WWe got used to expressions of disbelief on our long journey: “Con il treno? You come from London to Sicily by train! Why?”
Well why not. From St Pancras to Syracuse – almost the same latitude as Tunis and a place as good as any to seek winter sun. No airports, no highways; a few thousand kilometers from Europe gradually changing from gray and macabre to warm and welcoming.
While the need for speed has underpinned the supremacy of aviation for decades, neither the Eurostar nor its French TGV counterparts with their record of 575 km / h can be accused of lagging behind. The fastest route to Italy is from Turin via Paris in around eight hours. But there is something fascinating about boarding a train in London and, less than six and a half hours later, stepping out onto the terrace of the majestic 19th century Marseille train station, to contemplate the city. Marseille, with its multi-ethnic appeal, raw and discreet, represents an ideal first stopover. From there, the dog-leg amble east to Nice is a hypnotic lull through perfect Provence. Covered in a piercing December sun, the train winds its way through forests and vineyards, past beaches with famous names and dances dangerously close to an aquamarine sea.
The meat in the sandwich of any train trip in southern Italy, however, is the InterCityNotte sleeper train. He goes from Milan to Sicily, loaded onto the ferry at the final stage to reach the island; the only place in Europe where such a phenomenon exists.
The gentle walk around the Ligurian coast to Genoa is a waterside slideshow of resort towns strolling through the shadowlands out of season. Genoa, like Marseille, is another potentially rewarding B-List stopover, but we continue up the spectacular Riviera coast towards the towns of Cinque Terre. Too touristy in summer, with their little toy stations, they make an attractive stay during the autumn and winter months.
In La Spezia, in the cool night air, we anxiously await the sleeper train in an almost empty station. As welcome as a rescue ship picking up survivors, the InterCityNotte makes its way along the platform, on which our uniformed chaperone unloads. Not only is he waiting for us, but he has already made the beds in our compartment. After successfully scanning the NHS app (needed for long distance trains in France and Italy), we are quickly enveloped in uterine-like heat and gently switch to satisfied sleep as we make our way towards the Tuscan night on tiptoe.
According to Mark Smith of www.seat61.com, the human lexicon of all things rail, these “luxury” two-berth cabins originally had plush rugs and even a mural. It’s clearly long gone, but there is a sink, and everything is spotlessly clean. As we raise the blinds the next morning, a vast expanse of pure azure sky reigning over the Campania countryside filled the window frame as if we had forgotten to turn off the TV. Oranges hang outside, as our attendant reappears with coffee and a light breakfast. Circumventing Naples, commuters crowd along the waterfront in the morning sun, dressed for a Himalayan trek, before the majesty of Mount Vesuvius settles in the hallway window.
The ride through Calabria in the sole of the Italian boot is another jaunt along the coast through sensational sunshine and sea-infused landscapes. Instantly recognizable as the underprivileged and depopulated south, the exquisite stretches of splayed beach by the surf are often supplemented by little more than unsightly housing slabs. The under-explored Calabria, however, remains a compelling option for travelers seeking an authentic and pure Italy.
At the end of the morning, we get ready to dance the famous train-on-a-ship fandango. It’s hard to gauge precisely what’s going on with all the back and forth trips, but in no time at all we are indeed witnessing the surreal sight of our train slipping on a ship.
We head to the cafe for a breath of sea air as the water train sails leisurely through the sun-dappled port of Messina. After more maneuvering, the train suddenly sets off again, the spectacular afternoon seascape now unfolding on the other side. A smoldering, magnificent and menacing Etna looms in the landscape like a giant theatrical backdrop.
Including a good night’s sleep, the uninterrupted spectacle of breathtaking beauty unfolding outside the window, and a revitalizing walk around the ferry, the 5-hour train journey was not as strenuous as it got there. appears. But we propel ourselves directly into the charming little Gutkowski Hotel in Ortigia, where shabby and chic combine wonderfully, for a much sought-after shower. Ortigia, an atmospheric maze of tumultuous ancient streets compressed into a promontory jutting out into the clear waters of the Ionian Sea, is the historic heart of Syracuse, Archimedes’ birthplace and a major metropolis in the ancient Greek world.
And yes, this winter sun which has been shining more and more since Marseille has been here. People even swim from the platforms suspended from the rocky perimeter of Ortigia. Syracuse hit the headlines in August when it recorded the highest temperature ever in Europe: 48.8 ° C. As the vineyards around Mount Etna forced to switch to tropical fruit cultivation and the recent catastrophic flooding in nearby Catania, climate change in Sicily, it seems, is all too apparent. Maybe from London to Sicily ”con il treno”, Is ultimately not that difficult to understand.