I paced impatiently in my hotel room on Via Etnea, one of the main boulevards in central Catania. Looking out from my balcony, I wondered if the rain would ever stop. I had arrived here on the east coast of Sicily earlier in the day, planning to take a two and a half week trip to document the Italian island’s regional train travel culture, but the weather just didn’t seem promising.
The idea for the project had come to me several months earlier when, on vacation with my partner, I had traveled by train on the slopes around the famous and famous active volcano in Sicily, Etna.
As amazing as the views from the windows were, I was at least as intrigued by the seemingly outdated, quaint and romantic diesel train that took us past lava fields and olive groves. I decided to come back for a photo report.
On Trenitalia website, I focused on the three routes where commuters depended on the old-fashioned trains that interested me: the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a narrow-gauge train that connects villages around Mount Etna; the Syracuse-Gela-Canicattì line, which traces the southeast coast of Sicily; and a road near the western tip of Sicily that connects the village of Piraineto and the town of Trapani, via the town of Castelvetrano.
I had imagined a trip where I would hop on and off regional trains, visiting rural villages with beautiful Italian names and experiencing the charm of regional train travel in this southern end of Europe. I also hoped to capture portraits of the people I met – daily commuters and train operators – who populated this corner of southern Italy, which is poorer and less developed than the comparatively wealthier north of the country. .
Even for a Dutchman, I am an exceptional planner. Based on train schedules, I built an itinerary and booked hotels in places I didn’t know existed. But I soon realized that I would only feel the charm of infrequent, slow train travel if I was willing to let go of my overly tedious schedule.
Looking out from my balcony in my flip flops, I watched the street below me turn into a river. Cars got stuck; alarms have been triggered; the tables and chairs on the terrace floated in the swirling waves.
Not wanting to lose another day to bad weather, I left my hotel the next morning, bought the biggest umbrella I could find, and rushed to the station, operating under the pious delusion that I could work my way through my route. There I discovered that all trains on the first route were canceled until further notice.
To save the second leg of my trip, and since the trains were still running, I drove to Syracuse and decided to take a short trip to the town of Noto, about 20 miles southwest, on a colorful – and almost empty – a -train car. Giuseppe Mandolfo, one of my rare traveling companions, told me that he takes the train five days a week to finish his studies at the police academy. “I can’t wait to buy my own car,” he said, as this particular train was “infrequent, slow and unreliable.”
Immediately after he told me this, the train stopped. We waited an hour for another train to arrive, jumped on board and continued our journey.
Afraid of getting stuck again, I returned to Syracuse and chose to wait for Medicane, or Mediterranean cyclone, to pass. Soon the whole city seemed to be shut down. Using my rusty Italian, I discovered that buses had been scheduled as replacements on some of the routes on my list. I walked back to the station and soon enough a large travel bus pulled up in front.
Stefano Giluno, the bus driver, was happy to see me, his only passenger. He steered the bus with impressive agility through flooded streets and winding alleys to reach the town of Rosolini.
And so on for much of the journey. Even though I didn’t expect to see so few trains on my regional train journey, I was nevertheless happy to continue my journey by bus, getting on and off at the different stops, happy to see so many old stations along the regional periphery. of Sicily. The atmosphere of faded glory on the chipped buildings was reason enough to celebrate. I was also intrigued to see the stations being used as community gathering spaces, especially for young people looking to escape their crowded homes and relax.
I knew from previous trips to Sicily that public transport could be tricky to navigate on Sundays, so I planned a relaxing day in Ragusa, a hilltop town along the Syracuse-Gela-Canicattì line. On Monday, however, I was upset again: the train had been canceled due to a religious holiday. Laughing at my bad luck, I lingered another day in beautiful Ragusa, spending much of the day in a beautiful cemetery on the northern outskirts of town.
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I was finally able to resume my journey, this time by train, according to a schedule. And for one day, it was exactly as I had imagined: I slowly made my way through breathtaking landscapes on an antiquated one-car train, the sun finally making its belated appearance.
Eventually I arrived in Gela, a coastal town whose train station was completely devoid of women. The local men got together and played at the bar. Feeling a little uncomfortable with them, I struck up a conversation with Giancarlo Zaccaria, a machinist for the railway company. I watched him walk to one end of the train to remove the red filters from the lights, which he then carried to the opposite end, securing them there. Something in his manner reminded me of what I loved in my time around regional trains – the restricted mentality, the informality.
In western Sicily, blessed with pleasant weather, my trip took a more predictable turn. I divided the 100 mile route into three days of travel: one for Castelvetrano, Marsala and Trapani. Along the way, I learned that in this often forgotten part of Sicily, the train is widely used by African migrants. I learned how drivers not only check passenger tickets, but also have to manually control traffic lights. And I learned that most Italians don’t want to rely on trains, as they are often slow and unreliable.
And yet, despite the exceptionally bad weather, regional railways – and alternative bus services – managed to get me around the island of Sicily for less than $100. It’s a challenge that I would recommend to anyone who wants to surrender to the charm of slow travel. Just a tip: check the weather forecast before you go.