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Departures from Palermo, Catania, Messina.
Shore excursions from Palermo, Catania and Messina. Visit Mount Etna, Taormina, Palermo, Segesta or Cefalù. Visit our excursion page for details.

Come to San Leonardello.
Enjoy a delightful stay amid citrus groves on a charming farm near the coast just outside Catania, conveniently located near Taormina and Etna. Visit our site for details.

Take a great tour of Sicily! Three unique tours of Sicily. Enjoy a historic and cultural tour with a small group at a good price. Visit us for more information.

Messina and Peloritan Mountains
Gateway to Sicily and waypoint for the crusaders
Related pages: Ancient & Medieval HistoryTimelineCharybdisCoastsBridging the StraitGreeksRomansByzantinesNormans

mapAncient Zancle (so-called for the sickle shape of its harbor) existed as a native Sicilian settlement before the arrival of the Greeks in 756 BC. Expanded to form a thriving port city during the Greek colonization of Sicily, Messina remained prominent for centuries. The Romans recognized its strategic importance. To the Saracens, who never controlled much of Calabria, it was the northern and eastern limit of a Muslim dominion. To the Normans, Messina was an essential foothold in their conquest of the island during the eleventh century, though their first ships actually landed at a point on the Ionian coast south of the city in the middle of the night.

In mythology, Scylla and Charybdis threatened the intrepid Odysseus at the Strait of Messina, which Hercules swam and the Argonauts sailed.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Messina was the most important port of departure for European knights on their way to the Crusades, effectively a major waypoint or stopover. Such a Crusade prompted the visit of Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II of France Messina Cathedral and Portin 1190. Generally ignored by historians is the fact that the two monarchs and their crusader knights sacked Messina on that occasion. Messina remained the second most important city of Sicily until the seventeenth century, when its position was challenged by Catania. There were fleeting periods when Messina's economic and political power rivaled that of Palermo.

The twelfth-century Norman-Arab style of the Church of the Annunciation of the Catalans (Annunziata dei Catalani), on Via Garibaldi near Via Cesare Battisti, differs from the architecture of the other Norman-Arab churches in Sicily. Its exterior is more Byzantine than those of most of the other churches.

Messina has often been associated with its disasters. The bubonic plague was brought to Europe on a ship that arrived in Messina, and several earthquakes have destroyed parts of the city over the centuries. The most destructive was that of 1908. The Allied bombardment of 1943 earned Messina the nickname "The City of Ghosts" because many residents sought safety in the outlying towns.

In their haste to see other sights, visitors often overlook Messina, whose reconstructed Norman cathedral is its most famous sight. Before describing that majestic church, we would like to introduce you to another one that is historically important but often ignored.

The Church of Santa Maria Alemanna (Saint Mary of the Germans) stands in isolation a few blocks from the train station in a part of the city that visitors hardly ever see. Its construction was probably begun around 1194, when the Emperor Henry VI arrived at Messina to ascend the Sicilian Throne. Completed some years later, it was the place of worship of the Germans who remained at Messina during the reign of the young Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, which began following Henry's death in 1197. Henry was buried not at this very German church, but at the Cathedral of Palermo. There were never very many true Gothic churches in Sicily (where one hears phrases like "Romanesque Gothic" or "Catalan Gothic"); Santa Maria is one of the very few such churches still standing.

Though only the apse and half the nave have survived (with the upper portions of the structure undergoing an extensive reconstruction using materials far too distinct from the original gray stone), the church's medieval Gothic splendor is still evident. Arched windows reach upward to culminate in majestic points, and pilasters arch out of supporting columns to form shapely buttresses. This church would hardly be noticed in England, France or Germany but in Sicily its particular architectural style is indeed rare. The Abbey of Santa Maria della Valle (Saint Mary of the Valley), built outside the city during the same period, is another rare Sicilian example of true Gothic design. Hidden on an obscure street between Viale San Martino and Via Garibaldi (a few blocks from the railway station) and surrounded by unsightly buildings, the Church of Santa Maria Alemanna stands below ground level and is rarely open to the public, though much of its open interior is visible from the outside. Because of its unappealing location and incomplete condition, it is virtually ignored by travel guides and tourists, but a brief visit to the Church of Santa Maria could give your visit to Messina a taste of what the city was like when its ancient stone streets echoed with the footsteps of presumptuous kings and overzealous knights.

The cathedral, where Richard the Lionheart worshipped in 1190 en route to a Crusade, was erected during the twelfth century Norman dominion and its style resembles that of both the Basilica of Saint Nicholas and the cathedral at Bari. Most of the present cathedral is actually a reconstruction, the original building having been almost entirely destroyed by earthquakes; a few segments of the original walls remain.

For Visitors: With the exception of a few small restaurants near the port, you'll have to venture farther into the city to find most of Messina's pizzerias and larger restaurants. On the Catania page we mention that you'll find a better selection of ceramics and other items in Taormina. The same advice applies to Messina: Santo Stefano di Camastra, Taormina and Palermo offer a better general choice of high-quality items.

Hotel Reservations are easy with the online reservation system on our travel planning page, where you'll find convenient links to information on flights, hotels, car rentals, restaurants, weather and even travel books.

Peloritan Mountains
The ring of steep hills and peaks around Messina, reaching toward Cape Peloro (Faro Point) and extending a few miles along the Ionian coast and then westward to the Nebrodi range, are the Peloritan Mountains. Cape Peloro straddles two seas, the Tyrrhenian to the west and the Ionian to the east. In the steep valleys are numerous torrents (seasonal streams). Montagna Grande, the highest of the Peloritans, is 1,374 metres above sea level, while Rocca Novara reaches 1,340 metres.

Most of the rocks are igneous and metamorphic. There are sandstone soils present in the region. The rocks of the Argimusco plateau differ in origin. At one time the Peloritans were lushly forested, and inhabited by deer as well as other species. Today there are fewer trees except in replanted areas. Trees include various oaks, beech and stone pine, as well as the occasional chestnut tree.

In times past the Peloritans, which effectively encircle Messina and, viewed from the strait, form an imposing backdrop to it, were a barrier to transportation that protected the city from land attacks launched from other parts of Sicily. This facilitated Messina's fierce independence during the Middle Ages. Though (literally) overshadowed by the Nebrodis and Mount Etna, the Peloritans cannot be overlooked if you're in this part of Sicily or looking over from Calabria.

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