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I Go to Sicily

September 26, 2017

Day one of my Sicilian escapade finds me in Catania, on the southeast coast, meeting mia cara amica Elisabetta, from Florence. She has scoped out what we should do in our brief time together, so we walk from the Una Palace Hotel, where we will spend tonight, to the Monastery dei Benedettini, just a short walk from the hotel. Originally built in 1558, it is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage list and one of the most important landmarks in the city.

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Even in my superficial study of this part of Sicily, I have discovered that the earthquake of 1693 was responsible for widespread destruction, and the original monastery, as well as the city of Catania, were totally destroyed. A few years later, in 1669, Mount Etna erupted; it took two months for the lava to reach the city, allowing some time to build an embankment around the monastery. Nevertheless, the lava was not to be stopped and covered the ground around the structure to a depth of twelve feet!

Those intrepid monks began rebuilding and enlarging the monastery — building on top of the lava — early in the next century, and it took over 150 years to complete it. As part of the unification of Italy in the 1860s, the state confiscated it and kicked out the monks, who had enjoyed spacious quarters in the new building. Fast forward to the late 1970s, when the city donated the monastery to the University of Catania. In the early 80s it was restored and rehabilitated, and serves as a lovely university campus today.

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Our knowledgable and entertaining guide led us through its various levels, including the lowest, which survived the quake. In these depths are the remains of a second century Roman domus, with its mosaic floor and a well-preserved fresco on one wall, built atop another house dating from the second century BC.

In the red hall, originally a repository for discarded building material, a modern sculpture representing boats provides support for the floors above. The grand staircase is aptly named, with its bas-reliefs on the walls and vaulted ceiling. The tiles pictured below are original to the 16th century.

 

After a much-needed aperitivo of Aperol spritzes, we repaired to the hotel’s rooftop terrace for dinner — a perfect night to dine al fresco. My primi piatti was vermicelli with sardines, wild fennel and toasted bread crumbs, and I followed with an impeccably fresh grilled swordfish with limoncelo sauce. Perfection!

One Comment
  1. Ok, I’m jealous! Sounds like an interesting town to visit. Hope Mt. Edna behaves herself while you are there. P.S. I LOVE limoncello – great as a gelato.

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