After our disappointing jaunt around Malta came a day at sea before we docked at Catania. Now, those who know me know my roots are firmly ground in Sicily.
Some of my most precious, treasured memories are wrapped up in holidays we had as a family, spent on the west side of Sicily in Calamonaci, my nonna’s home village which was founded in the 13th century by Arabs, who created a farm house on its slopes. Today, it’s a simple village famed for its almond, olives, grapes and honey.
We never really stopped on the East coast, except to drive through so I was super excited to be spending a few hours at this new place in the country I adore.
Arriving at the port, it was extremely industrial and the port was massively run down. Getting outside we were greeted with scorched earth, the smell of sewage and three headless pigeons. I WISH I was joking. Turning right out of the port we followed the railway track to see if we had time to head over to Taormina or Siracusa.
Migrants dotted the benches along the way, their hands covering their faces as they lay in the morning sun. Graffiti and litter were strewn about the place. The train station was hopeless – we’d never have enough time to get anywhere and back.
I was gutted. David pressed me to walk on in the hopes we found something new, but all the streets were filthy and grubby. Catania sits in Mount Etna’s shadow and has been decimated by earthquakes and the volcano’s eruptions. And for all it looks like, the locals fear another soon so they’ve decided rebuilding is pointless.
Just as we were about to give up and sit by the pool, we saw a small tourist train/buggy. For €5 each we could tour all the sights, and it would take no more than 45 minutes. Fearing another day on the ship we handed over our coins and sat on the wagon.
And boy were we glad! We started outside the Cathedral of Santa Agata, the city’s patron saint and marvelled at the cavernous space. Many locals were praying within, paying €1 for the honour of lighting a candle. Agata was a virgin, killed in the first century for her faith. The story is fascinating.
It’s also the reason Christmas is celebrated in December – three centuries after Jesus’ birth, Christians were only just being tolerated by the Romans by this point. In order to appease both sides and create a mutual collaboration of faiths a date was agreed as the date of general celebration – the Roman ‘birth of the sun’ and the Christian’s birth of the son of god.
The first celebration was made in 336AD, over 300 years after the death of Jesus.
Before this, though, Christians were the subject of occasional mob violence, though most relations were peaceable. However this was to change. As a sign of loyalty, in 250AD, a year after he came to power, Emperor Decius passed an edict which required all citizens of the Roman Empire to perform a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate.
It was meant to bring the empire together, but instead caused division between those who worshipped as a Christian – whose foundation of faith required no praise to be given to other gods – and those who lived their life according to pieta and their gods.
Anyone who didn’t sacrifice was to be executed. Including the then-Pope, Pope Fabian who was imprisoned and died as a warning example to others – obey or face the consequences.
Agata, according to legend, who was fifteen at the time, had dedicated her life to God and as such was to remain a virgin. A beautiful girl from a wealthy family, she rejected the advances of a Roman prefect who tried to blackmail her into having sex with him. After he was spurned, out of spite and in the hopes of having her change her mind, he persecuted Agata under the guise of her Christian faith before sending her off to a brothel – he wanted to break her will and her spirit.
It’s said the madam of the house found her too hard to control and had failed in taking her virginity, and sent her back as chaste as she had been a month earlier. Thinking prison would break her will and have her submit to him, the prefect had her jailed and tortured in horrific ways – she carries her breasts on a plate in some depictions of the legend.
She was to be burnt at the stake for refusing further still, however thanks to an earthquake which was said to be God listening to her plea and supplication, this didn’t come about. She more than likely died in prison, still a virgin and chaste, and still with her conscience clear before god. She’s buried in Catania’s cathedral.
Agata is the patron saint of nurses and those who’ve been a victim of sexual assault, and many Catholics say prayers to her in the hopes of giving solace to rape victims.
After our whirlwind tour of some of the most beautiful city spots, including its garden and churches we settled down to arancini, granita and cappuccino – and I felt like I was back home. Sicily is quite literally my motherland, and a place that will forever be dear to my heart. While I’m not a massive fan of it’s second largest city, and won’t be back knowing Sicily is so much more beautiful than what we saw, it was wonderful to see another side of the country.
This says: Pastina, I love you to death. Pastina is a small type of pasta eaten as a broth. Weird.
This reads: Our Lady of Health | Mons. Carmelo Patane, Archbishop of Catania, gives one hundred days of indulgence to those who recite before this image of Maria a Hail Mary.