Strait of Messina, Italy: myth, magic and a controversial bridge

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011. Filed under: Legendary Landscapes Myths & Legends
Hello, Sicily.

Hello, Sicily.

When Odysseus sailed the Strait of Messina he had a tough decision to make.  Sailing too close to Calabria would mean passing Scylla, a sailor-snatching sea-nymph with a body composed of ravening dogs.  Too close to Sicily and the  whirlpool mouth of Charybdis could suck down the entire ship.



Navigating the water between mainland Italy and Sicily has always meant being caught between a rock and a hard place.  The water is turbulent here where the Ionian Sea (to the south) meets the Tyrrhenian Sea (to the north).

Also making trouble for mariners of old, a rare atmospheric phenomenon called the Fata Morgana after Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legend (you know, Camelot).  The sorceress was said to lure sailors to their death here by producing a mirage of land, castles and all. Though no longer attributed to witchcraft, the optical illusion is still occasionally observed today.

Waiting for the ferry.

Waiting for the ferry.

Causing much more trouble for travellers these days is 21st-century traffic.  Cars jockey for position to get onto the ferry that crosses the Strait, then pour off like racing pigs at a state fair.  On the Messina side this year, frustration reigned as we found all ferry signage on the highways approaching Messina had been removed.

In Calabria, the A3 highway – a major route at high elevation through the mountains – was reduced at points to one narrow lane clogged by heavy equipment, hurtling trucks and construction preparing for the new bridge across the Strait.  For Pat and I, a familiar route had become nerve wracking and confusing.  Drivers who’ve never been down this way could find conditions paralyzing.

The idea of a bridge over the Strait of Messina has been around since Roman times and revived many times since.  Though a fair bit of construction has already been done, the project is currently stalled due to concerns over cost and whether a bridge could withstand the stresses of this geologically volatile zone not far from Mount Etna.

I’m not happy to see an ancient vista altered forever but 21st century problems like highway construction and traffic congestion are more than a hassle, they’re a hazard. If you’re a nervous driver, taking the train from Calabria to Sicily may be the way to go. By car or train, the short trip across the Strait of Messina is one of the world’s great scenic ferries. 

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