Sojourn in Sicily Part 5: Wrong way day

An occasional series on travel with mobility challenges


Friday, April 5, was the day we intended to drive to Siracusa in the southeastern corner of Sicily. But somehow, after winding along the road toward Catania (a route that was beginning to become familiar), we managed to get on the autostrada going in the opposite direction – toward Messina at the northeastern tip of the island.

Decision time: Should we try to retrace our steps and return to our original plan, risking getting lost and wasting time? Or should we view our mistake as a sign of sorts and continue on to Messina?

All I knew about Messina was that it was a jumping off point to the Holy Land for crusaders, including Richard the Lionheart. My impressions came mostly from the 2005 film “Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom, a heavily fictionalized account of the crusade against Saladin. Of course, I realized the town would look nothing like it did in the 12th century, especially since it had been pretty much destroyed by an earthquake in 1908, then heavily bombed by the Allies in 1943. Also, Marco, our host at Villa Cavallaro, was less then enthusiastic about it.

I consulted my homemade 13-page itinerary, but it didn’t help much. The cathedral and two Caravaggios were all I’d listed, along with a few pastry shops. Still, the town was only an hour or so away, the road was in good condition (not a given in Sicily), and the paintings called to me, so we kept going.

Blessed by of those miracles that make travel so marvelous, we managed to locate the “centro,” find a parking space and wend our way without a map to the Piazza del Duomo just in time to witness the noontime show of the astronomical clock in the cathedral’s grandiose bell tower. One of the largest mechanical clocks in the world, it was built by Theodore Ungerer of Strasbourg in 1933. When noon strikes, the golden lion near the top tilts his head and roars, the gilded rooster below him spreads its wings and crows, and the sound system blares “Ave Maria.” We couldn’t see everything on all the levels, but I later read that the figures include town heroines, Dina and Clarenza and the Madonna della Lettera, protectress of the city. There also are decorative dials with the signs of the zodiac and an annual calendar, as well as clock faces on every side of the square tower.

The post-earthquake reconstruction of the Cathedral in 1919 incorporated a variety of styles from Norman through Renaissance, Baroque and beyond. The striped lower half of the front façade, which I think is original, is adorned with reliefs depicting everyday activities of 14th-century life like cultivating the fields. The three entryways are Gothic, and there’s also a wheelchair accessible entrance on the side. The interior is huge and imposing, but the frescos, columns and most of the statues are replicas.

Back outside, we were charmed by the classical Fountain of Orion, so I researched it when we got home. Designed by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, a disciple of Michaelangelo, it dates to 1500 and celebrates the city’s first aqueduct with representations of four rivers – the Nile, Tiber, Ebro and Canaro – Latin verses, and the figure of Orion, mythical founder of Messina.

Hungry by this time, we decided to check out the cream puffs at Pasticceria Vinci Domenico, Via Garibaldi 429. Via Garibaldi, a broad thoroughfare that curves along the coast, was only a couple of blocks away, but we soon discovered that number 429 was at the other end (or so it seemed). After walking (me, rolling, of course) what must have been a mile or two – with pleasant views but not much else to see – we finally got there, only to learn from the shopkeeper next door that the patisserie had closed a while ago. Heading back to the car, we consoled ourselves with a delicious puffy-crusted, tuna-topped focaccia from a hole-in-the-wall spot, but alas, I don’t remember the name and have lost the receipt.

To get to the Regional Museum, we took the coastal road toward the lighthouse, but once we found it, we couldn’t figure out where the entrance was. There were two buildings, and the newish one, which looked like it should be the museum, was closed. We eventually found a way into the older building, where we learned from an attendant – communication was basic, as I don’t speak Italian, and his English was rudimentary – that most of the archaeological and other artifacts had been moved to the new museum, but then the money ran out, and it never opened.

Happily, the small art gallery had what we most wanted to see: Caravaggio’s “Adoration of the Shephards” and “Resurrection of Lazarus,” both recently restored and beautifully displayed. If you look carefully at the Lazarus painting, you can see the artist’s self portrait: He’s bearded and standing near Jesus. After killing a man in a brawl, he fled to Malta, via Messina, where he pleaded for a pardon from the pope and painted these works in 1608 or 1609. The rest of the collection, at least what we could see, consisted of mostly medieval paintings, many of them badly damaged, perhaps by the World War II bombing, natural disasters or poor maintenance. We also saw an interesting special exhibit of icons by Messina’s Greeks.

Driving a little bit west along the north coast, we hoped to find the ancient town of Milazzo to see the 16th-century walls and medieval castle, but we somehow missed the turnoff or else there wasn’t one from the curvy mountain road we were on. So we backtracked until we found the autostrada and headed to Catania, stopping in Aci Castello for dinner at La Bettola, a lovely white-tablecloth trattoria with arches that made it feel a little like a wine cellar.

After antipasti of marinated and grilled swordfish rolls (sold by the piece) and a tidbit of layered fish and vegetables, we shared generous portions of two pastas as main courses: spaghetti with clams and squash blossoms and, a Sicilian specialty, linguine with sea urchin sauce that was tossed tableside. Both were delicious, and the total tab, with the 6-euro cover, mineral water, and a bottle of a good local white wine called Timpa Giadda for only 13 euros, came to 49 euros or roughly $64. Worth every penny, even if I did get violently sick to my stomach in the middle of the night and probably won’t eat sea urchins again for some time.