[I haven’t spoken Latin since I was an altar boy…About fifty years ago. This statue greets our boat as we entered the Harbor of Messina. Photo is mine.]
After an entire day at sea, we tied up at the dock in the city of Messina. It is our only port-of-call in Sicily. We paid 15 Euros each for a little trolley ride (45 minutes in length) to see the highlights. In the interests of brevity, I will add the rest of the photos (taken from a bumpy Disneyland-like train). Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of the vehicle. Suffice it to say that I felt a bit silly sitting on the bright yellow and red tour mobile. I lost what little dignity I have left when I boarded. This is in no way for a grown man to sightsee. And none of what I’m saying is in any way being disrespectful to this charming and historic city.
So, let’s go back in time to take a closer look at what happened in this place. If history bores you, you need to sit up and take notes. This isn’t just another stop among seven days of stops. What occurred here changed the course of history…several times.
How long have people inhabited Messina? You may well ask. Fasten your seatbelt.
The Chalcidians founded a settlement here around 756 BC. Exactly who these people were is something I am at a loss to explain. I’ll google it when I get home. Dorian settlers came next in the 5th century BC from Messina, hence the modern name. You know who (the Romans, of course) arrived in 264 BC. Occupations that followed include the Byzantines, Arabs and the Normans. During the Middle Ages it became a major port city and (Mr. Gatto, you’re gonna love this), it became the most important point of departure for European knights on their way to the Crusades.
Moving on to the darker side of history…The Bubonic Plague came to Europe from here. The story goes: Twelve ships from the Black Sea docked in Messina in October, 1347. When the locals came to the dock to greet the ships, they found most of the sailors were dead. Those still alive were gravely ill (no pun intended) and clutching to what little life they had left. The authorities ordered the ships out of the harbor, but the damage was done. The Black Death killed more than 20,000,000 victims in Europe and England.
Let’s jump ahead to the brighter times centuries later. World War II. Operation Husky began before dawn on July 10, 1943. The Allies, 150,000 troops, 3,000 ships and 4,000 aircraft landed on the southern shore of Sicily and began to push north. Generals Patton and Montgomery were the guys in charge. Messina was heavily bombed. The invasion of Italy had begun and the end of Hitler and the Nazi occupation, and the end of the War in Europe was approaching.
So there it is, my dear readers. I gave you a thimbleful of essential history that we all should know.
Knowledge is Power.
These things we learn from history will help history from repeating itself.
And we all know how true that is…
(Looking over the blog, I noticed that I mentioned The Godfather. Not much to say on this. We didn’t take In The Footsteps of the Godfather excursion. All I can is that many scenes were filmed in and around Messina.)
[The Bell Tower. Photo is mine.]
[A Messina side street. Photo is mine.]
[The Shrine of Cristo Re. Photo is mine.]
[Not a really photo of a side street. But it illustrates the second story balconies, most of which are laden with cascades of flowers. Photo is mine.]
[NOTE: I did the best I could to take photos to illustrate just a tiny portion of the beauty of Messina. To be fair, an abundance of modern apartment buildings interrupt the ancient ruins, churches and other significant points of archetechural note. I should also mention (to avoid certain legal issues) that in the content above, I have liberally quoted, sometimes word for word, from the Port Information Bulletin provided by Windstar Cruises. Finding a cafe with a strong WiFi signal and a great espresso is like trying to find a Studebaker at a Lamborghini Convention. And, a special ‘thank you’ to Mr. Nick Gatto, my teacher in high school who did much to instill in me a love of all things historical. Thank you, sir!
[The closest to Dubrovnik, Croatia that I will get on this journey.]
I’m sitting at a desk in Suite 137 on board the Wind Surf (Wind Star Cruise Lines). The level of the mineral water in a glass next to my mouse pad gently tilts, back and forth, like I am playing with a level against a wall. We’re rocking and rolling. Every few minutes the light in our room darkens. I hoped it was not a light about to go out. Instead, it’s a wave breaking with passion and violence against the portal windows. The sea is rough, very rough. I’ve eyed the little tube of Dramamine (Original Formula) more than once. But I do believe that I’ve “found my sea legs” at last. My stomach and inner ear are another another story. When I get up at night (like every man my age) to pee, I clutch at objects that aren’t there. I bang into walls and feel for handles of doors and sills of any kind. I head for a chair to regain my balance.
But I’m not sea-sick. Really. But many of my readers have already been where I am now and don’t need to be reminded of the vagaries of ocean travel. Enough of my issues. Let’s go back a few days and I’ll will tell you a few stories. I think you’ll love the sarcophagus section a lot. I did.
[A side ‘alley’ off the cobblestone street. A woman writes. In her diary? A letter to her son? Husband? Daughter? She seems content and she has a beautiful quiet little space to do whatever she needs to do. Photo is mine.]
Since setting sail (actually motor power) from Venice we made for Rovinj, Croatia. I confess that I had scant foreknowledge of the little city. But as the day progressed, the beauty, the history and the architecture came to me at first in morsels, then in a wholeness that was pure joy to experience. It seems that the entire Dalmation Coast is limestone. The ancient buildings are built of limestone, the cliffs are limestone and the narrow streets and alleys are limestone. Because my lower back continues to plague me, walking uphill will likely be my life’s burden. But here it gave me a chance to sit on a step, a bench or a low wall. Sitting and twisting my back I looked closely at the pavement. Limestone has an interesting property that granite and marble lack. It gets polished with the ages. I sit and stare and the smooth almost ice like smoothness and reflect. How many sandaled Centurians from Rome walked, two millennia ago just twenty inches from where my left foot rested? How many fishermen helped to polish these stones? How many barefoot servant girls left their damp footprints on these stones? How many slaves in chains? How many regal and royal feet trod in front of me? How many booted soldiers during the Bosnian Civil War? How many Nike sneakers of neoprene worn by the tens of thousands of tourists?
Yes, how many?
[The cobbles on a street in Rovinj. On the climb to the Cathedral of St. Ephemera. Photo is mine.]
As we ascended the hill to the Cathedral, I stopped to rest. On a partly rusted iron rail fence were several pad locks with messages and names engraved or written with a Sharpie locked to the rail. I took a photo of one. It read: MITCH & SARAH. Only later did I discover that I had my iPhone set on video. So you won’t see the lock.
But I wish Mitch and Sarah the best in life. I hope they’re still in love and still together. Their lock is still intact. Are they? One of life’s little mysteries.
[The hill and the Cathedral of St. Euphemia.]
We entered the church. The silence was welcoming. I’m not a very religious guy, but I put 1 euro in a slot and lit a votive candle. It was for a flame for my family and for my best friend. They know who they are.
Behind the altar was the room I was seeking. It held the large limestone sarcophagus of St. Euphemia. This is truly a holy site for many and her story deserves to be told. Euphemia was a 4th century Christian. The Romans prosecuted these early believers. So what did they do to this unfortunate young woman? They threw her into an arena…where the lions awaited. The mural on the wall depicts what happened. Scattered about the sand were the remains of other Christians. Apparently, their faith wasn’t as pure or true as Euphemia because there she is, petting the bloody-mouthed lions as though they were her pets.
Her remains were inches from my hand. I touched the stone, polished of course, and uttered a prayer of sorts, from a flawed human who harbors a few doubts about anything I may say that would be heard by anyone.
[The Sarcophagus of St. Euphemia. Note the mural on the far wall. If you have a swipe screen, zoom in for the interesting (bloody) details.]
We left the Cathedral and made our way slowly down the cobbled street and back to the shops at the dock. I sat at a cafe in the shade sipping a mineral water. Mariam went off to buy me a bathing suit. I wrote two postcards, one for my son and one for my daughter.
If I had a third, I would have written it to Euphemia. She was probably someone I would like to have had a conversation with. Unfortunately, a mere two thousand years separated us.
We boarded the tender and returned to the ship. Me? A little holier, perhaps.
The surprises that this bustling city had in store for me were not at first apparent. That being said, let’s get one little fact out of the way. This is the location of Kings Landing in Game of Thrones. Inside the palace (more on this in a few moments) is where many interior were filmed. There’s even a GOT museum. No, we didn’t have time to go there. We were on a walking tour and walking tours stop for no man or woman.
This stop is one that we chose to take an excursion. After boarding a small coach (with no bathrooms!), we were off for a half-hour ride to Klis & The Stella Croatica Ethno Village, a small family run farm that produced traditional Dalmatian delicacies, olive oil and bread among other items.
It was in the tasting room that I failed a major test.
[One of the most awesome Olive trees in the world. Photo is mine taken from an display on the wall of the olive farm we visited.]
I thought I knew a thing or two about olive oil. After, I can make it to a Whole Foods on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Was I mistaken. I flunked out with the first sip.
[A botanical poster of an olive plant. There is no need to know anything else about olives than what you see here. Photo is mine taken from a wall display.]
The first tiny cup we were presented with had a half-teaspoon of cherry liqueur. Different but nice. Then after a brief PowerPoint lecture about the positive and negative traits of olive oil, we were give two tiny cups of 1) An extra virgin oil, and 2) A low quality of oil referred to as ‘lamp oil’. Now this isn’t what you think. There are no petroleum products involved here. The name comes from a low quality of olive oil that has been used for centuries for lamps. This was before the use of lamp oil as we know it today. There were seventeen people from our boat that were in the tasting room. We all sipped, first the one on the right and then on the left. We were asked which one was the extra virgin and which one was not. I was among three people who chose the left sample. Of course, that was the lamp oil.
So what’s my excuse? I had mis-read the PowerPoint illustration about the desirable traits. The little girl in the drawing looked to me like she was gagging. In reality, she was coughing (a totally acceptable reaction to a very good extra virgin oil).
Back on the bus. Back to downtown Split. We removed ourselves from the vehicle and gathered on a broad and busy public (carless) plaza. We were standing outside the wall of the chief Roman, Diocletian. After a short speech by our local guide, We entered an arched gate and found ourselves inside a small town, warren-like in its maze of lanes, streets and plazas. We paused outside a very impressive octagon building. Now, this person really disliked Christianity and was not afraid to order a fair number of that group to be execute in the most gruesome manner. One of his victims was a Bishop (probably St. Dominius). He was beheaded sometime in the 4th century AD. In general, Diocletian was quite unpopular. He died at the ripe old age of seventy, he was buried in a sarcophagus in the octagonal temple. It surprise no-one that after Christianity began to be accepted by the Romans by Constantine, his stone coffin was removed (and vanished into the mists of history) and replaced by the remains of St. Dominus.
What goes around, comes around.
[The Diocletian Palace. The octagonal church is the original tomb of Diocletian. His sarcophagus is missing…never found, forever gone. It is believed that the saint he had beheaded, St. Dominius, rests there today. Photo is mine taken from a public display.]
Inside the Palace/town, I once again stared at the polished limestone pavement. I thought of all the human feet that walk those very stones for two thousand years. What were their lives like? Did they love and laugh like we do? Did they have affairs? Babies? Loving sons and beautiful daughters?
I think they felt cold in the winter and sweat in the summer. I think they were just like us in many ways. Perhaps they worshipped other gods. Perhaps they murdered a best friend. Perhaps they starved during droughts and got fat during the good years.
And I feel they looked up on moonless nights and saw the same stars, the same moon and asked themselves the same questions about death and life.
In those days, like the days of our lives, destinies could go either way.
[NOTE: This blog post was written and published under more duress than usual. The church bells are tolling outside The Square Pub where Mariam and I are sitting…with a strong WiFi signal. Mariam did the proofing. I take full responsibility for any errors, misspellings or other mistakes. I hope you enjoy it!]