A Train To Sicily

With the excitement of a child, I went to sleep that hot, summery night. When I boarded the train from Rome earlier, I was sure I was going to dismantle into pieces and vanish out of sheer exhaustion. I had walked for hours earlier that day, my heavy backpack and the liters of water I was carrying weighing down on me. After finding the locker room at the station, trying in vain to find a McDonald using a map to fuel my system, I had taken the metro, jostling in the crowds, to see Vatican City. I had spent hours marveling at the paintings of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel, the museums, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the ruins, and so many other things that Rome had to offer. The food in Europe wasn’t agreeing with me, and most days I lived on fruits, gelato, or McDonald’s if I was lucky to find one. That night, I was headed to Sicily.

Despite my tiredness, I had made it a point to wake up at 5 am to be able to watch the train board the ferry that was to take me to Sicily. I set the alarm, performed the night rituals of brushing my teeth and applying face cream in the bathroom, looked at the swelling on both my feet with amazement, and wondered how long enthusiasm alone was going to power my trip. I shut the reading light, feeling the heat despite the air conditioning. I closed my eyes, trying to go over the theories once again in my head. How exactly was the train about to board the ferry? I knew there was no stretch of land in between mainland Italy and Sicily, and there had to be a point when there would be some water transportation involved. One of my theories was we would get off the train, board a ferry, and at the end of the journey, there would be another train awaiting us. I prayed to God that didn’t happen, because it would take all the fun off boarding a ferry sitting in a train. The years I spent in Seattle, I loved my trips to the Olympic National Park or the Bainbridge Island because I would be able to drive my car into the belly of the ferry, get off the car, spend some time on the deck of the ferry, get back to my car, and drive off. The concept was amazing to me, and this time, this was not happening with a car. It was a big 9 compartment train, something that moved on rails. I had to see it for myself to be able to believe it.

Apparently, I woke up even before the alarm went off. There was a middle-aged woman with his son sleeping opposite to me. Earlier the previous evening, they seemed enthused about the idea of watching the ferry in the morning. So I tried waking them up. They didn’t seem much interested anymore, and went back to sleep. I rubbed my eyes, put on my slippers, and donned my jacket.

I was confused about the happenings. My worst concern in this case was that I would get off the train, and the train would leave without me. I didn’t even know if we were allowed to get off the train. The train was still on tracks, slowing down its pace, and there was no sign of a ferry. I waited for a while. Finally, it seemed that we were getting somewhere. I craned my neck out and saw a ferry, but I was still not sure what was happening. I heard metal clanging, and knew something was happening that involved tracks changing. I tried to unlock the door of my compartment, but it seems someone had locked it. While I was debating about my next course of action, a man appeared out of nowhere, opened the door to the vestibule, and crouched down. I was so curious at this hour that I almost leaned out of the window to see what he was up to. He did nothing fancy, just disjointed my compartment from the rest of the train.

Fragment of the train


The 4 tracks


The engine comes to get compartment 1, 2, and 3

To cut a long story short, the 9 compartment train was divided into 3 sections. The base of the ferry had 4 parallel rail tracks. The train engine dragged the first three compartments into the ferry. Then it changed rails and went back to drag the next three compartments into the ferry. Last, it dragged the last three compartments. We were all set.

At this point, I got off the train, with some hesitation. I noted down the compartment number (7) and the location, lest I am lost. We left the shore and moved toward Sicily. Like a child in Disneyland, I watched in amazement as the ferry carried the huge train in its belly. I got on the deck, and in some time, I watched the most amazing sunrise with Ionian Sea on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other side. From Vila San Giovanni in Italy, I was headed to Messina in Sicily. The names from my Geography text books and Google maps were right in front of me. If my maiden flight from Mumbai to Los Angeles was my first significant travel experience, traveling from mainland Italy to Sicily was going to be my second one.

When we reached Messina, I wanted to stand and watch how they rejoin the train compartments. For obvious reasons, I did not. Luckily, mine was the 7th compartment. I stuck my nose in the glass and watched as the engine dragged the first 3 compartments first, came back and reverse directed with compartments 1, 2, and 3 to drag the compartments 4, 5, 6, went all the way outside the ferry, and came back with compartments 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 to drag the compartments 7, 8, and 9 out. I know from experience that reversing a car or parallel parking is a big deal for me. Can you imagine driving that train backward, to first get compartment 4, 5, and 6, and then driving an even longer train backward to drag the compartments 7, 8, and 9? That day, I had renewed respect for the advent of technology and the immense capabilities of the human race.

Compartments being dragged


My compartment 7

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 comes to get 7, 8, 9

What I described isn’t a big deal. It is done twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, each way. Which makes it 4 times a day. And I kid you not when I say they do it fast and efficiently, because you do not want the train running late. I wasn’t lucky enough to witness it again on my way back, because this time I took a flight from Catania (Sicily), injured my ligaments that morning, and ended up in a hospital in Munich (Germany). However, whenever I get a chance, this experience and the experience of hiking Mount Etna would be enough to lure me back to Sicily.

10 Comments

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Simply amazing.

    Your brilliant write up has put this train ferrying experience on my radar. Hopefully during our next visit to Europe, we would endeavor to visit Sicily.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Devasmita says:

    Ram, absolutely. It is an experience worth remembering, and Sicily is beautiful!!!!

  • Roopesh says:

    Never knew about such a train operation. On simple search it seem this is not so uncommon but not in India. Waiting for account of Sicily which I remember from school days due to Mt. Etna.

  • Nisha says:

    Have heard about train being ferried but personally have not experienced till now. I have the experience of only buses and cars. You literally took us there.

    How long it took to reach the other end?

  • Nandan says:

    Wow. The ferry deserves another name, for me the ferry paints a picture of those small boats which you take in Mumbai to go to some of the beaches on the other side.

    I am sure a lot of Ghumakkar would have read/heard about this for the first time. Thank You.

  • ssk agra says:

    I have seen your Photographs are very good

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Well-written, not so common these days.

  • Devasmita says:

    Roopesh- Like you rightly said, Mount Etna is going to be next in my priority list of posting :) I ended up going there because I read about it as a child in Geography class.

    Nisha- About 30-45 minutes… it wasn’t that long.

    Nandan, you are right, I had no idea a ferry can carry something as heavy as a train. When I read about it, it was all the more reason for me to do it.

    ssk agra- Thank you!

    Patrick- Thank you!

  • brent says:

    I loved your story and was needing some help here! My wife and I are the US and now living in Mnchen and are wanting to travel from here to Sicily by train. Can you give me any ideals and cost advice. Also does a train go from Mnchen to Sicily?

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