Sicily: the historical tasting trains

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Train journeys in the South of Italy from Rome downwards towards Sicily are infamous for their slow pace and inefficiency. Yet the genuinely epic train ride from Rome to Naples, through the tale of the Italian Alps at Calabria should really be experienced at least once. At the final station on the peninsula at Villa San Giovanni, the carriages are loaded up onto the ferry and transported across the Strait of Messina is considered to be one of the most complicated and fascinating train journeys in the world. Unfortunately, this route is no longer a regular service, it is somewhat redundant and has become very unpopular as passengers cannot sleep on the ferry ride and are forced to wake up at ungodly hours to stay on the deck for the duration of the epic manouvre.

Today people don’t have time to wait half a day and sometimes part of the night to meander down from Rome to Messina and prefer the speed and convenience of just catching a flight down from Rome which literally takes less than an hour. But once you are in Sicily, there are many train journeys which offer relaxing day trips through the island’s unique landscape coupled with many local sights and experiences.

The problem with train travel in Italy is that it is mostly slow travel apart from the highspeed Freccerosse from Rome upwards towards the north most local, regional Italian railways are less than efficient but if you aren’t in a hurry, take a packed lunch and some water the train is a beautiful way of exploring the Italian landscape.

Over the past couple of years, theTreni Storici del Gusto service offered by Trenitalia have been providing travelers with diverse itineraries all over Sicily and Italy. The trips take you through the historical and picturesque train routes in Sicily are designed to showcase the islands enchanting landscape, foods, traditions and sights.

In Sicily, the annual event is a collaboration between the Fondazione FS Italiane, the Sicilian Tourist board and Slow Food Sicilia offers 50 different journeys and 23 exclusive itineraries around Sicily,from the late Summer, Autumn/Fall, up until the first of December. The 2019 programme is already in the planning stages after another successful year of train excursions.

The aim of the Treni Storici del Gusto (historical tasting trains) is to revive the old trains and journeys which were established in the early nineteenth century while allowing people to discover the culinary excellence of Sicily, by leading visitors through Sicilian towns, monuments, beauty and culture.

Some of the featured trains cover the Valle dei Templi archaeological site near Agrigento, the Baroque cities in the UNESCO world heritage listed Val di Noto, the rich archaeological sites of Morgantina, Segesta and Selinunte, the Alcantara Georges and the area around Mount Etna.

Tickets are available through Treni Italia. Trips cost from eight to twenty Euros (depending on the route) and include activities like food and wine tastings or tour groups with local guides. The tours are organised with local tourist boards, restaurants, guides and wine producers. Each visit connects the train journey with local buses and theme-based trips.

This year’s offerings include Il treno delle pizze, focacce e ciambelle (The pizza, foccaccia and doughnut train) from Caltanissetta – Tempio Vulcano – Porto Empedocle (Agrigento) which cuts through the heart of central Sicily (4th November). Il treno delle cose dolci (The train of sweet things) from Palermo – Segesta – Salemi (25th November). Il treno dei dolci e dei formaggi del Val di Mazara (The train of desserts and cheeses from the Mazara Valley) from Palermo to Caltanissetta. (11th Nov and 2 Dec). Il treno dei sapori di tonnare e dei prodotti della terra (the train of the tastes of tuna and products from the countryside) from Trapani – Castelvetrano – Selinunte (2 Dec). 

Each train based trip has a particular itinerary focused on a specific area of Sicily, some have food tastings on board beautifully restored trains. Others have a selection of local products at the actual train station or in a nearby square of a particular town along the route where passengers will be invited to visit or be transferred to by bus. Most of the Treni Storici del Gusto tickets include entrance to local sites of interest and offer several choices from visiting archaeological sites, local museums or palaces depending on the time of the year. For families children from four to twelve years of age have reduced tickets, while children under four are not required to pay.

The most affluent and enticing flavours are reserved for the cooler autumn period and include trains dedicated to Olive oil and dark rye bread (18th Nov from Palermo – Castelvetrano – Selinunte), Cheese and autumn conserves (25th Nov from Palermo – Dittiaino – Piazza Armerina), Wine and the road to the sea (11 Nov from Palermo to Marsala). For the sweet toothed there is the line dedicated to Torrone, Chocolate and other sweets (9th Dec from Caltanissetta to Modica). There is a special day trip which exclusively features the chocolate from the eastern city of Modica famous for its ancient Aztec recipe (9th Dec from Catania to Syracuse and Modica). 

For more detailed info see the downloadable flyers on the Treni Italia web page. 

You don’t have to wait for the Treni Storici del Gusto to have an authentic train travelling experience in Italy which evokes the elegance and style of the bygone era when rail travel in Italy was at its peak.

Trainspotters will quickly notice the cute little narrow gauge railway trains weaving around the countryside outside of Catania along the Ferrovia Circumetnea. The 110 kilometres (68 miles) train line circles around the Mount Etna volcano and surrounding national park and operates year-round giving passengers a chance to see one of the most unique lava rock landscapes in the world. 

From its terminal in Catania Borgo, the line starts off westward and loops around Mount Etna in a clockwise direction, eventually reaching the other terminal at the seaside town of Riposto, approximately 28 kilometres (17 miles) northeast of Catania. Constructed between 1889 and 1895 under the express wishes of King Umberto I of the Italian royal house of Savoy who wanted a rail connection to the royal families land holdings in the Catanese countryside. 

The railway connects sixteen towns in the province of Catania and at its peak also hosted daily goods trains to and from Catania to transport the bountiful agricultural products of the fertile soil outside of the city. Even today the train weaves through endless olive groves, orchards, market gardens, pistachio plantations and world-famous citrus fruit trees. 

Departing from Catania the train meanders through Misterbianco, Belpasso, Paternò, S. Maria di Licodia, Biancavilla, Adranò, Bronte, Maletto, Randazzo, Castiglione di Sicilia, Linguaglossa, Piedimonte Etneo, Mascali, Giarre and Riposto.

After decades of decline, the Circumetenea is enjoying a new revival. Over the past decade, the trains have been restored, and the Ferrovia Circumetnea offers several unique offerings for tourists visiting Catania.

During the summer months Il treno dei Vini dell’Etna offers a tour of local wineries in the world-famous wine producing areas near Linguaglossa, Castiglione di Sicilia and Randazzo. Passengers take the Circumetnea from Catania and are taken by bus at different stops along the railway line. Even when the service is not active, you can contact the Vini dell’Etna offices at Piedemonte Etneo outside of Catania, who will happily accommodate requests for small groups throughout the year (minimum of 10 participants).

For lovers of cycling and the outdoors, there is Il treno su due ruote, which accommodates cyclists and their bicycles. The train for cycling departs from Borgo di Catania at 9.43 and arrives at Randazzo where riders are encouraged to head out on their bikes. The Treno su due Ruote website even provides passengers with a map of riding distances and elevation levels in between the nearby towns so each group can plan out their own personalised routes. The return trip to Catania departs from Randazzo at 17.42 (5.42 pm) and returns to Catania at around 20.00 (8pm).

After the success of the Wine tasting train (Treno dei vini) and Cyclists train (Treno su due ruote) the Circumeteneo railway will also be establishing day trips dedicated to the Norman Castles dotted around the towns near Etna and another route which will take you to the area near the Alcantara Georges national park, which will be activated in early 2019. 

Train travel is quite affordable and is actually an excellent option for families and people who want to explore specific parts of the island. Once again if you aren’t in a hurry, the connection from Palermo to Messina or vice-versa takes in the beautiful coastline and gives travellers the opportunity to stop and explore smaller towns. The only inconveniences to watch out for are delays, the potential for non-existant airconditioning or heating and some stations may be slightly outside of the city, which will mean you will need to catch a bus to the town centre.

The appeal of train travel in Sicily is really based on the idea of exploring a particular area of the island, after all the best way to discover this island is through slow travel. There is a certain romanticism in packing a picnic lunch, a book or an mp3 player filled with beautiful music or podcasts to listen to as you look out your window at the stunning panorama. Often the best kind of travel is when you take a moment to strick up a conversation with fellow travellers as Sicilians are always so kind and proud of their island that they will often give you the best ideas where to stop, eat or what to see.

Many of the train lines connecting the different part of the island are based on a specific history and will show you a particular piece of Sicily which is usually off the beaten track for most visiting tourists. Grabbing a train from the Fiumetorto station outside of Palermo towards the direction of the southern city of Agrigento and Porto Empedocle will cut through the genuinely ancient heart of Sicily. Travelling from one old port to another is a journey which was common in ancient Roman times as the wealth of Sicily’s grain production became the ‘bread basket’ of the Roman empire.

In the west the train line which weaves from Trapani to Castelverano and Alcamo is based on a thriving wine producing industry, a day trip to Alcamo will give you the opportunity to taste some of the best wines on the island.

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