Italy by train: lazy days around Calabria and the south coast

Tim Parks SUPPOSE YOU have some sum­mer days to spa­re. Sup­po­se you have a fond­ness for trains. Here’s the idea. Do the sou­thern coa­st of Ita­ly. Do it bit by bit, as you feel and as it comes. Not wor­ry­ing too much about time­ta­bles (no one else will), or even about pre­ci­se desti­na­tions. You’re not sightseeing. Just accep­ting the sun-struck lan­guor of the hills and bea­ches, the odd mix of hospi­ta­li­ty and indif­fe­ren­ce that cha­rac­te­ri­ses the locals, the gene­ral invi­ta­tion to a warm, wine-fed fata­li­sm.

Tra­vel light. Very light. The idea is to do eve­ry­thing, asi­de from the trains, on foot. You have a small bac­k­pack with two or three T‑shirts, under­wear, shorts, swim­ming gear, washing kit. You real­ly don’t need any­thing else. Your sun hat is on your head, your san­dals on your feet, your sha­des on your nose. What we’re try­ing to do is dive­st our­sel­ves of our ordi­na­ry obses­sion with orga­ni­sa­tion and con­trol. Italy’s sou­thern rail­ways are pecu­liar­ly con­du­ci­ve to this. Tell your­self befo­re star­ting: I will never com­plain about a train being late, or even depar­ting ear­ly, or from an unex­pec­ted plat­form. I will be patient. I will be stea­dy and slow as sun­shi­ne on a stuc­coed wall.

If you have the time and incli­na­tion, you could make your way by rail and fer­ry to Paler­mo and start with Sici­ly (the Milan-Paler­mo train actual­ly boards the fer­ry). The­re is the long line, much of it sin­gle-track, run­ning along the north coa­st from Mes­si­na to Tra­pa­ni. I once spent a scor­ching day at the cute­ly named Iso­la del­le Fem­mi­ne, just outsi­de Paler­mo. To the south of the island the­re is the mar­vel­lous 2km-long tun­nel that climbs in a spi­ral from Modi­ca on the coa­st to spec­ta­cu­lar Ragu­sa, a lava stream of baro­que faca­des top­pling from a high rid­ge into rug­ged val­leys. And of cour­se there’s the won­der­ful ride up the east coa­st from Syra­cu­se to Mes­si­na, under the vol­ca­nic slo­pes of Etna, whe­re Sici­lian wri­ter Gio­van­ni Ver­ga set so many of his short sto­ries.

But Sici­ly is dif­fi­cult. Using trains here is con­si­de­red eccen­tric. There’s no line to link Tra­pa­ni in the west to Agri­gen­to on the south coa­st, and cros­sing the island north to south requi­res seven hours and three chan­ges to go 190km. Much of the net­work was built in the 19th cen­tu­ry to bring sul­phur and salt down from mines in the moun­tains and makes lit­tle sen­se now. I remem­ber once in Paler­mo Cen­tra­le, puzz­led by the mismatch bet­ween the infor­ma­tion on the tic­ket machi­nes and that on the depar­tu­re board, I asked a rail­way wor­ker if the­re actual­ly was a train to Tra­pa­ni that day. Without taking his ciga­ret­te from his mouth, he advi­sed me that if he were going to Tra­pa­ni, he would never use the train.

So here’s an easier solu­tion. Instead of attemp­ting Sici­ly, take the line that sna­kes round the bot­tom of Italy’s boot, all the way from Reg­gio Cala­bria on the western toe (lin­ked by trains to Milan) to Taran­to on the eastern heel. That’s about 500km of sin­gle-track rail­way. As long as you keep the spar­kling sea to your right and thir­sty vege­ta­tion to your left, you can’t go wrong.

Your dai­ly rou­ti­ne is as fol­lo­ws. Break­fa­st in the hotel. Mor­ning stroll and swim. Lunch under sun­sha­des along the sea­front. Train in the mid-after­noon, to kill the hot­te­st hours. On board you can use your pho­ne to book a pla­ce in wha­te­ver upco­ming town takes your fan­cy – nothing bea­ts an unplan­ned adven­tu­re. Meli­to di Por­to Sal­vo on Calabria’s south coa­st, perhaps, whe­re Gari­bal­di lan­ded in 1860 to start his trium­phal march to Naples. Or Bran­ca­leo­ne-Mari­na, fur­ther round the coa­st, whe­re nove­li­st Cesa­re Pave­se was sent into inter­nal exi­le for anti-Fasci­st acti­vi­ty in 1935. He com­plai­ned bit­ter­ly, but it’s hard to ima­gi­ne a bluer sea or whi­ter beach.

You’ll find the small sta­tions mostly deser­ted. The locals pre­fer their cars. It hard­ly mat­ters that the tic­ket machi­ne is out of order becau­se you’ve sor­ted your­self on the inter­net. A sin­gle, die­sel-dri­ven car­ria­ge appears in a shim­mer of Augu­st heat. It may be only 10 minu­tes late, but it looks like it’s coming from ano­ther age. Insi­de, a rat­tling air-con­di­tio­ner just about keeps the tem­pe­ra­tu­re bea­ra­ble. A cou­ple of haw­kers with cheap mer­chan­di­se to sell on the beach get their packs stuck in the swing doors. One is wea­ring five blue som­bre­ros on his head. A group of 10-year-olds run up and down the aisle. No busi­ness tra­vel­lers. No other tou­rists.

Cro­to­ne, facing east across the Ionian Sea, is a sur­pri­se. The huge che­mi­cal fac­to­ry to the north – one of the end­less fai­led attemp­ts to indu­stria­li­se the south – clo­sed in 1990. No bus awai­ts arri­ving pas­sen­gers. Your half-hour walk into town is hot work. But when you get the­re, what rewards!

The pla­ce to stay here is Hotel Con­cor­dia (dou­bles from around €70), whe­re New Grub Street wri­ter Geor­ge Gis­sing resi­ded in 1897, and fel­low nove­li­st Nor­man Dou­glas 10 years later. From their descrip­tions of the rail­ways in their respec­ti­ve tra­vel books, By the Ionian Sea and Old Cala­bria, it doesn’t seem much has chan­ged. Having seen your boo­king made an hour befo­re, the mana­ger is at the door to greet you by name as you approach. He reco­gni­ses an English­man a mile off, but can’t belie­ve you don’t have a car. “Nobo­dy tra­vels by train.”

The cen­tre is a laby­rinth of nar­row alleys clim­bing up and around a steep coni­cal hill, each thread of street cris­scros­sed abo­ve with dry­ing laun­dry and inha­bi­ted below by folks play­ing cards and drin­king wine outsi­de the bead cur­tains that pro­tect their doors. At a cor­ner a man is shar­pe­ning kni­ves on a grind­sto­ne he turns with pedals and a chain.

At the top of the hill a castle hou­ses a museum of Greek arte­fac­ts, for you are now in Magna Gre­cia, that part of Ita­ly colo­ni­sed by the Greeks in 700BC. You can won­der at win­ged hor­ses, pret­ty mer­maids, a tiny rab­bit-sha­ped con­tai­ner that once held cosme­tic oil for a woman’s skin. Brighte­st of all is a gold dia­dem fashio­ned into a cir­cle of lea­ves and ber­ries, emblem of the god­dess Hera, who­se rui­ned tem­ple boasts just one stan­ding column on the cliffs to the south of the town.

Come ear­ly eve­ning, lying on your back in the calm, warm sea, taking in the great sweep of the bay, it’s not hard to ima­gi­ne the Greek gal­leys at anchor in their sco­res, con­que­ring and tra­ding as the Bri­tish would do a cou­ple of thou­sand years later. Right now, thou­gh, the­re are just a few rusty fishing boa­ts and the tin­kle of a band grin­ding out 1960s covers in a bea­ch­si­de bar.

And so onward into the Bay of Taran­to, the big, squa­rish arch under Italy’s boot. Fir­st north-east to Cori­glia­no Cala­bro, then north-west to Taran­to itself, whe­re a much gran­der col­lec­tion of Greek art awai­ts. The sway of the train and play of light and sha­de indu­ce a plea­sant stu­por. Emp­ty sands and blue seas. Blea­ched-whi­te river­beds. Mile after mile of oli­ve gro­ves and kiwi plan­ts. Sta­zio­ne di Tor­re Melis­sa. Vineyards. Grey rock pro­mon­to­ries. Sta­zio­ne di Cirò. The train guard’s whi­stle. A squat tower on a low hill­si­de. Cac­ti and scor­ched grass. Sta­zio­ne di Cru­co­li. Graf­fi­ti: Ti pen­so sem­pre amo­re mio (fore­ver thin­king of you, my love). Anna e Giu­lia tro­ie (scrub­bers). No sign of rail­way per­son­nel any­whe­re. In English someo­ne has scra­w­led: “Boys 1978. Wan­de­rers Eve­ry­whe­re.”

Stop whe­re­ver you want. Or don’t stop. Depen­ding how many days you have. But don’t miss the old quar­ter of Taran­to. Just a few hun­dred metres from the sta­tion, you cross a swing brid­ge that divi­des a huge inland lagoon to the left from the open sea to the right and at once you’re in an anti­que metro­po­lis of dark nar­row stree­ts and peo­ple sit­ting out on kit­chen chairs loo­king in throu­gh the win­do­ws at their own TVs in rooms who­se walls are nothing but bare sto­nes piled up cen­tu­ries ago. Men and women call to each other across and along the stree­ts with stran­ge cries and coded whi­stles, a fluid reper­toi­re of gestu­res that very pro­ba­bly haven’t chan­ged in many gene­ra­tions. I know of nowhe­re in Ita­ly whe­re an ancient past seems so ali­ve.

Do you want to go on? There’s no line now along the west side of the bay to Gal­li­po­li and San­ta Maria di Leu­ca at the tip of Italy’s heel. But you can take the train toward Brin­di­si, get off at Fran­ca­vil­la Fon­ta­na and link up with the Fer­ro­vie Sud Est, a local net­work that some­how con­tri­ves never to run along the coa­st but will take you to Otran­to, and Gal­lia­no del Capo, just a short bus-ride from the won­der­ful San­ta Maria.

Still, if Ita­lian Sta­te Rail­ways tried your patien­ce, Fer­ro­vie Sud Est will trans­port you into a sur­real heat haze of unex­pec­ted con­nec­tions and sud­den can­cel­la­tions in which you will very like­ly spend hours enti­re­ly alo­ne with a gar­ru­lous tic­ket col­lec­tor delighted to have found someo­ne to talk to. Eve­ry­whe­re signs inform you of the gene­rous con­tri­bu­tions of the ever bene­fi­cent EU. In any event, if you’re retur­ning home via over­night cou­chet­te from Lec­ce to Milan, make sure you set off with a good few hours to spa­re. Then put your head down on a Tre­ni­ta­lia pil­low and let the rails lull you into a last Medi­ter­ra­nean reve­rie.

Tim Parks is author of Ita­lian Ways, on and off the Rails from Milan to Paler­mo (Vin­ta­ge, £9.99), avai­la­ble for £8.79 at the Guar­dian Book­shop

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