Slow boat to Sicily

The ticket has finally been issued. Amid much ciao grazie-ing I’m off to wait for the ferry, or ‘nave’ as it’s known around these parts. At Villa you can catch three different types of ferry. The slowest, but also the most exciting for geeks like me, is the ferry which takes the train. Sicily doesn’t have its own train network, so is dependent on Italy for its rolling stock. However, Sicily is an island and trains aren’t well-known for their flotational powers. So, how to get the trains across? Well, fit up a RORO ferry with rails in its bowels and Roberto’s your proverbial zio. If I’m not in a hurry I love to watch this process. As the boat approaches the shore, its bows start to wind up into the air, like a slow-motion animatronic shark preparing to wolf down its prey. By the time it’s reached the docks there is a huge gaping maw where once there was white sea-splashed metal. Slowly the ferry eases into the shore and the tracks are painstakingly lined up. There is much standing about and waving of arms at this point of the process. This boat ain’t going nowhere for a good half hour. Finally, the train chunters its way slowly along the tracks and into the darkened bowels of the boat. Usually, it’s then backed up at least twice and repacked. I’ve never quite worked out why this is. It’s on rails. How far wrong can it go?

The second type of ferry is, again, a slow boat, but this time only for motor vehicles and passengers. This one is usually the best bet for a regular service. However, you do miss out on the Ferrovie floor show. Dem’s da breaks. The final ferry is the Metromare. This is a fast, passenger-only service. It’s staffed by attractive girls in uniforms similar to those of British Airways in the 80s, with jaunty pillbox hats and rakish neckscarves. As I approach the docks, one of these girls approaches me. She’s a consummate saleswoman, trying her best to lure customers away from the nave and onto (if you believe the spiel) her far superior boat. It’s so much faster! And look how shiny and new it is! Are you French? I can explain in French if you like? Oh, you’re English! Oh, well, I can speak English, too … I smile and tell her in Italian that I already have a ticket for the other boat. With a sigh and a little moue of displeasure that tells me she spends all day hearing this, she turns away in search of a more willing victim.

While the Metromare girl was distracting me, a passenger nave has pulled away from the closest dock. No matter. There are still three other docks, reached by an overhead gallery. Maybe I’ll even get to do some trainspotting. Whee! I start to climb the stairs to see if there are any other boats further across. A man calls to me: There aren’t any! Wait here! The next is at 10.35. Obediently, I sit to wait. More people arrive. The girl from Metromare bustles about trying to coax people to go with her company, but it’s €2.50 and the nave tickets are only €2.20. Also, the Metromare tickets are non-refundable. I sit tight. Half an hour later a nave arrives at dock 3, but there’s a big hoo-hah – apparently it won’t be leaving any time soon because it has to wait for the train which, it being August, is running late. 7 hours late, to be precise. The Metromare girl is beside herself. You can come with us! We leave at 11.15. Just go to the ticket office and get a ticket. Go on!

I return to the newsagent. Grandpa is confused – What the cabbage? This is a very endearing Italian phrase. Rather than say che cazzo? (‘what the fuck?), they say che cavolo – literally translated as ‘what the cabbage?’ Why on earth do you want a Metromare ticket when you’ve already got a perfectly good ferry ticket? I sold it to you myself, not 10 minutes ago! I explain the sitch. He is aghast. But no! Look! There’s a boat arriving just there! He points to dock 1 where there is, indeed, a ferry pulling into shore. It will go before the Metromare, for sure! I start to tell him about the delayed trains, but he gives me a look over the top of his glasses. Was it the girl that told you there wasn’t a boat? I look sheepish. Hmmm, it was, wasn’t it? I confess that yes, it was. He pulls the skin under his right eye down with his forefinger and raises an eyebrow at me. The Metromare girl, in his opinion, is pulling a fast one. He sends me back. It’ll be fine. Just get on that boat there. You’ll see …

I’m hot and I’m tired of waiting around. More than anything, I’m fed up of lugging my bags from pillar to post, and I just want to get across this bloody bit of water. Feeling daring and rebellious, I decide to go against his wisdom. More fool me. On returning to the docks with my newly purchased (from another shop) Metromare ticket I find a very disgruntled woman, who has done exactly the same as I have. Turns out that the boat in dock 1 *is* going. The Metromare girl has done her work well. She didn’t exactly lie – the ferry that’s waiting for the train is going to be delayed for most of the day – but she neglected to point out that the passenger ferries would still be running. Grandpa was right, dammit. I ponder a moment. The nave ticket can be used another day, whereas the Metromare one is only valid for this particular crossing. However, I love this journey. It would be a shame to do it at speed and miss out on the wind in my hair. Decision made: I’m taking the slow boat to Sicily.

I go to get my ticket ripped by the lugubrious, Top Gun-esque captain, who is waiting in a little booth on the dock. His moustache is straight out of CHiPs and his uniform gleams white in the Calabrian sun. He tears the ticket but puts out a hand to stop me from walking further, anxiety in his eyes. Following his gaze, I realise the problem. As this is a southern Italian ferry, passengers walk onto the boat via the same entrance as the lorries and there’s currently a long stream of them driving aboard. I don’t fancy my chances against these behemoths, so I’m happy to stand aside and talk a while. Unlike most Italians, he’s not a garrulous man, but he’s still full of quiet curiosity. Have you arrived on the train? Uh huh. Are you on holiday? Oh, I see. Where are you going? Oh, Siracusa. Yes, it’s beautiful. And Taormina? Oh, how lovely. He nods slowly and a small smile escapes from beneath his walrus moustache. You should go to the Aeolian Islands as well. Take the boat from Messina. Trust me.

A Port Authority man comes over, and the captain hands over my ticket stub. The signora’s ticket.  Concern creases his brow.  I ripped it already. The new man grins. Great! The captain breathes a sigh of relief. No, I don’t need to see the rest – go on board! Oh, best wait for the lorries, though! He scoots back to his duties as truck marshaller and I take the opportunity of the break in traffic to lug my bags aboard. I head to my usual place at the front, squinting in the breezy sunshine, and smile.

Sicily, here I come.

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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11 Responses to Slow boat to Sicily

  1. Vanessa says:

    And that is not all said the cat, oh no, that is not all….. Just to let you know there is also ANOTHER ferry that goes from Villa San Giovanni to Messina, much less complicated and timely becuase it’s run by a private company. Here’s the link:
    Goes every 40 minutes almost on the dot. Is about a 400m walk from the train station, and far less confusing than that series of strange tunnels. Vanessa
    PS welcome to Sicily :)

  2. Katja says:

    Thanks Vanessa. :)

    Yes, I’d seen the Caronte ferries, but I thought they were long-distance ones. Good to know there’s another option if I need it the next time I pop over to Calabria …

  3. Vanessa says:

    Just beware when leaving from Messina the Caronte doesn’t leave from the train station as the state ones do, but further north (about 5 stops up on the tram, direction Museo/Annunziata) and the pedestrian entrance is by L’Ancora ristorante/bar. Easy to spot by the traffic confusion and tripla fila cars….

  4. Katja says:

    Easy to spot by the traffic confusion and tripla fila cars …

    By that token, L’Ancora is omnipresent throughout the whole of Italy …

  5. Vanessa says:

    You jest but i know of at least 2 in the near vicinity, not including actual anchors/statues adorning the beachside piazze. Not sure about the rest of Italy. Anwyay depends what you are looking for, if you’re anxious you will notice the confusion and cars, hungry; the ristorante. If you’re actually in a car your pace will slow to a crawl and you’ll not find anywhere to park, should you actually want to eat at the restaurant. Which i guess is why the bars onboard do such a rip-roaring trade in arancini.

  6. LindyLouMac says:

    Interesting options but will remember which to choose, doesn’t matter really I enjoyed the post.
    LindyLouMac´s last post ..Notte Bianca a Marta

  7. Roxanne says:

    So, I have spent some time catching up on your posts and I am ready to move to southern Italy. Yup. I am late on the ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’/Italy travel literature and writing train, but I am firmly on it. Thank you for conveying the magic of the journey to us… It is truly a privilege to travel vicariously through you.
    Roxanne´s last post ..iLove

  8. Jessica says:

    I got to take that trains-on-a-boat ferry last October, and it was 17 kinds of wonderful. I believe the backward-forward thing when they load & unload is because the boat isn’t long enough for the whole train. They roll on, detach between cars where they run out of boat, roll off & back on again on another track beside the first one. I have videos that I took of all of this, which I hope to be posting very soon. It was fascinating to watch.
    Jessica´s last post ..Getting from Florence to Pisa (& vice versa)

  9. Katja says:

    Aww – you’re very welcome, Roxanne. I love it down here. Even on a bad day, it’s wonderful, so I’m really glad that I have managed to convey that to you. Come travel with me any time!

  10. Katja says:

    Thanks, Lindy. Slow boat to Sicily is always the best, IMHO …

  11. Katja says:

    Ah! Thanks for explaining that, Jessica. I’ve never been quite patient enough (or had enough time before the next boat goes) to stand and watch the whole process, so I look forward to seeing your video footage. :)

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