Farewell, Ye Banks of Sicily

Just in time for our return to Southeast Asia, here’s the final post about our European trip last summer.

How do you end a visit to Sicily? With a 400-mile trip to Naples, of course.

The frequent-flyer tickets that our friends AJ and Francesca were using required them to leave from an airport in mainland Italy. And since AJ was eager to see Pompeii, the area around Naples seemed a perfect final stop on our trip. But how best to get there? Many people fly, but being budget travelers and having a toddler who likes to move around, we opted to go by train.

The day of our trip to Naples was a two-volcano day: We boarded the train in the shadow of Mt. Etna and got off 8 hours later in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. Along the way, we were treated to beautiful scenery in southwestern Italy, with the sea on one side and green mountains on the other.

“But wait,” you say. “Sicily is an island. How do you take a train from an island to the mainland?” The idea seems less far-fetched since the tunnel under the English Channel was dug. But the Strait of Messina—which separates Sicily from the toe of Italy—has no tunnels or bridges. I’d naively assumed that we’d take a train to the shore, switch to a boat for the crossing, and then board another train on the other side.

But the Italian rail service has an alternative that is both more straightforward and much more complicated. When the train reaches the Strait, it is painstakingly disassembled, and the train cars are loaded one by one onto a ferry with the passengers still in them! On the far shore, the cars are unloaded and reconnected (another long and noisy process), and the train continues on its way.

We’ve riden lots of modes of tranportation in our travels, but a train car inside a ship was a new one! Once the novelty of the situation wore off (in about 10 dark and stuffy seconds), we climbed out of our train car and up on deck, into the fresh air and brilliant sunshine, to watch Sicily recede behind us. I got a kick out of humming to myself a Scottish bagpipe tune from World War II, “Farewell, ye banks of Sicily,” in the very place the song is about.

Our visit to the Naples area got off to a bad start: 15 minutes after arriving, AJ had her wallet stolen from the daypack on her back just outside the Naples train station. (Luckily, her passport was somewhere else.) After the first frantic hour of making phone calls and canceling cards, things got much better.

The ruined Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculano—frozen in time when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD—were fascinating. Every little detail of Roman daily life was preserved, from the seats in bath houses, to the bread ovens and lunch counters of corner shops, to the raised stones at each intersection for crossing the muddy streets. In a mansion on the edge of Pompeii, we saw a dining room whose brightly colored, floor-to-ceiling paintings of religious ceremonies were amazingly intact. It’s mind-boggling to stare into the faces of people painted more than 2,000 years ago.

As our trip drew to an end, we visited Sorrento, a graceful old city beloved of English visitors since the 19th century (and still thronged with tourists). After admiring the view of Mt. Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples, we dropped into a local church, which was celebrating the feast day of Saint Frances—patron saint of the current Pope and of our own Francesca. Like the other Francescos and Francescas of all ages filling the church, Francesca received a special blessing to speed her on her way back home.

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