It may just have been, as DH Lawrence famously said, its 'on-the-brink feeling', but an air of menace, like the burning afternoon sun, filled the empty streets of downtown Catania. It was Sunday, maybe that was the problem, and a combination of factors – the heat, Mount Etna's recent eruption, the closed shops – had whipped up a kind of nagging anxiety. I slipped down a back street, away from the imposing cathedral, then another, far from the sweeping 18th-century squares, and found myself up against blocked-off roads, derelict tenements – and the hum of silence.
But in the glare of the Monday morning sun, Catania exploded into life. At the pescheria, or fish market, behind the cathedral, hundreds of people filled a tiny square, the noise immense like a football match. Pavements were soaking from blood-red water emptied out by the bucket, and littered with the remains of urchins, mussels, and squid. Women in open shoes trod carefully, their carriers taut with fish. Men wore plastic bags on their feet and yelled, their voices rebounding across the stalls.
Some, in stained aprons, consumed brioche and espresso in tiny plastic cups in between cutting the fish, hosing the floor and serving customers. Live crabs foamed and panted in boxes. And, at the longest stall, where a laminated pope swayed in the breeze, hundreds of fish were lined up like ties of different colours – pink, silver, grey, red, white, golden.
I couldn't leave the market without sampling the goods and one of the men pointed to La Puglia, a trattoria in its centre, where gruff staff will grill any fish you like for €10 (£8). So, sitting in its brightly lit interior, I devoured a plate of sardines and half a bottle of cheap Etna wine.
Yet despite the ancient daily ritual of the market, Catania is a surprisingly modern city. Rebuilt in noble fashion after devastation by Etna in 1669 and again by an earthquake in 1693, its lava-black veined piazzas and palazzi (most notably Teatro Massimo and Biscari respectively) now play host to a plethora of upmarket boutiques and unusual designer bars: Energie (Via Monte S Agata) boasts Jelly Tot-coloured furniture, Tertulia (Via Michele Rapisardi) is a minimal bookshop-cum-bar, and gay-owned Neva Café on fashionable Via Crociferi has an Ibizan-style terrace.
But most unexpected of all is the self-styled BAD, the city's first boutique B&B, which has been punching its own identity since 2005. Occupying a floor of a peeling palazzo a stone's throw from the duomo (cathedral), the décor is an ambitious mix of 1970s colour-clashes (oranges and purples, greens and reds), 19th-century Sicilian artefacts and tiling, contemporary design (such as Kundalini chairs), vintage furniture and cutting-edge art. "We wanted to show personality," says co-owner and graphic designer Giulia Consoli, who in 2005 moved with her husband from Turin back to their hometown to open BAD (Bed and breakfast And Design). "We want an identity to set us apart from all the other places in Catania."
Of the four individually styled guest rooms and huge apartment, most extreme is the psychedelic room. An "English" room is replete with more sober blues and whites. But it's the exhibition space where the couple's taste is most controversial. Graphic prints, by Turin-based duo Paperkut, of two T-shirted male torsos devouring their own flesh, and a strident female, serpent dangling from naked groin, adorn the walls, while, under the stairs, a dangling warrior puppet, eyes like boiled eggs, turns away ruefully. In the corner, illuminated letters jostle to create the word BAD.
"We love this eclectic style," says Guilia, "It hits you between the eyes. But, more importantly, when we opened, we didn't have any money so the pieces are all salvaged from friends, relatives, or the local markets – and we transformed them into how we wanted them to look."
That evening, as I sat in the main square, final beer to hand, watching bats scream around the cathedral, I felt I'd begun to understand Catania. Sicilians sleep as hard on Sunday as they live on Monday. And somehow, this carpe diem attitude seemed more real for a people that lived in the shadow of the volatile Etna.
Air Malta flies up to five times a week from London Gatwick to Catania. Return fares from £79 return, including taxes and charges. Visit airmalta.com or call 0845 607 3710