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3:39pm on Wednesday, 12th September, 2012:



It's day nine of the cruise, and we're docked in the Italian port of Messina. All the remaining ports of our journey are in Italy, but Messina is the only one in Sicily.

OK, so what you need to know about Messina is that it gets periodically flattened by earthquakes due to its proximity to Mount Etna. A big one in 1908 destroyed almost all the city. They rebuilt it, then it was flattened again when the Italians chose the wrong side in the Second World War. This means that there isn't a lot of Messina older than 60 or so years; consequently, it's not what you might regard as a tourist attraction. Here's the most scenic part, the entrance to the harbour:

That photo would have looked better taken a few seconds earlier, in order that the rays of the sun would appear to be shining out from the statue of the Madonna of the Letter on top of that pillar; unluckily, my wife noticed first and claimed the photo, so I had to wait a respectable time before taking one myself.

Here's what Messina looks like in general:

Architecturally, I think it would benefit from another flattening to be honest, although this church on one of the hills looks pretty when it catches the morning sun:

Why dock here, then? Ah, well, Messina may be a little short on sights, but nearby is the hilltop town of Taormina, which has Greek ruins. We already saw this when we went on a cruise four years ago, so rather than see it again we thought we'd try a different tour. None of them seemed especially attractive, unless you like stops for wine tasting (which most seemed to involve). In the end, we plumped for one called "Treasures of Taormina".

Needless to say, it wasn't very long.

It would have been even shorter if it hadn't been for the traffic. There seem to be more cars than people in Messina, and double parking is apparently regarded as a human right (at least by the individual doing it; everyone else reacts by hitting their car horn repeatedly in the hope that this will somehow cause any vehicular problem to go away). On one particular narrow stretch, the bus was trying to get past a car parked alongside another car when an oncoming car decided that the road was nevertheless wide enough to get through. It was, at a speed of about 5cm per second. The car behind it also decided that there was room to pass. There wasn't:

Seconds after I took that photo, the second car (the black one) caught the back of the parked silver car with its front passenger seat door. The car it hit was only scraped on the bumper, but I expect the black car will need a trip to the menders to get its door fixed up.

So, the first stop we had, for which we had endured the narrow backstreets of Messina, was none other than the church from a couple of pictures ago. Here's the view of Messina from up there:

Yes, it was right into the sun so we couldn't see anything much except the outline of our ship. I lightened the image a bit so it didn't look like a silhouette (which, given that the ship is called MS Silhouette, in retrospect seems a mistake).

Here's some grafitti from up there:

I guess it doesn't say much for my own artistic abilities that I find that quite good...

This is an unlightened shot of the Strait of Messina. The hill on the horizon to the right is mainland Italy; the lower-lying land on the horizon to the left is the closest point that Sicily gets to the mainland. This was to be the second Treasure of Messina on our tour.

I took some photos from the bus on the journey there, but either they didn't come out or they did but were useless for blogging purposes as I took them in desperation. I did manage to get one of this saltwater lake, though:

It's about a foot deep, according to the Australian/Italian guide we had. There were some people standing in it a bit further up catching shellfish, and the water looked to have been a bit deeper in places — perhaps two feet. Basically, it looks impressive but it's knee-deep shallow.

This is the point where Sicily is closest to mainland Italy:

I thought Land's End in Cornwall was a let-down, but it's like Disneyland in comparison to this. I suppose no-one wants to do anything with the land in case the Mafia gives permission for the long-mooted bridge across the strait to be built, which would mean any structures would have to be cleared to make way for it.

Italian parking:

Our final Treasure of Messina was back in Messina, about a 5-minute walk from the ship. It was the local cathedral of the Madonna of the Letter (her again: the patron saint of the town). There's a campanile there that doubles as the world's largest astronomical clock:

We had an option to climb up it, but were never given the time to exercise that option. Instead, we were taken into the Cathedral and shown a lot of stuff made of gold and pieces of saints, which I couldn't photograph because "This is a treasury, it's like a museum".

After being exhilirated by that, we went outside for the final Treasure of Messina: the noon performance of the clock tower. See these gold-coloured figures on it?

Well, every day at the appointed hour they undertake some kind of clockwork action in which they move in choreographed ways for 15 minutes. It starts off with the above lion raising its flag and its tail, then pulling its head back and roaring. The roaring is accompanied by a recording of a real lion roaring, which we certainly weren't expecting and found mildly amusing. It meant we were all the more excited to wait until the lion had completed this set piece four times so we could hear what noise the cockerell underneath was going to make. When it finally spoke, the result was the kind of call you might expect a cockerell to make if it had just had a foot chopped off. I'm sure you can find it on Youtube if you want to hear it for yourself (I did record it, but am not about to upload it from this laptop at the pedestrian pace offered by the ship at its exhorbitant Internet access rate).

Finally, we returned to the ship. Our coach driver had somehow managed to negotiate the streets safely, so was given no tip whatsoever. As a professional, he was a better driver than most of the locals, though, if not a better parker:

So that's Messina. If I find myself here on vacation again, I think I'll be visiting Taormina a second time, or maybe Mount Etna...

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).