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Catania is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most interesting cities in Sicily.

Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, hovers nearby and defines the city, its architecture and its past. But not to worry: Etna is extinct. Its proximity explains, however, why the city seems to be built almost entirely of lava stone; at first blush this can give the city a gloomy air.

It also explains why the entire city seems to have been built at one time: A lot of it was. Following an earthquake in 1693 the city was rebuilt quickly and on a grand scale, by the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.

Working in the late Baroque style of the day, Vaccarini’s work also demonstrates considerable innovations in urban building.

The main square, Piazza del Duomo, sports a lava elephant supporting an obelisk on its back. The adjacent duomo itself, like most everything else, was remodeled by Vaccarini with a heavy Baroque touch.

Nearby is Catania's open-air market, bustling with shoppers, seafood, vegetable and fruit stalls, as well as a few excellent trattorias.

Catania is a sightseers’ delight, abounding with unique museums, theaters, squares and churches.  The list includes Castello Ursino – once the proud, cliffside fortress of Frederick II, is now a kilometer inland, with  a lava-filled moat. Composer Vincenzo Bellini is a native son.

Commemorated all over town, even on menus; spaghetti Norma, named after one of Bellini's operas, is a Catanian specialty.