Thursday, July 28, 2016

Messina, Sicily

Day five of our Mediterranean cruise landed us in Messina, Sicily. Everything I had read about the city indicated that it was a boring dump. The reviews on numerous travel sites basically said that we should avoid the town at all costs and flee as quickly as possible.  And so, that was the plan.  

Rather than explore the old seaport and city center, we opted for one of the ship excursions.  As a general rule, I avoid those like the plague because they invariably involve a packed tour bus full of mostly old folks too timid to go out exploring on their own, a long drive, pompously animated tour guides, limited time at the destination, and then a long ride back. Ship excursions are usually over-priced and tedious.  But after all of the dire warnings on Trip Advisor and Reddit about Messina, we were willing to make an exception and go with the flow.

We arrived in Messina at eight in the morning and we were the only big ship in the harbor, which was quite a change from our previous three stops.  The weather had reverted back to its usual happy self and it was sunny and temperatures were in the 70's.  The MSC Poesia pulled right up to the terminal dock, which was really nothing more than a long bulkhead next to a parking lot.  A major street ran along the shoreline as in all port cities and most of the light morning traffic consisted of scooters and dirty trucks. Lining the street were rundown tan apartment buildings adorned with laundry that definitely had government housing written all over them. A tall fence separated the cruise ship area from the town.  And the only sign of commerce consisted of a few sturdy white tent stores selling souvenirs and booze.  But they had yet to open.

"It reminds me of Communism," said Inna as we sat on our balcony taking in the dreary scene.

"Well, it was almost completely wiped out in a big earthquake in the early 1900s," I replied.  "And then it was the scene of endless carnage when the allies landed in World War II.  So, maybe we should cut them some slack."

It definitely was far different than anything we had seen so far.

Messina sits about three miles south of Reggio Calabria, at the southern toe of Italy.  Shaped like a scythe, it guards the Strait of Messina where all ships heading east or west must pass.  Given its strategic location, and its natural shelter from storms, it played an important role in Mediterranean and seafaring history going all the way back to the first Greek colony, Zancle, that was founded in the 8th century BC.  According to Greek mythology, it was controlled by two terrible sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis.

I love Greek Mythology.  It's much more entertaining and lively than the Bible.  Parables should tell a good story and the myth of Scylla and Charybdis totally rocks.

Scylla was a beautiful sea nymph who lived on the Sicily side of the strait.  One day, she caught the attention of that randy old ocean king Poseidon, who was always looking for new talent.  Poseidon's wife Amphitrite got jealous, so she poisoned the waters where Scylla bathed, turning her into a terrible monster with six heads and three rows of sharp teeth. That must have been one helluva magic potion.  From then on, Scylla attacked any ship dumb enough to pass too close to land.

Charybdis was also a sea nymph and the daughter of Poseidon.  She helped her father fight Zeus by engulfing lands and islands with water. That bully boy Zeus didn't like having his lands stolen, so he cursed Charybdis and turned her into a monster, with flippers for legs and arms, who had an unquenchable thirst for the sea, which she sucked up three times a day, creating giant whirlpools.  Odysseus lost his ship to Charybdis, but he grabbed onto an overhanging branch and waited until the ship was spit back out of the whirlpool, and then he swung back onto the deck and proceeded on his quest.

Myths are simply metaphorical stories.  And Scylla was obviously a rocky shoal, and Charybdis was where the currents were really dangerous.  And to this day, southern Europeans use the idiom of being forced between Scylla and Charybdis like we use the phrase, "being caught between a rock and a hard place".  Needless to say, a lot of blood has been spilled along those rocky shores since humans took to the sea.

According to the brochures which, of course, always accentuate the positive, the Messina of today is a vibrant port of call for ferries to the European continent, an industrial center, home to an outstanding university, and a popular seaside resort.  Maybe so, but at first blush, it looked almost abandoned.  And there was trash and graffiti everywhere.

It should have been rush hour in Messina, but the town seemed dead. A few people aimlessly walked the street, stopping to chat with one another and casting hostile looks at our cruise ship.  Several entrepreneurs gathered outside the fence like beggars with trinkets and flowers for sale.  But it seemed like everyone was still asleep on a beautiful Tuesday morning.  Apparently nobody worked in this industrial center of Sicily.

As the cruise ship was being safely secured, vans and buses started quickly filling the adjacent parking lot.  They were going to service the various ship excursions.  The drivers got out and greeted one another amiably and immediately started lighting up cigarettes.

"I'm glad we booked a tour," I said as we gathered our gear into our day packs and headed for our disembarkation area in the Zebra Lounge.

I had signed us up for the tour of Mount Etna and the ancient city of Taormina and it sounded like a fun trip.  "The Italian island of Sicily is presided over by Mount Etna, Europe's tallest and most active volcano. Taking you to see the natural phenomenon and the nearby town of Taormina, this all-day tour begins with a 1.5-hour coach trip, passing through the town of Zafferina Etnea to catch superb views of the mountain and the sea.  A little over half way up Mount Etna lies the cable car station of Rifugio Sapienza — twice burned by lava over the years — from where you will then walk to the two inactive Silvestri Craters, which were formed during the eruption of 1892.  Leaving Mount Etna behind, you'll then spend about an hour on the coach to reach the lovely little town of Taormina.  Free time will then be yours to have lunch (at extra cost), after which a guided walk will take you past the ancient Greco-Roman theatre, the 15th century Corvaja Palace, the small Roman "Odeon" theatre, and the 13th century Minor Basilica of St. Nicholas."

The tour cost $69 per person and they warned us to bring a jacket because it could get windy and cold up on the volcano.  And they weren't blowing smoke.   More on this a little bit later.

As we rode the very nice and comfortable tour bus out of town, the views really didn't get any better.  In fact, it got even bleaker as more of the town's people came out onto the streets.  The locals looked mean and hungry.  They eyed our tour bus like it was prey.  They all smoked and were dressed in t-shirts and plain, threadbare dresses.  The few small parks were overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash.  There was the occasional large church and public building of obvious importance, but even these looked rundown and forgotten.  Messina is definitely not a fun place to visit.  I'm sure there were some nice sights. And not everyone was feral.  But we never found the garden spots, and I can't imagine ever returning, other than the fact that it is the "Gateway to Mount Etna".

You want to know how bad it was?  Neither Inna or I took a single picture of Messina.  When I sat down to put together this blog, I realized I didn't have a single photo.  That says a lot, I'm afraid.

The drive to Mount Etna was up, up, and away as we passed though small villages comprised of well kept white bungalows with orange roofs, clinging to the dark, rocky hillsides like there was no tomorrow.  And given their proximity to a volcano that is always belching and smoking   the volcano has erupted to some degree at least once a year either at the summit or along one of its flanks pretty much every year since 1950   there are certainly no guarantees.

Once our tour bus climbed above the tree line, the views of the Ionian Sea were like shots from space.  The blue-green sea twinkled in the sunlight like an ocean of stars.  We eyed the looming volcano like kids outside the gates to the Magic Kingdom and we couldn't wait to get out and go exploring.

The parking lot at the Rifugio Sapienza Station base camp was a madhouse of buses, vans, cars and tourons were crowding the entrance road and walking off in every direction.  There were smiling ticket takers at the entrance to the park who directed our bus to its proper place in the scrum.  We ended up parking near the main restaurant which was modeled after a large alpine lodge.  The middle of the parking lot was occupied by vendors in shuttered wagon vans, selling all sorts of native goods like paper weights made of lava stone, along with local delicacies like jam, candies, and nuts.

That's when I finally noticed the wind.  Hikers were literally being blown around and their clothes were flapping madly as if alive and trying to escape.

We got off the bus and were instantly in the middle of a whirlwind.  I have been in a lot of storms and ocean squalls in my day but this was like walking inside one of those wind tunnels, and the dial was set to a steady 60 miles per hour.  It wasn't enough to actually knock you over, but it could blow you off balance and it was kicking up a fierce dust storm, as it tried to rip our jackets off our backs.  The good news was that it wasn't cold.  But after the warmth of the Med, it took some getting used to.  It was like walking into a chilly fight.

Our time was very limited at Mount Etna, and you would need at least a day to walk to the summit and back.  So we checked out some dormant craters, trying not to get blown over the side.  

Inna stopped to get her photo snapped with an old man in native herdsman garb who was tightly hugging a small goat while his daughter handed out little pieces of black basalt with a red plastic lady bug glued to the top and pointed to a basket where you were expected to deposit your donation.  There was, of course, a story to compliment this curiosity.  The volcano is supposedly home to millions of lady bugs, and it is considered good luck if one lands on you.  I never saw a live lady bug.  And given their delicate nature and the prolific winds that blow around Etna virtually every day of the year, it's hard for me to imagine a more unlikely place on earth to spot a lady bug, much less millions of the little buggers.  I figured it was just a marketing ploy because they were selling everything under the sun, from lamps to expensive glass vases, adorned with black basalt and lady bugs.  I definitely give major bonus points for creativity to the person who conceived of this clever idea.

Inna went in search of trinkets while I trudged up a nearly vertical trail as fine, grey volcanic dust covered me in an almost oily film.  After about fifteen minutes of death marching, I came to an overlook by a crater where I got an expansive view of Etna's southern flank which was devoid of trees, plants, or any life whatsoever.  It looked like a hostile planet.  There were dirty white moon buggies hauling tourons on excursions as dust whipped behind the vehicles like smoke, and groups were being led around various hills by nattily-attired Italian guides. There were gear geeks wearing the latest high-tech outdoor wear as if heading off on some grand expedition.  Small pods of mountain bikers were zipping up and down the spider web of trails running along the volcano's massive flanks.  It was quite impressive in a surreal sort of way.  The overall impression that I got was that if it was this brutal on probably one of the warmest days of the year, I couldn't possibly imagine what it must be like in winter or a bad storm.  To be honest, after about an hour, I just wanted to get the hell out of the wind.

Inna and our table mates from the ship who were from Quebec were already sitting at a table in the totally packed lodge, sipping wine.

"We were wondering when you would join us," said Inna with a smile.

By noon we were all back on the heavenly bus and heading down the mountain to the sea.  The drive was lovely as we dropped lower and lower, passing through villages packed tightly with small, modern houses surrounded by flowery gardens with satellite dishes bolted to the roofs.  As we got closer to the Med, the housing took on a seaside resort look and feel.  There were trailered boats in the driveways and beach towels hung on the porches drying in the warm sun.

When we got to the sea we turned sharply to the north and headed up the coast toward a towering mountain of sheer rock.  Our next destination, Taormina, sat at the top of a colossal column of limestone and basalt like a fortress.  I was reminded of the Hopi mesas of Arizona that sit like battleships in the sky, impervious to attack  though this place was a bit more upscale, of course.

We swichbacked steeply until we arrived at the base of the cliff and then we drove right inside.  We had seen this before in Monaco.  In order to reduce vehicle traffic in the town, they had hollowed out the stone dome and built a humongous parking lot that could handle cars, buses, and trucks.  We parked in the bus section of the garage.  There were many tours arriving and the garage was filled with touron packs being led by harried guides holding stick signs that looked like fans, each adorned with their tour number.

We all waited patiently for the crowded and overtaxed elevators and were instructed by our guide Isabel to, "Wait for me in the plaza at the top."

Five minutes later we were all standing like ugly ducklings in a an attractive plaza covered with flowers and palm trees overlooking the Ionian Sea.  Ancient tan buildings surrounded us as a church bell chimed and a small band serenaded us from afar.  The air smelled like roses.  And we all looked around like children staring into the window of a candy store.   It was like Scotty had beamed us up to the Planet Paradise. 

Taormina was like a toy town — perhaps a movie set.  It was hard to imagine such a place being real.  But it was.  And the inhabitants greeted us with amused courtesy.  Some were obviously impatient and a bit put off by the hordes of gaping tourons, but everyone smiled and seemed to be at peace with the fact that they were living in a small, one-street town that was visited every day by thousands of goofy, and often mindless, tourons.

We did the guided tour, checking out the churches and historic buildings.  The world's ritziest stores lined the stone street, from Coach to Rolex, along with local shop keepers selling hand-made Italian goods of the finest quality, and the always present gelato shops with ice creams of every flavor and color.  Taormina is small, probably only a mile long, with impressive gates at each end.  We walked along in wide-eyed wonder for about an hour, learning about the town and its storied history.

Taormina was founded before the Greeks by the Siculi around 358 BC. Try and wrap you head around that one.  It eventually came under Roman rule, but during the slave revolt of 133 BC it became the stronghold for the rebels because of its virtually impregnable position. But the Romans finally starved them out and then put them all to the sword, throwing their bodies from the cliffs.  Taormina was one of the last Roman cities to fall to the Arabs who took over in 962 AD after a 33-week siege.  They changed its name to Al-Muizzia, in honor of a powerful Imam Caliph and held it for the next 116 years, when the Normans threw them out.  Then came the Angevins who ruled Sicily, then the Spaniards, and finally the French.  But as time went on,Taormina slowly drifted into the background and its people lived in peace until the 19th century when it was invaded by tourons from the European continent, including the rich and famous, like Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzshe, and Richard Wagner.  And such has been the town's fate 'to this day.

After our tour of the town ended we stopped for lunch at the Cafe Wunderbar, a German restaurant with a large open-air patio at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  It was mid-afternoon and the place was almost empty, so we were led to a table closest to the edge of the patio with an unforgettable view.  We drank some excellent Italian wine recommended by our friendly waiter and ordered a pizza, along with an appetizer of fresh bread, local cheeses and olives. We were like the King and Queen of Sweden on vacation.

After lunch, Inna went looking for some shoe bargains.  She had already scoped out several likely shops and she found a hole-in-the-wall store run by a friendly Italian woman where there were bargains galore.  At least that's what Inna said.  It was the kind of place where the sizes were catch as catch can, which is the norm in small Italian shops.  Space was limited and the inventory was too.  But Inna managed to find two pairs of very attractive hand-made sandals.

"These would cost over $200 in Nordstrum   if you could even find them there  and I got them for $30!"  She was very pleased with herself and kept taking them out of the bag and looking at them admiringly on our bus ride back to the ship.

Returning to Messina was anti-climactic.  There were now lots of people on the street, lounging on steps and standing in groups along the sidewalk.  But after Mount Etna and Taormina, it was like going back to school at the end of summer vacation.

We stopped at one of the tents beside the ship and bought some wine and beer, and then headed to our balcony for some cocktails before dinner.  It had been a truly memorable day.  

I really don't like to criticize too much or try and make people feel bad about the places they call home. They ALL have their good points and bad  some more of each than others.  So, I don't want to end this tale by giving the impression that Messina is a crummy town.  And I fear that is what I have done.  I was only there for a few hours, so what the hell do I know?  The city has a lot of things going for it.  That have a cool flag and coat of arms.  They make great wine and grow tasty lemons, mandarin oranges, and all sorts of olives.  There are some very lovely old churches.  And it has a strange mix of cultures, where the Arab and Christian world have melted together over time.  And while it might look a bit shabby, it has been conquered by invaders, leveled by earthquakes and volcanoes, and blown apart by marauding armies.  It definitely deserves some peace and quiet.  So, I salute the proud people of Messina, Italy, and wish them great joy and prosperity.  They earned it.