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June 26, 2010

Messina {text by Andrew}

Messina sicily etna-7032

Our first port of call after leaving Rome was Messina, in Sicily. Messina lies directly across the Straits of Messina from Italy, across from a city called Scylla. Of course, according to Homer, this is where Odysseus sailed pass Scylla and Charybdis on his journey home. Charybdis, from what I recall reading the story 30 years ago, was a sort of giant underwater snail thing who would suck in and jet out vast quantities of water, forming deadly whirlpools in the straits. Scylla, on the other side of the straits, was many-necked and toothsome, and would eat sailors as they went by. I'm not sure what natural phenomenon she represents, but she was generally believed to be the more soft-hearted of the two.

Today, the straits are still treacherous, and apparently 90% of sea captains elect to travel around Sicily to avoid them. Due to oddities of Mediterranean currents, the seas on either side of the straits are one meter different in height. On a clear day, the straits look like a waterfall.

Under rough seas, the currents are treacherous. The area is also subject to heavy seismic activity, leading to frequent earthquakes and seaquakes, along with plenty of volcanic activity. In fact, life in Messina, and in Sicily more broadly, consists of watching a dizzying parade of natural and man-made destructive forces march past, punctuated by occasional moments of rebuilding in preparation for the next disaster. Everybody capable of building a boat came over at one point or another to raze something. World wars resulted in epic bombardments. Routine earthquakes would knock down whatever was left standing. Gaps in the earthquake schedule were filled in by seaquake-generated tidal waves that washed any budding port cities away. And in a fitting tribute to their fortitude, the few hardy settlements that managed to survive all that were destroyed by blistering rivers of molten lava, courtesy of Mount Etna. So that's where we went.

Our guide was knowledgeable and chatty, and for each piece of the island, she could tell us the exact year that it was washed away, burned, blown up, or slaughtered. We traveled along the coast by bus, and then climbed through some quaint little towns towards the volcano. Etna, we were told, is a "good" volcano -- she usually gives signs before erupting. Vesuvius, on the other hand, is a "bad" volcano. More on that later.

Most of the towns we saw had many uninhabitable houses, rendered unsafe by earthquake or lava damage. In these cases, the inhabitants would submit a claim to the government, which would reimburse the citizen. However, the process would routinely take years, and so many folks lived in tents in the interim, or in some cases moved to some form of council housing.

Soon, we left the quaint towns behind and climbed higher into the foothills of Etna. Here, the landscape was increasingly lava-encrusted. After the lava passes through, it takes a few hundred years before vegetation can reclaim the land. There are places where the lava washed all the way down to the water, but these haven't happened in recent years. The last occurrence was, per legend, engendered by Odysseus himself. According to the legend, Mount Etna was inhabited by three giant Cyclops, one-eyed figures standing ten feet tall, endowed with foul tempers and solitary natures. Odysseus was visiting town, and convinced the islanders to suffuse the feast with which they would placate the Cyclops with various of the soporific herbs in the area: wild roses, valerian, chamomile, and so forth. As a consequence, the Cyclops fell asleep and Odysseus and his crew headed uphill to his case. They found a tree trunk, cut it to a fine point, hardened the point in a fire, and heroically drove it deep into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops. The Cyclops awoke in rage, clutching his hand to his unibrow and bellowing. He smelled Odysseus, and called out fearsome threats. Odysseus, crafty as a fox, hid by clinging to the underbelly of a particularly pungent ram the Cyclops kept around for late-night snacks. Feeling and smelling only sheep, the Cyclops allowed the ram to depart, whereupon Odysseus and his remaining crew high-tailed it off the island. Recent archaeological findings have discovered giant historical statues, believed to be elephants, whose trunks have broken off -- the statues thus appear to be enormous figures with a single hole in the middle of their forehead. It is believed that these figures were discovered by early inhabitants of the island, and led to the legend of the Cyclops.

We stopped once at a restaurant / lava field to enjoy a little desolation / juice-and-cannolis, and then continued to our second stop at Death Crater.

Messina sicily etna-6936

Messina sicily etna-7001

Messina sicily etna-6993

There are numerous craters formed by side eruptions of Etna, which run for a while to relieve pressure, and then close up forever. We have a few pictures of the girls at the crater, collecting lava of different colors.

Messina sicily etna-7025


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