circumetnea

Circumetnea: Exploring Mount Etna by Train

You might have heard of a train route around the Etna called Circumetnea. If you did you most likely did not find any information about it. So are you ready for the mystery to be unravelled?

The Circumetnea is not a myth like that of the cyclops of Acitrezza. The train that goes around the Etna not only exists but it is also worth one day of your holiday. A slow travel through tiny villages, lush vineyards and bare lava fields for an experience that is both nostalgic and adventurous. Messy and punctual. Rough and bucolic. The Circumetnea perfectly embodies the dualism that often characterises the most unrepeatable charm of Sicily. But it is when everything means something and its contrary that you must keep an open mind and get prepared.

For example, it might come in handy to know that the route of the Circumetnea does not bring you from one place back to the same one. Despite circum standing for going around. And this is at least one good reason to share my experience here.

Circumetnea: PLANNING the TRIP

For this holiday I was staying in Villa Bagolaro, in Carruba, together with my parents, who I could describe as friendly Italians not too familiar to traveling, let alone to alternative routes.

Villa Bagolaro
Early morning in Villa Bagolaro.

Considering the scarcity of information about the Circumetnea we decided to go directly to the closest train station (in Riposto) one day in advance. 

To our surprise we found two train stations. A reasonably new one for usual trains and a more characteristic one for the Circumetnea. To be honest the latter was hidden and it took us some asking around to find it. But if we succeeded, I have faith you will too. The word characteristic stands here for a scraped and ghosted red station with just a couple of people and a time table paper affixed on a wall.

Ferrovia Circumetnea

Still confused about whether or not we were in the right place, we started to plan our trip for the next day. We soon discovered that the Circumetnea runs over a horseshoe shaped route. On one end you have Giarre/Riposto. On the other end you have Catania. You can begin your trip from either locations. However, if you wish to come back to where you left (and where you probably left your car), you need to retrace the journey in the opposite direction.

Since we did not want to leave our holiday home too early as we wished to linger on its terrace a while longer,  we opted for departing at midday. However, that meant that we could not make it further than the village of Bronte if we wanted to be able to come back to Riposto with that train and not by hitchhiking.

I was disappointed by it then. It felt like aiming to hike a mountain and than settle for the first resting area. Nevertheless a plan was made. Finally the next day we came back again to the same train station prepared and informed. We purchased a return ticket (8 Euros p.p.) just before departure. Without truly knowing what was ahead of us, we started our little adventure.

A 6 hours TRIP

The little me who was all disappointed by not being able to do the whole route in one day was gone as soon as she realised how slow the train was going as well as on which train she was on.

Circumetnea

Imagine the faces of my parents, both in their 70s, when they saw the train of their youth approaching the station. Straight from the 50s, this nostalgic train was an experience on its own.

As we waited at the station a young guy next to us was talking on the phone to his mother. He informed her that he would take a litturina to go home. My mother eyes lightened up as she repeated to us enthusiastically the same word just heard: litturina. This train so far known as Circumetnea – a name too foreign to her – suddenly became the most familiar of the experiences. Being the daughter of a rail worker she knew well the word littorina. A word coined for this type of mini trains when these trains where invented. A forgotten word, that only a few dialects still recall and that added a completely new dimension to our adventure. We were now about to explore the Etna, the highest active vulcano of Europe, in littorina.

From Giarre to Randazzo

We set in. No actually I set in. My parents could not stop looking outside the window. They kept commenting on how the train was exactly as the one they grow up with. The same seats as then and the same unmissable squeaky noises.

Unfortunately the vintage train only runs between Giarre/Riposto and Randazzo. Once in Randazzo (already at 753 m above sea level) if you wish to continue, you must swap into a train of this century featuring air-conditioning. This is a smooth operation really. And while you wait you could easily walk to the cute square of Randazzo. We had 20 minutes which were just the right time for my father, who is always hungry, to run to a bakery/wineshop/delicatessen (Il Buongustaio by Calà Giuseppe alias Pippo Calà). He asked for one panino con la mortadella to eat and, 10 minutes later, for another one to go.

Some friendly rail workers in Randazzo informed us that the nicest route was the one we just did. The stretch between Giarre to Randazzo included stunning views over Taormina, the lush Etna vegetation, and the estranging lava landscape of the West side of the vulcano.

Taormina Circumetnea
View of Taormina and its bay from the Circumetnea.
Surroundings of Castiglione di Sicilia.
Lava and ginestre.
Randazzo lava flow
The ruins of a house in Randazzo buried by lava flow.

From Randazzo to Bronte

If you do not want to change train, you can also go from Giarre to Randazzo and back, for example. We, however, decided to continue from Randazzo to Bronte. Why? One word: pistachios! I am a huge fan of these green seeds (or are they nuts?) and this village is world famous for its quality production.

In Bronte we could spend one and a half hours before having to catch the train back to Randazzo. So we had time for strolling along the main street, for buying some pistachios paste, and for eating a warm and well deserved arancino al pistacchio. I also got busy talking to a local guy about the perks and downsides of the the cultivation of the pistachio trees, but this is a story for another post.

Landscape in Bronte

Circumetnea: All in all

We left from Giarre at 12.15 pm. We came home six hours later. All in all I did not regret a single minute of the entire trip. My parents were ecstatic to be able to relish an unexplored landscape with the same enthusiasm of when they were kids, taking the train to somewhere they never been before. To my surprise I enjoyed the slowness of this travel. It gave me space to reflect on the nature of relations and on the sudden ageing of my parents. I might have even meditated as I never had done in a long time about this incredibly resourceful nature we live in. Finally together we enjoyed some quality time and the Etna’s multifaceted landscape. A landscape that keeps amazing you notwithstanding how informed or prepared you could be for it.

Circumetnea passing amidst the lush Etna landscape – photo by Joris Doesburg

 

©photos by Giulia Lattanzio 

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