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When the Sicilia Convention & Visitor's Bureau invited me to the annual celebration of St. Agata, the Patron Saint of Catania, I had no idea what to expect.
Of course, I was told for years the significance of this celebration. I had heard many Italians around the country claim it was a bellissima esperienza (beautiful experience) which I thought, explained why it was one of the top 3 religious festivals in the world.
However, their praises did not quiet capture the feeling of intense connection and dedication the city of Catania has for their great saint. There is a reason this feast is so captivating to so many worldwide.
As a Sicilian-American, being there in the presence of this legend, I felt rejoiced and quite lucky to be invited. However, it was not until I fully experienced this festival did I feel confident enough to say I now understand the love behind the Catanese people and this annual celebration that takes places February 3-5.
And this is why I chose to write my love letter specifically Bella Sicilia and St.Agata. The great saint who is honored after her life was taken on February 5, 251 A.C. when she so bravely stood up for her own honor and faith.
It was the final procession of the beautiful Sant’Agata. Her structure, made of up to 40,000 pounds of jewels, had already been carried in the traditional vara (her silver float) for almost 30 hours through the town of Catania.
The rain was falling lightly on the crowd. However, her devotees didn't seem to be phased by the weather or the fact that they were the ones carrying this heavy structure for almost 2 days straight.
In the streets, the crowds of hundreds of thousands are yelling together, “Citizens!” “Long live Saint Agata” and “Are we all devoted, all of us?” “Of course, of course!"
Some people are crying, laughing, rejoicing as if this was the first time they have seen and experienced this celebration, when we all knew this was a yearly tradition they attended since they were just a child.
I am viewing the parade from the balcony above. Our original plan was to try watch the procession from the streets. However, one of our group leaders made a surprise call. Shortly after, we received news that a friend and her local Sicilian family had offered us access to their private luxury apartment on Via Enta, where they were hosting a party in a perfect view of the procession.
So together, we set off to this nearby apartment. Although we entered as a group of strangers from around the world, from the moment we walked through the door the family welcomed us as if we had known them for years.
They greeted us with a smile and almost immediately asked “Prosecco?”
I contemplated for a moment but then I had the realization that I had a camera and a notepad in my hands that took priority. I was there for work and I had to capture every moment of what was happening around me.
“No Grazie,” I said, "but I would love to have access to the balcony with the group.”
Antonietta, the host, lead me to the balcony and I darted immediately to the corner spot. I clung to the railing of the balcony while the rest of the photographers and house guests hovered over me. This had been the same case all weekend, as everyone was there to get a glimpse of this once a year event celebrating the beautiful Sant’Agata and were just as excited as I was to see her in person, for the 1st or 50th time.
From inside the home I could hear the Italian opera playing and the clinging of the plates as they began to serve the dolce (dessert). I could smell the fresh espresso brewing and I could hear Antonietta offer someone an Amara Amaro, a typical Sicilian digestive drink.
Part of me wanted to get right up and dive right into the dessert but I knew my priority was to see the last welcome of Sant’Agata for 2018.
As the cries and joyful yells got louder below, I knew she was close. I sat with my eye in the camera lens until I saw an up close shot of the saint.
She was beautiful, the glow in her face, the sparkling jewels reflecting off of her entire body from her feet to her finger tips. Even her hair is gold.
I am still not sure if it was the sparkling gold features that captured me or if it was the overall spiritual aura she created in her presence but immediately, I was mesmerized.
I suddenly felt so grateful to be there celebrating with the Sicilian people.
Although, I had already felt this way early all weekend.
When we first arrived, a few days prior, we were invited to watch the Firework dedication display for the great Sant’Agata at the town hall in the company of the Mayor.
Hundreds of guests attended. Some were there just to enjoy the event and the prestigious location, others simply wanted a quick Facebook video or Instagram picture while they enjoyed their Etna Rosso wine and complimentary aperitivo. Our group was there once again from another crowded balcony filled with excited locals, our cameras anxiously anticipating the kickoff.
The photographers on our trip were fully focused, with their cameras filming the entire experience. As for myself, I snapped quite a few photos but at the same time tried to let it all soak in.
This was one of the most unbelievable firework displays I have ever seen in my life. Now, this is coming from someone who grew up in New York, the home of the famous Fourth of July Gucci Firework display and also someone who spent a summer in Naples, where they proudly display fireworks almost every night in the summer. Of course Gucci has some impressive fireworks and I sure do love seeing the colorful flashes above the port of Naples but this could not match up to what I witnessed this evening in Catania.
This felt different, this was different. Every color of the rainbow flashed, one after another as it synchronized for about 40 minutes with a combination of Italian Opera and even American classical, pop music. In the background of the flaring lights and music you could hear the soulful cheers of the crowd. You could even see the people putting their hands together in pray and looking at the sky expressing their cries of gratefulness to the great saint.
Throughout the 40 minutes, I found myself eyes wide, fully immersed, and in awe of the experience.
The following day we attended a wonderful street food tour in the city center all while the locals continued to celebrate. As we walked through the Pescheria (fish market) you could spot the children who created their own replicates of the St.Agata float, bouncing around the city singing and dancing with their cardboard displays.
The men in their all white robes that were seen carrying the saint's silver float through the city earlier, took a short break from the festivities to enjoy a quick espresso at the bar, while others indulged in the typical dessert Minni di Sant'Agata (known as the cassatelle or a version of cassata, Sicily’s famous cake).
It seemed as if they were trying to stick to their daily routine during these days. However, they knew they must dedicate every moment to this saint in some way shape or form.
I couldn't help but join them and I tried as hard as I could to capture it all with my camera.
When a local would catch me looking at them with a big tourist grin and a camera in hand, they would give me a smile back, as if they understood. At times I could of sworn they were saying to me with their eyes ‘see bella, now you understand our passion and purpose for this city, welcome to la famiglia."
As the crowds cries rise, I am brought back to the present moment where the great Sant’Agata is passing our balcony on Vita Etna. The locals below me are hugging and celebrating one final time. I take a quick look at my camera and replay the photos. I realized I already got the shot I needed so I decide to sneak out through the crowded balcony and make my way to the room full of people.
Here I found the family in their elegant attire circling the table still choosing the perfect dessert that would not only taste delicious but look pretty on the vintage plates that they carried through the room
“You must try this ricotta cake, Cassandra, it's delicious. Although I have to admit, I didn't make it myself. BUT I did get it from the very best Pasticceria (bakery) in town," Antonietta winked as she handed me this delicacy. It was as if she already knew how I would react to the taste.
As I closed my eyes to savor the first bite, she continued to talk a bit more about the torte (cake). "You know how special ricotta is our region, maybe just as important as our great saint," Antonietta claimed. I slowly nodded in my head with an understanding, si (yes).
As I went to carefully place the plate down for just a moment, mostly to stop myself from devouring the entire piece in two bites, I noticed the handwoven Sicilian tablecloth draped over the wooden dessert table. It was almost a replica of the one I had at home from my own Sicilian nonna.
“This is so beautiful Antonietta” She looked at the cake and smiled. With a small laugh, I explained, “Ah yes the cake is beautiful and delicious, but I am speaking of the tablecloth it reminds me of my nonna, she just passed away this summer while I was in Naples. I didn't even get to say goodbye but I do have her Sicilian tablecloth in New York, this is the last piece I have of her home.”
She had an understanding smile on her face and a tear in her eye. “Thank you for sharing that cara (dear), our nonne are very special to us and this too is from my family. We must hold these precious gifts close to us. And also these precious moments, she said as she looked around the room.”
I must of looked a bit sad because Antonietta immediately handed the plate from the table back to me, encouraging me to finish the cake, while she shifted the topic of conversation back to the festivities.
“You know this will not be the last time you see the great Sant’Agata Cassandra.”
I smiled a bit as I replied, “Oh actually this was a work trip so I am not sure I will be able to get back here anytime soon again but, I am so grateful for the experience.”
“Ah yes but you don’t understand, you witnessed this from my home, which means the saint wanted you to be here, experiencing this moment with my family. And this actually means you are now part of Catania's family and you will return again one day for the great feast of our beloved Sant’Agata.”
She smiled at me as her butler tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to me with a one finger, stating she just needed one moment.
As Antonietta went on to speak with her staff, I carefully placed the vintage plate back on the beautiful Sicilian tablecloth and grabbed a glass of Prosecco from the adjacent table.
I found myself walking slowly to the now, empty balcony. I looked down to see streets that had cleared just a bit. With all the candles gone the street seems almost dark. I could now even see a view of Mt. Etna twinkling in the background.
I took in my last breath of Catania and the the festival celebration around me. In just a few hours I would be back on a plane to New York City. I couldn't understand why I was supposed to be here at this moment with this family at this festival. In fact I hadn't planned this trip at all and instead it fell right into my lap. But what was the reasoning? I decided not to question.
In the distance I spot the jewel filled vara (float) of Sant'Agata. I can see she is already making her way to first the Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò where the nuns will come out for their once a year appearance to sing in her honor, before she is returned to her home and Catherdal in Piazza Duomo.
I look up at the rows of multicolored streets lights and raise my glass to the sky, “Grazie, great St. Agata. I am not sure what you did, but somehow you reminded me that love is within all of us and that Italy will always be with me and apart of me after all. And don't worry this is not good-bye. As they say here your land, this just ciao for now.”
A special thank you the beautiful staff at Sicilia Convention & Visitor's Bureau, La Sicilia Web, Comune di Catania, and Instagrammers Catania for #MyAgathaExperience held 3-5 February 2018. It was an incredible week experiencing the festivities of St. Agata, the Catanese life, the infamous Mt. Etna and all that Sicily has to offer. I was also so lucky to celebrate this all alongside some of the most talented people in the business.
Grazie dal profondo del mio cuore. <3
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MEET THE AUTHOR
Cassandra Santoro is the CEO and Founder of Travel Italian Style. As a personal trip planner, Cassandra is an expert in Italian travel with a focus on authentic and inspiring experiences.
She also leads motivational talks in hopes to inspire others on her journey. Cassandra's highlight appearance was being a speaker in Germany for TEDx DHBW Mannheim.
Cassandra currently lives between Brooklyn, NY & Italy. Follow her adventures of life between two countries on Instagram.