I am sitting in the middle of the plane, but as we approach Palermo, I sneak glances to left and right. For a long time the left is nothing but dark blue open ocean. To the right a rugged, broken coastline appears, with a very large mountain behind, and terracotta houses dotted up the hillside and along the coast. I had no idea to expect such varying, mountainous terrain. As we touch down, I have already decided I will like this place.
This is my first time travelling alone, to an unknown place, for a long time. I think the last unknown place was Aalborg in 2016, where I went alone for a conference, but conference travelling is always different to holiday travelling. I have become a lazy traveller, relying on A- to guide me in Spain, or meeting up with friends to share the feeling of unknowingness. To be alone is both liberating and terrifying. I have done enough research to know there is a bus to the city centre and from there I will be able to take a train to Vallelunga. I have memorised the end town but not the town where I change trains. Thank goodness for google maps and modern day internet connections.
As I wait for my luggage I notice two different women, both with their partners. One is dressed in a linen, blue and white striped skirt with buttons down the front, a white t-shirt, a white-brimmed straw hat that ties at the back with a golden ribbon, and pretty sandals. The other is in a terracotta linen dress with a belt at the waist, a straw hat, and sandals. Both look incredibly glamorous, exactly like an English tourist in Sicily should look, like every movie you have ever seen with the English in Italy. I am self-conscious in their presence.
The lady at the shuttle bus desk says ‘prego’ as I approach the desk. I say ‘buongiorno’ back and then, lost for Italian words, launch into English. We spend a lot of time with me trying to explain I’d like to come back to the airport ‘next week Monday’. I try ‘the 9th’ which seems to be confused with time, and even try some Spanish, ‘proxima semana’. She has reassured me that this return ticket is cheaper, but the €2 saving is starting to feel like a lot of effort. Eventually we gain an understanding and I am dismissed with a sarcastic ‘bye-eee’. I am delighted by her. She is the second brusque Sicilian I seem to have annoyed and I have only been here five minutes. (The first was the passport control officer who made many hand gestures and gesticulations at my having two passports.)
Outside it is hot, sticky hot, with high cloud passing and a sky that is white, rather than blue. Bus found, I clamber aboard. The bus route in from the airport skirts the sea edge. The ocean is turquoise blue, then azure, then cyan. Dilapidated houses are built between the freeway and the sea – sometimes singularly, sometimes in a row, eventually a village. Everything is cream and terracotta tiles, peeling paint walls, shutters. Where there is beach there are people, in the water, under umbrellas, clambering over the rocks. As we get closer to the city the houses become bigger, more elaborate, blue shutters against dark terracotta, bougainvillaea twining over the walls. Shuttered shop fronts and banks give way to Prada and Gucci, Hermes and Michael Kors. On one roundabout a tiny orange Mini? Volkswagen? is parked, right on the edge, somehow small enough not to be causing any traffic jams.
I get off at the train station, buy a ticket for my train. Eventually I find the platform and check with the conductor that I am getting on the right one. Reassured I clamber aboard and settle next to a window. The scenery out the window changes from inner city high rises, washing hanging out of windows, to small towns, glimpses of sea. As we curve around the mountain suddenly there is agriculture everywhere – every inch of land seems to be productive. There is wheat, olives, vegetables, fruit orchards. I take many photographs as we speed past.
At Roccapalumba (another name to say joyfully out loud) I have to switch trains. It seems a small station so I sit on the platform of the train I’ve just gotten off. The train doesn’t move. It is a while before I realise there is another platform reached via subway and my next train is going from that one. I hurriedly dash below and race up the stairs and onto the train. I check with the friendly conductor whether this will take me to Vallelunga and she confirms. I settle down once more, slightly sweatier, heart racing. I finished my water on the last train. We are delayed here for at least 20 minutes. She comes to apologise several times. There is some problem on the line. Eventually we are off.
But no sooner have we left the station than the train screeches back to a halt and we sit and we sit and we sit. The other passengers on the train start to talk to the conductor. There is a lot of gesturing. Then pacing. One man comes from the back of the train to our carriage, and then disappears, only to return a few minutes later. More gesturing. The conductor uses the delay to check all our tickets. I give her mine and she scans it, looks at me, scans it again. Then she talks to me in rapid Italian, without pausing, for what seems like an age. Eventually I raise my hands and tell her I am sorry but I don’t understand her. She laughs and apologies profusely again for forgetting. ‘Of course!’ she says,’ you are English!’ She then explains that while I have managed to make the trains, I haven’t validated my ticket in Palermo. The ticket is invalid. In my haste and nervousness to find the train, I had totally forgotten about this peculiar Italian train phenomenon. A ticket needs to be validated in a machine before travel (or on the bus as you get on). She asks if I am going further than Vallelunga. I tell her I am leaving the train then. ‘Okay,’ she says, ‘don’t worry about it then’. I thank her gratefully.
Finally we are on the move again. A woman further up the train complains loudly to the conductor as she passes. The pacing men resume their seats. At last we arrive in Vallelunga. I step off the train and cross the tracks to find Sam, from Casa Vecchie, has come to fetch me. We drive the winding roads up the hill, passing lush, green vineyard, the yellow-gold scrub left from baling wheat, hay bales dotting the fields. We pull up at the front of the courtyard. I am here at last.