There is a small but interesting regional museum in Messina that I have known about for quite awhile (it is the home of two Caravaggio paintings!), but only recently visited for the first time. We decided to make an afternoon of it, and speeding along the autostrada were able to arrive in Messina's centro storico in an hour and a half flat. After passing Taormina, the pebbly coastline was pretty built up with new houses and nothing else, but inland to the west the craggy hills were occasionally dotted with an alluring medieval hill town just visible in the distance. But most interesting to me was the ever-changing view of the Italian mainland which loomed larger the closer we got to our destination, until we could actually see the outlines of buildings on the coast of Reggio Calabria directly across from Messina's busy port.
The seemingly short, 90km distance we had driven had transported us to a whole new reality. First, this is a relatively small town, so as compared to Catania, everything here feels manageable and functional. Like the city's infrastructure--it seems to work! There is next to no litter on the streets, the avenues are lined with trees, it was rare to see a derelict building, and no matter how small, its well-cared for museum is open to the public for a bargain 2.50 Euro (Catania's regional museum has been virtually closed for years).
Messina's museum is 4km outside of the center and wouldn't be open until 4pm. That gave us an hour or so to wander in the historic center. Our timing for visiting the town wasn't that great, because 15.00 is the magic hour in which everything (except for the duomo itself as far as I could tell) shuts down for the afternoon break.
But I still got a wonderful impression of Messina's historic center. Although tragically 90% of the city was destroyed by a 1908 earthquake, which means most of what you see is under 100 years old, I loved the feel of the wide, tree-lined avenues framing three story Art Noveau buildings that radiated out from the Piazza Duomo--a real contrast to treeless, taller Catania. And as we noticed while driving in and out of the city, Messina is hilly, with a pretty natural landscape and much greenery integrated into the town which was a real surprise. This, combined with the city's main feature, its port, gave my better half the impression of a little Naples.
In the Piazza Duomo you will see three of the city's most important monuments (all three in the photo below): its main cathedral, completely restored but still retaining original medieval elements like the portal; the adjacent campanile, built in the 1930s to house the world's largest astronomical clock; and the Renaissance period Orion fountain (Orion being the mythological founder of the city) sculpted by Friar Montorsoli, a student of Michelangelo. While these are the city's most noted monuments, one glance at a guidebook and you will see that the centro storico warrents more than just an hour visit.
But our time was limited and our main goal was to see the regional museum. So off we went, and with relative ease found ourselves in front of a modern cement mammoth--nothing like the former 19th century silk weaving factory I had read about and expected--thanks to the striking architectural fragments that form a sort of outdoor sculpture garden in front of the museum. The older building (pictured at the top of the page) is quite small and visible only once inside the gate.
We were not alone! A little crowd of tourists had gathered out front of the museum waiting for it to open. And our visit began. With a little reading, we discovered that the museum was built just after the 1908 earthquake in order to house the many works whose original homes had been destroyed. Most moving was a fragment of a painted wooden beam rescued from the cathedral, as we had just seen the restored version on our visit inside the Duomo. But of course I was intent on seeing the two Caravaggio masterpieces--Nativity and Raising Lazarus, whereas hubby zoomed in on the Antonello da Messina works. But in addition to those, we were able to read about and view everything to our hearts content and in about thirty minutes had seen all that we could. Like I said, this museum is pleasingly small.
It was time to go home, but never empty handed! We picked up our edible souvenir at the only shop we had found open on our quick stroll in the centro storico. This funky, old-fashioned pasticerria carried not only homemade granita (not as tasty as what we find at home, but definitely refreshing) and bottles of locally brewed Messina beer, but also messinese delicacies like the pignolata, a kind of vanilla cake with lemon and chocolate frosting, just the thing for hubby's sweet tooth and, as we were to later discover, whole-heartedly enjoyed by the toddler.