Have you ever been to Luton ?
To Luton Airport, possibly yes, lots of us have - nearly 15 million passengers a year; but Luton itself ? Only a tiny fraction of that number.
This must be true of so many airport towns and cities, but for any visitors to the UK, Luton is actually worth a second look in one particular respect, particularly if you’re visiting London as you can avoid the London hotels’ inflated prices by booking in for example at the Luton town centre or airport Premier Inn for about £49, add on a rail ticket for £20 (Thameslink Travelcard that gives access to the buses and Tube in London), and with a journey time of about 35 minutes to St Pancras International.
Do you really need to stay in central London ? It’s worth looking at other popular airport cities to see if they can add something to your planned trip abroad, and we found one brilliant example.
Taormina is Sicily’s premier resort and deservedly so; perched 200m up Monte Tauro overlooking the Ionian Sea, this magical location founded by the Greeks over two and a half thousand years ago offers everything from food and culture, to scenery and shopping, all wrapped up in a beautifully preserved, safe, enchanting time capsule of a city where you can enjoy the sunshine with lovely beaches nearby.
The huge worldwide hit that is The White Lotus (Series 2) has led to a 50% increase in searches for flights and hotels in Taormina, a 100% increase for Sicily, and a whopping 950% increase in those for the San Domenico Palace (A Four Seasons Hotel) which was the main location for the series. On a price check for this hotel - one of several 5 star luxury hotels in Taormina - I found that one night could be almost as much as some people earn in a year! Taormina was also the venue for the annual G7 meeting (leaders of the seven biggest western industrial economies), and the last time Italy hosted in May 2017; a local gelateria came up with it’s own tribute to the then US President.
This article though is not about Taormina, but rather about Catania - whose airport is situated just over 3 miles/5km south of the city itself, and about 40 miles/70km south of Taormina. The airport is the 5th busiest in Italy, it has more flights to more destinations more frequently than Palermo - the island’s other main airport - but rather like Luton, Catania is a place people just pass through; unlike Luton, this is a great mistake. I would recommend that anyone staying in Taormina or Cefalù (Sicily’s second resort) to consider taking a couple of days at the end of the trip by transferring to Catania.
You will be exchanging the expensive, classy, chic of ‘La perla dello Ionio’ for a memorable, exciting, and very different city-break experience that sits in the shadow of the brooding presence of Mount Etna, the huge active strato-volcano that dominates the skyline. Let’s get the Etna details out of the way; it’s perfectly safe - unless you are stupid and go up 3000m during an eruptive phase to get too close where you could be hit by a flying bomb of molten lava the size of a car that’s been ejected 1000m into the sky (I’ve not made that up!). It can be spectacular, particularly at night when it’s like an enormous firework display; the black clouds fill the sky rather in the manner of the mushroom of an atomic bomb, whilst in Catania and the surrounding villages, people walk around with umbrellas as protection from the falling ash and cinders. Black clouds are the danger signal; white is ok.
During the summer of 2023, the ash from Etna shut the airport at least once; historically, during the eruption of 1669 the lava reached the sea, and much of what was left was destroyed in an major earthquake in 1693. The result is that Catania was rebuilt in a Sicilian Baroque style using black lava stone, features which give the centro storico a very attractive and distinctive character. Prices everywhere are much less than in Taormina - sometimes shockingly so for hotel accommodation and restaurant bills; another good reason for switching here for a day or two.
Catania Travel Tips
1. Be adventurous with the food.
Both the street food and that in the restaurants and trattorias are amazing.
Avoid almost everything you’ve ever seen in a supermarket or recognise from an Italian restaurant menu at home because it has nothing to do with Sicily.
Spaghetti bolognese doesn’t even exist in Italy, and the bolognese bit (ragù bolognese) comes from Bologna which is over 700 miles away, ditto carbonara and most of the rest.
Instead, try anything with fish - even if your not that keen on fish; tuna and swordfish are must-try’s; our grandson told us he didn’t like fish, so we got him some swordfish and told him it was chicken - he loved it.
Finding somewhere to eat is not difficult…
Sardines are always good, you can have them in lots of ways, but sarde a beccafico (stuffed) are fantastic.
So too is the pasta con le sarde where they are used in a pasta sauce with raisins and pine nuts.
I have never seen either in an Italian restaurant in the UK, in fact, outside Sicily, you won’t see them in Italy either.
The stuffed swordfish rolls - involtini di pescespada - are a must as well.
Caponata is a sort of Sicilian ratatouille and is found everywhere, and Pasta alla Norma is Catania’s own pasta dish - tomato base, fried aubergine, topped with grated savoury ricotta cheese…
Cous cous Sicilian-style is fantastic too, but it comes with a fish sauce rather than than Moroccan-style lamb.
Everyone should try an Arancino - the stuffed, breadcrumb coated, fried, rice ball (beware - it’s an Arancina in Palermo, you need to get it right).
Note: people here eat late; restaurants can be very empty at 7:00pm with only a few tourists seated; at 9:00pm the same restaurant will be busy with locals.
The restaurants around the fish market, however humble they may look, are consistently of a particularly good standard; those around the city are mostly recommendable as well. When in La Pescheria (the Catania fish market) you must pick up something from Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab overlooking the busy and often crazy goings-on; just look at the menu, get your choice put in a cone or tray, sit down, and enjoy with a drink (I had the octopus salad last time there).
If you are vegetarian or vegan, then Sicily is an ideal destination; if you have any religious requirements, whilst there is virtually no halal meat for example, avoiding meat altogether is very easy because of the number of fantastic fish and vegetarian options.
If you’re sensitive about it, just keep your eye open for these two words on the menus: cavallo (horse), and asino (donkey), both are commonly available, often as polpette (meat balls).
A tour around the butchers of the market may suggest some other ‘meat’ items you might want to avoid - let’s just say that nothing is wasted.
If all this is too much, if you ask, there are a couple of McDonalds hidden away, and lots of other easy food options, however Sicilian street food is amongst the best in the world, just don’t miss-out by playing safe.
2. Build-in a bit of sight seeing.
- Museo storico dello sbarco in Sicilia 1943 at Le ciminiere (literally, the chimneys, a former sulphur works) up Viale Africa beyond the station.
Le ciminiere - location of a great WW2 museum.
The area has been attractively transformed and there is also a cinema museum and one about pens and writing.
La pescheria fish market
Vero o Luni market.
(Went without my charger, got one for €5).
Take a stroll along Via Etnea taking in Piazza Duomo and the other squares, the Bellini gardens, the street craft stalls, and the Roman amphitheatre; there are lots of shops including department stores like Rinascente, and Coin
Climb the steps to the top of the cupola of the Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata (€5) just off Piazza Duomo for great views of the city and Mount Etna.
Teatro Bellini - Catania’s opera house (rather like stepping into a jewel box).
Via Crociferi - buildings, Museo Belliniano (the composer Bellini came from Catania and is buried in the cathedral - everyone recognises the aria ‘Casta diva’ from TV adverts), churches, and much more.
Take a trip out to Aci Castello and Aci Trezza - Polyphemus the Cyclops lived on Etna, and when Odysseus blinded him, the rocks he threw at him can be seen in the sea here.
Do a Mount Etna tour.
(Top tip: don’t half do it, pay the extra and go almost to the very top).
Take a trip on the Ferrovia Circumetnea - a narrow guage railway that circles the foothills of the volcano.
A rail or bus trip to Siracusa (Syracuse).
A trip out to see the astonishing Roman mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina.
A trip to the beach, north is better, but the Playa to the south is sandy, and you can watch the planes land or take off from the runway immediately behind you.
A traditional puppet show in Acireale.
Note: Sicily is on the front line of migration from North Africa; the sight of bodies laid out on the beach of young men who have jumped boat/dinghy and attempted to swim the last 100m but drowned was very disturbing. Catania is a major transport hub so has good rail and bus connections all over the island (and beyond) as well as the airport and a busy port. It is statistically the warmest city in Italy, last year in early December it was 20c and very pleasant; outside the historic centre, it can be scruffy and run-down - but don’t be put off, it will be an adventure. The city’s public transport is excellent (get your tickets beforehand), and the AMT Alibus runs a circular route every 20 minutes from right outside the airport front door to the city centre and costs €4 (pay on board).
So next time you fly somewhere, check out whether the airport city is worth a stopover; we found Catania was definitely worth a couple of days, though it has to be said - going back to the top of this article - that’s not perhaps the case if you fly in or out of Luton.
We stayed at:
B&B Liberty 900
Piazza Trento 6
Inexpensive, spotlessly clean, friendly, well situated, and highly recommended.
On Trip Advisor, currently #28 out of 3814 B&B’s in Sicily (December 2023).
Alibus stops right outside.
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