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Catania is Sicily's second-largest city and despite the ever-looming presence of Etna - even the city's main street is named after the volcano - and the ubiquitous black-grey volcanic stone in pavements and buildings, there's more openness and space than in the island's capital. A major transport hub, and predominantly a businesslike, commercial centre, it's nevertheless one of the island's most historic and intriguing cities. Some of the island's first Greek colonists settled the site as early as 729 BC, becoming so influential that their laws were eventually adopted by all the Ionian colonies of Magna Graecia. Later, a series of natural disasters helped shape the city as it appears today: Etna erupted in 1669, engulfing the city, the lava swamping the harbour, which was then topped by an earthquake in 1693 that devastated the whole of southeastern Sicily. The swift rebuilding was on a grand scale, and making full use of the local building material, Giovanni Vaccarini, the eighteenth-century architect, gave the city a lofty, noble air. Despite the neglect of many of the churches and the disintegrating, grey mansions, there's still interest in what, at first, might seem intimidating.

The ideal seasons in which to visit Catania are late spring and autumn as the citrus fruit "gardens" are in full bloom and it is a very evocative spectacle. Even the summertime is a good time to visit but it is better to avoid the torrid climate of the beaches and enjoy the cool climate of the hills.

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