It goes around Sicily on its regional trains

I was walking briskly into my hotel room on Via Etnea, one of the main streets in central Catania. I looked from my balcony, wondering if the rain would stop. I had arrived here on the east coast of Sicily earlier in the day, planning to complete a 2.5-week trip documenting the Italian island’s regional train travel culture, but the weather wasn’t promising.

The idea for the project came to me several months ago when, on vacation with my partner, I was traveling by train down the slopes around Sicily’s famous – and active – volcano, Mount Etna.

Although the views from the windows were stunning, I was at least intrigued by the seemingly old, inviting and romantic diesel train, which carried us through lava fields and olive groves. I decided to come back for a photo article.

On the Trenitalia website, I narrowed down the three routes where passengers depended on the old trains I was interested in: the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a narrow-band train that connects the villages around Mount Etna; Syracuse – Gela – Kanikato line, which traces the southeast coast of Sicily; And a road near the western tip of Sicily connects the village of Perineto with the city of Trapani, through the town of Castelvetrano.

I envisioned a journey where I would hop on and off regional trains, visit rural villages with beautiful Italian names and experience the magic of regional train travel on this southern edge of Europe. I also hoped to take pictures of the people I met – daily commuters and train workers – inhabiting this corner of southern Italy, which is poorer and less developed than the relatively wealthier north of the country.

Even for a Dutch person, I’m a great planner. Based on train schedules, I built an itinerary and booked hotels in places I didn’t know existed. But I soon learned that I would only experience the magic of slow and rare train travel if I was willing to let go of my hypersensitive schedule.

Looking down from my balcony in slippers, I watched the street beneath me turn into a river. Cars stuck, alarms went off, porch tables and chairs floated away in the floods.

Not wanting to lose another day to bad weather, I left my hotel the next morning, bought the biggest parachute I could find and rushed to the railway station, working under the wishful illusion that I could make my way through my itinerary. There I found out that all trains on the first track have been canceled until further notice.

To save the second leg of my journey, and since the trains were still running, I flew to Syracuse and decided to take a short trip to Noto, about 20 miles to the southwest, on a colorful—and mostly empty—wagon train. Giuseppe Mandolfo, one of my few fellow passengers, told me he takes the train five days a week to complete his studies at the police academy. “I can’t wait to buy my own car,” he said, because this particular train was “rare, slow and unreliable.”

Right after he told me this, the train stopped. We waited an hour for another train to arrive, then hopped on board and continued our journey.

Fearing to be stuck again, I returned to Syracuse and chose to wait for the next Medican, or Mediterranean hurricane, to pass. Soon the whole city seemed to be closed. Using my rusty Italian, I found buses were scheduled as alternatives on some of the routes on my list. I returned to the station, and soon a large travel bus stopped in front.

Stefano Gelono, the bus driver, was happy to see me, the only passenger. He drove with impressive agility through flooded streets and curved alleys to reach Rossolini.

And so went most of the trip. Although I never expected to see so few trains on my regional train journey, I was happy to continue my journey by bus, navigating between and off the various stations, and catching a glimpse of the many old train stations along the regional suburbs of Sicily. The fading air of glory over the scaly buildings was reason enough to celebrate. I’ve also been intrigued to find the stations are used as places for group gathering, especially for young people looking to escape their crowded homes and relax.

I learned from previous trips in Sicily that public transportation can be tricky to navigate on Sundays, so I planned a relaxing day in Ragusa, a hilltop city along the Syracuse-Gila-Canicato line. But on Monday, I was disappointed again: The train was canceled due to a religious holiday. Laughing at my misfortune, I stayed for another day in Ragusa, a beautiful place, spending most of the day in an amazing cemetery on the northern edge of town.

I was finally able to resume my journey – this time by train, on schedule. And one day it was exactly as I imagined it: I slowly made my way through the picturesque landscape in an outdated train with one carriage, and at last the sun came up late.

At last I reached the coastal town of Gila, whose train station was completely empty of women. Local men gathered and gambled in the pub. Feeling a little uncomfortable around them, I started a conversation with Giancarlo Zaccaria, a mechanic at the train company. I watched him walk to one end of the train to remove the red filters from the lights, which he then carried to the opposite end, and strapped them there. Something about his mannerisms reminded me of what I loved about my time around regional trains—the putrid mentality, the casual character.

In western Sicily, which is blessed with pleasant weather, my trip took a more expected turn. She divided the 100-mile route into three travel days: a day each for Castelvetrano, Marsala, and Trapani. Along the way I learned that in this often forgotten part of Sicily, the train is largely used by African immigrants. You have learned how conductors not only check passenger tickets but also have to manually control traffic lights. And I learned that most Italians don’t want to rely on trains, as they are often slow and unreliable.

However, despite the exceptionally bad weather, regional railways – and alternative bus services – were able to get me around Sicily for less than $100. It’s a challenge I would recommend to anyone who wants to give in to the magic of slow travel. Just one tip: check the weather forecast before you go.

Sunny Dirks He is a Dutch freelance photojournalist and anthropologist. You can follow her work Instagram.

Her project on Sicily Regional Trains was supported by a grant from Imagethe copyright organization for visual creators in the Netherlands.

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