Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Mediterranean Magic (2016)

A brief call at Sicily

With Royal Princess not expected to arrive at Messina until midday, there was no great rush to be up and about this morning. Bruce and I had our usual breakfast at the International Café. As far as the weather was concerned, it was incredibly windy and yet not at all cold. The ship's sun loungers had evidently been blowing around on the various decks; we even saw a couple of them lying at the bottom of the swimming pool's deep end.

Arrival into today's destination provided some striking views in the strong sunshine, and therefore demanded our full attention on deck. Messina, a city of around 240,000 people, is situated close the northeast tip of Sicily, and faces off across the Strait of Messina to the mainland region of Calabria, which forms the 'toe' section of the Italian peninsula. I had made one previous visit to Sicily in February 2008, and this had included the opportunity to see both Mount Etna and the ancient and beautiful town of Taormina, some 50km away on the road to Catania. For Bruce, this would not only be his first visit to the island, but his first time in Italy - an absolutely staggering fact for a traveller of his calibre!

As Royal Princess gently manoeuvred towards her berth, she did so seemingly under the gaze of a prominent landmark. The Madonna della Lettera (Our Lady of the Letter) stood on a column situated at the end of the curled spit of land that helped define the harbour. According to legend, the Virgin Mary presented a letter to a delegation from Messina who visited her in Palestine in AD42. The words at the foot of the column (Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus - 'We bless you and your city') are said to be the opening words of the letter, which according to the story, went on to congratulate the town on its recent conversion to Christianity.

BELOW: Arrival in Messina, Sicily, under the watchful eye of the Madonna della Lettera

As the ship was somewhat behind schedule at this point, we decided to grab a basic hot-dog lunch by the poolside prior to going ashore. In contrast to similar al fresco experiences in the cold Alaskan air some nine months previously, however, this turned out to be disappointing.

ABOVE: Stepping ashore at Messina

In due course, we were able to walk ashore, allowing Bruce to take his first footsteps on Italian soil. Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious that Messina was not going to give the finest first impressions of an amazing country! The streets were dirty and neglected-looking, weeds grew everywhere and the graffiti problem was on an unprecedented scale. Add to that the decaying buildings, ample evidence of a homelessness problem and dangerous walking surfaces, and you'll appreciate why we were now entertaining a few doubts about our decision to forgo the large fleet of tourist coaches that had met the ship to whisk passengers en masse to the delights of Taormina, in favour of independent exploration of the port city itself.

But we had made our choice and were now determined to give it our best shot! We began by walking up to one of the most obvious landmarks that had been visible from the ship: an impressive-looking domed church, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city. This proved to be a more challenging undertaking than it really ought to have been, thanks to poor signage and the appalling state of the streets, but we finally found our way. I would later identify the building as the Votive Temple of Christ the King, dating from 1900 and designed in the Baroque Revival style. Sadly both the building and its grounds were closed, with both appearing to be in a poor state of upkeep despite holding out considerable promise when viewed from afar. We contented ourselves with seeking out views across the city from the road itself. Once again this was more difficult than expected, this time due to obstructions caused by nearby buildings.

ABOVE: Making our way upwards towards the Votive Temple of Christ the King
BELOW: Views across the city from the street outside the temple

We then walked to another imposing church that dominated Messina's skyline, which turned out to be the Santuario della Madonna di Montalto. As this involved moving from one elevated location to another, we tried to do so without losing too much height, so as to avoid another climb as we approached our next objective. This building was in a fairly good state of physical repair, but there was no obvious means of visitor access. Returning to 'ground level', we saw a few more isolated examples of attractive buildings. These included the Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore, a co-cathedral for the local archdiocese. Yet again - you've guessed it - the building appeared to be locked up.

ABOVE: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Montalto ABOVE: Co-cathedral

We then made our way to the main square, Piazza del Duomo, which turned out to be quite close to the point where we had disembarked the ship. Finally, here was a place that was genuinely attractive and not looking down at heel, despite being a busy departure point for city bus tours! Having already had the briefest encounter with the city's co-cathedral, we managed to make a proper visit to the main cathedral and get some reasonable photos - and this despite being dressed in shorts, traditionally a complete 'no-no' when entering churches in Italy.

After that, we were glad to get back on board the ship. Overall, despite the existence of a few brief highlights, this had not been a great destination. Worse, it had absolutely not provided a good first impression of Italy for Bruce. Perhaps we would have been better off joining the compliant flocks as they dutifully boarded their tour coaches.

Later, we had the customary cocktails in Crooners and decided to try out Horizon Court for evening fare, this latter move proving to be misguided. We saw at least part of a show by Yorkshire comedian Jo Little. This was quite entertaining, although we did wonder whether some of her jokes might be lost on an international audience. Royal Princess had set sail for Naples shortly after 7:30pm.

Wed 25 May

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