Sicily is, strictly speaking, island number 11 but it is an enormous island and I only stepped onto it and almost immediately off again so I don’t feel particularly happy including it here. Technically I did, however, spend the night in Messina on my way to the Aeolian islands and an evening in Milazzo on the way back to Naples and friends I have asked said I must include it so I have. I will do my best to go back to Sicily before the end of the year and actually see some of the island’s very many treasures.
Messina is not a particularly inspiring town. It has a rather scruffy and uncared for air to it. Arriving into Messina is interesting though. I first make the journey from Torino in the north of Italy to Palermo with a Sicilian friend I had worked with during a ski season in the mountains of Northern Italy in (1986!!). I remember the train journey being a riotously fun and noisy experience with food and coffee being sold through open windows by wandering and enterprising salespeople on the platform. Tiny plastic cups of evil-strength espresso were dispensed from large thermos flasks and passed through the window in exchange for a handful of lire. The trains – operated by Ferrovie dello Stato (railways of the State) – had leather couchette seats that pulled forward to join the seat opposite to make a sort of bed so you sat with the person opposite’s feet next to you and yours next to them. People chatted to each other and swapped food. Cosy, colourful and fun! The whole journey took 24 hours and was one of the most memorable train journeys I have every done.
On arrival in Villa San Giovanni in the Italian region of Calabria – the port town on the Italian side – I remember being amazed that the train was chopped up into individual carriages which were then shunted onto the ship to cross the Strait of Messina. Passengers were allowed to get out and wander around the ship. (It was on that ship that I first tasted Arancini di riso – delicious balls of risotto rice with a filling of ragú meat sauce or mozarella then deep fried in breadcrumbs – delicious and never forgotten!)
These days the train windows don’t open any more and platform vending machines have replaced the old tradespeople. The bustle and excitement of arriving in a station is sadly no more. Platforms are largely empty and trains are now operated by Trenitalia and the seats don’t pull forward any more. No more chatting as passengers are engrossed in their phones (albeit in a noisier way than they are here!). BUT I was delighted to see that they still chop the train up and put it on the ship to cross the Strait! Passengers can still go up on deck and wander around for the short crossing and enjoy the stunning views of both Sicily and Reggio Calabria (although there was no sign of any arancini.)
The crossing is short – only about 20 minutes – it takes much longer to uncouple and re-couple the train carriages at either end. The arrival into Messina is dominated by a huge statue of a Golden Madonna at the mouth of the harbour. The inscription ‘Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus’ (We bless you and your city) is inscribed on the base of the statue and is clearly visible by all sailing vessels entering the port.
It is apparently a quote from the Virgin Mary from a letter she sent to the population of Messina in the year 42. According to Messina council’s website, the Apostle Paul returned from Jerusalem – where he had returned to report the conversion to Christianity of the good people of Messina – bearing a letter from the Mother of Jesus tied with a lock of her hair. This letter (originally written in Hebrew) contained the blessing which was later translated into Latin. Known as La Madonna or La Madonnina della Lettera (the Madonna or little Madonna of the letter), she was adopted as the patron saint of Messina and continues to be celebrated every year on 3rd June when a silver statue of the Madonna together with a bronze reliquary containing the lock of her hair is paraded around Messina on a silver platform.
Messina is a popular stop for cruise ships and the cruise ship terminal in very near the centre of town. Cruise ship passengers congregate in the square in front of the Cathedral to witness the only really interesting thing that happens in Messina. A selection of wandering, mainly Indian tradesmen (illegally) selling sunglasses, jewellery and baseball caps wonder amongst the waiting tourists, their wares laid out on sheets or wooden cases which are easy to pick up and run with should the police arrive.
The Cathedral officially known as the ‘Basilica Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta’ (The Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral of Saint Maria Assunta) or more simply as the ‘Duomo’ (the dome) enjoys minor Basilica status and has an extremely beautiful tower complete with intricately made brass statues. Not only are the statues beautiful but they are also mechanical and at midday every day crowds gather and crane their necks upward to watch the spectacle as Ave Maria is played and the mechanical statues go through their daily performance. The lion roars and moves its head, the bird flaps its wings, angels strike bells and a collection of holy people process around the tower. It’s very impressive and if you are in Messina at midday it is a must see.
There is not much else to do here but there are some interesting buildings if you are interested in architecture and you can take a horse-drawn carriage around town or, in high season, the little train. Generally not a place to hang around for long but well served by boats and trains to go somewhere else!
I stayed in a surprising stylish B+B named after a famous local Renaissance painter, Antonello da Messina. It was hidden away on the 2nd floor of a large, old building with a non-descript front door. Luckily the taxi driver who brought me from the station knew where it was (and charged me for the privilege!) Brightly-coloured, newly and stylishly decorated rooms with interesting books and paintings and a lovely friendly and helpful Romanian receptionist called Adriana who chatted to me whilst I had my breakfast. If you find yourself in Messina – definitely stay there. (booking.com)
As I headed to the port to take my hydrofoil to Lipari in the Aeolian Islands, I stopped for lunch in a bar. My muttered and under-my-breath two word comment about my relief at the French election predictions, being shown on TV, resulted in a fellow customer getting very irate and shouting and screaming at me about the failings of the European Union and the rate of VAT in Italy. Obviously I didn’t shout back. Sometimes speaking the local language can get you into trouble! Nice lunch though…
Milazzo station – a warning!
I briefly touched upon Sicilian soil on the way back from the Aeolian Islands when I arrived in Milazzo and left again on the overnight train to Naples. The station is out of town, in a deserted location and is very under-utilized. You have to take a taxi to get there. There are only a few trains, no bar and no station staff. In short, it is not a fun place to spend any time at all. I had the misfortune to spend 3 hours here waiting for my 23.50 overnight train to Naples which I had (incorrectly) thought would be a good way to get from A to B. Gradually the few people there dispersed and I found myself the only person in the station apart from one solitary man called Francesco who spent 2 or 3 evenings a week in this empty station hoping to meet his ‘anima gemella’ (twin soul). He asked if he could keep me company and proceeded to chat to me for nearly 3 hours!! He was totally harmless and, in the event, talking to him was probably marginally better than sitting in an empty station for 3 hours, which was scarier. I made sure I sat in front of the video surveillance camera and told him I was a nutritionist from Naples and my husband was meeting me from the train in the morning! An apparently believable story! The station it seems is not very well used because there are ships which run the same routes which are more comfortable and cheaper. Now I know! So if you ever find yourself in Milazzo, take the ship, not the train – ever!