Around Mount Etna ๐ŸŒ‹ and Vesuvius ๐ŸŒ‹ by train ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น

Italy has twelve volcanoes. Two of them, which are some of the most active in the country, also have railways operating local passenger services around them. There is the Circumvesuviana circulating Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples and the Circumetnea around Mount Etna on Sicily. So why did Italy build them?

Both railways were built at the end of the 19th century, and their purpose is mutual – they exist to serve local villages situated around the volcanoes, connecting them to each other and to the nearby cities of Naples and Catania. These railways are a lifeline for the communities they serve, which is evident from the high numbers of locals who use these services every day.

The routes are not so much of a tourist attraction, with their fragmented timetables for completing the full circle and at least one change of train required on both routes. However, travelling around them does not just offer fantastic views, but it also constitutes a unique insight into local life. A truly unique experience.

Circumvesuviana – Naples

Route map of the Circumvesuviana
Route map of the Circumvesuviana.
Source – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circumvesuviana_maps.png
Journey LegBest Views
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana to Barra

Firstly, around Vesuvius. I started my journey at the terminus of the Circumvesuviana at the station of Napoli Porta Nolana, opting to travel clockwise. I recommend to start here to avoid the crowds boarding at Napoli Garibaldi, the next station. As you can see on the map (above), there are two trains required to complete the full circle, with a change at Poggiomarino and a total travelling time of two hours (excluding the connection time at Poggiomarino).

The Circumvesuviana offers two types of rolling stock – the FE220 and the newer ETR221. The latter is far more comfortable, as you can probably tell from the photos (below), while the FE220 seats gave me past vibes of the chairs in my classroom at school.

It was certainly an experience travelling on these trains โ€“ one of the drivers activated the emergency brake at least twice en-route, resulting in passengers standing performing an impromptu run backwards down the carriage. Later on in the trip, the train happened to pass one of the ETR221s involved in an accident over 10 years ago in the sidings, looking worse for wear, which certainly serves as a stark reminder of the incident. Nevertheless, do not let this put you off this highly agreeable ride.

Circumetnea – Sicily

Journey LegViews
Catania Borgo to Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

Mount Etna is the highest and largest active volcano in Europe, so it will not come as a surprise that this route takes all day to travel around. The varied landscapes and great view of the volcano make the journey worthwhile.

Starting at the beautiful terracotta Catania Borgo station, there are two departures per day to enable you to travel the full circle in a clockwise direction. Early birds can take the 08:05 departure, or for those who like a leisurely morning, the later 12:20 โ€“ both departures go through to Randazzo, where you must change trains. I opted for the lunch time departure, which also has the shortest connection time at Randazzo of 47 minutes between trains compared to 2 hours and 7 minutes for the 08:05 departure.

The next train departs from Randazzo at 12:10 or 15:06 respectively to Riposto, where you must change one final time to the nearby Giarre-Riposto station onto a Trenitalia ‘Intercity’ or ‘Regionale’ train back to Catania.

Logistics out of the way, what about the experience? Similarly to the Circumvesuviana, the route serves local communities, even though the experience itself is different. Firstly, the Circumetnea climbs up the volcano unlike its counterpart, so it is best to sit on the side away from the volcano for the best views this time.

The train ascends shortly after departure from Catania through the lava rocks and then fields with Bronte pistachios growing in abundance. This journey to Randazzo serves the most populated communities on the route, and has highly loaded trains to match especially between Paterno and S. M. Licodia Centrale stations, where we were accompanied by a large group of school children onboard. The crowding was only for a couple of stops thankfully.

Arriving at the medieval village of Randazzo, you have to alight and wait for the next train arriving on the same platform later. Two trains then arrived at the depot, one going back to Catania and the other onto Riposto. There did not seem to be an indication of which train was going where, so I checked with the staff, but the busiest one by far was the one going back to Catania. Surprisingly I was the only passenger for Riposto – the northern part of the route has the most picturesque scenery.

Fares

Circumvesuviana

Ticketing is priced according to scheduled journey duration. If you wish to travel the full circumference in one go, you can use a โ‚ฌ4,90 ticket valid for 180 minutes, the journey time being 51 minutes from Napoli PN to Poggiomarino on the red-coloured route, and 59 minutes from Poggiomarino to Napoli PN on the green-coloured route. If you decide to break your journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum (both are highly recommended), you need to purchase additional tickets at stations en route; there is no ‘day’ or ‘network’ ticket (perhaps a missed opportunity!).

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Napoli Porta Nolana to Napoli Porta Nolanafrom โ‚ฌ4,90 on the day (according to journey duration)
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana

Circumetnea

Pricing is by distance for the Circumetnea and tickets available on the day of travel. If you wish to travel the full circumference you can use a ticket covering 70km+. Another ticket is required for the Trenitalia leg that can also be purchased on the day.

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Catania Borgo to Riposto (Circumetnea)โ‚ฌ6,80 on the day
Giarre Riposto to Catania (Trenitalia)โ‚ฌ3,40 (Regionale) on the day
โ‚ฌ8,50 (Intercity) on the day
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Catania Borgo to Catania via Randazzo and Riposto

This article was first published in July 2022 based on journeys in Autumn 2020.

Europe’s Only Train-on-a-Ferry route – Mainland Italy ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น to Sicily ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น overnight

Italy is well known for its expansive railway network, but there is one journey that stands out as being particularly unique. Direct trains run multiple times a day connecting key cities on the Italian mainland and stations on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily. But what is unique about this journey?

Well, as part of the journey, the train is shunted onto a ferry at Villa San Giovanni station, sets sail across the Strait of Messina, and rolls off onto the island into the port of Messina before continuing its journey along the northern coast to Palermo and the south east coast to Siracusa. This is now the last remaining train in Europe to make a journey on a ferry, after the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen started to run via the overland route in 2019 (I published a trip report of this here).

There are two kinds of trains that operate between the mainland and Sicily that are operated by Trenitalia – daytime ‘InterCity’ trains and time effective nighttime ‘InterCity Notte’ trains. In 2020, I took a trip from Milan to Siracusa followed by, in 2022, a return trip from Rome to Palermo; which collectively covers all of the ‘InterCity Notte’ routes.

Both of these routes from Milan to Siracusa/Palermo and Rome to Siracusa/Palermo offer a long enough journey to make for a relaxing time onboard, that is normally a rarity for European sleeper trains that often depart late evening and arrive early morning giving you limited time to enjoy the trip. Below is a map of all the stations served by ‘InterCity Notte’ trains that connect mainland Italy and Sicily.

Onboard the InterCity Notte

Accommodation

There are three classes to choose from on Trenitalia ‘InterCity Notte’ services – branded as Comfort, Deluxe and Excelsior.

All trains offer both sleeping cars (Deluxe) and couchette cars (Comfort) with shared toilets at the end of the carriage, kept clean by the car attendant. There is also a more premium class, which is a sleeping car with an ensuite toilet and shower (Excelsior). The latter class operates only on one of the Rome to Palermo routes and are clearly visible in the booking engine on website of Trenitalia. All compartments are air conditioned, have power sockets and are lockable, however, only ‘Excelsior’ accommodation have access to an onboard shower within the compartment. On all of the trips I travelled in ‘Deluxe’ accommodation.

There is no formal process for boarding the train – just like any train you effectively turn up and go. Once you arrive at the platform and have located your reserved carriage, you are welcomed onboard by your sleeping car attendant who will check your ticket and ID document. They will be your contact for the journey.


Comfort

Comfort accommodation includes a comfortable space to sleep with seats that convert into bunk beds. Bedding is provided, however, this is up to you to make up. There is the option to book Comfort class for exclusive use or for a lower price you can share the compartment with other travellers. As mentioned, toilets and washrooms are located at the end of the car. A light breakfast is included in Comfort accommodation.

Deluxe

Deluxe accommodation is for exclusive use for up to three people, arranged in bunk beds. Unlike Comfort accommodation, the beds are ready made for you with clean and sanitised sheets. If you book sole occupancy of the compartment, the middle bed is folded away as can be seen in the picture below. There is a sink in the room with a seat and table available. A light breakfast is included in the morning with coffee and two bottles of water is provided for each traveller. On the three journeys I took each car varied in its design, as shown in the pictures.

Deluxe Accommodation Refurbished Car:

Deluxe Accommodation Non-Refurbished Cars:

Excelsior

The most premium accommodation on the train is the Excelsior class. These en-suite compartments are situated in the same car as some Deluxe rooms so are very similar in design. Like Deluxe accommodation, a light breakfast is included in the morning with coffee and Italian newspapers and two bottles of water per traveller is provided on departure. Below is a picture of a refurbished car, with other compartments similar to the red seats above depending on the train on the day.

Onboard Catering

The catering onboard is certainly not going to win any fine dining awards. In Deluxe and Excelsior accommodation breakfast is provided in the morning in your room which is made up of pre-packaged items including a croissant and a coffee. On one of the trains I took there was a delay of two hours, which happened to be on one of the longest InterCity Notte journeys from Milan to Siracusa. As this ended up being a trip of nearly twenty-two hours, Trenitalia were generous in distributing “Courtesy Kits’ with further drinks and snacks to see you through to the destination.

I strongly advise that you bring your own supply of food and drink to complement this offering, as it’s a very long trip.

Ferry Crossing

Now for the exciting bit – where the train boards the ferry. As part of the shunting the train carriages are uncoupled at Villa San Giovanni to enable the eight carriage train to fit.

Once the train has boarded the ferry you do have the option of walking upstairs on the ship’s deck for the 20 minute crossing to take in the views of the Strait of Messina and enjoy some refreshments. There is a stocked cafรฉ, however, I found on all three of my journeys this was closed with the shutters down, so I was only able to settle for the cash-only vending machines offering hot and cold drinks and snacks. Once the ferry had arrived into Messina I didn’t hear any announcements, so make sure you don’t miss the train as this will be shunted off the ferry as soon as the ship arrives!

The trains are then re-coupled up again to form two trains – one bound for Palermo and the other for Siracusa which sit side-by-side in Messina station, one departing after the other. Throughout the journey you are able to remain on the train in the comfort of your accommodation if you choose to.

Fares

Fares vary like air fares with the exception of Excelsior accommodation where I was unable to find a fare less than the on-the-day fare of 269,00โ‚ฌ.

Journey LegComfort AccommodationDeluxe AccommodationExcelsior Accommodation
Milan / Rome to Siracusa / Palermofrom โ‚ฌ33,90from 89,90 โ‚ฌ269,00 โ‚ฌ

Full Trip Video

Below is a video of the longest journey I took from Milan to Siracusa that can be found below, covering the process of the train boarding and leaving the ferry crossing the Messina Strait, the excellent coastal views you can expect as well as the accommodation and service onboard. The trip took place during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel was permitted from the UK to Italy.

This article was first published in December 2020 and updated in December 2022.