed by a cookery class and lunch with chef and cookbook author Eleonora Consoli. So when I was invited to go to Sicily and try it out for myself – along with Suzanne from The Travelbunny – I jumped at the chance.
Catania is Sicily’s second-largest city, but when it comes to tourism it tends to be overshadowed by others – like Taormina with its Greek amphitheatre, Agrigento with its Roman mosaics or Syracuse with its spectacular architecture. Catania itself has a bit of a reputation as being chaotic and scruffy, so we weren’t sure what to expect. But we were charmed. Yes there’s lots of graffiti and the groups of young guys hanging around at night make you a bit cautious. But there are also beautiful buildings around every corner, whether that’s a Baroque cathedral or a crumbling palazzo. There’s a real buzz to the city too, from the frenzy of the fish market to the bars and restaurants packed with students from the city’s university.
Thousands of years of invaders – from the Romans and Byzantines to the Arabs and Normans – have all left their mark on Catania, both in the city’s architecture and culture as well as in its food. The history of Catania is closely tied in with Mount Etna, which towers up behind the city – well so we’re told, she was playing it coy and kept her peak well-hidden beneath a layer of cloud the whole time we were there. Back in the 1600s, a combination of a huge eruption and an earthquake wiped out most of the city and over 30,000 of its inhabitants. So Catania was rebuilt in Baroque style, with wide streets, huge plazas and endless ornate churches and palaces built using the black volcanic rock produced by Mount Etna.
After a day soaking up some of Catania’s culture, the next day was all about its cuisine. Our gastronomic tour started off with a visit to the city’s fish market with local guide Maurizio. Early in the morning the place was humming with activity. Fishermen were unloading piles of fresh seafood – with everything from trays of deep pink prawns to huge swordfish, easily a couple of metres long. As well as fish there are also sections of the market for meat, cheese and vegetables. The volcanic soil around Etna is incredibly fertile, so the stalls were stacked up high with brightly coloured local fruit and vegetables.
Next it was time to put some of this produce to use and create some classic Sicilian dishes. We headed up into the foothills of Etna to the house of Eleonora Consoli. Unfortunately Eleonora had been taken ill, but we were left in the very capable hands of her daughter Monica. I can’t eat gluten, so she very kindly created a whole menu that didn’t involve any wheat – from a classic tomato sauce and a sweet and sour peperonata, to veal meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves and a refreshing cinnamon jelly. Most were fairly simple dishes to create but all were bursting with flavour and freshness.
Post-lunch and a few glasses of Mount Etna red wine, we were tempted by an afternoon snooze. But Maurizio had other ideas and instead took us for a whistlestop tour of the coast outside Catania, where we saw black sands, volcanic islands and a Norman castle perched on a rock. But then it was time to head back to the airport, so a proper exploration will have to wait until next time – and there definitely will be a next time. Even a quick visit was enough to become enchanted by Sicily’s amazing food, scenery and culture.
I’ll have lots of posts coming up about my trip to Catania as well as my Norwegian fjord adventures. Then next month I’ll be heading back to Italy for the start of my first ever cruise, heading south from Venice through Croatia, Greece and Turkey. Are you taking part in the #Take12Trips challenge and where are your travels taking you in June?