As someone who tends to gravitate towards European cities for their architecture and history, I rarely find myself truly in the wilderness of a country on this continent.
It’s a travel mishap that I’ve recognised and want to address. Although sometimes I do accidentally find myself in the most wonderful of countrysides without even really planning to be.
Last year, I took the train from Palermo in northern Sicily to the ancient greek city of Agrigento in the far south. I love travel by train, the slower the better. And so the prospect of more than two hours meandering through the small towns of Sicily’s centre quickly became part of the experience that day.
The Trenitalia service pulled out of Palermo’s Central Station and traced the northern coastline for roughly the first hour. Busy at first, commuters gradually disembarked and left behind an unorthodox mixture of rural farm workers, Sicilians visiting family and us; a handful of camera clad visitors excited to see the largest complex of Greek temples anywhere outside of Greece.
My focus however, as it always is on trains, was drawn out of the window. As soon as we left the sparkling blue of the Tyrrhenian sea, the flat farmland around us exploded into rolling green with bouldered rivers covering the hills like a lattice. Little bridges provided thoroughfares for local land owners, who could be glimpsed only for a few seconds in the orchards and terraces of their country homes.
Luckily, I was on a stopping train. It wasn’t charging through the towns and villages that linked the north to south but stopping for at least five minutes at each to let passengers on and off. Families said hello and goodbye emotionally on tiny slithers of platform not raised from the tracks. Middle-aged suits talked business before what I assumed would be a long lunch in Agrigento. Farmers boarded carrying all manner of equipment that might have needed fixing I supposed. Or perhaps just to lend to friend further down the track.
The landscape only got greener and the sweeps of hill more mountainous as we chugged further south. Cammarata-S.G Gemini; Campofranco and Aragona-Caldare. A fascinating variety of place names that I’d never even heard of, let alone considered.
Is there anything more fitting for the perfect adventure than not really knowing where you are?
Quite suddenly the hills collapsed as we pushed through the built up suburbs of modern Agrigento. Semi high-rises with little thought or planning hid the horizon and smothered our train. Despite the uninviting aesthetic outside, the train was now abuzz as everyone realised we had almost arrived. Some Germans prepped their rucksacks and readied their cameras for a day of UNESCO sight seeing. Locals rang friends and arranged restaurants to meet in.
It took this to remind me that in theory, my day had only just begun – a visit to the famous temples of Agrigento in the Sicilian sun. The train was merely a means to an end for most of those around me. A mode of transport to deliver them to their day.
How strange then, that I felt like I had already seen so much. In a strange way, it seemed as if the adventure was already over.