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One of the liveliest cities in southern Italy, Catania is a bustling town with much joie de vivre. Many visitors to Sicily bypass this baroque gem on the way to Taormina, but Catania merits at least 2 full days for its art treasures, church museums, and Roman ruins, if not for its liveliness as well as its to-die-for fresh foodstuffs such as those you'll find at the lively fish market (la pescheria).

The city has suffered natural disasters throughout the centuries. Much of the history of Catania is linked to its volcanic neighbor, Mount Etna. In 1669, the worst eruption in Catania's history occurred when Etna buried much of the city under lava that literally ran through the streets.

The architects Giovan Battista Vaccarini (1702-68) and Francesco Battaglia (1701-1788) helped turn the city into one of the baroque capitals of Europe. Builders used solidified black lava in the masonry, which also fortified the buildings. The result was so unique that word spread, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Catania was a compulsory stopover on the "Grand Tour" of Europe.

Catania's industry has earned it the appellation of "the Milano of the South." The city's airport has always been the island's largest, and many department store chains open up in Catania long before heading westward. It is also a cultural capital of sorts, having provided to the Arts its favorite sons -- Bellini, Verga, and Greco. Catanians are deeply proud of their heritage and have gone to great lengths to restore antique palazzi to their original splendor. They are also crafty at putting abandoned buildings to good use: An exhibition complex occupies a former sulfur refinery at Il Ciminiere, a contemporary art foundation has taken over an old licorice factory, and the old tobacco processing plant is slated to become the home of the long-overdue Archaeological Museum.