It took the second thud to rouse me. Worried I’d slept through it, I slid up the blind to find our train pulling into the port city of Villa San Giovanni in Calabria, Italy. Not quite 6am, the last of the night’s sky was taking leave: navy clouds pulled apart before my eyes, a single neon-pink patch igniting the ridgeline of the Peloritani mountains in north-east Sicily.
As I watched the waters of the Messina Strait turn silver in the dawn light, the train jerked and we began to roll the way we’d come. Shunted back and forth, I realised the carriages were uncoupling: this was the moment I’d waited years to witness. Little legs in pink pyjamas appeared on the ladder and my five-year-old daughter climbed down from her berth. “Are we riding on the ferry yet?”
Our journey had begun a few days earlier with a Eurostar from London to Paris, followed by the night train to Nice. A series of regional trains took us from there to Venice, where we caught another sleeper to Rome. It was here that our adventure really kicked off. The 11pm InterCity Notte service from Roma Termini takes just under 13 hours to reach Palermo, first winding down the long mainland, then crossing the Strait of Messina on a ferry.
For the first hour, we’d knelt at the window watching the outskirts of the capital fall away. As factory chimneys twinkled through the darkness, we’d fallen asleep in the privacy of our two-person vagone letto, waking for the moment when the train’s carriages were uncoupled and rolled side by side on to a ferry for the 20-minute crossing. Most passengers stayed asleep in their compartments, but not us. Zipping jackets over pyjamas, we jumped down from the train and ventured up to the deck, to enjoy a slap of salty air, the cries of circling gulls and the surreal sight of our carriages locked into place.
We were here for a week-long family tour of Sicily by train – mainly for the food. I was travelling with my five-year old, meeting her dad and three-year-old sister in Palermo before travelling to Catania, then up to the small town of Linguaglossa on the edge of Mount Etna, using the little-known narrow-gauge railway line. I had heard tales of Sicily’s awful trains – delayed, old, infrequent, slow – so wondered how the trip would pan out.
On the other side of the strait, with the train smoothly back on track, we munched through the complimentary breakfast of croissants and Grisbi chocolate biscuits, watching wisteria-covered houses flit past above beaches of grey sand.
On the horizon, the Aeolian islands just caught my eye as the Tyrrhenian Sea flashed teal between buildings, before the train took a wide arc above a curl of golden sand and surf. Lemon groves exploded trackside and beach palms braced against the breeze as we drew into Palermo just before noon.
From our base at Bed in Spa – a high-ceilinged, airy space in the centre of Palermo – we set off on foot to the Mercato del Capo food market. The smell of orange blossom was sweet as we strolled in the shade. Elderly Sicilians sat at outdoor tables eating arancini in cupcake cases, wearing flat caps and scarves in the heat.
Near the Porta Carini, a fug of fried fish emanated from the market entrance, where stalls were stacked with punnets of strawberries and plastic cups of orange and watermelon, the scent of ripe pomegranate cloying on the breeze. For €1 each, the girls speared their chunks of fruit, skipping off to prod vacuum-packed sundried tomatoes, wobbly bags of burrata and trays of olives shining like polished marbles. Plates of hot fried squid and potatoes lured punters browsing pistachio pesto, tubes of bottarga and salted sardines. Vespas put-putted around shoppers marvelling at the slap of glassy-eyed mackerel on ice.
Gelato in hand, we ambled down to the seafront Parco della Salute playground before a long and inevitable siesta that took us up to dinner. I was surprised to find the earliest booking I could get was 7.30pm, forgetting that Sicilians eat late and don’t hate children the way the English do. Osteria Lo Bianco is a noisy spot more than 90 years old, with timber panelling, garlic garlands nailed to the walls and utensils hanging overhead. “They are kids,” shrugged the manager when the second drink spilt, placing down dishes traditionally eaten by labourers: silky veal stew with peas, smoky lentils, spaghetti alla glassa (with buttery potatoes and hunks of soft beef) – each of which would have been plenty for two.
The following afternoon we arrived at Palermo Centrale for a four-hour journey to Catania, on an air-conditioned train with sockets at each seat and a prompt departure. For the first 40 minutes it sped along the coast before turning inland, barrelling through fields of sheep and past almond groves. Sage-green rivers curved into the hills and beehives slid down the slopes – all lending themselves to a long game of I Spy. And just after the town of Enna, I spied with my little eye a volcano beginning with E, its peak scooped out like an ice-cream. Arriving in Catania, we just had time for dinner in a trattoria near our Airbnb before the girls zonked out, pink from the heat.
It was from Catania that the train fun really began: cones of crisp fritto misto in hand, we departed under another blazing sky, taking a speedy service up the coast to the town of Giarre-Riposto. Curving round the backs of houses, giant aloe vera plants and a hazy-looking ocean, the train drew into its destination just 20 minutes later, where we crossed the road and wheeled bags down to a tiny station to catch the Ferrovia Circumetnea – literally the round-Etna train. Three minutes before departure a narrow-gauge engine clattered in and hissed to a halt: its doors clapped open like a school bus, which was fitting considering every passenger on board was a schoolkid. Inaugurated in 1890, the 950mm train was built to help farmers move around, and now it is largely used to ferry pupils to school.
The train rattled uphill, hugging stone walls and running so close to farmland that lemons thumped against the windows, leaves snapping off through the gaps. At every turn Etna loomed, snow grazing its scalp and a single pipe of smoke hovering above the crater. Olive trees and vineyards covered the slopes and chickens fled as the train wailed round corners before eventually slowing into Linguaglossa, where a long-haired man with glasses waved from the steps. All smiles, Alfio Puglisi led us downhill towards his family home, Palazzo Previtera – and our home for the next two nights.
Built in 1649, the tiled palazzo has been in Alfio’s family ever since. They have devoted the past 10 years to renovating it into a museum and library and rooms for eight guests (plus two cottages). Rooms have striking contemporary art work on bright pastel walls, plus traditional family pieces, such as wooden headboards inset with mother of pearl.
Now co-owner along with his mother, Mariella, and father, Alberto, Alfio is the frontman, greeting guests in a different pair of designer trainers every day, and overseeing everything from freshly baked croissants at breakfast to pizza deliveries and the girls’ games of musical statues on the kitchen terrace.
His grandmother’s uncle, Giuseppe Previtera, was directly involved in the founding of the Circumetnea in the late 19th century. Alfio said that the railway offers wine-tasting trips when the schools are closed.
At first glance this would be the last place I’d take children, with its newly upholstered furniture, delicate vases and very breakable glass, but it was a dream guesthouse: Alfio’s parents were amused by the way the girls chased the five resident cats. In the large garden, where the family grow avocados, olives, kiwis, peaches, pomegranates and figs, the girls spent hours playing hide and seek among the trees and rosebushes, counting goldfish and watching frogs freeze in panic as their shadows loomed overhead.
This lovely place, just minutes from Linguaglossa station, made a fitting end point to our railway tour, and as I watched majestic Etna puffing away in the distance, a little hoot sounded across the olive groves.
Accommodation was provided by Sawdays at Bed in Spa, Palermo, doubles from €80 room-only, and Palazzo Previtera, Linguaglossa, doubles from €120 room-only. For more on rail travel in Italy see italiarail.com
Next week: London to Istanbul by train