Monday, February 06, 2006

Slow train to Sicily

I spent a memorable week in Sicily in Spring 2004 and, nearly two years later, have decided I might as well stick my journal online for any Sicily/travel obsessives.

Sicily Travel Journal - Part One

In which you learn what it's like to travel half the length of Italy in a ten-and-a-half-hour journey on a noisy train (I experienced it so you don't have to), the extremes to which Italian football fans will follow their teams, and the Sicilian male response to a girl walking by.

I had booked a first-class ticket from Rome to Siracusa in Sicily – a ten-and-a-half-hour journey – for a bargain €15, thanks to a special offer on I started out apprehensive, having heard bad stories about these long trips (the basic advice from other women, which I heeded, was: whatever you do, avoid the overnight trains). The journey turned out to be rather uncomfortable for this anxious traveller, although I wouldn't have missed the views for anything. Instead of ten hours relaxed in a plush seat, I was always alert to the eddies of stress and dispute around. Italians exist at a high level of tension, and the football fans didn't help (more later...).

I turned up at Stazione Termini in Rome at around seven in the morning, clutching my luggage, my seat reservation and food supplies. I found writing a detailed chronicle of the journey helped pass the time.

The train departs late – a bad start. Arrived early to find some of the train carriages (including my first-class one) had their doors locked – we only got in when a passenger forced one of them open. Sadly my window seat is inland and rear-facing. My travel companions are disappointingly unglamorous – the compartment contains two coiffured elderly ladies, a quiet old man and two FS (railways) staff – one of whom is already curled up and asleep like a mouse. Still, I'm glad I'm not alone in the compartment; there have been some extremely unsavoury types wandering down the corridor and peering in.

Below the railway line an orange tram buzzes along. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. Rome is waking up. From the compartment next door I can hear loud discussions of the Rome derby fiasco and football players' salaries, two of the moment's hot topics.

From Aversa onwards there's a distinct change in the world outside the train windows. The view is no longer of familiar northern Europe. Inbetween small and charming plots of intensively-cultivated land are unfinished buildings. Many are lived in, despite the upper floors lacking windows and doors – just shells with washing hanging on lines in the shadows. White and rich yellow flowers dot the grass under stunted trees bearing pink blossoms.

Naples arrives. More sketchy characters selling 'acqua, panini,' and less identifiable merchandise prowl the corridor. A noisy child, prefacing every comment with an ear-splitting 'MAMMA,' gets on – I freeze with horror, praying this will not be my lot for the next eight hours. Fortunately they have seats booked in the next compartment. Still audible, but a lucky escape. My compartment is still remarkably silent. Both FS employees have gone, saying polite goodbyes, so two seats remain empty. A woman asks if one is free, and calls her mother down the carriage. Her voice is so loud I assume she must be related to the loud child. Her mother appears – another to add to the OAP collection. Hope she doesn't share the family volume controls. No, they didn't realise it was a first class carriage, and so they're unpacking all their bags again.

Someone further down the corridor is arguing about how and where the seat bookings are displayed. He reckons there's a screen somewhere with the reservation info. An ageing couple smelling of cigarettes get on, speaking in strong dialect. They had second class seats booked, apparently, but their places were occupied and the rude occupants refused to move. They are muttering swearwords. Apparently Genoa football fans have packed the train (ah, that explains some of the lads I saw at Termini with scarves). Perhaps that's why the train was late. There are stirrings in the compartment. Perhaps that's why the carriage doors were locked for so long.

A man carrying a plant mutters nastily in the corridor; he thinks he has seats booked in our compartment. The two interlopers who have taken the last seats are going to Catania (so no chance of young or handsome newcomers, then). So is the lady opposite me. The one next to me is heading for Siracusa, too. No-one knows about the silent old man, who seems to be asleep most of the time.

There ensues a big discussion at cross-purposes – one of those Italian debates where no point is really reached or aimed at, but everyone puts their opinion forward at length. Up for discussion are: the rights of booked passengers (if there are any; the man with the plant was obviously mistaken about his seat numbers as the lady opposite me has booked one of them) and the interlopers response to the tifosi. Everyone understands the situation but is of the belief that the Catania couple need more authorisation before taking these first class seats. It makes me laugh when people talk about the 'laid-back' Italians.

Now that conversation has started up, there is much talk of prices, and of money paid for first class, for the bookings etc. I keep my head down and don't mention my 15 euro ticket. No-one seems to know about the special offer for travel on Saturdays. The train is full and there's still chaos in the corridor. What's to be done? Everyone shrugs. Who are Genoa playing? Where are the fans going? Guesses are hazarded ('Ah, Serie B' nods the lady to my right, who reminds me of my smart elderly aunt).

We're 50 minutes late now. But hooray! I'm going forwards. I completely forgot that we change direction in Naples station. Now I'm right by the sea – I can see Capri, a grey rocky ghost on the skyline, calling like the sirens. The sun is sparkling and dancing on the water, and I can see a couple of fishermen in small boats hauling in their nets.

Where is the conductor? everyone wonders. Usually he appears before Naples. Sorting all the chaos out, is the general consensus. The mountainous Sorrentine peninsula is hazy on the right.

More big debates on when and where the Genoa match might be, and where the fans will rid us of their presence. 'It's a madhouse back there!' says the Catania wife ' It's disgusting, filthy.'

Salerno 11.10
There's an air of tension now. Everyone is waiting for the ticket inspector / rightful passengers to arrive, for the interlopers to be moved, for the plant-man to return. None of this concerns me, so I'm trying not to be infected with the general anxiety. My private concern is that, with seven or eight hours left to travel, the loos might already have become unusable.

Palms and sea (bluer now) as we roll out of Salerno. This is the furthest south I've ever been. 'Napoli merda' is spraypainted on a wall. I'm reading 'Midnight in Sicily' and learning more about the Mafia.

The inspector, when he arrives, is very casual, the fans are 'bravi ragazzi', the interlopers are fine where they are, no problems.

The fans are travelling to Catania. They must have travelled down from Genoa to Rome (half the length of the Italian peninsula) overnight, or yesterday, and are spending the whole of today travelling the other half. All for a ninety-minute football match; to support their team. I'm pretty passionate about my own team but that seems to take devotion to remarkable levels.

The landscape is mesmerising: rocky hills; abandoned villages in ruins on low crags above the railway line and river; modern houses scattered below; small-scale agriculture; sheep; bare hills; more ruins.

My fellow passengers are conversing more now. I was right to spot that the lady next to me is fairly posh and from the north. Her husband was from Siracusa and she's going to visit his family. The elderly lady opposite is from Catania but lives with her daughter in Rome. Apparently I remind the northern lady of her daughter, due to my 'delicate' consumption of an apple. Her daughter eats fruit and salads all day. I fear that I may disappoint her when I start producing chocolate snacks from my food-bag.

1:10 Paola
(Where the station clock says 9.05). Until now the shabby settlements by the sea have all been asleep in the sun, like a deserted country. Here there are strollers on the 'prom', well, one or two couples anyway, and a few loose clusterings of young men. I've still only seen one person on any of the long beaches though, and that was a dog-walker. Oh, and now four fishermen fussing over nets and their small painted boat. The sea is so blue, and this whole area seems to be one long (grubby) beach. A car with curtained-off windows: lunch break for some. A couple of bare-torsoed anglers – the only people I've seen making any concession to the bright sunshine. I've no idea how warm it actually is outside, as the train is air-conditioned. I've learned from experience that looking at how Italians are dressed/behaving gives me no clues. Garb usually conforms to seasonal rules, not temperature.

A long grey shape on the horizon – would that be Sicily? Sheep are grazing along the water's edge. I guess all of this long wasteland/beach sprouts shacky beach establishments in the summer.

Amantea looked nice – strange grassy hills like steppes, and a beach. The long arm of land wasn't Sicily, we've almost reached it – green, hilly and in shadow.

Scilla looks quite interesting although the main lowland town areas around here are all a bit shacky. I'm particularly struck by the sight of a curving elevated flyover running down over the sea, with a fort on the headland as a backdrop.

Villa San Giovanni
The Messina Strait really is very narrow (I don't know what I was expecting). A man in the next compartment shouting about politics has now provoked his fellow-travellers into joining in. I can hear them flirting with the idea of smoking ('I don't understand, if this is a non-smoking train, then whereabouts on it are we supposed to go for a smoke?'). It's amazing how sound echoes around inside the train. They switch to talking figures : xx million lire etc. Just about the most common topic of conversation in Italy: wherever you go you'll overhear people talking figures, numbers: on the street, in restaurants, on their ubiquitous telefonini.

This is the bit of the journey I was most intrigued about. The train is uncoupled into sections and then rolled onto the ferry. Although there are signs warning passengers not to stay in the train, I stay in the carriage on the crossing, along with my luggage and my fellow passengers. We're below deck so there is nothing to see other than the football fans and some others milling about between the pieces of train. Part of the train is going to Palermo so they'll all have to crowd into our Catania - Siracusa section.

A strange, bulky tanned young Italian enters our compartment – he's made the acquaintance of two of our ladies in the corridor when they were stretching their legs. I clock that he's camp (it can be hard to judge, here) just before the bit when he passes around photos of himself in exotic drag. He's continuing some tale, holding forth about a friend who's died/been killed/killed herself. I don't want to join in the conversation, so I look as English as possible and bury my head in my book. I catch odd snatches of the story, involving (I think) gay rights, bigots, sex-changes, parental relationships (his are nice, but someone's – the dead person's? - aren't), the army. One rather good snippet I hear involves an overweight suitcase at check-in, bursting with oranges and lemons from the family groves and his fancy costume for a gay parade.

I would presume that the train journey is normally nowhere near so crowded or noisy (except maybe when Catania are playing other northern sides). When the Camp Bloke shuts up, the sound of Politics Bloke blasts in to take its place.

Sea on the left. Lemon trees (laden) clinging to the coast. Sadly the exhibitionist is monopolising my compartment. This is the point at which I'd quite like to ask the locals about the things we're seeing. I'd really rather learn about orange groves and castles than join in the big discussions re. gay rights, dead people, transsexuals, hard-hearted fathers and so on.

Past Taormina – no real views of the town, just tantalising glimpses. I'll be returning here in a few days. The sea is on the left now, so I go into the corridor to see better, and admire Isola Bella (very small and sweet, looks like it's closed to public). I get a good sighting of peasanty activity: an old man in blue overalls who appears to be stripping some kind of cane. Now we're further away I suddenly see Taormina better. It looks very steep: I make a note to get directions to my B&B there before setting out on foot with my suitcase.

Past a fabulous ruin on a crag – or is it a ruin? Maybe it's actually lived-in. Sometimes with these crumbly places it's hard to tell. This journey has really shown a land like that of fantasy and myth: crags and castles and ruins and crofts and mountains that belong in books of adventure and quest.

I see strange droopy palms of a kind I haven't seen before, and a cloud-swathed mass that must be Etna. No matter how headache-inducing the journey is, it's an amazing experience to watch the landscapes slide by.

In Catania the Genoa fans get off the train. Despite their truly epic journey to be here, they march their tired bodies down the platform, waving their banners proudly and singing Genoa anthems. However much trouble they may have caused back there in second class, I can't but admire them. I hope they win their match.

The train is running late and by the final stretch I'm feeling rather stiff and tired. It's just me, the camp bloke and the posher lady. Now he's holding forth about the Catania couple ('people like that need things explaining to them'). A rather snobbish conversation ensues. I've learned a bit about class differences on this journey.

They discuss food and cooking techniques quite amicably and in great depth, but disagree on the need for the hideous 'Christmas tree' power stations around Augusta, lighting up the evening. He thinks they're evil pollutants killing everyone, she points out that without them everyone here would be unemployed. She tells us how her grandmother (who was obviously the family matriarch) wouldn't countenance her marrying a Southerner. On representations that he was a carabiniere and very respectable she softened and said 'well, as long as he's not a Sicilian'. Which of course he was, but I don't get to hear the end of the story as we're pulling into the station and the camp bloke is fussing about whether his dad will be there to meet him. We all exchange partings, and I lug my suitcase down a flight of steps, and out into Siracusa, trying to look as if I'm sound in body and mind and know exactly where I'm going. Happily my map-studying pays off, and after ten minutes of dragging my suitcase through the dark (empty streets, people in doorways saying 'hotel?' in suggestive accents) I arrive exactly where I want to be.

Arrival in Siracusa
My bed and breakfast is very nice indeed, and after a brief rest I head on into the old part of town to find some food.

Trattoria – Pizzeria Archimede
Being solo on a Saturday results in a bad table, and there's not much atmosphere here. No drink is offered to me, so I started off unimpressed. Things look up when I start making notes (not sure if there's a connection) and I'm interrupted by a nice man who offers me the pizza menu upon my request. I eat their vegetarian pizza (Edipo) with courgettes, artichokes, rucola etc. It's filling and tastes very healthy. I hope a glass of the house white (which I don't have to pay for, I'm told later when I query its absence from the bill) will have an anaesthetic effect on my headache. For dessert I have a lovely ricotta cake, which is very lemony and has been drenched in rich and doubtless highly-alcoholic liquid.

In an unfamiliar place I tend to wariness walking home alone. However, the streets here are busy and I feel fairly safe. Siracusa seems a nice town, from what I can tell in the dark. Everyone is parading around on their evening passeggiata. The girls dress more tartily than those in Rome (the men too), although all the youngsters seem naturally handsome. As a solitary female I learn that lipsmacking or kissing noises are standard currency of appreciation here. I do very well at avoiding looking at anyone I pass, until I practically collide with a youth rounding a parked car. He makes the noise directly to my face in a quite unabashed fashion. He's about 18. There are one or two 'Ciaos', as well, but that's all I have to contend with, and easily ignored.

Back in my room I take my normal travelling-alone precautions and secure my door with what seems to my weary brain a cunning method involving the key and a shoe. It's pretty chilly for this time of year, and the air-con/heating unit is noisy, but nothing is going to stop me sleeping. I'm in Sicily and there's lots to explore tomorrow.

Part two: rain and ruins in Siracusa


Anonymous said...

I have just read your wonderful account of train travel to Sicilia.
My italian friend is doing the exact same journey this day, so your description gave me a good feel of what his travel will be....

I really felt I was there on the train....marvellous!!!!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed every word you wrote. Keep on writing. I'll follow your advice: I'll take paper and pencil and will follow your steps.
If you want, I'll email you my writing at my return. I did learned something from you.

Anonymous said...

I was fascinated by your account of your journey - mention of the fort at Scilla brought back memories of a rail trip on a student pass way back in 1976. I got off the train from Taranto, in Scilla to stay at the Youth Hostel which was in the castle itself!!
I wonder if it is still a Youth Hostel! I wonder what Scilla is like now! Am flying to Sicily this Easter! Thanks for the memory!Isabel