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Cruise Diary: Messina, Italy

HAL guest George Labecki and his family sailed aboard Nieuw Amsterdam’s Mediterranean Tapestry cruise throughout Europe this past July and documented his experience in a journal. Below is the entry from his visit to Messina, Italy. Enjoy!

July 11th
Finishing the Beginning: Messina, Sicily, Italy

It seems that when you book a cruise, there is always one day that you look at the itineraries and say, “Well there’s nothing to do that day.” I’m not sure why that happens, but those are the days that you feel should probably be best spent just enjoying the ship. However, when you are doing the booking, you start to think about how much the airfare is, and you think that you should get the most out of each day; you should just book something. At least, as I recall, that was the thought process we went through when we booked Messina. We’re here; we spent good money to get here; we should do something. Well, I’m glad we did.

Tuscany was memorable to us because of its celebration of sights. Rome was a wondrous paean to the past. The Amalfi coast was a blend of tastes. Our visit to Messina was a testament to faith. Messina is a significant city as it controls the Strait of Messina. During World War II, Messina was the goal for the invading Allied Armies as controlling Messina would cut off any Axis troops in Sicily from escape. I remember booking the tour thinking that at least Nick the history kid would get something from the day. Certainly, we gained an appreciation to the strategic purpose of capturing Messina. The Straits between Sicily and mainland Italy, the toe of the boot, are only two miles across. It’s an easy transfer, and ships and ferries work the Straits constantly.

When you sail into Messina’s crescent-shaped harbor, you are greeted by a huge, golden statue of the Virgin Mary. She beckons earnestly to the traveler. Her right hand extends a blessing; a roll of what appears to be a manuscript is in her left hand. Her eyes are soft. She wears a crown, her head framed by a halo. She welcomes the traveler. As we pulled into port, we wondered about her significance, hoping that it would be revealed to us that day. We began our morning by driving up to the cathedral at the top of Messina so that we could have good views of the harbor. We could see our ship, and we could watch the working boats in the Straits.

Most impressive of those were the boats that work to catch the swordfish. Those boats have extremely tall masts where two men stand and look for swordfish, and the boats have long fore pieces that stretch in front of the boats. It’s from those pieces that the fishermen bring in their catch. We saw evidence of that when we were driving through an open market area. The locals were selling clams and swordfish, and they plopped the swordfish heads on tables, sword pointing to the sky, sort of like some macabre trophy.

The rest of the morning was spent driving around from one vantage point to the next. We had stirring views across that busy body of water and wondered how so much traffic could pass safely through such a narrow straight. We stopped at an outside café for a morning snack of Sicilian gelato, cannoli, and a cappuccino. Then we reached our final destination, the local cathedral in the center of the town and the treasury that she houses.

The local patron saint is the Madonna. According to the stories, when she was still alive, she sent a letter to Messina, and in the letter she told the people of Messina that she would always protect them. In fact, each June 3rd, the locals celebrate the letter. According to our guide, the most popular middle name in Messina is an Italian form of the word letter. We had our explanation for the statue in the harbor: she is Madonna della Lettera, the Madonna of the Letter.

Next, we were taken into the treasury to see the church’s relics. I can’t say much about what we saw as all the items were accompanied by notes written, understandably, in Italian. But I can say that we did see a lot of gold that day. And our guide treated each item with dear reverence and respect. The most important item that we saw was a heavy glass container. You couldn’t see inside the container; it appeared to be an opaque piece of blown glass in the form of a flame, but we were guaranteed that it contained a piece of the Virgin’s hair as she sent it to Messina when she sent the letter. We were outside the church precisely at noon, and that was a pretty impressive moment. There is a tall clock tower next to the church. It houses a mechanism brought there in the 1930’s. At noon each day, the statues in the clock become animated. At the top of the tower, a lion roars three times and waves the flag of Messina; below that, a rooster crows three times, and five men venerate the Virgin as they walk past her. It is pretty cool and was the highlight of the day for us and many other tourists who had gathered there just for that moment.

Obviously, reverence for the Madonna reaches out and touches the residents of Messina. Perhaps that is why the people of Messina were so able to overcome the assaults they received during the Second World War. Our guide pointed out that most of Messina was flattened by Allied bombing. What we see today is relatively new, perhaps a bit of a shock to the traveler who has spent the past few days seeing ancient sites. Perhaps you wonder how that whole protection of the Virgin went, but then you get it: things aren’t important; people are. The people of Messina have overcome much. They were protected. They are still here. They are still vibrant. Such is the power of faith.

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