I paced impatiently in my hotel room on Via Etnea, one of the main boulevards in central Catania. I looked out from my balcony and wondered if it would ever stop raining. I had arrived here on the east coast of Sicily earlier in the day, planning to take a 2.5 week trip to capture the regional train journeys on the Italian island, but the weather didn’t look promising.
The idea for the project had occurred to me a few months earlier when I was on holiday with my partner by train on the slopes around the famous – and famous asset — volcano, Etna.
As breathtaking as the view from the windows was, I was just as intrigued by the apparently outdated diesel train, picturesque and romantic, which took us past lava fields and olive groves† I decided to come back for a photo essay.
on Trenitalia’s websiteI narrowed myself on the three routes where commuters depended on the old-fashioned trains I was interested in: the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a narrow-gauge train connecting the villages around Etna; the Syracuse-Gela-Canicatt line, which follows the southeastern coast of Sicily; and a route near the western tip of Sicily connecting the village of Piraineto and the city of Trapani through the town of Castelvetrano.
I had envisioned a journey where I would hop on and off the regional trains, visit rural villages with beautiful Italian names and experience the charm of regional train travel on this southern edge of Europe. I also hoped to capture portraits of the people I encountered – daily commuters and train operators – who populated this corner of southern Italy, poorer and less developed than the relatively wealthier north of the country.
Even for a Dutch person I am an excellent planner. Based on train schedules, I put together an itinerary and booked hotels in places I didn’t know existed. But I soon learned that I would only experience the charm of irregular and slow train travel if I was willing to let go of my overly demanding schedule.
I looked down from my balcony in my flip-flops and saw the street below me turn into a river. Cars got stuck; alarms went off; patio tables and chairs drifted in the churning floods.
Not wanting to lose another day to bad weather, I left my hotel the next morning, bought the largest umbrella I could find, and rushed to the train station, under the illusion that I could work my way through my itinerary. There I found out that all trains on the first leg had been canceled until further notice.
To save the second part of my journey, and since the trains were still running, I traveled to Syracuse and decided to take a short trip to the town of Noto, some 20 miles to the southwest, on a colorful – and mostly empty – single-carriage train. Giuseppe Mandolfo, one of my few fellow passengers, told me that he takes the train five days a week to complete his studies at the police academy. “I can’t wait to buy my own car,” he said, as this particular train was “rare, slow and unreliable.”
Immediately after he told me this, the train screeched to a stop. We waited an hour for another train, jumped aboard and continued our journey.
Afraid of getting stuck again, I returned to Syracuse and decided to wait for the incoming Medicane, or Mediterranean cyclone, to pass. Soon the whole city seemed to have come to a standstill. Using my rusty Italian, I discovered that buses were scheduled to replace some of the routes on my list. I walked back to the station and soon a large tour bus stopped in front of the door.
Stefano Giluno, the bus driver, was happy to see me, his only passenger. With impressive agility, he steered the bus through flooded streets and winding alleys to reach the town of Rosolini.
And so it went for much of the journey. Although I never expected to see so few trains on my regional train journey, I was still happy to continue my journey by bus, hopping on and off at the various stops, happy to catch a glimpse of so many old train stations along the regional suburbs of Sicily. The atmosphere of faded glory on the peeling buildings was reason enough for a celebration. I was also intrigued to discover that the stations were being used as communal meeting spaces, especially for young people seeking to escape their crowded homes and unwind.
I knew from previous trips in Sicily that public transport on Sundays can be tricky to navigate, so I planned a relaxing day in Ragusa, a hilltop town along the Syracuse-Gela-Canicattì line. On Monday, however, I was thwarted again: the train was canceled due to a religious holiday. Laughing at my bad luck, I stayed another day in Ragusa, a beautiful place, and spent much of the day in a beautiful cemetery on the northern edge of the city.
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Finally I was able to resume my journey – this time by train, according to a timetable. And for one day, it was just as I imagined it: I slowly made my way through breathtaking landscapes in an aging single-carriage train, as the sun finally made its belated appearance.
Finally, I arrived in Gela, a coastal town whose train station was completely devoid of women. Local men gathered and gambled at the bar. I felt a little uncomfortable with them and struck up a conversation with Giancarlo Zaccaria, a train driver. I watched as he walked to one end of the train to remove the red filters from the lights, which he then carried to the other end and attached them there. Something in his demeanor reminded me of what I loved about my time around the regional trains: the cramped mentality, the informality.
In western Sicily, blessed with pleasant weather, my journey took a more predictable turn. I divided the 100-mile route into three travel days: one for Castelvetrano, Marsala and Trapani. Along the way I learned that in this often forgotten part of Sicily, the train is largely used by African migrants. I learned how the conductors not only check the passengers’ tickets, but also manually operate the traffic lights. And I’ve learned that most Italians don’t want to rely on the trains, as they are often slow and unreliable.
And yet, despite the exceptionally bad weather, the regional railways – and the replacement bus services – managed to get me around the island of Sicily for less than $100. It’s a challenge I would recommend to anyone wanting to indulge in the charm of travel slowly. Just a tip: check the weather forecast before you go.