Thursday, 25 April 2013

Catania e Clara

So we've had a bit of time to ourselves as we've cycled through Sicily, but it still seems extraordinary that within only a few minutes of meeting Clara, our host, at her home it feels like we are meeting an old friend.  We love the thrill of riding into a big city and the expectation of what we might find there but it would have been impossible to anticipate our experience in Catania.  But before we get to Clara's we first have to navigate a nasty double roundabout on the edge of the port.  Hey, is that a discount supermarket?  Let's go round one more time!  Down in the port all seems ordered and peaceful compared to the surrounding chaotic streets.  We just need a timetable for the ferry to Napoli and then on into the centre.  My backside protests as much as my bike when we hit the cobbled streets. Cobbles. Everywhere.  The city has the bustle of Palermo despite the heat.  We seek refuge in the central park - plenty of shade and peace and cycle tourists - here we meet Maxim and Elodie on a tandem with their son, Timeo, in a trailer.
the duomo
Clara lives in the oldest quarter of Catania, San Christoforo, in a rambling old four-storey house on one of the main streets in the centre of the city.  We negotiate the backstreets, the unexpected hills, the one-way system and, at an enormous iron door, ring Clara's buzzer.  She has warned us - she lives on the top floor.  We carry all our gear and our bikes up the gloomy stairway.  There are people shouting across to each other in the atrium.  Baking smells waft upwards to us.  Radio on in the background.  It's a stereotypical Italian scene.  
you can have any colour of fruit as long as it's...
Clara's appartment is an oasis of calm and tranquility, light but cool, with huge vaulted ceilings.   Clara herself is fabulously friendly and open and we know straight away we will get on.  A glance at the way her home is decorated with wonderful textiles and pictures, the Ryzard Kapucinski books on the shelf, the welcome cup of tea and just the way she is.  Hard to put my finger on it.  Clara lives a busy life and over the next few days she candidly and thoughtfully draws us into it.  We get to see the city as tourists do - we wander the streets and take photos, check out the daily fish market, sit in the park when it's too hot.  But we also get to see the side of the city that Clara lives in - the place where she teaches, working with kids with special needs, the community hall that she and her friends run, providing support to women and children living in a neglected area.  
polenta with Clara & her parents
We get to meet her parents - out at their 'orto', their small-holding, where they grow olives, grapes, lemons, figs, flowers, strawberries and a medley of salad leaves. Despite all her other commitments she still finds time to take us to some of the places we won't get to by bike.  A couple of evenings she shows us parts of the city centre.  In Piazza Dante there is the incredible unfinished church - a mighty construction left half built, brickwork exposed behind stone cladding, doors locked.  Down near the port are the streets of 18th century houses left crumbling almost to dust - abandoned to immigrants and poor locals.  The city, like most of Italy, is awash with wonderful old palazzos too numerous to care for.  We meet some of Clara's great friends and go to a Manitese fund-raiser evening where there's some hearty food, wine served in small buckets and an amateur rock band that does Led Zeppelin and Gloria Gaynor covers - very bad but in a good way. 

heavy discounting on thermal underwear

We meet Mor, from Senegal, who with his uncle, brother and other Senegalese friends have a drumming group. On a Saturday night in a sweaty little club we are hypnotised by their performance - a powerful and dramatic affair, full of joy and passion.  Mor, a rather dour and quiet man, glows with adrenaline and happiness as he drives the beat along.  Solo dancers, young Senegalese men mostly, step forward to match their moves with the drummers' rhythms in what seems like a challenge, but is often a spontaneous choreography - it's jazz, man. This was an unforgettable evening.

On another day we head down to Syracuse, originally a Greek settlement, and one of the places we didn't manage to get to on our bicycles.  
The old town has been renovated and restored  - it's pretty and pleasantly pedestrianised.  The duomo was built on the site of a Greek temple using the huge doric columns which are still visible.  Inside a smaller church there's a Caravaggio hanging over the altar.  Down at the shoreline is a spring - the original freshwater source for the city.  In complete contrast to Syracuse, Clara takes us to a wonderful tiny mountaintop village called Forza d'Agro north of Catania.  Perched on a rocky ridge overlooking the sea, the village's old houses surrounding the fort at the pinnacle have been abandoned.  An effort to renovate and restore them has stalled - it's a far cry from the monies that UNESCO heritage sites attract.

Padre Pio, the omnipresent patron saint of jewellery street vendors
Somewhere along the way Clara has helped us get replacement bike chains - through her brother-in-law.  We have struggled to find decent bike shops since we left Palermo - only finding one that looked decent (it was closed).  It's hard to imagine because we've seen lots of fellas out on their fancy-looking road bikes in their fancy-looking lycra.  Our problem is we're riding mountain bikes and there's not much of a business in these kind of bikes.

Our time here has been eventful and fascinating and Clara is in severe danger of having permanent house-guests.  She thinks we're joking.  We're not.  We know we're on a journey, and we have an idea of our route ahead.  But nothing prepares us for the wonderful people we meet along the way.

stencils not bombs


  1. You write well and entertainingly. And now I know who Ryszard Kapuscinski is too.

    1. Most kind. I'm sorry I can't reply to all your comments but thank you for them. I think my writing has gone downhill lately compared to some of this.......