A debate on whether a man in a suit generates appeal might last a minute or two. The same debate on a man in an Italian suit would be over before I...
I know, today we mostly associate travelling by train to filthy seats, noise and running out of a station in a rush, trying desperately to get to wherever we need to be on time. If you think of it for a moment, though, there’s something incredibly charming and poetic, almost touching, about the way the world passes you by behind a train’s window… or frightening, as Alessandro Baricco, one of Italy’s best known contemporary novelists, had written in his first work, Castelli di Rabbia (published in English with the title Lands of Glass). But that’s a different story, to tell another time.
Anyway, there must be something true in what I’ve just written, because Italians have recently rediscovered the pleasure of train trips. We’re not talking your regular trains, though, nor your normal national rail lines: we’re talking history. Historical trains have been running on long-forgotten scenic routes, giving their passengers a taste of times gone by, a snapshot of Italian beauty, a few hours of relax and, yes, magic.
Four main itineraries make up Binari Senza Tempo
In charge of the initiative is the Fondazione FS, the Italian Rails’ own historic-cultural association, which was created to “maintain, value and pass on to the next generation a vast historical and technical patrimony, symbol and instrument of Italy’s own unification.”
To keep the goal relevant, the foundation endorsed the creation of Binari Senza Tempo (literally, “timeless rails”). The initiative aims at rediscovering four long-disused rail lines, characterised by the beauty – either natural or artistic – of the area they run through. Each of the lines is viewed as a bona fide “dynamic museum.”
North to South, the Ferrovia del Lago (the lake line) is the first historical route we encounter. Set along the Iseo lake, it joins quaint Palazzolo sull’Oglio to Paratico Sarnico, in Lombardia. The line was inaugurated in 1876, a mere handful of years after Italy’s unification, and closed to the public in 1969, even if freight trains kept using it for about two decades more. Running through the natural park of the Oglio river, choose it if you want to experience the vintage thrill of travelling on an old fashioned steam locomotive.
Follow the aroma of Chianti and the words of Dante and you’ll find yourself in Tuscany. Here’s the the Ferrovia della Val D’Orcia (the Val D’Orcia line) connecting Asciano to Monte Antico, in the enchanted lands of Siena’s countryside. Opened in 1872 and closed in 1994, the line runs through vineyards and colourful hills, letting passengers enjoy some of Tuscany’s best landscapes.
The Ferrovia del Parco (the park line) brings you high up on the Apennines, through the green and balmy woods of the Maiella massif, which lies at the centre of one of Italy’s many National Parks, the Parco Nazionale della Maiella (hence the name of the line, of course). Thanks to the beauty of the area it traverses, the Ferrovia del Parco is known as the Italian Trans-Siberian Line: definitely to choose if you like the mountains, nature and their wild charming beauty.
Last, but most certainly not least, in line is Sicily’s own Ferrovia dei Templi (the temples line): a fantastic, most precious trip from Agrigento to Porto Empedocle, throughout the magnificence of the Valle dei Templi, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage. One of its stops will surely leave you open mouthed: right on front of the Tempio di Efesto (or Vulcano, if you want to say it like the Romans), the temple dedicated to Greek god of fire, smack in the middle of the Valle dei Templi. If you’re a history buff, or studied Classics at some stage during your college years, this is definitely the trip for you.
…There is more …
Binari Senza Tempo is the only nationally supported initiative of this type, but many more have been endorsed locally: in the north-western region of Piemonte, the old fashioned littorine (a type of motor coach) of the Ceva-Ormea line have opened once again their doors for tourists and nostalgic locals, bringing their joyful whistle back to the Alpine Tanaro Valley and its mountains.
Other initiatives will bring history on still active lines, for once-off trips on vintage carriages and steam locomotives: on the 21st of May, step back into the roaring ‘20s travelling between the Roma Termini and Città del Vaticano stations, on a vintage early 20th century train. Back on the Iseo lake, you could enjoy a different take on a similar itinerary to that proposed by Binari Senza Tempo hopping on a Treno Blu, a beautifully restored 1930s steam locomotive following the course of the Oglio river to the lake.
So yes: there’s more to trains than bringing you from A to B.
When I think of train travelling, I try to push away from my mind the grim memories of sticky seats and stuffy air of the almost daily trips to school of my youth.
I think of Turin and Paris instead, of the train bringing me from one city to the other. Of the painting-like beauty of the Alps in Winter, and the bright yellow flower fields of central France in Spring, both images framed by the almost perfect, glassy shape of a train window: now, that’s really the stuff of dreams and poetry, just like Baricco says in his book…