Monday, 13 July 2015

Catania, Sicily

Since being home from Oxford I've been to Sicily for a week, which was a much needed break. Catania made a remarkable contrast to the northern Italian cities of Florence, Pisa and Venice that I'd visited previously. It seemed quieter, less full of English-speaking tourists (like myself and my friends :P) and more traditional in many ways. Our favourite parts of that holiday were eating out in small, street-side restaurants every evening, and grabbing fresh food from the market or bread from the bakery, everyday. Not to mention a day spent hiking on Mount Etna!

Slopes of Mount Etna, one of Europe's most active volcanoes. 

Clouds rolled in just as I was climbing towards the exclusion zone, after getting the chair lift part of the way up. The view on a clear day is said to be spectacular. 

We were pretty adventurous, venturing to a communal (read:free) beach by bus, instead of all of the commercial, private beaches, which blasted music constantly and were packed with people trying to sell us stuff. I saw some Romans ruins, and the best part was how deserted they were. My friend and I were the only tourists there for most of the hour that we spent at one place, and that was a welcome relief at the height of the summer holiday season in Italy.

Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, which extend below most of the modern-day city of Catania, but are obscured by more recent buildings and roads. 

All in all, we struck a good balance of sight-seeing, beaches and bars. It was cultural enough to feel as though I've learnt a little bit about the history of Sicily, but relaxed enough that I felt as though I'd had a substantial "brain break" compared to the deluge of exam term at Oxford. I even read my first not-for-study fiction book in over two years - a historical novel set partly in Oxford during the civil war. Whether I was lying on the beach with the waves breaking nearby, or sitting on our apartment terrace with the sound of live music floating up for the piazza, the places of 17th century Newport Pagnell, Stony Stratford and London, were never far away.

Piazza Duomo, the main square of Catania and a major tourist attraction due to it's Baroque style architecture, carved from the black lavastone of Etna. 

Despite the deliberately laid-back atmosphere of our holiday, there were a couple of moments that forced seriousness on us. Myself and my female friends received quite a lot of unwanted male attention, which was awkward, as we were literally just walking around buying food, or walking in broad daylight to get to a tourist attraction. Attitudes towards women seemed more old-fashioned, and at times it was uncomfortable to be cat-called at whilst going to the supermarket, or to feel someone tap your backside as you tried to walk past them along narrow streets.

A more imminent crisis facing Sicily, particularly the port towns, is the influx of migrants, mainly from parts of Africa, but we also spoke to some men from Bangladesh, trying to sell us stuff on the beach. As tourists, we were approached on the beach, in the square, or as we ate out in restaurants, and asked to either inspect whatever it was people were selling (usually jewellery, light-up toys, selfie-sticks) or just asked for money outright. It was hard to know what the right thing to do was. No one likes feeling slightly trapped and awkward as someone playing an instrument walks up to you whilst you're eating dinner, stares in your face, continues to play (even if you didn't ask them, and don't encourage them) before finishing their song and holding out their cap, hopefully. The sorrow and despair as sellers, in the boiling heat, walked up and down the beach, carrying their goods on their back, was obvious. The distress of the man who began by singing, but concluded almost in tears as he entreated us to give him money to support his daughter, was very real.

I hope that Europe's leaders reach a more satisfactory, long-term plan concerning the current migrant crisis, because no one deserves a life of constant disappointment and desperation, yet places like Catania seem unable to cope with the current situation. The line of sellers who would attempt to board the bus to the beaches each day, hauling their wares, and often without fare for a 3 Euro bus ticket, was depressing. I don't like to end a post on such a sombre tone, and this blog isn't normally used for serious blog posts, but I feel as though to talk about "my holiday in Sicily" as a one-dimensional, happy affair, would be to overlook something which I observed there everyday, with my own eyes. I would still encourage people to visit Sicily, as its scenery and old-worldly charm are absolutely pervasive, and tourism is clearly a vital part of the local economy, which appears to have been hit hard by the global recession a few years ago.

View of a church and the winding surrounding streets, from a window in our apartment. 

On a lighter note, it's worth taking a moment to remember that the people I went to Sicily with were some of the same friends that accompanied me to Alicante, three years ago (! It feels like a lifetime since I finished school, but keeping hold of my friendship group at home throughout university is something that I'm very proud of. It's been fantastic to have a constant group of people to come home to from university each term, and share stuff with, remembering school times. It's been even better to keep making new memories with them (the sign of a live friendship) so here's to another group holiday, in another three years, or at least, to three more years of friendship!

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