If you think of vacation in Sicily, using the train to get there might not be the first option coming to your mind. One could think that the journey was too long and the tickets far too expensive, besides the obvious little issue of Sicily being separated from the Italian mainland by a body of water. However, the first two do not necessarily have to be the case, as the train ride can be very pleasant and when booked at the right time even cheaper than a flight with any low-cost airline. And regarding the water issue…let’s get back to that later!
When travelling to Sicily by train you have several options: on the one hand there are twice daily Intercity trains from Rome to Palermo/Syracuse with a journey time between eight and ten hours, depending on your final destination. On the other hand, however, there are also three night trains that provide a very comfortable and time-effective overnight option to get to Sicily. While two of them depart from Rome just like the daytime trains, a third one starts its long journey already in Milan, capital of Northern Italy’s Lombardia region. In the following there is a little report about a trip to Sicily using this precise train on Easter weekend.
The journey starts in Milano Centrale, where the impressive waiting hall is bustling with commuters and travellers in the evening. About 20 minutes before departure the platform for the night train to Sicily is announced, whereupon a big crowd loaded with suitcases and backpacks starts moving towards the waiting train.
Departure from Milan is shortly after 8pm, which allows you to take your time to settle into your compartment and maybe have a talk with fellow travellers before going to bed as the train is heading southwards.
Waking up in the morning, the view from the window will quickly attract your attention. With the tracks following the western coast of Calabria for most parts, you are guaranteed some spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and its coastline during the next few hours! In the meantime, sleeper passengers are served a little breakfast with a coffee and some pastry in the compartments.
Shortly before noon the train arrives in Villa S. Giovanni in the south of Calabria, where the most interesting part of the journey begins. Despite political promises and many feasibility studies during the last decades, a bridge from the Italian mainland to Sicily over the strait of Messina still only exists on paper. In order to provide direct connections to/from Sicily trains actually get shunted onto special railway ferries for the crossing. However, as the train as a whole is too long for the ferries’ tracks, it is first divided into portions of four cars each during the loading and coupled back together after the crossing in Messina. This is also the reason why the whole procedure from arrival in Villa to departure in Messina lasts almost two hours…
The ferry crossing itself only takes about 30 minutes, you can leave the train and enjoy the breeze on the open deck as you are approaching Sicily. There is also the possibility to buy snacks and drinks from the ship’s little cafeteria for the remainder of the journey. As the train carries neither a restaurant nor a bar car you’ll find this to be very useful!
In Messina the cars to Catania and Syracuse are uncoupled from the rest of the train and after a longer stop the last part of the journey along Sicily’s northern coast to Palermo begins. Just like before the ferry crossing, the tracks again follow the Mediterranean coast for long parts passing through Milazzo, where the hydrofoils to the Aeolian Islands depart from, and other coastal tourist resorts such as Capo d’Orlando or Cefalù. The train finally arrives at its terminal station Palermo around 4:30pm, almost 20 hours after departure in Milan, that is!
So all in all a journey to Sicily by night train does indeed take some time, but thanks to the ferry passage and the great views of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea along the way it is hardly ever boring and very relaxing. Thus, if you bring along enough food and some reading material it is in my books definitely the best option for a stress-free start into a fantastic holiday on Sicily.
Three things to see on Sicily (among many others):
The train consists of two parts, one heading for Catania and Syracuse and the second one going to Palermo. Each of them carries several “C4 Comfort” couchette cars with 4-berth compartments and one sleeping car with 1-/2-/3-berth compartments. While both car types are equipped with (in Italian summers indispensable) air conditioning, you’ll additionally find power outlets and a little sink with mirror in the sleeping car compartments. In each car there are several toilets at the ends, but no showers. As mentioned above, the train does not carry a restaurant/bar car, so make sure you bring some food and drinks with you!
Tickets and Railpass Reservations:
If you want to save money, early booking is highly recommended in order to benefit from cheap advance fares. For instance, a ticket from Milan to Palermo in a 4-bed compartment can cost you as little as 39 Euro with the limited “Super Economy” offer. Meanwhile, fares for the same journey in a single sleeper compartment start at 69 Euro, a real bargain considering the long distance.