Occasionally while traveling, the unexpected is a nice surprise.
The rhythmic noise of steel wheels on rails woke me up at sunrise. This same noise that lulled me to sleep a little while earlier. Honestly, I’d been more or less awake since the train yard at Villa San Giovanni at the tip of the western coast on the Italian mainland. The squealing of the brakes and the stop/start motion as the train was disassembled and the cars pushed onto the ferry for Messina shook me awake. Half asleep I wandered the train car and disembarked for a bit of a stretch, my feet on the awful green flooring of the ferry, train cars all around me.
Groggy, I didn’t even think of heading upstairs and checking out the top decks. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew we left Naples at midnight. Perhaps it was 4 am. In the darkness, probably not much to see from the decks above. So I returned to our bunk. It seems I was just falling asleep when the ferry reached Messina. And again with the squealing brakes and the start/stop as our train was being re-assembled. As we made our way south, now on the eastern coast of Sicily, morning brightness shone around the edges of the blinds in our couchette. Once Dianne was awake, I sat up and raised the blinds to soak in the scenery, dominated by Mount Etna looming in the distance, imposing itself as it does. Etna accompanied us on our journey, anticipating our arrival in Catania. Plumes of smoke emanating from its crown reminded us that this volcano was indeed alive and well. We were there in June, in July we read that Etna blew its lid 6 times.
We were crusty with dirt and lack of sleep when we got off the train at 7am at Catania Centrale. We had dust from Mount Vesuvius still in our nostrils and pollution from Naples in our clothes and skin (read about our Naples experience here and Mt Vesuvius here). After spending a restless night, our plan was to grab a ferry from Catania to Malta and spend the day relaxing and resting on the water. My blisters ached. My feet really took a beating hiking to the top of Vesuvius yesterday. But sunrise promised another beautiful day ahead.
From Catania, there is access to the volcano through trails, roads, and even a gondola. This ancient port city was built at the foot of the volcano. Ash from numerous eruptions, the most violent in 1669, has produced fertile soil here. Although Catania has been ruled at times by Romans, Vandals, Spanish and others, it was originally a Greek colony founded around 730 BC. Today, there are roughly 300 000 citizens that call the area home. There’s a Greek Acropolis to visit, a Roman Forum, catacombs, Achillean baths and much more. A bath seemed like a good idea about now. But we needed to find the ferry to Malta.
Exiting the station and the air-conditioned train, the morning heat hit us hard. It was going to be a scorching day. Just outside the station doors along the Piazza Papa Giovanni XXIII where a large roundabout is built around the bus terminal, we found a small shady green space featuring an elaborate fountain. I’m not sure if the water was clean, but we took advantage of it and washed our faces and arms. Over delicious coffee from the Bar Terminal across the street, we took a few minutes to get our bearings together. The Metropolitana-Stazione Porto was nearby, and that’s where we needed to go to find the ferry.
In the beating sun with our packs, we walked south along via VI Aprile through Piazza Martiri della Liberta where an old man with a weather-beaten face was setting up his fruit stand out of the back of his tiny truck. Apples, grapes, tomatoes, watermelon, ….his fruit looked positively delicious and refreshing so I filled a paper bag with a half kilo of cherries and 4 plums. Although I can speak English and French quite fluently, it was apparent that these languages were of no use here. Using sign language and smiles, he charged me 2 Euros for the bag. I was feeling the culture shock. Ripe and juicy, the taste exploded in my mouth, ripe with morning breath and coffee. Following the narrow sidewalk along a high rock wall on via Cardinale Dusmet, we found the entrance to the port. Already there was hustle and bustle here with fisherman going about their business, tourists coming off cruise ships and opportunists looking to make a living honestly, or not.
We found a boat tour office of some sort. The young lady spoke broken English and she told us there is no ferry to Malta. Perhaps we weren’t being understood, but that’s the message we got. No ferries to Malta. At least not today. Perhaps our information was wrong. Somehow the word got out and as we left the office, we were hounded by several local entrepreneurs offering us a taxi to Pozzallo, 120kms away almost at the very southern tip of Sicily where there is a ferry to Malta tonight at 9. Starting price for a ride there was 140 Euros (Aria condizionata! Air conditioning!!). We thought we’d go back to the bus depot across from the train station and find out how much a bus ticket might be. Ignoring the taxis, the price magically dropped. By the time we got through the Port gate back onto via Cardinale Dusmet, it was 90 Euros for a ride. We kept it in mind. Aria condizionata was definitely a good sales pitch.
We retraced our steps back to Bar Terminale. While enjoying another coffee, we chatted the barista, inquiring about the bus as this was a biglieterria too. We made headway with her speaking French and she replied in Italian. It was fabulous that we could communicate in 2 different languages. She told us there was a bus shortly heading to Pozzallo, the ticket price of only 10 Euros each. Sold!
Next door was a farmacia. There was no doubt I would need to bandage my blisters before the end of the day. Dianne went inside to pick up a few things while I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk eating cherries. An old woman dressed in black from her headscarf to her worn shoes slowly walked by. She held her hand out to me, begging for money I thought. Before I could react she pointed at my paper bag. Surprised, I smiled as she reached in for a handful of cherries. Grazie, she mumbled through her broken-toothed smile and creased face and shuffled away.
By the time we finished our coffees, the bus was ready to leave. Although we hadn’t planned on going through Pozzallo, sometimes, the unexpected is just what you need.
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Dianne & Mike