The Sicilian city of Catania is in some ways an acquired taste, but any effort will be fully rewarded.

Arriving visitors make their way in through unappealing backstreets lined by sorry sights such as grandiose palaces once inhabited by nobility and still displaying the emblems of past glory but now reduced to decaying slums.

The coats of arms, the ornate windows and splendid doorways can be intriguing for those who are willing to let the imagination roam over the lives of past inhabitants who viewed themselves as the cream of society, but the best of the city lies ahead in the centre displaying its history and enlivened by the lively bustle of Mediterranean life.

Earthquakes and volcanoes 

Catania may be the only city which directs tourists to its Fish Market. A permanent haze of smoke will guide those who miss the street signs, and of course steaks of recently caught tuna or sharp can be purchased, but the market also offers local delicacies cooked on the spot which will appeal to those with a limited budget but refined taste buds.

Alongside fish dishes, there are arancini (rice balls), warm sandwiches known as pane e pannelle (rolls with a chick pea filling) and it would be a pity to forego the local speciality, pasta alla Norma, a dish which takes its name from an opera of Vincenzo Bellini, a native of the city whose tomb in the Cathedral is a place of pilgrimage for music-lovers. He enriched the city with more than music.

Thus fortified, it is time for the city itself, reduced to rubble several times by earthquakes and on occasion engulfed by lava from the nearby Mount Etna. It was also badly bombed by the Allies during the last war, so has had to be rebuilt at various points in history.

The principal streets radiate out in straight lines from Piazza Duomo, the main square in front of the magnificent cathedral. The architectural jewels of Catania are in full view in the streets and piazzas and however discoloured many buildings may be nowadays, the churches, palaces, public buildings are still radiant in that style known in architectural history as Baroque.

The Herald: Catania is a city of saintsCatania is a city of saints (Image: free)

Above all, Catania has a claim to have, in the looming presence of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, the most spectacular backdrop of any city, European or other. The very name, Via Etnea, of the road leading off Piazza Duomo, is an act of homage to the volcanic mountain which has awed and terrified inhabitants from the times of the Greeks onwards.

Crowds gather along the street in wonder during eruptions, and even when the volcano is supposedly inactive, smoke swirls tantalisingly from its peak. The mountain has a micro-climate, giving its upper parts an unexpected covering of snow. There is no shortage of tourist buses which will take the curious up the slope to a small, Swiss-looking village near the top. The more adventurous can, on certain days, proceed to the very rim of the volcano and peep over.

There are also vineyards on the mountain side, some of which have been temporarily covered in lava, but the grapes from subsequently restored vineyards give the wine a unique, pungent flavour which sends refined topers into ecstasy. One particularly memorable wine is labelled Tenuta Fenice, literally Phoenix Estate, since the vineyard was destroyed but revived by a patient process of cross-planting from the few surviving plants.

If it adds to the spectacle of the city, Mount Etna is plainly an uncomfortable neighbour.

On some occasions, lava has reached the city itself and enterprising architects have employed lava stone in buildings and sculpture, most notably in the curious elephant with an incongruous obelisk on its back which stands in the Piazza in front of the cathedral and which has become a symbol of the city itself.

Appeal to supernatural forces

The threat from the volcano, which is unpredictable even in this scientific age, has become integral to the life and culture of the city, and this uncertainty has in the past, and still today, driven people to seek defence from a compensating supernatural force.

In 1556, when Etna was unusually menacing, a procession set off up the mountain carrying the remains of Saint Agatha. The volcano spluttered and stuttered but finally the lava flow stopped and in gratitude, the city elected the saint as their patron.

Her feast is celebrated with feverish, typically Southern exuberance each year between the 3-5th of February, and there is no better time to visit the city. With a bit of luck, the climate will still be mild, at least by day.

It is impossible to escape the presence of the saint at this time, but the sometimes gruesome images will startle visitors unaware of her story. She lived in the 3rd century under the Roman Empire when the old gods were still worshipped, but she herself was converted to Christianity, and decided that she had been called to remain a virgin.

She had the misfortune to attract the glad eye of the Roman governor, and when she rejected her advances, he chose an incongruous manner of courtship.

A rough wooing

He had her arrested, whipped and then tied to a grill over a fire. When these tortures did not produce the desired effect, he ordered that her breasts be sliced off. This particular act captured the mind and imagination of artists down the centuries, allowing them to portray Agatha holding a tray before with her severed breasts on display.

There is one such notable painting in the University, which was once a Benedictine monastery, and others in the three churches dedicated to her.

The church of San Biagio contains the grill where she was supposedly held over the fire. What such images did to encourage piety or erudition is hard to fathom. Her martyrdom is remembered in other, cosier if still incongruous ways. Devout nuns bake and sell pious little cakes covered in icing and topped with a cherry.

There is no need to stress the symbolism, and the cakes are delicious. St. Agatha is also the patron saint of rape victims and breast cancer sufferers.

The religious feast is now mainly a carnival, a street festival or popular holiday. The celebrations open on the 3rd of February in the cathedral with a procession of the various bodies which make up city life – police, army veterans, fire-fighters, forest rangers as well as blood-donors and nurses. Over the following days heavy, quite beautiful carriages which once carried so many candles that the wax made the streets dangerously slippery are pushed around the streets.

A tribute to virginity 

The main event sees a highly ornate, silver vehicle containing the saint’s body pushed around the city by specially selected individuals dressed in white overalls which are a tribute to virginity, not theirs.

This procession reaches its climax on the final day when the officials, swearing and grunting, are required to push the five-ton carriage vehicle up Via Sangiuliano, an unusually steep hill.

As it makes its way along the streets hour by hour, the carriage attracts a crowd in which the devout mingle with more worldly sellers of Disney balloons featuring Mickey Mouse or the Little Mermaid, not to mention traders in toy guns, while the evenings are given over to open-air concerts and firework displays at the port.

There is nothing more specifically Mediterranean than this festival, wholly unlike any feast, religious or not, in northern Europe. These days witness an explosion of collective joy which expresses the best of Catania, and Sicily.

Joseph flew from Glasgow with Easyjet to Rome, then Ryanair from Rome to Catania. There are direct flights, from April, from Edinburgh to Catania with Jet2.