Years ago, when I was living in Puerto Rico, someone asked me if I drove there or flew. I laughed, assuming the comment was meant as a joke, but as I soon learned, this person was dead serious – he had no idea that Puerto Rico was an island. I was reminded of this incident while making plans to move on from Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula to Sicily. When I told my Dad I was taking the train to Sicily he said, “You can’t do that, Sicily is an island.” In this case, I was not exhibiting geographic ignorance. From Naples, I boarded a train that took me to Villa San Giovanni, a small town at the tip of Italy’s boot. Here, after a brief wait, my train was loaded onto a ferry, which carried us across the narrow strait to the Sicilian town of Messina.
The journey is a little tricky, because the ‘official’ destination of the train is Palermo, which is on the complete opposite side of the island from where I was going. In actuality, when the train arrives in San Giovanni the individual coaches are separated as they are loaded onto the ferry. Upon arrival in Messina the cars are reassembled into two separate trains, one destined for Palermo on the northwest coast, the other bound for Siracusa on the southeast corner of the island. So when boarding in Naples it is extremely important to get on the right carriage, or you might end up somewhere you don’t intend to be.
It was a lovely ride through lush green countryside, punctuated by rolling hills and rocky escarpments, but the most fascinating part was at the ferry dock. I stood at the rear of my car and watched as it was uncoupled from the train and rolled onto tracks in the lower level of the ferry. Soon, we were pulling away from the docks for the short trip to Sicily. At this point, passengers are free to leave the train and go up on deck, but here again I need to offer a warning.
Though passengers are welcome to leave their train carriage, it is important to get back on the same carriage or, once again you could end up at the wrong final destination. Unfortunately, all the carriages look alike and they are lined up in endless rows in the bowels of the ship. The best way to be sure you return to the right train car is to note the number of the staircase by which you ascend (each stairway on the ferry has a different number), and the position of your train car with reference to the stairway. It’s also a good idea to leave something you recognize on your seat or table, so that when you return you’re absolutely sure you’re on the right car.
I climbed the steep, narrow stairways to the upper deck, where I hit the snack bar before making a circuit of the ship. Pulling my jacket close against the chilly breeze, I soaked up the brilliant sunshine as huge tankers and cargo carriers crossed our path. An hour later, I descended the same stairway and re-boarded my train carriage. Just minutes later it was rolled off in Messina, where we were jockeyed around, recoupled with other cars, and sent on our way down the east coast. I told numerous people that I’d taken a train to Sicily and most looked at me like I was crazy, but I’m living proof that it is possible.