Table 641: Villa San Giovanni – Messina – Siracusa and Palermo

PART 1

This month we are exploring Sicily in southern Italy, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The island is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina. Our journey starts at Villa San Giovanni, a bustling port with bars and restaurants and the main connection between Italy and Sicily.

The ferry between Villa San Giovanni and Messina takes approximately 40 minutes and it is one of Europe’s last train ferries where the train is conveyed on the ship. For ferry details see Table 2695 Stretto di Messina, or Table 640 to see the Roma – Sicily through services.

As we arrive in the historical city of Messina, the third largest city on the island you can’t miss the octagonal column with a statue of the beautiful Madonna della Lettera guarding the entrance to the city and port.Close to the port, head to the Piazza del Duomo. In this beautiful square you will find the impressive Messina Cathedral with its mosaic flooring, statues either side of the nave and painted wooden ceiling. Next to the cathedral stands the Bell Tower, with the largest astronomical clock in the world, full of animated mechanical statues that put on a magical show at noon. Also in the square you will find the stunning Fountain of Orion, an ornate water fountain with detailed sculptures, shops, restaurants and cafes.

Messina Regional Museum provides a fascinating look at the history of the area from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. The museum has an archaeological section, a sculpture collection and also a painting gallery.

For incredible views of Messina, the Strait of Messina, and mainland Italy head to the Temple Christ the King located on the Viale Principe Umberto.

PART 2

This week we head south to Siracusa with our 182 kilometre journey from Messina Centrale taking approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Trains on this route are operated by Trenitalia. Sit on the left-hand side (facing the direction of travel) for the best sea views whilst Mount Etna is best viewed from the right hand side.

Our journey takes us past Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, situated on the Ionian Sea at the foot of Mount Etna (Europe’s highest volcano). This picturesque city offers lively culture, centuries of history, fine architecture and bustling markets. Attractions include the Cathedral of Saint Agatha, Piazza del Duomo, Castello Ursino, Elephant Fountain and the Catania Museo Civico.

We finally reach Siracusa, a beautiful coastal city known for its remarkable historical heritage and its charming old town situated on Ortigia Island. The Umbertino bridge connects Ortigia Island to the city (which is mostly pedestrianised). At the entrance of Ortigia Island you will find the magnificent Temple of Apollo and to the left is the traditional Ortigia Market, held every morning. Continue through the maze of streets and you reach the beautiful baroque Piazza del Duomo, the island’s main square with the stunning Cathedral of Siracusa, Archbishop’s Palace, Santa Lucia Church as well as shops and restaurants. Other highlights include the Piazza Archimede where the Diana Fountain is located, Castello Maniace with fantastic views and the striking San Giovanni Catacombs.

PART 3

This week we are travelling west from Messina, along the scenic coastline taking in Milazzo with its impressive hilltop castle, the church of Sant’Antonio di Padua and the medieval old town. Milazzo is also the main port for the Aeolian Islands.

Our next stop is the charming historical small town of Cefalù, with its beautiful sandy beaches that stretch alongside the town, a fine 12th-century twin tower Norman Cathedral and some superb restaurants.

Continuing on our journey we pass the small village of Termini Imerese before reaching Palermo, Sicily’s capital. Palermo offers a traditional Italian atmosphere, many historic buildings listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites and bustling street markets.

Highlights include the 12th-century Palermo Cathedral, spectacular both inside and out and home to impressive royal tombs. Head to the roof to get fantastic panoramic views of Palermo. Teatro Massimo is Italy’s biggest Opera House and the third largest in Europe and the beautiful Palazzo dei Normanni, Europe’s oldest Royal Palace home to the Palatine Chapel.

Don’t forget to visit the famous street markets including the Vucciria, Ballaro, and Borgo Vecchio markets for food and an array of goods.

To get away from it all head to Mondello beach with beautiful golden sand and turquoise waters set in a spectacular landscape.

TABLE 640 : Napoli – Reggio di Calabria

PART 1

This large table shows timings for a very pretty coastal route to the southern tip of Italy.

There are many high-speed connections to our starting point of Napoli from the major cities of Torino, Milano, Venezia and Bologna and Roma (shown in table 640) and it is possible to complete the entire journey from Roma in just under five hours. However, as usual, we suggest breaking the journey to appreciate some of the sights along this glorious coastline.

Between the glittering Mediterranean and soaring Vesuvius, Napoli has Europe’s largest UNESCO-listed historic centre and a wealth of cultural and artistic sites to explore. Highlights include two royal palaces, three castles, and ancient ruins that include some of Christianity’s oldest frescoes, whilst the city’s museums exhibit works from the great Italian masters, not to mention the famous ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum a little way out of town.

Napoli Centrale is located in Piazza Garibaldi which is the main terminal of the city’s transport network. From here you can reach anywhere in the city and the entire province, through the railways, buses and underground network. Many of the city’s metro stations are noted for their modern decorative architecture and public art.

Travelling south, trains skirt the towering Vesuvius and head to the port city of Salerno with its beautiful architecture, gorgeous gardens and sun-kissed promenade and where the best views along this route really start.

PART 2

Travelling south from Salerno the train makes its scenic run towards Villa San Giovanni in around four hours, make sure to sit on the right-hand side to make the most of the fine coastal views. There are several intermediate stops which are worth exploring if you have the time. The first being Battipaglia, famous for its production of mozzarella di bufala which can be sampled in many stores and restaurants around the city. Next is the pretty seaside town of Agropoli which has quiet beaches, a tourist marina as well as ancient ruins and a Byzantine castle on the top of the promontory. Agropoli is a central point for exploring the Cilento coast and National park. It’s just a few minutes from the splendid ruins of Paestum and the delightful town of Castellabate.

Continuing south, the train winds through the national park into the province of Basilicata and its only town on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Maratea. Here a huge statue of Christ the Redeemer, which can be easily seen from the train, towers over the town from the top of Monte San Biagio. Maratea is a chic coastal town, known as the ‘Cannes of Southern Italy’, with a historic centre, elegant harbour and pebbled coves and caves which can be explored by boat.

PART 3

From Maratea, the railway sticks to the coast as we head to the busy transport hub of Lamezia Terme. Here there is an international airport as well as rail connections to the eastern Ionian coast at Catanzaro and Crotone (Table 634).

Further along the line at Villa San Giovanni, there is the opportunity to indulge in an unusual train journey. The train ferry to Messina in Sicily is one of only three passenger train ferries still operating in Europe. It’s a fascinating experience as the entire train is shunted onto the tracks onboard deck. Passengers have the option to stay in their carriage for the 30-minute crossing or head up to the deck to enjoy the view across to Scilly and Mount Etna. At Messina, the train is split into two parts, one heading south to Siracusa and the other west to Palermo (Table 641). For a video showing the train being loaded see this link from the Man in Seat 61 https://youtu.be/9grLtdPWYhg

If you don’t head for Sicily, the next and final stop on this journey is to the “toe” of Italy at Reggio di Calabria. Its national museum is the region’s most important tourist destination, and many travellers visit purely to see the museum which houses the world famous Riace Bronzes, Greek statues of heroic warriors. The city also has a long panoramic seafront, a pleasant place to stroll while admiring the view over to Sicily.

TABLE 620: Bologna – Roma

PART 1

This month we are switching our attention to Italy. Table 620 in our timetable shows timings for Bologna – Roma a journey of 413km through the beautiful Tuscan countryside of central Italy.

There is a high-speed service from Bologna Centrale which would take you to Roma in just under two hours, but as it runs mostly through tunnels and would turn the scenery into a blur, we are instead focusing on the local trains shown in Table 620 with an average journey time of just over 4 hours. These trains trace a quintessential Italian route, with stations set at the foot of medieval castle towns and enchanting lakeside resorts so there are many options for sight-seeing stops along the way with at cities such as Orvieto, Arezzo and Florence.

Bologna Central is Italy’s fifth-busiest station with regard to passenger traffic and has connections to neighbouring countries, with service to and from Austria, Germany and France. There is plenty to see and do in Bologna’s large historic centre which boasts a number of attractive Piazza, historic buildings, streets and statues. Among them, you should visit the Town Hall in the Palazzo d’Accursio, the beautiful Palazzo del Podesta and the gothic Basilica of San Petronio. Nearby is the Piazza del Nettuno where you’ll find the famous Fountain of Neptune and don’t forget to sample the city’s most famous gastronomic export – Bolognese sauce!

PART 2

Continuing our look at this slower route through central Italy, we depart Bologna Central on an Intercity train along the Porrettana line through the Apennines and our first stop is Prato, Tuscany’s second largest city. Prato is home to many museums and other cultural monuments with a lovely historic centre founded on textile production; the city is also where biscoti were invented.

After Prato it is a short hop to the beautiful city and World Heritage Site of Florence (Firenze) which attracts millions of tourists each year. Firenze Santa Maria Novella is main railway station and one of the busiest in Italy, Situated in the city centre, it is conveniently close to all the major tourist attractions. From here you can also catch connections onto another major tourist hub – Pisa. You could spend several days exploring Florence and still not fit everything in, with museums, churches, piazzas and bridges, artisans workshops, boutique shops and local markets to explore there is plenty to see and do. Florence is best explored on foot so if time is limited it may be worth joining a guided walking tour to allow you to pack in as many of the main sites as possible!

PART 3

Having passed through the bustling Italian cities of Bologna and Florence we depart Firenze Santa Maria Novella into the Tuscan countryside to see some smaller but none the less beautiful cities. Try to get a seat on the left of the train for the next section up the Arno Valley to Arezzo to see some spectacular views across the river. It is worth a stop to explore Arezzo’s medieval old town set on a hilltop, it boasts some fine Renaissance architecture and museums as well as a Roman Amphitheatre and a cathedral. The main railway station is at the base of the city and though the walk is about 1 km all up hill, if you take it easy you can enjoy the entire city. From Arezzo the railway crosses into Umbria, stopping at 3 stations around the shores of Lake Trasimeno. Ferries operate to the islands and across the lake, particularly in the tourist season and there are plenty of activities for those that enjoy walking, water sports or cycling.

The next major stop is another hill-top city, Perugia, the capital of Umbria, famous for chocolate production. The train station is in the valley, a few kilometres from the centro storico (historic center) of the city. Most major attractions are at the top of the hill which is a very steep walk so most visitors will use either the Mini Metro railway, a local bus or a taxi from the station. Or for something a bit different take the escalators from the lower town which lead up through the remains of Rocca Paolina which was a 16th-century fortress. Little now remains of the fortress itself but when you come out into the daylight at Piazza Italia you will go through some of the medieval streets on which the fortress was built. One of the best things to do in Perugia is to wander through the narrow streets and along the walls at the edge of town for fine views of the valley.

It’s a short 4km  ride onto the next interesting stop of Assisi, famous as the birthplace of St Francis which remains a major pilgrimage centre as well as a World Heritage site. The town is dominated by two medieval castles as well as the monastery but there are also plenty of medieval churches and magnificent fresco’s for sightseers to enjoy.


PART 4

In March we have been looking at Table 620 for Bologna – Roma. Having travelled through some beautiful Italian landscapes we now make our final journey into the capital city via the pretty Cliffside medieval town of Orvieto.

Dominated by its Gothic cathedral, Orvieto has many cobbled lanes, medieval piazzas and churches to explore but it also hides a labyrinth of caves and tunnels beneath the city. The secret underground city of more than 1200 tunnels was used by wealthy families as a means of escape from the elevated city during times of siege and is now open to view through guided tours. The wonderful Duomo of Orvieto is the main ‘must-see’ sight in this town. Constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, the black and white striped building in mixed Romanesque and Gothic styles, is one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.

After Orvieto the railway follows the River Tiber downstream to the capital, stopping first at Tiburtina station before the much larger Roma Termini. Rome’s transportation mecca boasts countless amenities and connections for Italy’s rail passengers. There are 32 platforms and daily service to cities all over Italy as well as elsewhere in Europe making this station one of the busiest in Europe. The rather limited Roman metro system goes around rather than through the city, it’s two lines A (red) and B (blue), cross at Termini Station with services approximately every 7-10 minutes. With above-ground transport being highly congested, the metro is often the best option for exploring the sites. As one of the world’s most romantic and inspiring cities, Rome has plenty of well-known tourist attractions but with the Colosseum being among the world’s most visited tourist destinations it can also be overwhelming. Make sure to reserve a whole day to explore the sights of Vatican City, the world’s smallest fully independent nation-state.  If there isn’t enough to occupy you there are also several day trips that can be taken away, such as to the ruined city of Pompeii and mainland Europe’s only active volcano – Vesuvius.