ABOARD THE MSC SPLENDIDA –Speaking from experience, let me tell you that sailing into the Strait of Messina on a humongous cruise ship is much more pleasant than driving down to it in a little red Volkswagen from northern Italy.
As a former Navy wife stationed in Sicily years ago, my family and I made the trip down the steep narrow two-lane mountain road through Reggio Calabria, on the Italian side, many times to catch the ferry over to the island. But the hairpin turns are sharp and endless, and no matter how slowly we tried to maneuver our way around and around and around, we always got sick in the car before we got to the Strait.
So, if it’s Tuesday it must be Messina, and what a smooth ride in from Naples by comparison!
Some of the excursions in Messina from the MSC Splendida offered today include Mount Etna and Taormina. Mount Etna, Europe’s highest volcano and the favorite of crossword puzzle creators, continues to erupt regularly to this day, but unlike the residents of Pompeii, the locals here seem to know when Etna is about to pour its lava into the streets, and they hightail it out of town for the duration.
You also have the option of taking a city tour excursion into downtown Messina, or a more adventurous off-road Jeep tour.
Taormina is a lovely tourist town overlooking the sea – probably the prettiest in all of Sicily — and its most important feature is the ancient Greek-then-Roman theater in the center of town. The Greeks and Romans were not the only ones to invade and overtake Sicily; everyone from the Mamertines, in 288 BC to the Goths in 476, the Byzantines, the British, the Spanish and, it seems, just about anyone else who wanted to seize and overtake the island, had their way with her. But today, Sicilians are presumably happy being part of Italy, even though they have their own dialect, cuisine, customs, and a slight inferiority complex owing to the fact that, as in many countries around the world, including the U.S.A., for unexplainable reasons, some northerners think they’re better than some southerners.
Yes, this is also Mafia land, but tourists today are more interested in the almond festivals, the ancient mosaics and temples and the pretty little towns at the top of so many mountain roads that dot the land than they are with the island’s notorious, rich history of crime.
The cable car excursion to near the top of Mt. Etna takes you high enough up to see the city of Catania in the distance. Better not to visit here on New Year’s Eve; residents of Catania have an interesting New Year’s Eve custom. A loudspeaker warns everyone to stay off the streets from midnight to morning, because Sicilians believe in literally throwing out the old. Couches, television sets and refrigerators rain down from apartment buildings, gunshots are heard, and in the morning the street cleaners arrive to clean up the mess.
Catania has a wonderful opera house and good productions, but don’t wear anything except black to attend or you will stand out like a yellow tulip in a red tulip bed; the custom in Sicily is to mourn a loved one for at least six months by wearing black, so everyone looks to be constantly in mourning.
While this is a one-week cruise, not every passenger gets on and off the ship on the same day at the same place. That means that while we embarked and will disembark in Barcelona, others who remain on board at Barcelona have the ability to take excursions into that city from the ship. There are numerous tours, including visiting the works of Barcelona’s premiere architect Antoni Gaudi, wine tastings, the largest football stadium in Europe, even enjoying an electric bike tour of the city.
If you leave the ship independently, which you are able to do at every port, those with lucky children along will discover that Barcelona is a great kid city, with a family-friendly museum about the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, a paddling pool in the Gardens of the Torre de Les Aigues, a Museum of the Mammoth, a Museum of Chocolate which includes painting with the messy stuff, a science museum, an outdoor adventure playground, an aquarium, and the Montjuic Cable Car, just for starters.
May 21, 2014
Photos by Julie Hatfield