A short break by rail to Sicily, with two overnight trains, allows you to show the kids a real volcano, plus the sights of Paris and Rome along the way
The train journey from London to Catania in Sicily takes 28½ hours, which sounds wearisome. But split it into four sections, with two consecutive overnight trains, and it becomes an epic journey, a mini inter-railing trip – this time with children – and with the train travel almost the best part of the holiday for everyone.
It is hard to imagine that you save time going to Sicily by train, but you can do much of the journey while you are sleeping. Our children were so excited by getting into bed on the train that the (admittedly long) process of getting there was a very happy period – rather than an instantly forgotten chunk of time spent on a plane.
The short and joyless Easyjet trip home was a reminder that, ordinarily, the travelling part of a holiday is something you endure until the holiday begins in earnest. And although train travel costs more than budget flights, it allows you to throw in day trips to Paris and Rome on the way, without paying for hotels.Nungwi Village
Because our planning was chaotic, we ended up going away for four nights (two of them in train compartments) but it was an amazingly relaxing trip. Not only is it possible to visit Mount Etna, by train, with three children for a long weekend, I’m now convinced this is the only sensible way to do it.
I travelled with my children (Rose, nine, and William, seven), my sister, Tabby, and her son (Alexander, six). General disorganisation meant we booked tickets so late that there were no direct tickets to Paris. We rerouted via Lille, stopping to have lunch in a cafe in the old town, dragging our small suitcases for the 10-minute walk from the Lille Europe station. We ate croque-monsieurs and steak haché, played cards and spilt Coca Cola on the cafe table; the children learned how to apologise in French.
At Paris Gare du Nord we bought a carnet of metro tickets and took the RER to the Eiffel Tower. The weather was bitingly cold, which meant the queues for the tower were relatively short: and we waited for only about three-quarters of an hour. Fortunately, it is possible to take cabin baggage-sized suitcases up the tower, so long as you don’t feel shy about security guards unpacking them in front of the queue. The weather was so misty that the top of the tower was closed, and even halfway up the wind was so icy that we were happy to leave after a few minutes. The children enjoyed the lift, and spent most of the time admiring each other’s Eiffel Tower key rings, bought from a pavement seller.
We took a taxi to Gare de Lyon in time for supper in the beautiful Train Bleu restaurant. With its frescoes of Mediterranean scenes, gilt finish and polished wooden panels, this was more appreciated by the adults than the children, who were not keen on the food and dismissed it as “too grand”. With minutes before the train left, we ran to the Franprix supermarket by the station and bought a picnic – grated carrots, yoghurt drinks, brioche rolls, biscuits, oranges and pistachio nuts, which was much more popular.
On the Rome train we had a six-bed couchette to ourselves, which was lucky. I think we would have enjoyed ourselves a lot less if someone else had joined us, and I think a stranger’s enjoyment of the trip might have been impaired in equal measure by the noisy enthusiasm of our children. There was a lot of fighting over who got the privilege of the top bunk, but it turned out that the middle bunk is the best place to be (from a child’s perspective) because you have the excitement of being high up, with the thrilling risk of falling out of bed, but you also have the window view. The gentle rolling motion of the train made it easy for the children to go to sleep. They insisted on having the blind up so they could look out as they fell asleep, but did not wake up as we stopped at various stations through the night, nor were they disturbed by banging doors and people stamping about in the corridor. They were thrilled by the ladder and by the sheets wrapped in cellophane, and the individual reading lamps that could be turned on and off – repeatedly.
As we left Paris, the trees were bare and wintry; by morning, as we approached Florence, Tuscany was beginning to show signs of spring, with a few green leaves on the trees and a few flashes of blossom. We saw Tuscan castles and hilltop villages. The children found a cafe a few carriages away, and returned with Fanta for themselves and, for me, a cup of coffee so disgusting that I was not sorry when a jolt on the track tipped it all over me, leaving brown slimy residue on my clothes. I rinsed them in a basin at the end of the carriage, and there was almost enough time for them to dry before we arrived in Rome.
There was a momentary dip in our mood when we saw at least 100 people ahead of us in the motionless queue for left luggage at Rome station. I stayed in the queue while the others disappeared to have more breakfast, but they returned quickly having found a hotel ready to rent us a room for the day. We left our suitcases at the hotel, and began a tour of Rome, starting with coffee in a cafe opposite the Coliseum, before walking to the Forum, along to Trajan’s Column, then on through the old town to Piazza Navona, stopping to buy blister plasters for Rose and ice-creams for everyone. We visited the Pantheon, walked across the Tiber, sat down for a long time on the pavement edge, watching Indian buskers perform levitation tricks on wooden sticks, and stopped to buy more ice-creams.
By the time that we arrived at St Peter’s Square, the children had comprehensively had enough, so we went back to the hotel to watch cartoons for a while before going out for pizza. It is true that the children were more excited by plastic splat balls on sale everywhere for a euro than by any of the sights, but the sun was out and we stopped at cafes, so everyone was happy. The children also started feeling the effects of a lot of train travel towards the end of the day: the ground beneath their feet felt wobbly, and they wondered if perhaps Italy was having an earthquake.
On the Catania train, we had two adjoining cabins, with three bunks in each. The Italian train was generally superior: the sheets were pink (which did it for the children), the beds were already made up, there was a complimentary pair of paper slippers to wear as you walked around the train, and each cabin had its own sink. The children were extremely tired and went to sleep quickly. The only downside of having our own sink was the way the noise of the wheels on the track roared up, rather disturbingly, through the plughole, until the swaying of the train rocked you unconscious.
Before leaving, we had been very excited at the idea that the train was going to be shunted on to a boat and ferried across the sea to Sicily. In the event, this happened at around 5am and we were too comfortable and too asleep to register much more than the noise of the carriages being packed one by one into the hold. There was nothing to see – and no sign of the sea.
But once we were in Sicily, the train took a beautiful coastal route towards Catania, with views of seaside villages and houses on rocks overlooking bright blue water. As we travelled south, we had left winter behind us, and because we were travelling slowly by train, we were very aware of the gradual journey towards spring. The ticket collector handed out croissants and thick pear juice in cartons. It was amazing to arrive at Catania having travelled most of the way from King’s Cross and the grime of London’s Euston Road by train.Nungwi Village
In the cheapish and lovely Hotel Etnea, all five of us slept in one enormous yellow room. If we peered out of the window to the right, we could see the volcano (which was having a mild eruption), puffing out white clouds of smoke. We took a taxi up, past the alarming post-2002 eruption moonscape, where roofs of old buildings are just visible above the stony lava. When we left to take the cable car up to the summit, the taxi driver insistently pressed on us a dirty brown blanket from the boot of his car, which we accepted out of politeness. Later it turned out to be essential, because the peak was covered in snow and ice, and we were dressed for the beach. I had to hire boots, and buy a sweatshirt, and the children wrapped themselves in the blanket and wept with misery as a guide made us walk along the snowy crest of the mountain to see a crater, and feel hot gusts of air blow up from beneath gulleys of ice.
It was hard to believe we had packed so much into so little time. We had done such a lot that none of us could remember what day it was, or how long we had been away, or how many countries we had been in. We filled the children with Sicilian rice balls and doughnuts to keep up their spirits.
A travel agent recommended that we travel from Catania to more picturesque Taormina, but by this point even our enthusiasm for trains was flagging. Besides, Catania is an amazing city, which (in April) has very few visitors, so we were the only people in the Roman amphitheatre where we spent the afternoon, relishing not being among thousands of ant-like tourists, as we had been in Rome. The children spent a long time watching snails trying to escape from a wicker basket in the fish market. When we stopped for lunch in a nearby cafe, the stall owner, mistaking their interest, walked over with a large slimy bagful and made the chef cook them for us. They looked barely dead when they arrived, in garlic sauce, and we managed to eat only three.
When you travel by train the holiday begins the moment you get to the station, and that station is usually in the centre of town. Train travel makes you conscious of how much time you waste when you fly – getting to the airport, then all the milling around there, queuing to check in, queuing for security, queuing to get on the plane, politely jostling for a seat, the bad mood-inducing wait for take-off as you breathe in the chemicals from the plane loos. The only good thing about the flight home was that we were able to get the 25 artichokes we bought for €3 from a street corner stall through security. We ate Sicilian salads in London for the next week.
• Adult rail travel was provided by Rail Europe (0844 848 4070, raileurope.co.uk), which has one-way fares from London to Sicily from £176.50 adults, £135.50 children. Hotel Etnea (+39 095 250 3076, hoteletnea316catania.com), has B&B doubles from €59