There was no mistaking the fact that we crossed the border from Switzerland to Italy. As we made our way to Florence, chalet-style houses immediately morphed into old Tuscan villas. We were racing through an Italian landscape painting, with each twist and turn offering glimpses into the lives of those who lived between the brush strokes. Of all the trains that we took across Europe, the trains through Italy provided the most fascinating views; so quintessentially Italian, unmistakably old world. Though as wonderful as the trains are, they can’t get you everywhere in Italy. Bucolic Sicily required us to drive quite a bit. During our month in Italy, we spent dozens of hours in trains or on the road. But with the Italian countryside surrounding us, it never got old.
Rick Steves has a tip he likes to give regarding travel in Italy – if Rome is getting too chaotic for you, don’t go any further south. But if you find that chaos charming, you’re in luck. While the north of Italy might be more structured and “modern”, the south is relaxed and steeped in old world tradition. Time moves a bit slower, schedules are a bit more fluid. Will a train be on time? Will electronic tickets be accepted? Anyone’s guess. As for us, our train travel to Florence, Rome, and Pompei was all relatively straightforward. However, the further south we got, the more we found that we relied on luck and survived on patience.
The Importance of Being Validated
When traveling from Pompei to Naples, we purchased train tickets online. Train ticket terms and conditions are already complicated enough, and as these were half-heartedly translated from Italian to English, they were nigh upon useless. The one rule that we did understand was that we would need to print our tickets to have them accepted on the train. Usually the front desk at hotels are happy to print tickets for guests, but as we were staying at AirBNBs with hosts that were in and out all the time, we struggled to consistently have our tickets printed. This time we were at a loss, so we ended up purchasing another set of tickets at the train station in Pompei, swallowing the extra cost. Once aboard the train, the conductor looked at our printed tickets and began sternly admonishing us. Luckily, seeing our confused and helpless faces, she calmed down a bit. She concluded we were simply clueless Americans, and cheerfully explained to us in broken English that we needed to get our tickets validated at the train station before boarding in order for them to be accepted. Traveling on unvalidated tickets is a fine of hundreds of euros. The blood drained from our faces. At this point we’d each purchased two tickets for this train journey, and we still were facing an enormous fine for not having any. In a babbling panic, I explained to her our situation, hoping she’d see the humour in it. Puzzled, she asked to see our original tickets on our phones, then she laughed and said they were just fine, and tickets didn’t need to be printed. She accepted them and continued on her way. Once our heart rates returned to normal, we examined our now-useless paper tickets and saw the instructions to validate before boarding written across the top in large letters. Sometimes, you make stupid mistakes when traveling. To be fair, the terms and conditions did say the tickets needed to be printed, and we’d heard lots of rumors about how the further south in Italy you went, the less likely it was for conductors to accept e-tickets that weren’t printed. We never personally encountered that, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Just don’t forget to validate. There are plenty of validation stations scattered around stations and platforms. They are not, shockingly enough, just there for decoration.
Boarding the train from Naples to Sicily, we frantically checked and rechecked our tickets to make sure we were on the right train. The boarding platform was different than the one listed online, and we certainly didn’t want to be on the wrong train. The journey would take upwards of ten hours, and that would be a lot of time to make up. To make ourselves feel better, we asked other passengers if this was the train to Siracusa. They confirmed it was indeed. As we waited for the train to depart, I obsessively checked a few more timetables for the train we were sitting on, heart sinking because they all listed the destination as Palermo. Palermo was in the north west of Sicily, and we were supposed to be headed to Siracusa in the south east. Utterly confused, we decided to simply trust in the other passengers rather than rush off back to the station in a panic. Not until the doors were closed and we started moving did an announcement inform us that the train would split after the crossing to Sicily, and half the train would go to Palermo and half to Siracusa. That was the one and only indication that the train would split, and it wasn’t mentioned again throughout the journey until after the train had split in Messina. Either you knew it would split and where to sit, or you didn’t. Or, like us, you simply got lucky.
The train from Naples to southeast Sicily took us along the Mediterranean coast. Sleepy coastal towns to our left, glittering azure sea to our right. Being January, it wasn’t the postcard Mediterannean, but it meant empty beaches and a calmer charm. The trains were clean and functional, though it was difficult to get used to the toilets. Although they were relatively clean, the toilet was simply a hole over the racing tracks below. Effective, but it did create a rather shocking drying effect. Considerately, everyone took care to not use the restrooms at stations.
Our train car was mostly empty, though an older gentleman sat across from us for most of the journey. Small-statured, he was smartly dressed and sported a flat cap. He had nothing to amuse himself with for the ten hour journey, and simply sat or napped to pass the time. After eating his packed lunch, he meticulously peeled a blood orange with a small pocket knife, filling the air with a sweet citrus scent. Despite not speaking a word of English, he saw our confusion over the little seat trash cans and demonstrated how they were emptied out. How he knew that’s what we were wondering when we never even said it, I’ll never know. Language is less of a barrier than we might think.
I’m on a Train…on a Boat
Sicily, of course, is the soccer ball to Italy’s boot. It’s the largest island in the Mediterannean Sea, separated from the rest of Italy by the Strait of Messina. To get from mainland Italy to Sicily by train, you must cross over by ferry. However, you never actually have to get off the train. At the port, each train car separates and follows tracks onto the ferry itself. On the other side, the ferry reconnects with train tracks and the train rebuilds itself to continue on its merry way. Once our train cars were all securely on the ferry, we were allowed to get off the train and walk around. Clayton and I bought some espressos at the bar, and a friendly Argentinian gentleman shared some lemon chocolates with us. Gazing out across the Strait of Messina, we thought about how it would be so much easier if there was a bridge built across the water, which apparently has been discussed for several years now. Or even if we all got off the train on the mainland, boarded the ferry, and got on a new train in Sicily. But no, this was Italy, and sometimes logic takes a backseat.
Naturally, there were some severe delays on the other side as the train was putting itself back together. Our dapper, elderly friend became more and more agitated as the delay lengthened, eventually commiserating with us in rapid Italian. It seemed to be a theme with us that older Italians didn’t seem to care whether or not we understood them – they just wanted to talk at us. I nodded a lot in sympathy, and he nodded back. We were commiserating. A group of traveling musicians behind us began sharing music recommendations on their phones, and I sneakily wrote down all the song names so I could have them too, so I could remember the citrus-scented train journey across land and sea.
Driving in Italy has an infamous reputation. From narrow city streets to race car style drivers on the highway, the task can be daunting. Numerous blog posts on the subject will cheekily answer the question of “How to Drive in Italy” with “don’t”. This can be extremely frustrating when you’re actually trying to figure out the tips and tricks for it. After having done it, I can at least add my answer to the mix, and that is, it’s essentially like anywhere else. Follow the local laws, use common sense, and expect the unexpected. With all that, you’ll be just fine.
In my entry covering Florence, I mentioned our trials and tribulations with getting an acceptable driver’s license in Italy. If you have an American license, you must have your International Driver’s Permit to legally drive in Italy. Or, if you’re like us and stupidly forgot to get one while in the United States, you can have your license officially translated by approved institutions. We got Clayton’s license officially translated at the English Language Institute in Florence for 50 euros, which made us feel a lot better. As luck would have it, we were never stopped, but the peace of mind was more than worth it.
I never would have thought about driving in Italy, but our house sit in Sicily was in a remote village up in the hills. It was absolutely necessary to drive, even to get into the village center. Our hosts left us with two cars – a small white Fiat and an old Panda that was basically a box with wheels. The wind whistled through the door frames if we went above 30 km/hr. We mostly drove the Fiat for errands and sightseeing, despite the fact that it would occasionally shut itself off without warning, usually while going 100 km/hr on the highway. When that happened, we’d guide it over to the shoulder, let it rest for ten minutes or so, then start it up again. Cars can get tired too, I suppose.
As it turns out, driving in Sicily isn’t that bad. Yes, it’s true, there are some drivers that will speed past you on the highway as if you were standing still. Others will tailgate you on the small country roads so hard that you feel like they’re in the car with you. However, there is no malice in it – it’s just how it’s done. Growing up in the Washington DC area, I’m used to road rage. It’s so common there, it might as well be written into law. I’m sure road rage exists in Italy, but we never got so much as an angry fist despite some hesitant lane changes and strictly following speed limits. Honestly, perhaps more dangerous than the speed demons were the overly cautious drivers. Sicilian drivers were either absurdly fast or painfully slow. Our host warned us of drivers creeping out of driveways at the last minute, even when it looked like they’d be crazy to try and merge before we passed them by. But he was right. We learned to always expect the unexpected…and to be cut off all the time.
We could tell that everyone else knew the roads like the back of their hand. Not so for us – we took our time winding through the farmland. We never knew if the next turn would lead us into a straightaway, a herd of cattle crossing the road, or a pack of stray dogs lounging on the sun soaked pavement. Perhaps the most stressful was driving into the larger towns. Small country roads were windy, sure, but they were relatively simple when using our GPS. In the larger towns such as Siracusa, Palazzolo, or even Catania, all bets were off. Roundabouts were roundabouts in theory, yet in reality were large, artistically lenient figure eights that became free-for-alls when everyone ignored the lane markings. Stoplights were more like suggestions. Cars parallel parked on the side of the road were sometimes two deep, with Sicilians taking the “I’ll only be a few minutes, it’ll be fine” to a whole other level. This caused blocked lanes, and one or two arguments on the sidewalks. Our best strategy was to never be in a rush, and accept that if we missed a turn, we’d simply go around and try again. Now, I say all this as if I was instrumental in the driving. In reality, I just got really good at reading out directions and how to navigate roundabouts. Clayton was the real star of driving in Sicily, and he got us through it all without a scratch. Maybe the real secret to driving in Sicily is to be Clayton’s passenger.
Perhaps driving in Italy is more chaotic than what we are used to in the United States, or the rest of Western Europe. But in reality, if you keep your wits about you, there is nothing to be afraid of. Looking back, I can chuckle at my trepidations now. We still had India ahead of us.