“Are we going by vespa? There might be no parking there” Vincenzo says while deciding which shirt to wear. He knows I love moving by my vespa. A car is an option for me for long distances or when storming. We also are late for our funky birthday party at centro storico (1).
Late November and we are still blessed with mild weather. Not much traffic. We are driving slowly, enjoying a warm breeze over our faces. As we approach its historical center, the black lady appears with its lava stone Baroque-style palazzos, the ruins of its Greek and Roman theatres emerging from the decadent atmosphere of the narrow streets, built after a Mt Etna devastating eruption and a disastrous earthquake wiped out most of the town in 1669 and 1696. For our Baroque-style, we have been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. I’m afraid we do not fully understand the importance of such an honourable mention, nor our politicians use it to enhance our touristic potential. Our indolence is stronger than our shrewdness.
“Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are just arrived, guys!” Jerry shouts out hilariously, looking at us arriving on the back of my vintage-style moped-saddle. Somehow, we remind him of the Oscar winning movie Roman Holidays starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn riding a vespa in Rome.
The best part of driving a vespa is you can easily free yourself out from our heavy traffic and park wherever you need. So, I’ve parked just down the scalinata Alessi, where the Niewsky, our party venue, stands halfway along the flight of steps. One of the few real institutions in town, a very unusual place for a birthday party, it matches our freakish guest of honour well.
“This place still retains the same Che Guevara-Buena Vista Social Club-smoky-shabby atmosphere it had in late ’80s” Enzo notices while greeting old and new friends. It was back on 1986 when Saro, its out-and-out communist owner, opened the Niewsky, the first pub in town, giving rise to a new trend of reclamation and renewal for our centro storico. In a short period of time, the youth seized the area, clubs and restaurants invaded smoothly the sleeping Baroque buildings. Nightlife rescued our streets from blight and crime, the local movida was so intense and vibrant to be compared to the Madrilenian one. This was the primavera Catanese, a sort of permanent spring which gave the city and its people pride and identification for about a decade.
It’s Thursday night and both the Niewsky and scalinata Alessi are packed with people. Indoors, men and women around their ‘40s having their organic dinner, no Coca Cola, only red wine sipping. Outdoors, students camping out along the steps drinking beers and mojitos. Our Baroque nights speak a blend of European languages; Italian, Spanish, English, French. The Erasmus exchange project among UE universities for students’ mobility is the tangible heritage of our primavera Catanese.
Memories flow back to my Erasmus experience in Rotterdam in ’93 and I feel like suffering from Peter Pan’s syndrome of eternal youth.
Gripped by misrule and impasse today, Catania goes through a very difficult period. But its nights still throbs with life.
(1) Centro storico = historical centre