October 17, 2013
History has not been kind to Messina. Perched on the edge of the Straits of Messina, it looks across to the toe of the Italian mainland. It seems that history has given it the boot many times. The Greeks called the island of Sicily, Greater Greece. Along with settlements on the Black Sea, these fertile and productive, compared to much of Greece, lands provided both food and trade opportunities to the Greek settlers. By 800 BC, well before the classic age of Greece, they had founded Messina, Syracuse and a host of other Sicilian cities. The remains of these settlements are tough to see under the Baroque reconstructions of the city. The Greeks must be just a few feet under the streets.
Our visit today was not the rich tapestry of Malta who also saw almost continuous challenges. Instead, the people of Messina had to endure the geography of being located near Mt. Etna. Europe’s most active volcano has contributed both eruptions and earthquakes to the devastation caused by wars. A tour of the churches provides ample proof of the damage caused by natural disasters. A basilica near the harbor was almost completely destroyed a hundred years ago and then rebuild stone by stone. The same church is right next to the harbor where the Nazis fled the forces of Patton and Montgomery in WWII. The Italians do not dwell on any devastation that resulted from that battle but there are scars in the stonework.
If I remember my Thucydides correctly, Messina saw plenty of action during the Peloponnesian Wars of the 4th Century BC. Their conquest by the Romans was thus assured. There is little to remind a tourist of the Arab occupation or the rules of the Normans, the Imperial Germans and the Angevin French. The remnants of Spanish are everywhere. Southern Italy was dominated by the Hapsburgs and the Spanish Bourbons until Italian unification in the 1860s. Just in from the harbor is the statue of Don Juan, the bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1572 he led the Spanish, Genoese and I believe Venetian fleets to victory over the massive Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1572. He calmly steps on a Turkish head while balancing in this bulging bloomers atop a pedestal. This victory combined with the defense of Malta eliminated the Turkish threat to the western Mediterranean.
We did enjoy the overlooked reliefs on the front of the cathedral. Many celebrate the grape harvest and the production of the local vintages. I would rather focus on these evenMost of the historic part of Messina dates from the Baroque era. This was the Golden Age of Spain and Sicily was comfortably Catholic being far removed from the trouble makers like the Dutch. Our many Dutch fellow travelers had to look in vain for their favorite herring to swallow whole while in Messina. In fact, we saw saw few venues stocked with fish or other goodies. Most of the downtown is dominated by shops selling shoes and nice clothes. Italians display their social standing in the clothing and shoes. We poor Americans by contrast celebrate our democratically elected t-shirts and sneakers.
Right now we are passing through the straits past extraordinary feats of road and rail road engineering that seem to be part of the Italo-Roman DNA. This place is mountainous. And to figure that we have challenges building a fast train through the plains of central California.
Back to Italian buying habits. While they must feel that we Americans and other tourists are schlubs, they do see opportunity. After all Americans must want to buy kitchen aprons with maps of Sicily on them and Italia baseball hats. The trouble is that the six thousand street vendors have only six different items to sell. You can only say no so many times before you succumb. I am sure my kids will appreciate their new kitchen gear.
We gathered in front of the Baroque clock tower to watch the heralded, multi-media presentation at noon. It is heralded as the largest astronomical clock tower in the world. We heard the golden lion roar through speakers that were on the verge of collapse. The same for the rooster. The climax was a parade of the three kings bearing gifts. It was a bit sad to see thousands of gathered observers watching a not too impressive display for an extended period in the sun. In the mean time the trinket hawkers and tourist mini-trains continued to do their thing.
We back on the ship early and did our research on tomorrow’s visit to Naples. Whereas Messina in its modern, reconstructed environment is a bit short on must see sights, Naples is ancient and decrepit. What will not be different are Italian drivers. Peggy keeps cautioning me about crossing streets without signals and crossing guards. I assure her that I make eye contact with the driver and wait until I get some inkling that they know how to use their brakes. I have to admit that I miss not having the magic walking sticks. Naples is supposed to be the place where you need an evil eye to stare down scooters. We will see.
Some of the travelers are getting a bit cranky. They manage to find stuff to whine about. Elevators are slow, food is cold, etc. I think the issue is one of pacing. You need to find time for a glass of wine while the sun is setting and the ship is heading out of port.
There are few late pictures from the Valetta Harbor that did not make today’s posting.