Saturday, May 31, 2014

messina on the mind

Messina is not one of the world’s cities I would have put on my “must see” list.

If you imagine that Sicily is a deflated football being kicked by the Italian boot, Messina would be where the air needle attaches.  Up there in the far northeastern corner.

The place staggers under its history.  Settled by a group of fleeing Greeks in 800 BC.  Destroyed by the Carthaginians.  Conquered by the Romans, the Vandals, the Normans, the Berbers, and a long list of other invaders who sound as if they were auditioning for college mascot names capable of passing the smell test of the Politically Correct.

Even though it may not have made my “A List,” Messina is not a stranger to me.  It sits on the Messina Strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland.  I have known that body of water since sixth grade (Miss Dixon’s class) when I became infatuated with Greek mythology.

All of us know the story of Odysseus sailing between Scylla and Charybdis on his extended journey to return home to the faithful Penelope on Ithaca.  Well, this is where those two classic killers (a sailor-eating giant on his rock and a whirlpool that really sucked) worked their chaos.

And, of course, Messina is the city where General Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery worked out their personal rivalries -- while killing their share of Germans.  Their meeting in Messina in Patton is one of my favorite cinematic moments.

But Messina is far more than mythology and movies.  There is all of that history I mentioned earlier.

You would think the place would be knee-deep in monuments.  Unfortunately, that has been too true of the history of Messina.  It tends to end up being knee-deep in rubble.

What classic conquerors have not destroyed, modern armies and Mother Nature have.  The town was almost completely leveled by an earthquake and a resultant tsunami in 1908 -- just as the rest of Europe was in dress rehearsal for World War One.

The Sicilians set about restoring what was left of their historical city.  And then came World War Two.  American and British bombing toppled much of what had been reconstructed.

Seventy years later, it is hard to tell that the cathedral (with its roots in the 12th century) was ever destroyed.  Its new church look takes away from its ancient roots.  But the huge Byzantine style mosaics, which were designed to make the viewer seem insignificant, work exactly as intended.  They blend perfectly with the multiple blocks of tiles on the floor.

When I looked at these ancient churches, I often wonder if there was an overall design (as Gaudi had in Barcelona) or if they grew up as free-style architecture.  Probably, both.

My favorite spot was the little Norman Catalani Church with its Moorish-influenced arches and tiles.  And I know exactly why I liked it.  Its scale was human -- a place to meet with God. 

Unlike the Cathedral, where humanity appears to be an afterthought.  It is the difference between a personal relationship with one’s creator and humans constantly searching in vain for God’s presence.

When I was done with magnificent vistas and churches of varying quality, I did what I have done in most ports.  I headed off to a local wine shop to buy cheese and meat for my afternoon snack on the cruise ship.  Gorgonzola and prosciutto, in this case.  (And, yes.  The cheese on the ship is that bad.)

Now, we are on our way to Malta.  By the time you read this, I should be enjoying the pleasures of Valletta. 


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