After our two days in Giardini-Naxos, and visiting the heights of the countryside with Taormina and Castelmola, we decided to stay at sea level and go around the most northeastern part of the island, the spit of land beyond Messina that straddles both the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Sea and stares at the rest of Italy.
It is where you find the Strait of Messina, Strittu di Missina in Sicilian, the narrow passage between the eastern tip of Sicily (Punta del Faro or Capo Peloro) and the western end of Italy in Calabria.
At its shortest distance, it is only 3.1 km wide. Because of its strong tidal currents, it is host to a great variety of marine fauna, flora, and birds, and the whole “spit” is now a protected area.
This is where the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis was born. Scylla was a sea-monster that lived under a large rock while Charybdis was another sea-monster living on a much smaller one. Three times a day, Charybdis would swallow a huge amount of water before spewing it back out and creating a huge whirlpool. Sailors going through there had the choice between being swallowed up by the whirlpool or by Scylla, who waited under his rock for those trying to avoid Charybdis’s water effects. Thus the saying “being caught between Scylla and Charybdis.” A whirlpool does exist now in the Strait of Messina and it is considered very dangerous to small crafts.
We left Giardini-Naxos and drove north east on the SS114 (Strada Statale 114), which follows the edge of the Ionian sea and goes through every small village and town along the way. It is not the road to take if you’re in a hurry (the A18, the Autostrade goes up to Messina and is much faster, although it is a toll road), but it is picturesque, as most of it leads you through the Lungomare, the street in a town that follows the ocean. Most towns have a boardwalk where it is possible to stop and walk, take in the sunshine, have a bite to eat.
The SS114 leads right through Messina, from one outskirt to the other, by way of the harbor. It was an experience in itself to go through the busy city. The commercial downtown periphery is pretty much like any other city’s: busy, with lots of cars going in and out of shopping centers and shops, aggressive drivers, honking, teeming groups of cittadini going about their business, city buses weaving in and out of traffic. As with many Italian towns, here people double-park everywhere, despite there being just enough space for a car to go through. On two-lane avenues, the second lane is only used to double-park or, at their ends, to turn right. When driving, it is a dizzying way of getting from one point to the other. Surprisingly, there are very few accidents. Besides, there is no other way to get to where we wanted to go. One road; that’s it.
Via Vittorio Emmanuele II, which goes around the harbor, changes names to Viale della Libertà, which changes into the Via Consolare Pompea then into the SP43 (this in less than 2km). Once we crossed Messina, traffic quieted down and we were finally on the road that would lead us to Torre Faro, at the utmost tip of Sicily. Here the views of the Strait are breathtaking. Huge ferries that go through the Strait from Salerno to Messina look tiny at this point where the Strait is at its largest. There is no bridge, even at its narrowest point, between Sicily and the mainland, a factor that has contributed to the island’s retaining its cultural uniqueness and its language, as well as its sense of isolation.
The sun is sparkling on the water like so many diamonds and the water that laps the shore has that distinctive turquoise. The wind is up and, when we arrive at Torre Faro (the small town at the tip that got its name from the Lighthouse tower installed there), kitesurfers fly over the waves. We have our lunch sitting on a wharf in a protected park, overlooking Calabria. When we look back, the massive shape of the Etna rises its head in the clouds.
At the very tip of Capo Peloro, you can see a 232 meter pylon, with its twin on the other side in Italy. They were constructed in 1948 to provide electricity to the island. The cable that connected the two pylons was the longest in the world. Now the cable is on the sea floor, but the two metal structures are preserved as historical monuments.
The coast overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea is different and much more affluent. Here the ocean is often hidden from view by tall fences guarding rich villas.
It doesn’t take long for us to turn inland to go back toward Messina and, of course, up, up, up. The road here (back on the SS113) has hairpin curves that bring us ever higher to Gesso. There’s almost no traffic so its easy to stop on the side of the road and admire the view, all the way to the Eolian islands, of which we see at least four in the distance.
After Gesso, the landscape changes radically. We are very high up and everywhere there are signs to beware of heavy rains and snow (not the case in October, however). We drive through forests of deciduous trees. The air is fresh and the light almost green as the sun shines through the leaves. The road follows deep uninhabited valleys and the silence is broken only by the sound of our car engine. There is a sense of peace, here, of serenity that is soothing after the bustle of the towns we’ve been through.
But we soon go back to Messina and are embroiled into the town streets once again. Not knowing necessarily how we ended up there, we found ourselves on a beautiful avenue, Viale Principe Umberto, high above the harbor. We stopped in front of a terraced church, Temple Christ the King to admire the view, especially the Golden Madoninna, who gives its blessings to all who enter or leave the port.
The day had been long and we decided not to stop and visit Messina but to keep it for another visit. We took the A18 back to Giardini-Naxos to take a well-deserved swim in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.