Messina harbour is quite beautiful in that it has a backdrop of mountains and tall clean buildings, which include 3 prominent churches, between the mountains and the sea. The city is situated at the NE tip of Sicily making it just 2 miles from the Italian mainland which has made it a cultural and commercial centre for thousands of years. As with so many other towns and cities in Italy, it was first settled by Greeks, followed by Byzantine, Spanish and Roman civilisations. In the 17th Century, under Spanish rule it was said to be one of Europe’s 10 great cities.
The 7m high Statue of Mary was created and placed at the harbour entrance as, one legend has it that she came to Messina bringing a message from the Bishop of Jerusalem blessing the City and its people. Another is that she sent the message herself from home. er home. The message was believed to have read, “We bless you and your City” and these words were inscribed into the base of the statue in 1990. As a result she became their Patron Saint and their are reminders of her all over the town.
We boarded a coach and left for the Commune or Municipality of Taormina, set 250m above Messina. Not only had we, ourselves, not been here before, we had not even heard of this beautiful and very interesting town. On the way up from Messina we passed some stunning scenery which included Naxos Bay, Taormina’s beach and small boat harbour, sometimes called The Sickle due to its shape. It has been a tourist attraction for more than a century accessible by road from all directions but in 1992 an aerial tramway from the town of Taormina was built.
We arrived at the bus station at 10:30, where we went up on the roof and admired the scenery from above. We agreed to meet back at the same place at 13:30 but were first taken by our wonderful guide on a walking tour. There was no question that Taormina is not easy to get around as it built on a hill and one just keeps going up but there is so much to this town which is only 13km2(5m2) in size with a population of just over 11 000. Not an easy place to visit if one has any difficulty in walking.
Our tour began with a short walk up a hill, the start of the main street, Corso Umberto, named for King Umberto I of the House of Savoy, and through the first of 2 arches on this street into the Belvedere Piazza IX April which is another viewpoint in the town. There is an arch at end of the 800m long street, the arch of Porta Messina to the north and the Arch of Porta Catania to the south which are, among other things, the 2 access gates to the Corso. The Piazza is surrounded by the Clock Tower, the Baroque Church of San Giuseppe and homes. One side is the viewpoint while in the centre is a fountain topped with a female Centaur. On the balconies of most homes are porcelain cacti of various colours and sizes which are a feature of Taormina and we saw many in the craft and tourist shops.
From there we continued up Corso Umberto passing some homes with very high and steep stairs up to their front doors. All I could imagine was carrying my groceries or a small child up from the street. As we continued to climb further into town we passed some more churches, shops, cafès and restaurants. To access one of the restaurants one had to climb a flight of stairs in what is known as the narrowest street. Not a good idea to drink too much at dinner as the stairs are steep and dark besides being narrow.
Our guide led us on up the hill and through the 2nd arch and on to the main attraction of Taormina, the Greek Theatre overlooking the Ionian Coast and Mt Etna. It is believed to have been constructed in the 3rd Century BC by the Greeks for dramas and music. Later, the Romans made some adjustments to make it suitable for games and gladiatorial battles. They added statues, coverings and columns which, sadly, no longer exist. What is still in good condition is the seating area which has been ‘enhanced’ with many modern plastic seats. They do look rather out of place around the thousand-year-old ruins. What turned out to be most spectacular were the views from the very top of the theatre reached by many steep stairs. This exercise is not recommended for the unfit or elderly.
In the previous paragraph mention was made of Mt Etna, an active volcano on the Island of Sicily having small and some not so small eruptions. Most of these occur at the top of the volcano where there are 5 craters but there are some on the flanks as well. Since 200 there have been 5 eruptions on the flanks and at least 10 at the top. Etna is thought to have first erupted 500 000 years ago but the biggest known eruption was about 135 000 years ago when ash was spewed as far as Rome, 800kms to the north. All we got to see was Etna smoking continuously. What a privilege for us to have seen 2 of the most famous volcanoes in 2 days.
Followed by some time to do personal exploring we all arrived back safely at the meeting point, boarded the bus and returned to the ship. Visiting Taormina was a really wonderful choice for an excursion, even it was a bit of uphill climbing.