Italy, like most of Europe, has a complex and modern national rail system aimed at getting millions of passengers to their destinations quickly and safely each day. That said, sometimes the joy of train travel is the journey itself, especially when there is fabulous countryside and villages to be admired. Here are some of Italy’s most spectacular scenic routes (for some suggestions for unforgettable international and gastronomic trips, take a look at part one of our Unique Train Rides in Italy):
Scenic by Design
The Alps has its Little Red Train, and Sardinia has its Little Green Train. The four different routes—two on the northern half of the island and two in the southern—use historic narrow gauge tracks laid in 1888 and recently restored locomotives and carriages to wind up the inland hills, taking passengers into the unspoiled and sparsely populated countryside above Sardinia’s famous coastline. This interior landscape is famed for its beauty, at places lush and at others craggily desolate, though was long known exclusively to the famously taciturn local Sardi, who used these lines as their sole mode of transportation to the outside world. The pace of this train matches that of the island, as it slowly meanders along a total of more than 400 km of track through cork forests, past prehistoric dolmen, sleepy villages, and windswept archaeological sites.
As its name suggests, this line traces a rough circle around the base of Mount Etna, one of Italy’s most active volcanos, along its narrow-gauge tracks. Built in the late 1800s, the 100 km long route travels between Catania Borgo and Riposto, passing a number of fetching historic stations and their villages—including Bronte, famous for its pistachios, and Medieval Rendazzo—along the way. But the true draw of the Circumetnea are the vistas over the black lava fields, broken up by citrus groves, vineyards, and flowering meadows on the stretch between Adrano and Randazzo (other sections of the route pass through decidedly un-photogenic suburban and industrial areas). This is also a scenic way to reach the hiking trails climbing the slopes of Etna.
(Photo by Herbert Ortner via Wikipedia)
The Renon Line
Known as the Rittnerbahn to the German speaking population of South Tyrol, this short 5.5 km stretch connecting Collalbo (or Klobenstein) and Soprabolzano, (or Oberbozen) on the Ritten plateau in the spectacular Dolomites was inaugurated in 1907. The original route began with a tram in Bolzano (or Bozen), which was then coupled to a cog engine to ascend the 1000 plus meters of rack railway to the Ritten plateau, where it would uncouple and continue on from Maria Himmelfahrt (the first village along the upper route) once again as a tram. After the substitution of the rack railway with a cable car in 1966 (after, tragically, a fatal derailing), the lower tram route was discontinued and passengers now take the modern cable car directly from Bolzano to the historic upper tram route (the cable car and tram timetables are coordinated), admiring the breathtaking views over the mountains, including the area’s “fairy chimney” natural rock formations, carved by millennia of wind and ice.
Scenic by Accident
Some of the most spectacular train lines in Italy aren’t so by design, but rather by the accident of the gorgeous countryside they happen pass through along their normal route. One such example is the express line between Verona and the city of Brennero in the Brenner Pass bordering Italy and Austria. For more than two hours, passengers are treated to breathtaking views of the Dolomite Mountains as the tracks skirt the winding banks of the Elsack River, passing a number of pretty Alpine villages along the way. On either side of this river’s glacial valley, snowcapped rocky peaks are framed by deep blue sky and just beg to be photographed. If you’re traveling north, the best views are to the left of the train.
(Photo by P Tasso via Wikipedia)
The main rail line connecting Messina and Palermo traces Sicily’s northern coast for almost the entire length its route, treating passengers to views over the Mediterranean, beaches, and fishing villages. How long the trip takes can vary wildly, depending upon whether travelers opt for an express Intercity, which stops at just a few major stations along the route, or a slow Regionale (some of which stop at upwards of 25 stations). Unfortunately, Intercity trains require advance seat reservations, so there’s no guarantee that passengers will score a seat on the correct side of the train to enjoy the views (right side from Messina or left side from Palermo). That said, Intercity trains are more likely to have working air-conditioning, which can make or break a train trip during those torrid Sicilian summers.
This 20 km stretch along the Tyrrhenian Sea includes one of Italy’s most beloved areas, Liguria’s Cinque Terre fishing villages, which tumble down the rocky coast to the sea and are separated by vertigo-inducing terraced hillsides covered with vineyards and olive groves. This section of Italy’s coast is marked by pretty coves and dramatic rock formations; a number of tunnels through the cliffside allow trains to travel so close to the edge that it almost seems as if the tracks were laid directly above the water. The best views are on the left from Levanto, or the right if traveling from La Spezia. That said, this is not a route for the faint of heart, so if you fear heights you may want to stick to the more conservative side of the train.