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TRANSPORT

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?
A statue of the Madonna greets arrivals at the Sicilian port of Messina. How long will it take you to get there from Rome? Photo by Tomas Eidsvold on Unsplash

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.

Member comments

  1. The link about privileged for Sicilian residents sends you to a website for Sardinian residents

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TRANSPORT

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.

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