Surrounded by volcanic Mt. Etna, rugged mountains, orange and olive groves, and vineyards, Messina’s location at the northeast tip of Sicily puts it just two miles away from the Italian mainland. Shaped by Greek, Byzantine, and Roman civilizations, Sicily is a beautiful blend of different cultures and histories.
The Strait of Messina connects the Mediterranean with the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. In Greek Mythology the immortal monsters Scylla and Charybdis lived here, as described by Homer in the Odyssey. We didn’t see any evidence of monsters, but our efforts to get up before dawn were genuinely rewarded by seeing Mainland Italy on the portside (left) and Sicily on the starboard (right) side.
Sailing through the Strait in the early morning, one of the first sights are two red and white pylons, one on each side, seeming to reach for the sky. Built in 1955, they served as electrical conductors until 1993 when the power lines were removed. Today they enjoy protected status as historical monuments.
Reaching the Port of Messina, we began to learn more of the folklore surrounding this beautiful place. The Golden Madonna welcomes travelers with the message “Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus,” (We bless you and your city.) According to legend, the Blessed Virgin sent a letter to the people of Messina in the year 42. In the letter, written in Hebrew and tied with a strand of her hair, she thanked the people of Messina for their devotion and promised them that she would always protect them from harm. Despite a large earthquake in 1908 and bombings in 1943, the people of Messina have prevailed with great devotion to Madonna della Lettera (Madonna of the Letter,) so much so that she’ll re-appear in my description of the Cathedral below.
Fifteen churches serve the people of Messina (population 236,962.) Most notable among them is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption (aka Saint Mary of the Letter). Every day at noon, hundreds of people crowd the Piazza del Duomo to hear the lion roar, the rooster crow, and the Ave Maria, which is played as the image of the church disappears and the statues of the people in the bell tower revolve to receive the letter from the Madonna. I joined the group in the blistering sun to record this lovely tradition. At the 8th minute, my phone overheated and turned itself off, but I stayed in the piazza til the end, and was happy to do so. The file is too large to upload, so I’ll just share a photo and would be happy to share the video when I get home.
Other beautiful churches include the Church of Saint Caterina del Valverde, the Church of Santissima Annunziata del Catalani, and the Temple of Christ the King which sits high on a hill overlooking Messina
In addition to Messina’s beautiful churches, the architecture throughout the city reflects its diverse history. Ornate buildings, doors, and windows can be found everywhere.
We also enjoyed a bit of la dolce vita in Messina. The gelato is superb, and the ornate pastries were very hard to resist.
As one would expect, fishing is big business in Messina. Every morning the fishing boats cast their nets and bring back an abundance of fresh seafood. Fishing swordfish is a unique process that involves a special boat and highly trained crew. From May through August, these specialists climb a 25’mast to be on the lookout for the prized catch. They communicate sightings to a fisherman sitting on a long gangplank on the front of the boat. When alerted, he hurls a harpoon and hopefully spears a swordfish. After a long struggle, the fish is pulled onboard and the process begins again.
The symbol for Sicily is the triscale or trinacria. It comes from Greek Mythology, and includes the head of Medusa whose hair is intertwined with serpents and wheat. One explanation of the three bent legs is that they represent the three sides of the Sicily Triangle. Another is that they reflect those who traveled all around the world seeking the best fruits, stones, and soil, which they then dropped in Sicily. This explains why everything is better in Sicily, according to Sicilians. The symbol is found on the official flag as well as on decorative pottery and even souvenirs.