On the right track: Travelling from London-Sicily by rail is climate-friendly and jam-packed with adventure

·5-min read
All aboard the train/ferry to Ortigia (iStock)
All aboard the train/ferry to Ortigia (iStock)

We became accustomed to the expressions of incredulity during our lengthy journey: “Con il treno? You come from London to Sicilia by train! Why?”

Well, why not. St Pancras to Syracuse – almost the same latitude as Tunis and as good a place as any to seek out some winter sun. No airports, no motorways; just a couple thousand miles of Europe gradually metamorphosing from grey and grisly into warm and welcoming.

While the need for speed underpins aviation’s decades-long supremacy, neither Eurostar nor its French TGV counterparts with their record-beating 575km/h could be accused of hanging around. The fastest route into Italy is to Turin via Paris in around eight hours. But there’s something compelling about boarding a train in London and, less than six-and-a-half hours later, stepping out onto the terrace of Marseille’s majestic 19th-century station, to gaze out across the city. Marseille, with its multi-ethnic, rough-edged, under-the-radar appeal, represents an ideal first port of call. From there, the dog-leg amble eastwards to Nice is a hypnotic lull through picture-perfect Provence. Blanketed in piercing December sun, the train sashays through forests and vineyards, skirts along beaches with famous names, and dances dangerously close to an aquamarine sea.

Train with a view: the journey provides spectacular scenery (Andrew Harris)
Train with a view: the journey provides spectacular scenery (Andrew Harris)

The meat in the sandwich of any train trip to Southern Italy, though, is the InterCityNotte sleeper train. It runs from Milan to Sicily, loaded onto the ferry at the final stage to reach the island; the only place in Europe where such a phenomenon exists.

The gentle ride around the Ligurian coast to Genoa is a waterfront slideshow of resort towns dawdling their way through the off-season shadowlands. Genoa, like Marseille, is another potentially rewarding B-list city stopover, but we continue into the spectacular Riviera coastline towards the Cinque Terre towns. Over-touristed in summer, with their little toy train-set stations they make for an alluring stay during the autumn and winter months.

At La Spezia, in the chill night air, we wait apprehensively for the sleeper train in a near-empty station. As welcome as a rescue ship scooping up survivors, the InterCityNotte clangs its way along the platform, onto which bounds our chirpy uniformed chaperone. He’s not only expecting us but has the beds in our compartment already made up. After successfully scanning the NHS app (required for long-distance trains in France and Italy), we’re quickly cocooned into womb-like warmth and rocking gently toward a contented slumber as we tiptoe off into the Tuscan night.

We’re quickly cocooned into womb-like warmth and rocking gently toward a contented slumber as we tiptoe off into the Tuscan night

According to Mark Smith of Seat 61, the human lexicon of all things rail, these two-berth “luxe” cabins originally had plush carpets and even a mural. That’s clearly long gone, but there’s a washbasin, and it’s all spotlessly clean. Raising the blinds next morning, a vast expanse of unadulterated azure sky reigning down over the Campania countryside fills the window frame as if we’d forgotten to turn the telly off. Oranges dangle outside, as our attendant reappears with coffee and a light breakfast. Skirting around Naples, commuters crowd along platforms in the morning sunshine, dressed for a Himalayan trek, before the majesty that is Mount Vesuvius takes up residence in the corridor window.

The ride through Calabria in the sole of Italy’s boot is another coastline-hugging jaunt through sensational sun and sea-infused scenery. Instantly recognisable as the deprived and depopulated south, exquisite expanses of surf-splayed beach are often complemented by little more than slabs of unsightly housing. Under-explored Calabria, however, remains a compelling option for travellers in search of an authentic unadulterated Italy.

The InterCityNotte is the only European train to board a ferry (Andrew Harris)
The InterCityNotte is the only European train to board a ferry (Andrew Harris)

By late morning, we’re readying to dance the famous train-on-a-ship fandango. It’s difficult to assess precisely what’s taking place with all the shunting back and forth, but in no time at all, we are indeed watching the surreal sight of our train gliding its way onto a ship.

We head out to the cafe for a blast of sea air as the train-ship sails sedately into Messina’s sun-speckled harbour. After more shunting around, the train is suddenly off again, the afternoon’s spectacular seascape now unfolding on the opposite side. A smoking Mount Etna, magnificent and menacing, lumbers into the landscape like a giant theatrical backdrop.

Encompassing a good night’s sleep, the non-stop show-reel of breath-taking beauty unfolding outside the window, and a revitalising saunter around the ferry, the 17-hour train journey wasn’t as arduous as it sounds. Though we do propel ourselves directly into Ortigia’s charming little Hotel Gutkowski, where shabby and chic combine to great effect, for a much sought-after shower. Ortigia, an atmospheric warren of ancient tumbling streets compressed into a promontory jutting into the clear waters of the Ionian Sea, is the historic heart of Syracuse, birthplace of Archimedes, and a major metropolis within the ancient Greek world.

Winter sun makes swimming viable in Ortigia (Andrew Harris)
Winter sun makes swimming viable in Ortigia (Andrew Harris)

And yes, that winter sun that's been burning ever brighter since Marseille is here. People are even swimming from the platforms that hang off Ortigia’s rocky perimeter. Syracuse hit the headlines in August when it registered the highest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8C. Like the vineyards around Etna compelled to switch to tropical fruit cultivation, and the recent catastrophic flooding in nearby Catania, climate change in Sicily, it seems, is all too apparent. Maybe London to Sicily “con il treno”, isn’t quite so difficult to comprehend after all.

Travel essentials

Getting there

For train travel to/in France, visit eurostar.com and sncf.com. To book the IntercityNotte, visit internationalrail.com.

Staying there

Hotel Gutkowski offers a charming stay in Ortigia, from £67 per night. guthotel.it

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