Sicily had been on our list of places to visit for quite some time, so we decided to visit it by train travelling the length of Italy, stopping off in Milan and Rome on the way and then fly home at the end of the holiday.
Day 1, Friday 27 April
Following a night at the Tavistock Hotel in London’s Bloomsbury, it was a short walk to St Pancras International station to catch the 09:22 Eurostar to Paris, followed by the 14:41 TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan Porta Garibaldi, all accomplished without incident. The Milan train is one of three each day that streak across France as far as Lyon and then go much more slowly through Chambéry and Modane before descending to Turin, a stretch of line that had close up views of snow-capped mountains. We were in our hotel, close to Milan’s Central station by around 22:30.
Day 2, Saturday 28 April
Today was to be a day of sightseeing in Milan so we made first for the cathedral and having bought tickets climbed the 158 steps up onto the roof. This was a really interesting experience as you could wander at will amongst the spires and look out over Milan. Having had our fill of that, we took the lift down and looked round the cathedral’s interior, which is huge; the whole thing being supported by 52 massive pillars. It is apparently the third largest church in Europe after the cathedral in Seville and the St Peter’s in Rome.
After that, we wandered through the hugely impressive Galleria Vitorrio Emanuele II shopping arcade to see La Scala opera house, which unfortunately was closed to the public. Being in need of a coffee, we settled on a respectable looking cafe and ordered two Americanos. It was only when I then looked at the reviews on Trip Advisor did I notice that over half of them were graded ‘terrible’, mainly on account of the cost. I wasn’t too surprised therefore when the bill came to 22 Euros, a total rip off. Afterwards, we did some more exploring of the centre before a fantastic pizza lunch and more wandering around including in the Sempione Park and the canal quarter reached on a circa 1930 tram whose design was based on the US streetcar. Dinner in a local restaurant and a visit to see the cathedral floodlit at night rounded off the day.
Day 3, Sunday 29 April
An earlyish start to the day so that I could go for a pre breakfast run, before catching the 10:00 high speed train to Rome. This was on one of the stylish Frecciarossas and we had seats in first class. Needless to say, the journey proved to be relaxing and soon passed. Before long, we were running into Rome Termini station and soon reached our hotel, just five minutes walk away. After checking in, we had lunch on the go in the food court at the station and took the Metro to the Colosseum. The area outside was heaving and we just couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets. We resorted to Google and identified a ticket office on Palatine Hill that was reportedly much quieter. We headed there and bought tickets covering the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum, valid for 48 hours. Abandoning plans to visit the Colosseum that day, we decided to wander around Palatine Hill and the Forum instead, which proved to be an interesting and pleasant way to spend a few hours
Then it was back to the hotel after fighting through the hordes of people and dinner at the local Trattoria Cecio recommended by our hotel. This proved to be an excellent meal.
Day 4, Monday 30 April
We got to the Colosseum before opening time and joined the queue for the airport style scanners before entering. We had a good look round the interior impressed by the huge scale of the place and slightly repulsed by the horrible things that had gone on there. All too visible was the exposed undercroft where the wild animals, criminals and slaves were kept before being winched up into the auditorium to meet their fate. I hadn’t realised that most of the gladiators were actually criminals, with only a few free men taking that life who wanted to make a name for themselves.
After the Colosseum, we did lots of walking taking in the Trevi Fountain – under maintenance; the Spanish Steps – teeming with people and then to the Piazza Navona, my favourite place in Rome. We found a nearby pizza restaurant for lunch then continued our walk over the river, past the Castel Sant’Angelo and back to the Pantheon; the amazing temple with its largest dome made of unreinforced concrete anywhere.
Then to the Vittoriano monument and the bus back to our hotel, stopping off on the way to buy a bottle of wine for tomorrow’s long train journey to Sicily. We’d already identified and booked a table at a restaurant on the Piazza Navona for dinner, and had a most enjoyable meal there as darkness fell.
Day 5, Tuesday 1 May
As our train wasn’t until 11:26, I had time for a pre breakfast run. We bought some provisions for the 8-hour train journey to Messina and boarded our train, in first class again, at Rome’s main station, then settled down for the journey. The train was reasonably well filled but we had a bay of four seats to ourselves as far as Naples where all the remaining seats were taken up. South of Naples, the scenery started to improve and there were some wonderful views of the sea and of hilltop villages as the train headed south. The journey passed in a most relaxing fashion helped along by the bottle of red wine we’d bought and we were soon entering our final station on the Italian mainland at Villa San Giovanni. This was where arguably the most interesting part of the journey was to start; the crossing of the Straits of Messina by train ferry. With passengers remaining on board, the train was split into its two portions (that for Palermo and that for Syracusa) and each portion was shunted onto the train ferry. Once onto the ferry, steps were placed at each carriage door allowing passengers to climb down and then take the steps onto the deck.
There were lovely views as the ferry left Villa San Giovanni with the sun going down over Sicily only two miles away. Once we arrived at Messina, we rejoined our railway carriage where the process of getting the coaches back onto land was repeated in reverse. Before very long we were in Messina’s central station and it was time to get off and get to our hotel about a mile away. In theory there was a tram but they didn’t appear to be running being Labour Day and there was no obvious place to buy tickets. We therefore took a taxi and failed to follow the first rule of taking a taking a taxi in Sicily; agree the fare first. It cost 15 Euros, rather steep for the distance involved. The hotel was lovely and reception booked a table for us in a local restaurant where we had delicious pasta dishes. The desserts we had weren’t on the bill, but despite trying to point this out, we couldn’t make the restaurant understand, so we got these for free; some compensation for the overpriced taxi ride.
Day 6, Wednesday 2 May
A slow start as our train wasn’t until 10:40 so we decided to catch the tram to the station as the stop was very close to the hotel. Having found a tabacconist and bought tickets, we proceeded to wait, and wait! No tram turned up so we decided to walk instead and did reach the station comfortably in time to catch the train to Palermo, a journey of 2 hours 50 minutes. The railway hugs the coastline for most of the way, so the views were pleasant ones and we were soon rolling into Palermo’s main terminus station. We bought bus tickets and soon caught a bus to our hotel on the other side of the city. After a pizza for lunch, we caught a bus to the medieval part of the city to do some sightseeing. Must admit that both of us were not too impressed by this city; it is quite run down and feels threatening in places; and the streets are dirty; maybe it will grow on us over the next couple of days. For those who like churches, there are very many to visit and the cathedral is interesting. We had dinner at a down to earth fish restaurant about 10 minutes walk away; the food was excellent.
Day 7, Thursday 3 May
I went out for a run at 8am with a route in mind but couldn’t manage it owing to the sheer chaos of the traffic and lack of pavements. I basically had to run round a few blocks close to the hotel and a few circuits of the pleasant English Garden opposite. After breakfast, we caught the bus to the old town, walked to the cathedral and then paid our 5 Euros each to go on the roof accessed up a stone spiral staircase. This was quite a thrilling experience, being quite exposed despite the railings and offering great views.
After that we intended visiting the Palatine Chapel, but it wasn’t open until later so we had a coffee and made for the bus to Monreale, a small town that overlooks Palermo, about 5 miles away. It was as we were boarding the bus that I had the cash in my wallet stolen; one of the perpetrators caused a crush to build up allowing another to pounce. Fortunately, it was more wounded pride than anything and the feeling of being violated. We found Monreale to be a pleasant place but unfortunately couldn’t access the main attraction there, the Norman cathedral, because it was closed for some reason. We did have lunch in a pleasant small restaurant, then had a look around before catching the bus back to Palermo. Back in Palermo, we visited the Palatine Chapel dating from Norman times in the 12th century with an absolutely magnificent interior.
Following this, we walked back to our hotel in the pleasant evening sunshine; welcome after the frequent rain showers that day. I started to feel that I was warming to Palermo after all. We had dinner at a very pleasant trattoria about 600 metres from our hotel.
Day 8, Friday 4 May
Today we decided to visit the seaside town of Cefalù, 70 km east of Palermo and a 50 minute train journey away. According to the guide book it is the most attractive place on the northern coast. We duly caught the 101 bus to Palermo Central station and then the 09:38 train, which was well filled. From Cefalù station, it was about a 10 minute walk into the centre of town and the square in front of the cathedral. Our first priority was to visit the cathedral an impressive structure built by the Normans; the cloisters too were interesting. It was then time for some refreshments and in my case I decided it was time to try Apérol and had an Apérol spritz cocktail, which I quite enjoyed. We had this at a nice cafe in the cathedral square. afterwards it was time to explore the town before having lunch followed by more exploring.
It was soon time to head back to the station to catch the 16:38 train to Palermo; we’d enjoyed Cefalù, even though it had felt a bit chilly at times; not like the Med! On our way back to our hotel, we booked a table at the Cin Cin restaurant close to our hotel. We both had sea bream there, which was excellent and possibly the best of the meals we’d had in Palermo.
Day 9, Saturday 5 May
On the 101 bus again to the station; this time to catch the 08:33 train to Messina, then change into the 12:20 train to Catania as far as Taormina-Giardini, our destination for the next four nights. On leaving the train, the challenge was to find a means to get to Taormina, located way above. The choice was to wait for a bus or get a taxi advertised at 15 Euros. We chose to wait and got the bus, which took us up the hill only as far as the bus station, still leaving a walk of nearly a mile to our hotel. First impressions of Taormina were certainly positive, it being beautifully located with fantastic views up and down the Sicilian coast and across the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland. We also got our first view of Mount Etna, unfortunately mostly shrouded in cloud. Having booked into our hotel, we felt in need of a coffee and cake treat and happened upon a lovely cafe with an amazing display of cakes. We then sauntered down the main street and took the turning for the ruined Greek Temple. I had been eagerly anticipating the view looking over this towards Mount Etna and was not disappointed. It looked absolutely beautiful, particularly as by now the sun was going down and visitor numbers had thinned. This really is a very special place indeed. Afterwards, it was back to the hotel, out to a restaurant for dinner, and then an evening stroll.
Day 10, Sunday 6 May
Probably the most relaxing day so far, although it didn’t stop me getting up at 6.30am to take some photographs round Taormina.
Back for breakfast then out to the Greek Theatre, free on the first Sunday of the month, and still quiet at that time. I suspected that many tourists didn’t know about the Sunday freebies. Mount Etna was fairly clear so the view of that with the Greek Theatre in the foreground was quite a fine one.
A cup of coffee followed and then a wander to the public gardens, which was a pleasant way to while away some time before lunch. We got this from a takeaway and then walked down many, many steps to get to sea level as we wanted to visit the island of Isola Bella, a very attractive island and nature reserve and joined to the rest of Sicily by a narrow spit of pebbly ground. As we didn’t feel like walking back up the steps, we caught the cable car back up and felt we deserved a gelato before dinner. Dinner was one of the best meals so far on Sicily.
Day 11, Monday 7 May
Today was going to be the day to fulfil a long held ambition to ride on the Circumetnea Railway that runs around the base of Mount Etna from Riposto to Catania. I first read about this railway probably 45-50 years ago. I started the day with an early morning run and following breakfast, we were all set to walk down to Taormina-Giardini station to catch the 10:22 train to Riposto. However, the zig-zag path down the steep cliff gave out part way and we had little option but to climb back up and consider our options; there was no way now that we would catch the train planned. It did look like if we took a taxi down we could catch a later train so that is what we did having bought some sandwiches for lunch. We arrived in plenty of time to buy tickets for the 12:52 Cicumetnea train to Randazzo at the rather scruffy station. The train duly arrived, a single railcar of probably 1960s’ vintage, and we were off up the steep gradients into the foothills of Mount Etna, the diesel engine working hard. There were many villages and the vegetation was very lush with lots of wild flowers blooming. Occasionally, there were lava fields from previous eruptions. We arrived at Randazzo, apparently the closest town to the summit of Mount Etna, at 14:03 with time for a coffee before catching the connection to Catania departing at 14:43. This was formed of an almost new two-car diesel unit with air conditioning; quite a contrast with the previous train. The train continued to climb to the summit of the line at about 1000m above sea level, before starting its long descent to the city of Catania. From here, the character of the railway changed to something more like a commuter railway, with reconstructed stations and some underground sections under even smallish towns. Eventually, we got to the terminus at Catania Borgo at 16:32 and transferred to the underground metro railway for the last two miles to Central station.
Having ascertained where the airport buses left from for Wednesday, we caught the train back to Taormina-Giardini and the bus back up to Taormina town. We treated ourselves to a glass of wine and nibbles on the terrace of our hotel as the sun went down, and then had dinner at a slightly more upmarket restaurant than we’d been used to. We both had mixed grilled fish followed by a ricotta dessert; delicious!
Day 12, Tuesday 8 May
For our last day on holiday, we decided on a fairly relaxing one. We thought about walking up to the hilltop town of Castelmola, situated above Taormina, but in the event caught the bus, which drove up the twisty road and dropped us just 200m from the town’s square. After coffee, we wandered around admiring the expansive, if rather hazy, views and caught the bus back to Taormina for a late lunch. We then decided to relax on the terrace of our hotel until dinner time, booked at the same restaurant we went to two nights before.
Day 13, Wednesday 9 May
An early breakfast then a taxi ride from our hotel down to Taormina-Giardini station. The taxi had been ordered by our hotel but this did not stop the driver from taking a longer route than necessary and then charging us more; 20 Euros rather than the standard 15 Euros. I really didn’t think it was necessary to agree the fare in advance when the taxi had been ordered by the hotel; quite annoying. We caught the 08:06 train to Catania, Sicily’s second city, without incident then a rather slow airport bus to Fontnaressa airport, still leaving plenty of time to check in for the 12:00 Easyjet flight to Manchester. The airport did not seem to be the best organised and the low point was probably queueing on an exposed metal staircase for the airport shuttle bus to our plane. The flight itself passed off without incident and we were into Manchester by about 14:30 and then on the 15:55 train back to Derby with a change at Sheffield. It was amazing to think that all the trains we had been on through the course of the holiday had been on time, and all had been electric apart for those in Britain.
I must admit that I was quite happy to be home, although it had been an interesting and enjoyable holiday. Sicily has a great deal of scenic beauty, the food is wonderful but there are developments that mar the landscape including half finished and abandoned concrete buildings that are an eyesore; there were a few of these around Taormina. Also, the dirty streets in the cities with piles of rubbish on the pavements were not a pretty sight. Road traffic can be frustrating for those on foot with such scant consideration being given to pedestrians. Public transport seems to work well with cheap fares by UK standards. There is the ever present risk of being pickpocketed in crowded places, but this may be no worse than many places. Will we be returning? It’s certainly possible; there is so much more to see there.