The fun really began the next day.
Well it's certainly more intuitive to stay awake all night than getting up before dawn anyway.
The roads were dusted with sawdust (along with suspicious looking brown lumps which I still maintain was horse poo) ready to protect the roads from the wax that would be flowing all night.
"Wax?" I hear you say.
Oh yes. For this, my friends, is Italy's (slightly tamer) answer to Ottery St. Mary's tar barreling event.
On February 5th, the last official night of the festival, the streets are full of fire as men (and some women) carry large candles up the principal street Via Etnea as an offering to Sant'Agata.
Just in case you've seen enough men carrying huge candles, here's one of us:
The candles are carried all the way from the Duomo cathedral to the top of Via Etnea but as they are absolutely massive (as you can probably tell from the pictures), they weren't going anywhere in a hurry!
I couldn't believe the amount of times the ambulances had to force their way through the crowds! Surely there's another way? Magro's cousin Elisabetta who kindly put us up for the week in Catania told us that one year the ambulances tried to cross whilst the Saint was in the middle of the piazza! The cords pulling her along (see below) had to be raised up to the height of the ambulance by people climbing on the shoulders of others as tradition upholds that the cords cannot be lowered.
(I took a lot of this guy, we were standing and waiting for them to start running for ages and he kept fiddling with his candle, giving me plenty of opportunities to get pensive photos!)
Whilst those guys are lugging their candles along, the other guys are carrying their offering things in a police-escorted parade. It's amazing to see them all at work as it's obviously such a physical strain! I wouldn't be surprised if the entire male population of Catania spent the other 364 days of the year in the gym training for the night.
So I was just trying to take a photo of this little guy holding a plate with Agata's severed breasts on ("Jelly on a plate...jelly on a plate..." anyone?) when the policeman escorting this particular offering offered to take a photo of me with the float. I agreed but I didn't realise he meant a photo with me sitting at the front! I felt like a bit of a cheat to be honest, there were all these guys sweating away from their labours and I just waltzed in, had my picture and walked off again!
Me and the policeman who got me in on the act!
Most guys struggled through looking like they couldn't wait to dump the candle down. This guy was cool as a cucumber though.
The Saint's float is too heavy to be lifted. Instead, it is pulled along by a few
They were in for a long night! There are two cords pulling the Saint along, each divided into four right at the end to allow four people on each side to pull it. If you get stuck in between the cords to take photos I wish you good luck getting out; it's absolutely packed with people and tradition forbids people climbing over the top of the rope. It would be impossible to squeeze underneath between all those legs! One girl got a bit angsty about us being in the middle as we obviously weren't loyal devotees (oops!) so we got out of there pretty quick although loads of other people were really friendly and happy to see people from outside the community taking an interest.
Veggies look away: that's horse meat on the grill! A lot of people took the opportunity to make a bit of money and feed the community on the side with pop-up BBQs filling any spare space! The smoky air smelt delicious but they obviously didn't have any veggie burgers...
We were really lucky to have the views we did from the balcony; the apartment of Michele's cousin is right on the corner of Via Etnea so we got two different views! Even better, we could chill in the lounge in our pyjamas whilst we waited for Agata to arrive rather than being out on the cold streets.
You can see the difference between those walking with the cords and those just standing by! Even though there are plenty of other tourists, at times it felt like we stuck out more for not being dressed in the traditional cap and gown!
Finally, finally, finally, the Saint arrived at about 1am. As so many candles had been bought for Sant'Agata, they had to stop to offload! All of the candles in the truck get taken away and saved for next year.
And in fact, it took so long to offload all of the candles, we got a quick last picture before going to bed!
It was so difficult going to sleep with all of the noise outside still but I feel for the people up all night with the procession; it started at 6pm and didn't end until 10:45.. the next morning! By the time we were rousing our sleepy heads and peering back out onto the balcony, we could see a few black-capped sleepwalkers stumbling into the bakeries before heading on home. Sicuramente, the longest night of their lives!