Frontline World

Sicily - A Bridge Too Far? , April 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
The Strait
Aurelio
The Strait
Homecoming
Arancine
Il Postino
Nino Calarco
Anna Giordano
No Dolce Vita
Jamiolkowski
I barely slept as our train raced south along the western coast of Italy. We passed Naples and headed into the heart of southern Italy, known as the Mezzogiorno. Soon after I finally fell asleep, I was jarred awake by a sudden shaking and the sound of grinding gears. Our train jerked back and forth as if we were caught in an ocean storm.

We definitely weren't on land anymore.

The Strait of Messina may be one of the last places on Earth where trains board ships to cross the sea. More than a dozen times each day, trains reach the ports of Villa San Giovanni in southern Italy and Messina in Sicily, then dock into ferries and float to the other side of the strait. Train passengers can leave their compartments, climb the stairs up to the deck of the ship, and look out over the passage where the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas collide.

The Strait of Messina

The Strait of Messina has a centuries-old reputation for turbulence, thanks to strong currents, high winds and seismic activity. It's no wonder the legendary sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis called it home.
I was escorted up to the deck by 18-year-old Mario, known as picciriddu (the Sicilian word for baby) because he was the youngest soldier on board. It was still dark as we looked out over the spiraling waves of the strait. A bitter wind swept across the deck. I tried to imagine what it was like to make this crossing before the invention of heated train compartments and massive ships. After all, this journey brought sheer terror to sailors for centuries. I was entering into what Homer described in the Odyssey as one of the most treacherous passages on Earth. Just beyond the enchanted singing Sirens, Odysseus and his crew reached this rocky strait and had to navigate between two vicious sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. According to legend, only then could they reach the island of Thrinacia. (Sicily was once named Trinacria, or Thrinacia; and many scholars agree that Homer's island of the sun god was really Sicily.)

My ferry was leaving the coast of mainland Italy and the legendary lair of Scylla, a monster rumored to have "twelve feet, all dangling in the air, and six long scrawny necks, each ending in a grisly head with triple rows of fangs, set thick and close, and darkly menacing death." 1 Scylla was known to pluck sailors from their ships and devour them alive.

Mario

Mario, known as the picciriddu among his fellow officers, escorted me up to the deck of the ferry as we left the shore of Calabria in southern Italy and headed toward Sicily.
We were bound for Sicily's northeastern shore, believed to be the home of the ship-swallowing whirlpool created by the monster Charybdis.

"Thus we sailed up the straits, wailing in terror, for on the one side we had Scylla, and on the other the awesome Charybdis sucked down the salt water in her dreadful way," Homer wrote of Odysseus's journey. "When she vomited it up, she was stirred to her depths and seethed over like a cauldron on a blazing fire, and the spray she flung up rained down on the tops of the crags at either side." 2

These days, some natural historians believe that Scylla was simply a giant squid and Charybdis a whirlpool that is strong enough to pull ships to the ocean floor. But as the rising sun lit the sea, there were no monsters, squid or massive whirlpools to be found. Our ship sliced easily through the strait's choppy currents. The most difficult part of my journey across the strait was navigating the line at the ferry's snack bar, which was serving up fresh espresso, panini and Italian chocolate.

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1 Homer, The Odyssey (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 159.

2 Homer, The Odyssey, 163.