Most people I know complain about the Playa, Catania's so-called riviera beach zone: the water is ugly, it is too far away, there is too much traffic, the beach is crowded, the sand is annoying. And while such statements could be considered true, they usually come out of the mouths of those who are partial to the rocky beaches of the scoglieria coastal area, with its black boulders, turquoise waters and abundant sea life that feel quintessentially Mediterranean island rather than man-made beach resort. But, as I have discovered on numerous visits to the sandy shore, the Playa (also spelled Plaia) has its own culture and its own place in Catanese summer and therefore must be addressed on its own terms.
First a little background. This stretch of golden sandy beach begins just after Catania's (unsightly) port and extends 18 km in the direction of Siracusa, ending at the Agnone Bagni area. But the core lido zone is the area just beyond the port and here you will find a densely packed beach front with a total of 3 public beaches (not so recommended as they are usually crammed full of people on top of people on top of litter) and 29 lido beach clubs that vary in size and offerings, but that with a montly fee provide a cabina (small wooden cabin that serves as a changing/storage room), the use of the maintained and lifeguard protected waters, and facilities like bar, playground, swimming pool, restrooms, showers and more.
It is in the beach clubs that you will find families hanging out in the patch of sand in front of their cabina enjoying copious amounts of home cooked food, adults seated around fold up tables playing cards, groups of teens huddled together in their speedos and bikinis with their uniformly tanned skin, and of course the children, lots and lots of children of all ages, enjoying the freedom of open sand, warm water and small waves.
The first thing that strikes you about the Playa is the breeze. There is always a steady cooling breeze that at times can be a strong wind that flings sand in your face and makes you run for cover (in fact a part of the bay is zoned for wind surfing). Then there is the unique view. Immediately to the west are the cranes and large ships of Catania's port, perhaps not so ideal for a beach setting, but also not so uncommon for big city beaches (Los Angeles' Long Beach comes to mind). But in sharp contrast to industrial Catania is the best view of Mt. Etna you can have from the city, completely unobscured from its foothills to its peak, a truly awesome sight. I should also mention that Catania's airport, Fontanarossa, is just behind the Playa, meaning that a constant flow of airplanes is also part of the scenery (this is a plus for my son and his little friends who universally seem to get a kick out of airplane sightings).
I prefer to arrive at the Playa in the late afternoon/early evening, the time of day when most people are heading home. This helps make the schlep less stressful, as Catania's traffic is manageable in the 4 to 5 o'clock range, at this time of day the sun doesn't burn quite so much, and, best of all, in the late afternoon there is always a sense of peaceful calm on the beach that never fails to transport me to a world where I forget myself and nothing matters but the loveliness of the day.
And here we play in the waves and on the sand, engrossed in beach play as the time speeds by and before we know it the light is changing, the beaches are empty, the umbrellas are closed, the red flags are up, stomachs are grumbling. A stop at the playground en route to the token-operated warm shower to rinse off the sand, a change of clothes and our afternoon at the beach is over.