Mark’s Note: Revisiting this post three years after I first wrote it, I was surprised how rarely I’ve reflected on this day … and yet, how vivid some memories are of these places. To this day, what stands out most about this port was our hastily-arranged dinner at Antico Badia Furioporta, where Britt, Patrice, Clyde, and I squeezed into a table near the kitchen and had one of the best meals of this trip.
Messina is a Sicilian port city popular with large cruise ships, but, like most people disembarking here, you’re more likely to want to spend your day in Castelmola or Taormina. Whatever the case, especially if you’re cruising, prepare to embrace a critical truth: with just one day at your disposal, you can’t see everything. Any real exploration of this port and the nearby cities requires more time than you have, so you have to pick and choose.
Maximize Your Time with Private Guides
Cruise ships offer efficient, overpriced shore excursions. Over time, we’ve learned the disadvantages of large bus tours (the time lost to loading and unloading the motor coach, the discomfort of traveling in packs of thirty people or more, and the slavish adherence to a pre-determined itinerary) can often outweigh any conveniences they offer.
Holland America offered a bus tour for $150 USD per person, but for just $90 USD each, the four of us hired a comfortable van and driver for the day. The guide we wanted wasn’t available, but he recommended that we use a knowledgable, flexible driver, who proved to be pleasant company for the day. Best of all, we were able to tailor stops to suit our own interests, taking advantage of John Franco’s local knowledge while also remaining true to our plans and whims.
Most importantly, throughout the day, we kept several steps ahead of the hordes from our ship, arriving before their buses could navigate the tiny, winding streets and departing just as their noisy presence packed the streets and disrupted the local vibe.
Castelmola, perched high atop craggy mountain peaks, offers sweeping, panoramic vistas of the Taormina bays, the Catania coast, and (on clear days) Mt. Etna. Getting there from Messina took us through a dozen or so tunnels, up one-lane roads with hairpin turns, and through a series of villages with front doors opening into the narrow streets (and with back doors opening on sheer cliffs).
We visited Belvedere Square and wandered the quiet lanes that led to tiny churches and sleepy private homes. With the exception of a handful of other travelers, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
After climbing a set of rusty, spiral stairs, we made our way through the ruins of the castle (which give Castelmola its name). The overlook was overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, and, despite a little haze, the view lived up to the hype.
One of the highlights of our stop was a quick visit to a traditional puppetry workshop, where craftsmen make and perform skits with the large marionettes the region is known for. The figures themselves are about three or four feet tall, with elaborate features (including heads that can be chopped off during battle scenes, unleashing dramatic spurts of stage blood). And in a stroke of political incorrectness rooted firmly in the town’s ancient tensions between Christians and Turks, you can always spot the villain, because he’s the swarthy guy with dark hair and dark skin.
Not far away, the tiny Our Lady of the Rock church — built directly into a shallow cave on the side of the mountain — is worth a short stop.
In addition to seeing the electrified figure of the Madonna and hearing the excellent acoustics, you’ll find yourself at the top of a treacherous set of stairs that, if you’re up for the challenge, lead all the way down the mountain from Castelmola to Taormina. (Our driver told us that, in the years before the path was enhanced with lights and hand rails, he and other local kids made a sport of seeing who could race down the stairs to Taormina in total darkness.)
Our two-hour stop here was pleasant enough, but especially if you’re pressed for time, you can skip Castemola. The central square is small, shopping and dining are limited, and the time you invest in reaching this remote little town could be better invested in neighboring Taormina.
Taormina packs a lot into a very compact, walkable space, making it the perfect stop for travelers with tight schedules. If you’re in Messina/Taormina for one day, curb your impulse to “do it all,” and invest your time and effort in touring Taormina.
The backbone of the city is Corso Umberto, the pedestrianized main street. Our driver grew up here and shared stories of playing soccer in the streets as a boy. Today, though, with tourism having taken over the economy, Corso Umberto is lined with boutique shops, bars, ice cream shops, and pizzerias.
You enter the street from a square at the top of a hill, and everything from that point on is literally (but not figuratively) downhill. We shopped for hand-printed linen tea towels (as gifts so, they pack easily into our luggage) and paused long enough to sample some of the best hazelnut gelato we can remember eating anywhere.
In fact, we spent so much time on Corso Umberto, we didn’t have much chance to delve into the cafes and shops on any of several dozen side streets. We also missed out on seeing the city’s biggest historical sites: the ruins of a Greco-Roman Theater and the communal gardens of Lady Trevelyan. In retrospect, this stings a bit … but, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t do everything. For now, we’ve put Taormina on our list of cities that merit a second visit; along with Messina, we think we could easily fill three or four days with the attractions in these two towns alone.
Back in Messina, we had just a couple of hours before our ship sailed away — but that was more than enough time to do one of our favorite things: escape the well-beaten path and eat dinner in a restaurant better known to locals than tourists. (A good sign: there are no English menus in such places — so do your homework, using Google Translate to your advantage, and prepare for the sort of dinner experience you can’t get on the main drag.)
Messina is one of those ports where the ship ends up in a spot that is far more urban than industrial — right smack in the heart of town, in fact. This put the two restaurants most popular with locals — El Reggio and Antico Badia Furioporta — within a seven-minute walk of our temporary home.
Scilians eat late, making their way to restaurants around 8:30 p.m. at the earliest. Unfortunately, that put a table at El Reggio out of reach for us, since our “all aboard” time was firmly 9:00 p.m. So we ended up with an intimate table in the quirky, colorful Antico Badia Furioporta, the sort of place with strands of lights in the trees, two or three candlelit rooms, the handsome son of the family taking orders out front, and Papa in the kitchen, whipping up authentic local comfort food with a family-inspired twist.
Based on all the hugs and kisses going on at the door, we were the only non-locals there. But from the way we were treated, you would have thought we were friends of the family, especially when the platters of food appeared. The fagottini appeared first: sticks of fresh local cheese fried in a tempura batter, then drizzled with lemon, honey, and pepper. This proved to be the perfect compliment to the savory caponata di mare: raw tuna encrusted with almonds, olives, capers, and onions.
I wish I could show you a photograph of Clyde’s dolceagro (calamari turnips in sweet and sour sauce), but I was too busy tucking into my special of the day (pasta shells stuffed with sausage and fennel and coated with melted local cheese) to wield my camera. A glass of local beer (Mastri Barri Umbri) and a bite of dessert (cannoli, broken over ice cream and dusted with cocoa), and we strolled back to the ship happier and more relaxed than we’d been in ages.