Gay Sicily: Catania, Palermo, and Taormina
Sicilian history dates back 2700 years, an island where many cultures left their mark, Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, and Spanish among them. Although Italian is universally spoken now, both Palermo and Catania has its own dialect of Sicilian, developed over centuries, that can be overheard in the market places and outside the downtown areas.
Rich volcanic soils produce abundant crops of oranges, lemons, olives, olive oil, almonds, grapes, pistachios and grapes. Sicilian wines such as those made from Nero d'Avola, or Avola Black, produced by dozens of wineries, have become more popular, and there here are important tuna and sardine fisheries. The local cuisine, developed from the many influences throughout the millennia, and enriched by this agricultural and maritime bounty, can be sampled at the many restaurants, cafes and street food stands. Each town is it's own microcosm of cooking styles and customs, since they often developed quite separately from one another. Architecture can vary greatly from one town to another too, particularly between Catania and Palermo.
Sexuality here is still somewhat characterized by old Mediterranean norms, where women ruled the household, and men did many things about which they did not speak - and they didn't leave home until marriage. Perhaps because young warriors of so many homelands left behind and mixed their seed here, the beauty of the people can be striking, and kings and princes from northern countries once anchored off these shores to visit local lovers. Sex between men is nothing new for sure -- but the concept of gay identity is a recent arrival. As relationships become more open, gay clubs and bathhouses have opened in the larger cities, and a more assertive gay activism led to the first Sicilian pride parades, in 2010 - in both Palermo and Catania. But change comes slowly, so in places outside the major cities, as in much of southern Italy, men remain discreet in general society, cruising parks, woodlands and beaches on the down low, or else they move to the cities. But, in a sign of change unthinkable here not long ago, Rosario Crocetta won election as governor of Sicily, in the regional election of October 2012, as an openly gay man.
Catania Fontanarossa is 4.3 km southwest of Catania near the A19 highway that links Catania with Palermo. Bus service runs every 20 minutes between 5am and midnight, from the Airport to City Center Train Station. in summer buses leave every hour to Taormina (Via Pirandello Station), a trip of 50 minutes.
Falcone-Borsellino Airport is 35 km WNW of Palermo. The Trinacria Express train connects Palermo directly with the airport terminal. Buses make the trip every half hour - 4am to 11pm from Palermo, 6:30am to midnight from the airport.
AMAT city buses will get you around Palermo. The main terminal is in front of Stazione Centrale. Trips cost 1.30 euros for 90 minutes or 3.50 per day. Tickets are sold at most tabacco stores or ticket booths. Tickets must be validated as you board the bus. There's also a small Metropolitana subway system. As the AMAT website is in Italian only, consult SeePalermo.
Catania has a compact downtown, and public buses are infrequent, so walking is usually the easiest way to get around. The short metro line runs between the Port and Circumetnea (Borga) train station. From here there are rail connections to the villages on the slopes of Mount Etna. BiciPA is the local bike sharing system.
Media & resources
There are Catania and Palermo listings at the website for all Italy at guida.gay.it The local Palermo bear group lists gay businesses, al fresco cruising spots, and local events, at their website Orsi Siculi.
Catania Pride, takes place in June and July, with concerts, parade, demonstrations, political workshops, and other events.
Arcigay, the national gay and lesbian association of Italy, has local chapters for each region, including Sicily and Catania. Many of the clubs and saunas are affiliated, so a membership in one is good for any of the others. Arcigay Palermo has brought over 10,000 people to the streets of Palermo for Pride, and works to address the violence and discrimination sometimes directed against local LGBT people.
LezPop is a pop cultural lifestyle website for lesbians, with news, photos, videos and events listings, in Italian.
Il Giornale di Sicilia has news, reviews and good events listings and reviews for the whole island (see Dormire, Mangiare, and Eventi tabs).
Sulfurous hot water springs from beneath Mount Etna, are to be found at spas or in natural surroundings in Sicily. For an overview on the subject see the Siciliamo blog site.
To read about the Golden Age of Norman Sicily 1061-1250, and the possible origins of blue-eyed Sicilians, see the Best of Sicily Magazine article on their website.
In this city of over a million at the foot of Mount Etna, (Europe's largest volcano), people are more tolerant of outright gay expressions of affection than in the surrounding countryside.
Catania is distinctive for Baroque architecture, a theatrical style of grandeur popular in 17th century Europe. The city was rebuilt after being completely destroyed by earthquakes and lava flows from Etna in 1693. Typical is the abundant detail, statues, the use of gold, columns, garlands, wreaths, grand façades and elaborate frescos. Unique here is the use of dark basalt, or lava stone from this volcanic region.
Food specialities include Arancino (rice, tomato and cheese fried balls), cannoli alla ricotta, and local fish, as many fishing boats still put in here. Piazza Duomo is the main fish market. Horse meat is another favorite, found around the Benedictine Monastery. Tavola calde are traditional street vendors of good food cheap, with pizzas, pastas hot and cold, salads, panini, desserts, and drinks.
Catania going out
Café Ziggurat (Piazza San Francesco d' Assisi 4/5), was Caffé Neva, American-style bar, restaurant and pizzeria; young, casual & chic crowd.
Codice Rosso (via Conte Ruggero, 48), open nightly local men's cruise bar, mask, naked and blackout parties.
Le Capannine (viale Kennedy 93, Lidi Playa), beach disco, gay-friendly dance parties, beach volleyball, restaurant. cabaret.
Gruppo Pegaso, Catania's biggest gay parties, continue their Saturday Industrie nights with guest DJs, vocal entertainment and shows, go-go boys, and men-only events, at via Acquicella Porto 13. Other nights feature more mixed crowds.
Moucharabia (Piazza S.Francisco D'Assisi 15), Catanese cuisine, late night dancing to DJ sets, friendly mixed crowd.
Nievski Trattoria & Pub (via Alessi 15/17, Scalinata Alessi), alternative crowd, revolutionary Cuban posters, organic Mediterranean vegetarian meals, wines, fresh fish/seafood; live music, art exhibits.
SFC Sauna Cruising (South Factory Club, via Fischetti, 10), Turkish bath, Finnish sauna, 20-man hot tub, video room, darkroom, massage services, bar, smoking room - all around the central common room. LeatherClubSicily Naked Parties.
Terme di Achille Sauna (via Tezzano 13), lounge bar, cabins, dark room, massage, internet access, Turkish bath, sauna.
Acqua dell'Arte (via Cristoforo Colombo, 46 ), B&B and hostel at the Baroque heart of Catania, rooms from 40 euros, near old fish market and bus station.
BAD Bed & Breakfast Catania (via Cristoforo Colombo 24), small gay-friendly boutique guesthouse, private baths, moderate prices; 19th Century Sicilian artifacts, vintage furniture, works of young artists.
Catania City Center B&B (via Naumachia 103), friendly staff, casual, central guesthouse and apartments, en-suite bathrooms, all comforts, satellite TV, WiFi, rich breakfasts.
Crispi Rooms (via Francesco Crispi 15), budget to mid-range price hotel at center of historic Catania, near central train station.
Hotel Villa Romeo (via Platamone 8; Hotelvillaromeo.it), more upscale three-star Catania hotel, gay-friendly in-house Havana Pub.
Il Principe (via Alessi 20/26), full-service hotel, restored grand building, baroque Catania center; rooms and suites, private bathrooms, Jacuzzi or shower, AC, WiFi, satellite TV.
San Max Hotel (via Etnea 329), modern rooms in an elegant restored palazzetto, traditional Sicilian hospitality, all the comforts, central location.
Tre Vie, one-bedroom apartments with WiFi; elegant, refurbished 18th century palazzo at centre of old Catania, short walk to Cathedral Square.
Not previously known as a gay destination, this largest of Sicilian cities now has more of a scene, with more gay-friendly clubs and bars than ever before.
Founded by the Phoenicians, named by Ancient Greeks (Panormus), Palermo remained a part of the Byzantine Empire, for a thousand years, long after the Roman era. As with Catania, it was under Arab, then Norman rule; and from 1130 to 1816 it was the capital city of the Kingdom of Sicily. Italian unification came in 1860. The grip on the economy of the once powerful Mafia has faded since the death of two judges, (for whom the airport is named), in the turmoil of the early 1990s.
The main center for industry and commerce, the city is known for fine restaurants, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and other fine buildings, and for it's nightlife and music scene. The Teatro Massimo opera house is the largest theater in Italy, recently restored, and with an active schedule. The Teatro Politeama is another grand edifice fronted by a lively piazza.
Local cuisine is a legacy of the many cultures that arrived on these shores. Look for pasta con le sarde (sardines, fennel, capers, peppers, pine nuts and pasta), a Palermo favorite. The many varieties of cannoli with their sweet fillings might top off the meal. As in Spain, most people eat late here, usually not before 9pm.
Besides the many restaurants, there is good food to be found almost anywhere in the streets. Hot snacks of buffitieri might include pane e pannelle (chickpea fritters), sfincione (onion and cheese baked on dough) or a variety of pancake-like scaccie. A festival to honor Saint Lucy features boiled wheat cuccìa. The poplulation was once said to have been saved from famine, when a ship with grain mysteriously arrived - this attributed to the intercession of the saint - and people didn't waste time making flour. For meaty cravings the pani cu'la mensa (beef spleen bread rolls), stigghiola (onion, cheese, parsley, stuffed goat intestines), or the many kinds of meat and vegetable stuffed breads, known as impanata, are quick, inexpensive nibbles. For sweet options there are brioche with ice-cream, fruit, or nougat stuffings.
Palermo, going out
Alastor AltroQuando (via Vittorio Emanuele 143, aka Palermo Cassaro), comics and bookstore, alternative and counterculture press; experimental, arts, culture, LGBT, ethnic and independent music
Casa Del Brodo (Vittorio Emanuele 175), classic elegance since 1890, informal ambience, winter fireplace, patio beside 15th century walls, bookstore, music and literary events.
Cha Palermo (Via Velasquez 28), gay-friendly cafe, hundreds of tea blends, flat breads, pancakes, soups, meat and cheese; wines, cocktails, hot chocolate, cakes and sweets.
Cinema Rouge et Noir (piazza Verdi 8), art-house cinema, queer filmfest screenings.
Exit Drinks' Shut Up at Fabric Club House (via Ugo la Malfa 95), big gay Saturday dance parties, mostly young crowd, men & women, straight-friendly, theme parties, go-go boys, drag and cabaret shows. Also I Love Tuesdays at Il Moro Club (piazza Monsignor Pottino 3).
Il Gatto Nero (Formaggi, 15), music cafe and bar at the center, DJ sets, Tuesday evening gay socials.
Outside Palermo there's nude sunbathing at the gay-frequented beach at Barcarello, a rocky spot reached on the bus to Sferracavallo - look for the signs or ask the locals.
Between Messina and Palermo, seaside at Castel di Tusa near Cefalù, Atelier sul Mare (via Cesare Battisti 4), an unusual combination of hotel and museum. Thirteen of their 40 rooms designed and decorated by 18 acclaimed artists. Stone hallway walls are naturally wrought, and terraces are filled with flowers.
Scenic, tranquil Taormina was once popular with screen legends the likes of Dietrich, Crawford, Hayworth, Garbo, and Taylor. Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Cary Grant also liked to visit.
The town had also been home to Wilhelm von Gloeden, the German photographer known for pastoral nude studies of Sicilian youth. His work was widely admired in Germany, England, and America at the time, and his house in Piazza San Domenico (until his death in 1931) hosted visiting royalty (Wilhelm II, Edward VII), industrialists such as Friedrich Alfred Krupp, artists, the composer Richard Strauss, and writers from André Gide and Rudyard Kipling, to Oscar Wilde - who came in 1897, after his disgrace. Despite obvious homoerotic overtones, the work of von Gloeden was noted in the Baedeker guide, and printed in travel magazines, creating a popular notion of an exotic, romantic Mediterranean that survives to this day. Much of the photographer's considerable wealth was shared with local people in what was then a relatively poor region. Fascist authorities destroyed most of his glass plates soon after his death, but some survived - hidden by locals, or in foreign collections. Von Gloeden's last model died in 1977 at the age of 87, but postcards of the young men may still be found in shops.
Even now you'll find a few "arty" and gay-friendly bars, restaurants and guesthouses in Taormina. Between here and Catania the slopes of Mount Etna are dotted with small villages, many of which have idyllic country guesthouses, in refurbished ancient stone buildings.
Isoco Guest House (Via Salita Branco 2), small Taormina guesthouse, caters to gay visitors, great sea views, internet access, kitchenettes, garden with hot tub. Taorminese, the proprietor, is happy to help with tips and guidance - such as directions to Le Rocce (the cliffs), a gay section of beach.
At the foot of Mt Etna, 18km out of Taormina, between Catania and Messina, La Gardenia dell'Etna (via Gebbia San Basile, 23, Nunziata/Piedimonte Etneo) is on an ancient wine estate and fruit orchard. Tranquil, rustic charm, all modern conveniences, lounge/bar, restaurant, swimming pool; beaches and golf course nearby.