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Tourists come to Sicily to admire many things, including two unmissable ones: the sea and Mount Etna. They would very much like to be able to experience the volcano while it is in full swing and, even if with fear, they often wonder what it feels like to be “inside” an eruption. The good news is that, even if Etna is in a calm phase, you can still experience that feeling. There are many excursions that allow you to feel “inside” the mountain: visits to caves, lava tunnels, excursions to old craters. And the itineraries in the belly of Catania.

Underground Catania, a world of lava

Catania is a beautiful and modern city with a heart rich in history, overlooking the Sicilian east coast in the shadow of Mount Etna. But Catania, in reality, IS Etna. Its life is intertwined many times with that of the volcano, with its primitive eruptions. Over the centuries, earthquakes have made the original Catania disappear, burying it under meters of boulders and new foundations. But sometimes the entrances to that unknown world open up. Maybe in a corner of the city, in the crypt of a church. And you can literally go down into the lava belly of the city, walking among ancient lava flows and forgotten rubble. Or sometimes among real masterpieces.

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amphitheatre – photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo flickr

Walking in the belly of Catania …

The most evident and spectacular part of the “lava belly” of Catania is the Amphitheater in Stesicoro square, or rather the segment that has come to light. The layout of this amphitheater is actually very large. It is very close to the size of the more famous Colosseum and Arena of Verona. Unfortunately three quarters of it remain buried under the new city and you can only imagine its size, admiring the steps and the wings that can be visited at Stesicoro.

But, while walking in the belly of Catania you can also discover the ancient baths. In Catania there have never been real thermal springs. The smart Romans, though, used sea water and the waters of the Amenano river – heated to art – so to transform their pools into thermal baths. Ancient witnesses of this genius are today three sites. The Baths of the Indirizzo, located in the eighteenth-century heart of the city, and characterized by dozens of windows opening in the dome; seen from inside it looks like a “small Colosseum”. The Baths of Rotonda, located in the upper part of the city close to ancient Greek-Roman ruins: the frescoes from when they were transformed into a Christian church are still visible. Then, the Achillean Baths, located under the foundations of the cathedral are characterized by a path of streams and pools that today can be visited by walking on special walkways.

Among the mysteries of underground Catania, however, there are also ancient necropolises (Basilica Cimiteriale under Dott Consoli street, niches under the Rinascente building), early Christian churches (the Colombarium of Mecca, located under the Garibaldi Vecchio hospital) and an interesting hypogeum located under Sanfilippo street. The Bonajuto Chapel is also part of the underground Catania: unlike other ruins, this chapel dates back to the 17th century and was buried by the 1693 earthquake. Today it is an integral part of a modern pub and is used as a hall for events. In the heart of Catania’s daily market there is also the chapel of St. Gaetano alle Grotte. In the basement of this small building – unfortunately almost always closed – there are the remains (3ed century AD) of the very first Christian church in Catania.

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Achillean baths ph by Grazia Musumeci

How to visit underground Catania

To visit these and other monuments “buried” in the belly of the city of Catania, among ancient lavas and ancient testimonies, one must almost always rely on good guides. Or on excursions organized as part of cultural events. Some sites – such as Achillean Baths or the Amphitheater – can always be visited, with precise timetables and the payment of a ticket.

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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