Friday, May 16, 2008

Sunday in Messina

We reached Messina on Sunday. Almost everything was shut, but one could enjoy the incredible charm of the architecture, the automated clock at the Cathedral and indeed the Cathedral itself.

I ate some sandwiches in the garden of the Cathedral and spent a rather lovely half hour there. (I always made sandwiches in the morning to take with me on any excursion.) Although I had hoped to be able to see some gorgeous Sicilian ceramics, almost every shop, apart from little souvenir shops, was in fact shut.

The architecture was not classical but appeared to combine Eastern with Western elements in a very bold and ornate fashion. I loved it. Although close to Malta geographically, it was very different.

In particular, the doorways and the actual doors of the Cathedral were spectacular. One could have lost oneself for hours in the intricate stone carvings of vines and pillars and fantastical creatures. Entering the Cathedral through an archway like that, one was very conscious of the door as a portal to a sacred dimension.

In fact, these old Cathedrals are repositories of great spiritual power. It is not only the time, labour and love lavished upon every aspect of their construction, but the fact that generation after generation has gone there to worship and has recognised it as the fountain of their spiritual inspiration. Whether by gazing up to heaven to admire the painted woodwork of the ceilings or downward to the magnificent floors, created of patterned marble, one enters easily into a heightened state of consciousness.

Although the port intially appeared to be very commercial with huge Martini and Campari signs on the horizon, there were fabulous views of the Cathedral and other historical landmarks as well, and the promise embodied in that early sight of the city was realised.

Messina is one of the oldest ports in the Mediterranean. It is steeped in the various influences that resulted from its position as a trading gateway for thousands of years.

Malta and Sicily seem to have very different attitudes where the Arab influence on their culture is concerned. Malta has embraced its glorious mixed heritage, but I have a feeling that in Sicily, the Moor very much is portrayed as the Enemy in folklore and history. A mural on the wall of a local restaurant depicted a Western Knight in confrontation with a Saracen. Charming perhaps but nonetheless redolent with old emnities, especially when one notes that the Knight's sword is bloodied.

It appeared to be rather a poor city in some respects, sadly. The vendors outside the cathedral were mainly Koreans, selling the shabbiest array of sunglasses and cheap toys for children that I had seen anywhere. One cannot judge a city by its souvenir shops, and I shouldn't comment on the basis of a few hours spent in Messina on Sunday, but I did feel that Sicily still may be less prosperous than its northern sisters.

Attending Mass in the Cathedral was the highlight of the day. The atmosphere was charged with true devotion and it was a challenge to try to understand the homily. Having spent a month in Roma once and memorised the Mass and many prayers in Italian, I nonetheless was surprised by the degree to which I was able to respond.
Although the priest quite sternly ordered all of the tourists out of the Cathedral before he began the Mass, he allowed me to stay. One touches the heart of a city when one participates in a sacred rite. Although the businesses and the shopping precincts and even many of the restaurants in Messina were shut, I left with a rather profound impression of the city.

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