If you dig down through the layers of Sicily's history it would seem the whole European story is represented. In reverse order, there are traces from pre-history, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and most other Medieval European powers. The thought that sparked an intensive session of online booking was: if all these peoples were attracted to this one place, then there must be something there worth going to see. This indeed proved to be the case.
It is stupid to sandwich a great trip between two extremely unpleasant experiences of stress, over crowding, being treated like cattle - I refer of course to flying. So we had to plan an itinerary using only trains and ferries, occasionally both at once. It is possible to book everything sitting here at the computer. I particularly recommend the Deutsche Bahn website. How things have changed from the days when we wrote letters!
September 2012 we leave the Tyne at the start of our Odyssey on the Amsterdam ferry. We have made this trip many times but this was perhaps in the most beautiful light, with the sun lighting up the Tynemouth Priory as we depart.
We have a day to pass in Amsterdam - never a hardship - before we catch the sleeper to Zurich. We have done this so often that we have finally mastered the left luggage system at Centrale Station with its codes and mysterious sequences, so we can enjoy a few hours unencumbered by suitcases. Wandering about, lunch in our favourite "brown cafe", a museum and a long sit in the sun watching the world go by passes the hours.
There used to be restaurant cars on the Amsterdam sleepers but no longer. Even worse, "Nightline", the company that runs international European sleepers, has cut many of its services and by doing so has diminished the opportunity to experience this most "romantic" means of travel. The service to Zurich still runs and is a very comfortable. A glass of wine with a picnic, while the train follows the Rhine gorge where frequent illuminated chateaux pierce the darkness, before settling down is definitely romantic in my world.
It is better on a long complicated journey to allow contingency time between one train and the next. We arrive in Zurich in the morning with three hours to spare which allows time for a wander round and breakfast. What a lovely place Zurich is! No wonder the Swiss always look a bit smug...
From Zurich we took the train to Milan across the Alps through the Gotthard Pass. This is a splendid journey of the sort where the book you have brought to read never becomes more interesting than what is going on out of the window.
At Milan's fine station we changed trains to a "Frecciarossa", Italy's high speedtrain which operates at speeds up to two hundred and twenty miles per hour.
This took us to Naples in just over four hours where we arrived at 10pm, having overtaken our next train, the sleeper to Syracuse and Palermo. It seems a pity but, on this trip, we passed through Naples twice, always in the dark and never saw more than the inside of the station. Our next train has to negotiate the Straits of Messina. This involves breaking it apart into short sections and shunting them on to a ferry. Sound sleepers need not stir from their berths during this procedure, though the bumping and clanking that accompanies it makes not waking up unlikely.
After a brief tour of the decks and a view across the strait, it being about 3.00am I returned to our cabin and the next I knew the sun was up and and the train was rumbling gently across a dry Mediterranean landscape of olive groves, vineyards and woodland. We reached Syracuse just after midday, almost exactly three days since we had set out.
We sat with our suitcases in a pleasant square, while the owner of the flat we had booked came to find us. I wonder how on earth he managed to pick us out!
We walked a short distance through a maze of narrow streets behind our host. Our flat was in a very old building, which might once have been described as a palace, but was now converted into flats which ranged from luxurious to very neglected. Happily ours lay in the middle of this range and we enjoyed our stay there. Rather tired after the long journey we did nothing but explore the area around the flat and locate the nearest shops which are only fifty metres away. Here we buy our first ever bottle of Nero d'Avola and serendipitously discover how to make a simple tasty pasta with a tin of arrabiata sauce.
The entrance to our "palace".
View from the window.
Looking round Syracuse the next day we discover that there is a lot to see and most of it is very old. Some of it very, very old. There are not too many places where traffic has to steer round the ruins of a Greek temple.
It is very pleasant wandering round churches, squares, through narrow streets and along the coast.
The shore is rocky, with few beaches but a rocky promontory, off which people are swimming, catches my eye. The sea is clear, the sun is hot and it looks very inviting, so much so that I am later tempted into a sports goods shop, where I succumb to the high pressure sales pitch of the owner and find myself the proud owner of a pair of highly fashionable Italian swimming trunks. (I have to say this, they were very expensive!)
Italians have their own way of doing things and they do not necessarily go out of their way to explain the system to strangers. This is in no way a criticism, it is just the way things are. In a cafe for example the procedure seems to be that you make a choice, go to a cashier and pay in exchange for a token, take the token to someone else who will eventually produce some food Any attempt to introduce a variation into the system, through ignorance of proper form, is to invite being ignored.
The feeling of helpless confusion not knowing what to do causes, became very familiar to us. There is a famous Roman theatre on the outskirts of Syracuse which was high on our list of things to see: but how to get there? We decide the bus station might be a good bet. Sure enough buses come and go, but with no indication of destination. Nor are there any boards displaying timetables. Our Italian is inadequate to the needs of the situation. People recoil from us. The man in the ticket office shrugs sympathetically but has apparently never heard of any Roman theatre.
Eventually we discover from a tourist information office that if we stand on a certain corner, a bus will come that passes where we want to be. Although we had lost half a day, we were glad that we had persevered because the theatre was very much worth the effort.
Equally impressive were the quarries from which the stone was taken.
One of the things that Syracuse is noted for is its association with Archimedes. To celebrate this there is a rather quirky museum which is devoted to Maths. It is superbly equipped, well manned, quite interesting and completely empty. We never noticed anyone going in there during the whole of our stay. When we offered to pay the advertised entrance fee the cashier, noting our general decrepit state, told us that pensioners get in free and refused our money. It seemed to symbolise for me all that is good and bad about the E.U. - good, well meaning policies but at great expense and indifference to the need to show a profit. (I find that refreshing!)
Next day we take a train journey a few miles south of Syracuse to the small town of Noto.
This is an architectural jewel as all the buildings are of the same baroque period. Every corner reveals another photo opportunity, showing the pleasing unity such preservation creates. It is also noted in our family history as the place we had our worst ever lunch and for the persuasiveness of its swimming trunks saleswomen.
A second excursion from Syracuse took us to the major port of Catania and then on the narrow gauge railway that climbs round the west side of Mount Etna.
The little town of Randazzo was unremarkable, though pleasant enough,
but the scenery en route was very exciting, with evidence of ancient and more recent lava flows. Unfortunately our train back to Catania coincided with the end of the school day and was full of children. We have noted before how much noisier Italian trains are than anything other than an English football special, with loud conversations and constant phoning going on. The younger generation on this train was practising hard to ensure Italian trains of the future do not surprise us by becoming serene havens of calm.
Catania is a much more industrial and commercial port than Syracuse and caters for much larger ships.
Back in Syracuse there was also a succession of cruise ships but these were always smaller, though no less expensive.
The oldest part of Syracuse is an island, now connected by a bridge to the mainland and more modern parts of the town. At the southern tip of the island is a thirteenth century fortification - Castello Maniace - which is remarkably well preserved.
Many bottles of Nero d'Avola later and after enjoying several excellent fish dishes, buying unfamiliar fish on the local market, it is time to retrace our steps and go home - with the slight variation of using Eurostar rather than the ferry. As a special treat we pay extra to travel premier class which will take care of dinner as well as giving us more space. If things go to plan we should arrive at St Pancras at ten o'clock in time to catch the Caledonian sleeper back to Scotland. The first leg is the overnight train from Syracuse to Rome which we find sitting baking in the afternoon sun.
At seven o'clock next morning our train has reached the outskirts of Rome on schedule but halts at some suburban station. Alarm bells immediately begin to sound for me as we note that the station is full of waiting trains which have disgorged their passengers. There is a seething throng of disgruntled commuters, gazing north, texting, phoning the office and gesticulating to each other in a dramatic way. The station announcer is barking out a message we cannot translate, but is clear enough. There is going to be a delay - caused, we later find out, by a thunderstorm bringing down a tree across the power lines ahead.
Our itinerary for the rest of that day was a delicately balanced masterwork of precision timetable engineering, the first leg of which required us to be on the nine o'clock train from Roma Termini to Milan and should culminate in our stepping from the Caledonian sleeper in Edinburgh next morning. Remaining surprisingly calm, we stretch out on our bunks, a facility denied to almost everyone else stuck at this station and watch the minutes tick by until it is after nine o'clock. There is nothing we can do. I am tempted to join the crowds outside and wave my arms about a bit like them, but it did not seem a particularly effective strategy. Just after nine o'clock, about an hour and a half after grinding to a halt, our train begins to move again.
A gentleman in the Customer Service office at Roma Termini, listens carefully to our predicament and inspects our pile of on going rail tickets and reservations - all now redundant.
"I can help you get to Milan," he tells us.
He endorses our Milan ticket and, crucially, inscribes the words "en ritardo" on the Syracuse - Rome ticket. We scramble on to the next, very full train to Milan and eventually find a seat.
The customer service office in Milan is similarly helpful. We had planned to travel to Basel for our next change but he advises us to go via Zurich and change, which will get us into Basel quicker than the next direct train.
Perhaps the most helpful of all the guardian angels who got us home was the Customer Service officer at Basel. It is unlikely that he will ever read this but he went above and beyond and left us feeling much calmer and reassured. He must have spent forty minutes with us, made numerous phone calls, wrote us a letter to ease our path and arranged for us to squeeze on to the morning Basel to Paris TGV despite the fact that it was already fully booked. Silvan Hafliger: I salute you, Sir!
Meanwhile we had to find somewhere to spend the night and right opposite the station was Hotel Victoria. It was by this time about ten o'clock but we explained that we were stranded and after a moment's hesitation, which we understood completely when we later caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror, were given a room.
And what a room! It was in fact a suite which I obsessively photographed. I have stayed in hotel rooms that were smaller than the bathroom in this one!
Next morning, after an unexpectedly luxurious night and a splendid breakfast, we report, as instructed by Herr Hafliger to the train manager of the 08.34 Basel to Paris TGV.
Not many people know this but inside some TGV coaches are secret compartments. They are used by railway staff and custom officials but once they were engaged on their official duties we were invited to use one for the rest of the trip. The alternative would have been the draughtier, noisier, less comfortable and non private tip up seats in the vestibule. Thank you, Herr Hafliger!
For the rest of our journey we stepped off one train and straight on to the next. !t was remarkable! We told our story for the third time at Gare du Nord to the Eurostar representative and he offered us a choice: either a vestibule tip up seat on the next fully booked train, leaving immediately, or a booked seat on the next London train in two hours. We chose the former and reported to the attendant on the coach to which we were directed. He told us that often there were "no shows" on these trains and he kept his eye on the two adjacent coaches also. Our luck continued to hold and just before departure we were ushered into two table seats and later served our excellent three course dinner.
Our train arrived in St Pancras at two thirty and we quickly made our way next door to Kings Cross where we presented our documents and sad story for the fourth time. But we are now in England where we don't have a joined up railway system and a different mentality prevails.
"Sorry mate!" said the booking clerk, "I don't work for Caledonian Sleepers so I can't help you. Two singles to Edinburgh will be £210.50."
It was not his fault. It is just the way things are run in this country. On the continent there is some understanding that all national railways are part of one system and each accept responsibility for ensuring that passengers are helped to complete their journey. It has the effect of encouraging people to make complicated rail journeys with some confidence. It increases passenger traffic!
The stupidity of the British way of running things was exemplified when I was traveling on a late running London - Penzance train. It arrived at Exeter about ten minutes late while at an adjacent platform a train to Barnstable, normally a connection for London Barnstable passengers, was just pulling out. People were running up the platform after it, furious at an unnecessary three hour wait for the next one. The explanation? One is a Great Western train and the other is a competitor, a South West train... different franchises...different bottom lines and no responsibility for each other.
OK. Rant over. And so is the story of our trip to Sicily. We caught the three o'clock Edinburgh train from Kings Cross and were home by eight o'clock only twelve hours behind our original schedule. Basel to Dunfermline by train in under twelve hours. That is not bad!