Randazzo: at the feet of Mongibello

Randazzo sits under the feet of Mount Etna; a gigantic menacing shadow is constantly over the city. It is a place born out of the volcano and at its mercy. The wide lava streets of Randazzo create a sense of ancientness, the shades of grey sketching out the city in the deep depressing tones of harsher times.

The town centre is like a stone garden; the bumpy, rough lava has been poured over every part of the architecture, from the jagged streets to the more polished sidewalks. Even the intricate lace patterns of the balustrades of the lava Duomo and the Romanesque archways in the old cloister courtyard of the town hall are made from lava stone.

Wherever you look, the same hand has touched every feature of the town using the eternal grey lava colour to paint the characteristic historic centre.

It is impressive to see a town centre designed so boldly in a predominant, single material, but the grey tones are soon depressing and dark; luckily, the whole town isn’t like this. The town’s heart should be a homage to Etna, the epic volcanic mountain that creates and maintains Randazzo.

Taking the curved zig-zag road towards the Randazzo from the mountain towns of Floresta and Santa Domenica, only the peak of Etna is visible.

Usually, mist and clouds cover more than 3,000-meter-tall height. It is coming down from Santa Domenica that you realise the immensity of Etna; it sprawls out many kilometres into an immense valley. The dark, burned-out lava from past eruptions scars the face of the mountain in broad stripes of black stains left upon the landscape like a pot accidentally left to boil over on the stovetop.

Randazzo lies sprawled out along the base of Etna between the mountain and the Alcantara River, which is a deep gully of hard rock for most of the year. The city looks like a harsh, inhospitable place full of lava stone; the landscape is as dry and ugly as a desert.

Yet the area surrounding Randazzo, which runs along the valley created by Etna and other mountain ranges, is an incredibly productive agricultural area. It may seem unlikely, but the area below Mount Etna produces one of the most remarkable red wines bottled in Sicily and is filled by a series of large wineries.

Olive trees and pistachios also join the grape vines who love the broken-down lava soil. Olive trees are very robust and help break down the ground. The olive oil from this area is of extremely high quality. The pistachio trees grow green-coloured nuts used to make an array of confectionery products like pastries, ice cream and pesto sauce.

Pistachio trees thrive in the lava soil. They are found in Italy, only in the areas near Randazzo, Bronte, the next major town towards Catania and in the countryside just outside Catania itself, making it one of the most precious plants harvested in Italy.

Randazzo is at the crossroads of three critical Sicilian provinces connecting Catania in the southeast, Messina in the northernmost tip and Enna in the centre of Sicily. If you imagine Sicily as an isosceles triangle lying on its side, its main point facing to the left, Messina is on its top right-hand corner.

The city of Catania is a little down on the right side, and Enna is in the centre of the triangle, forming their triangle inside. At the heart of these three cities, you could draw Etna and Randazzo, at the core of the area once known as the Val Demone.

The strategic position of Randazzo has made it the focal point of much trade and commerce throughout its existence. Today one symbol of this historical importance is the Randazzo market which brings together the best of the three provinces’ products every Sunday (except for public holidays and state or federal election days.)

On Sunday the town is transformed into a giant sea of stalls, crowds and confusion like a Moroccan bizarre.

The open-air market tradition goes back to the times of the Arab domination of Sicily, from the seventh century when the concept of open trade markets was imported from the Middle East, creating an expansion of trade and products that dispersed products throughout Sicily.

In Sicily every town has one day during the week dedicated to an open-air market.

On market day, Randazzo is transformed, invaded by endless stalls selling everything from artwork and C.D.s to children’s wear, fruit, vegetables, toys, cheeses, furniture and ornaments. You can find many random things at the markets, like fur coats, wrought iron work, fabric, statues, casual wear, handbags, shoes, soccer jumpers, socks, and men’s suits.

There is an endless stream of randomness, from dried baccala fish, lawn mowers, scythes, fairy floss, books, groceries, cleaning products, dried fruit, lingerie, roast chickens, army surplus products and endless haberdashery.

As people arrive, the confusion grows to an impressive level, and by mid-morning, there are stall owners who yell, scream and chant about the quality of their products, trying to out-spruce one another. At the same time, experienced market shoppers rummage through the large stockpiles, trying to find a bargain. Like any market, there are both excellent quality products and simple junk; the challenge is recognising good quality stuff in amongst the confusion.

The most important thing about market shopping is recognising a bargain and firmly naming your price, the endless stalls mean you can always threaten to go to the next booth to get your price, so being firm and fair means, you can often get a discount. Walking away from a stall can be just the right strategy to get a better price from the vendor.

There is a fundamental skill to market shopping, and if you throw yourself into the experience wholeheartedly, it is a vibrant, refreshing and exciting form of entertainment. Just walking through the transformed streets is a journey into the past times of medieval bazaars, full of exotic sensations and products.

The markets are an endless stream of colour and confusion; during the mid-morning, the crowds reach their peak as the people dive into the small side streets already crowded by the overflowing stalls creating a terrible crush and confusion, making people crawl along at a snail’s pace shoulder to shoulder.

The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowd when the best offers can be found, and you have the energy to dive into the world of the Randazzo markets.

Randazzo, like most major Sicilian cities, has a long and complex history linking it to the island’s significant invaders. The city’s founding came about in the amalgamation of the pre-existing towns of Triracia, Triocala, Tissa, Demena and Altesa, destroyed during a Roman civil war by Roman emperor Ottaviano. After the fall of the
Roman Empire, the Byzantines refounded a united city.

The city’s name is believed to derive from a Byzantine governor known as Rendakes or Randas, who governed the nearby coastal town of Taormina in the tenth century. The term also has its roots in the local dialect, from the word Rannazzu meaning ‘big city’, aptly describing Randazzo’s expansive urban development.

In 827 A.D., the Byzantines were gradually pushed out of Sicily by the Arab invasion, which ushered in a new domination that remained in Sicily for over three centuries.