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Introducing Messina

Just a few kilometres from the Italian mainland, Messina sits on a curved harbour at the northernmost point of Sicily's Ionian Coast. For centuries it has been a major transport hub and today it's an important gateway to and from the island. A big, busy, traffic-clogged city, it is unlikely to waylay you long, but if you do find yourself passing through, there are a few sights worth checking out. Its impressive centre has wide boulevards and elegant turn-of-the-century buildings, its cathedral is one of Sicily's finest, and the local swordfish is celebrated by gourmets across the island. Historical monuments are thin on the ground, though, as the city was virtually razed by an earthquake in 1908 and then devastated by mass bombing in WWII.

Messina is, and always has been, about the strait, the impossibly narrow stretch of water that divides Sicily from the Italian peninsula. The Greeks mythologised the strait's clashing currents as the twin monsters of Charbydis (the whirlpool) and Scylla (the six-headed monster), and swimming there is still dangerous. The currents are not the only danger, though. Beneath the choppy sea is a geological fault line that poses a constant threat. In 1908 it provoked a devastating earthquake – Europe's deadliest ever – which sank the shore by half a metre and killed between 84,000 and 200,000 people.

Modern seismologists worry about what effect it could have on a bridge built across the channel. Plans to construct the world's largest suspension bridge over the strait – which have been on the drawing board for years – are still a bone of contention, with successive national governments regularly giving them the go-ahead, then cancelling them.