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Touring Italy by Train:
Dianne and Marjorie's Excellent Adventure
"To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and ruins, in effect, to see life."
Agatha Christie

Marjorie & Dianne going to Firenze!

European trains have always sounded somewhat mysterious to me. The British Railways, the Orient Express, the train rides that Paul Theroux described in his travel books, all have a certain romantic appeal to me. So when Marjorie suggested that we get train passes for our Italy trip, I was all for it.

Our first ride was on a little diretto from Milano to Bergamo, an hour's ride on a branch line. The train was old and dirty, with torn seats and graffitied windows, not much in the way of style or romance. But it was a good introduction to the wide variety of Italian trains we would encounter over the next three weeks.

By the time we left Milano, we were beginning to get the hang of things.  We enjoyed watching the old-fashioned machine that announced which tracks the train would leave from, with it's whirling letters and numbers that eventually spelled out the destination names and binario numbers. Even though all the signs were in Italian, it didn't take us too long to figure it out. And with our train passes, we could just hop on any train we wanted to, no problem.

Our second journey was from Milano to Firenze, a three-hour ride on the Eurostar bullet train. We had first class passes, so we timed our trip to have lunch in the dining car. We were not disappointed. A waiter came around shortly after we boarded and asked us if we would like to have lunch. He handed us a menu, which indicated the fixed price (about $27 US) and told us it would be served very soon. We couldn't wait.

The Eurostar Italia is a bullet train, capable of 250 Km/hr.  It's the most luxurious form of train travel in Italy, boasting a dining car, air conditioning, wide comfortable seats, mini compartments, fold-out tables between seats and much more.


The dining car was lovely, with linen tablecloth and napkins, even fresh flowers in little holders. Our waiter greeted us with an open bottle of champagne. He took one look at us and then switched to speaking English before we even opened our mouths. That was something we noticed quite often during our trip. We just look like Americans, no use trying to hide it.

He explained the menu to us. We'd start with spaghetti with tiny shrimp, followed by roasted potatoes, beefsteak and green beans. Then cheese, fruit and dessert. A small bottle of red wine, if we wanted it, and bottled water, with or without gas. "No gas/con gas" was a question that was posed to us by every waiter in Italy. Apparently, nobody drinks tap water, and everybody likes a glass of water with their wine. I wanted natural, Marjorie wanted sparkling. Nothing is ever simple.

Each course was served by two waiters, one holding a huge plate of food, the other carefully loading our plates. Our wine bottle was opened and poured, the plates were filled and removed in a timely fashion, and we enjoyed the service immensely. The food tasted good and again I was reminded of all the old train movies I'd ever seen.

Back in our seats about an hour from Milano the ticket-taker came around. We pulled out our passes and he looked them over carefully. Then he asked us for our tickets. We gave him a blank look. He spoke just a little English, we spoke even less Italian. Apparently we needed a supplemental ticket even with our passes for the Eurostar trains. We forked over some lire, about $10 each, and then everything was in order.

The most astounding thing to me was the Milano train station itself: a huge sky-lighted, marble-walled palace of an entrance, that led to the actual ticket windows, waiting areas and train tracks. The people seemed so small under this huge arcade. It reminded me of an old movie. I could feel Mussolini's presence here and I couldn't help but wonder if the trains were running on time.

Milano Train Station

We arrived in Firenze on time. The train station was crowded and noisy, a little smaller than the Milano station, and newer. It didn't have a beautiful foyer. It was a madhouse outside the station. The traffic was brutal, with a dozen taxi lanes and city buses converging into the piazza in front of it. Pedestrians with luggage were in grave danger. An underground walkway had been provided to cross the piazza. But Marjorie, being an old hand at such things, suggested that we dash across anyhow. We were pulling all our bags, which seemed to grow heavier and bulkier with each step. The cobblestones and curbs made tough going, even for wheeled luggage. And then, of course, we got lost. All streets of Firenze are narrow, crowded, congested with either foot or real traffic, and crooked. Although our lodging was fairly close to the station, it seemed like miles away. But eventually we found it, and over the next few weeks, the path to and from the station became a familiar one for us.

We took small day trips, all on direttos and Inter-cities. The Euros didn't run just everywhere.  After a while, we learned to avoid direttos, if at all possible. Italy seems to be filled with small hilltop towns of narrow, crooked cobblestone streets, each with an immense cathedral, and shops. Life must have been horrible during the Middle Ages when they had to build on steep hills and put up tall stone walls around them for protection. Those old buildings were well-constructed to still be livable five hundred years later.

Here's a snapshot of the leaning tower.  If you hold your camera at about a 10 degree angle, your photo will look like this.  There is a huge pile of cement and metal blocks stacked against its base and a steel cable embracing it to try and keep it from falling over.  It was raining in Pisa when I took this, but that didn't appear to stop the many tourists from visiting this famous site, but ya' know, I don't think this tower would be so terribly impressive if it wasn't leaning. 

The upright Tower of Pisa

All the little towns began to look alike to me, with the exception of Pisa. It was a true tourist trap, something like a theme park ride. I began sorting the various sights into rides or reality. You need money for rides, reality is free. Pisa was a ride. We even had to buy a ticket to walk through the cathedral. Too many hawkers, too much tourist junk, way too many tourists, too many shills trying to coax us into their store, restaurant, or bar. However, if you must see the leaning tower, you better book your trip.

When we got off the trains at these small towns we usually had to take a bus to the center of town. Italian buses are rides, thrill rides. They have just single seats along the windows. Most people have to stand, and it seemed like the busses were usually full. I felt like I was in a dice cup being thrown against the other passengers as we'd careen up the winding roads to town.

We were staying in a flat in the Antinori building, which was owned by an Italian Contessa.  Marjorie wasn't sure she really existed until she met her one day.   The Contessa explained to Marjorie that she had just completed decorating our apartment and she was very excited about it. The place was large with parquet floors, antique furniture, fully-equipped kitchen, hard beds, and beautiful bathrooms. The first thing I said when looking around was that it was too bad we didn't know anybody in town because our place was big enough to throw a party.

Our building was an old one that had been restored into large apartments on some floors and offices on others. The tenants all shared one of those wire-cage elevators with the manually-operated doors, another feature right out of the classic movies. There weren't many other tenants in the building but we were lucky enough to meet our next door neighbors while waiting for the elevator. They spoke English, being from Northern California, so we invited them over for dinner. We would have our party after all. There were three of them, a couple and a single man, all in their fifties. They were delighted to join us because they were staying in Firenze for two months and were eating every meal out, even though they had a full kitchen just like ours.

Our living room.  It overlooked the Piazza Antinori on Via Tourniboni. The walls were lined with horse and rider prints which amused us no end, especially after touring the Uffizi.

Our apartment
Marjorie and I were eager to shop for the event. We had to go to the butcher for the chickens. I needed an interpreter to explain that I wanted the head and the claw feet whacked off, and then quartered. I didn't know the Italian word for "whack." Luckily, another customer helped me explain it to the butcher. Then we went to the veggie market, the pasta market, the cheese market, the wine seller and finally the bakery. We had to visit all of them before noon, of course.

I prepared the chickens Tuscan-style, which I learned from reading the Frances Mayes book, Under the Tuscan Sun. She mentions running around to the various markets, so I felt right at home doing that, and also with the recipe. First, I marinated the chickens in lemon juice all afternoon. Then I sautéed some fresh garlic in olive oil to drizzle over them, then I sprinkled in some other spices and onions, and then baked them until they were brown, crispy and nearly falling off the bone.

The guests brought wine and chocolate cake. When we finished dinner, we drank all the wine, wolfed up the cake, and then we served a big plate of biscotti, which we dipped in San Vincenzo, a dessert wine. When there was nothing left to eat or drink, they crawled home. Great party!

They weren't in any hurry to see the sights of Firenze. Mainly their days consisted of going out for meals, heading to the racetrack on horse-race days, watching Italian television and drinking martinis. They had perfected the art of idling. Friends and family from America would be passing through every few weeks to join them. They told us they would see the sights when they had visitors.

Eventually Marjorie and I started watching Italian TV too. Everybody does. Paul Theroux mentioned in his book, Pillars of Hercules, that he met many people around the Mediterranean who spoke Italian, having learned it from watching Italian TV, which is beamed up all over the area. I guess we were slow learners. There was one show called Pasa Parole that we watched in the evening. I think it was a quiz show. We tried to answer the questions, but it was hopeless. We also enjoyed Third Rock from the Sun, which was even sillier dubbed in Italian. We started making up our own voice-overs for some of the more familiar shows.

The most perplexing program was the Italian news. What I quickly realized was how often we see the same video clips over and over every night. The words may be different but the pictures are the same. There was one segment of film showing a bombed-out train. We saw it three days running. We never knew what happened or even where the bombing had occurred, but we recognized the train as a diretto, with shattered windows, torn curtains and seats, and graffiti. It could have been one we'd been on the day before, except for the smoke and broken glass on the seats.

We stopped in to see the neighbors one Monday morning and found them watching the movie On the Waterfront, dubbed, of course. They reluctantly tore themselves away from it to hear our latest field report. We had started out on Sunday to see Venice. The train left at 8:30 a.m. We managed to get on the train, but just before it left the station, we realized that all the seats were reserved and we'd have to stand for the three-hour trip, so we hopped off just before it left the station. Since we had nothing better to do, we decided to take the next Eurostar out of town, no matter where it was going. That turned out to be Roma -- okay with us. We got reservations at the ticket window and boarded. Remembering our last meal, we headed for the dining car and took a seat. The waiter asked us for our lunch reservation. We pretended not to understand him but he threw us out anyhow.

We were hungry, since we had left our apartment early, counting on a nice train breakfast, so we ate the little candies out of the free box of goodies the steward handed out and amused ourselves watching the beautiful Italian countryside whiz by. Sunny fields of hay, olive groves, vineyards, Roman ruins, distant mountains, tidy farm homes, and every so often, small train stations with seedy apartments beside the track flew by. As we got closer to Roma, Marjorie became more anxious. She didn't want to stop there. The Rome train station was a nightmare -- huge, loud, dirty, of course, and confusing.

Roman ruins!
I suppose the farmers don't even notice the Roman ruins
in the background as they tend their fields. 

We decided to continue on to Napoli, another two-hour Eurostar ride. Maybe, if we were lucky we could reach Pompeii. More beautiful Italian countryside passed before us, which eventually began to change as we traveled farther south. The small rolling hills became mountains, more hilltop towns appeared, and then eventually we were traveling along the coast. Hundreds of pastel-colored, box-like apartments appeared to be piled up along the shoreline as we neared Napoli. As the train got closer, we could see how tacky they really were, with sooty laundry flapping from the balconies, peeling paint and stunted trees, mile after mile. Mt. Vesuvius loomed in the distance. We were getting closer to our destination.

The Napoli station looked and felt the same as Roma. We eventually found the ticket windows for the inter-city trolley, which would take us to Pompeii, bought our tickets and were pointed to the underground transit station. Fewer information people spoke English so we used lots of sign language. We got on the trolley, which was crowded, found seats and smiled stupidly at the other passengers. After about three stops, we decided to check the transit map to see how many more stops until Pompeii. We didn't see it on the map so Marjorie asked the passengers across the aisle: how many more stops to Pompeii. They looked at her like we were from Mars, of course, and then started shaking their heads and making hand gestures at us. Marjorie interpreted that to mean about twenty more minutes.

At that point the ticket-taker came around. He didn't speak English either but he managed to explain to us that we were on the wrong trolley. So was another passenger. He spoke to her in Italian and pointed to us. She nodded. We were to get off at the next stop and follow her. She seemed exasperated but motioned us to go with her. We followed her down the stairs under the track to the ticket window, where we watched her ask a few questions, then turn around and motion us to head back up the stairs to another track. Finally, she spoke to us in broken English. We had been given the wrong track number in Napoli. She was Russian, she said, from Moscow, and now living in Italy. She dismissed us after hearing we were from California. She talked to her cell phone until the train showed up.

I snapped off this photo as we stood on the tracks waiting for the trolley back to the Napoli train station.  There was graffiti everywhere around the stations and on the train cars.  According to my source on Italian culture (a taxi driver, of course), Italian graffiti, unlike American graffiti, is just scribbling with no hidden gang signals. Milano was simply riddled with it. I saw little of it in Firenze, except some political stuff, "NATO assassins", on the walls of some buildings. Napoli

We had other decisions to make. It was nearly four o'clock now, we were both hungry, and the last train back to Firenze left from the Napoli station in about two hours. We didn't know how long it would take to get to Pompeii, or if anything would be open once we got there. I was in favor of spending the night in Napoli, even though we hadn't brought a change of clothes with us. We could view the ruins in the morning. Marjorie didn't want to. She was a little afraid of Napoli and the idea of tramping around looking for a hotel room didn't appeal to her.

Just then the trolley to Pompeii showed up. The Russian got off her phone and motioned to us to get on the train. We waved good-bye to her and she looked at us like we were idiots. We had decided to head back to town. There was no easy way to explain it to the Russian, so we just shrugged as she motioned us to come along with her.

The Napoli station seemed more crowded and depressing than ever. We were definitely hungry now, since all we'd eaten was candy, and it was now dinner time. The only restaurant in the station was a McDonald's. I suggested we walk into town and find something else. Marjorie thought a Big Mac sounded better. I had a Number One. It tasted just like home.

We hung around the restaurant watching Italians eating hamburgers and ice cream for awhile and then decided to find our track for the trip back to Firenze. It was a good thing we did. Apparently the last train out of Napoli to Roma on Sunday night is very popular. It was crowded with nervous chattering Italians. We didn't have seat reservations, so we'd have to fight our way aboard. When the train arrived, everybody rushed the steps. We jumped right into the thick of it and somehow managed to stay together. The train was already packed. I spotted one passenger, a stern-looking woman, sitting alone in a four-seat compartment. I smiled and pointed at the vacant seats. She nodded and we quickly sat. I thanked her. She smiled and turned away.

We were lucky. Others prowled up and down the aisles. All first-class seats were taken. Marjorie was particularly incensed that some passengers holding first-class tickets were standing over us, waiting like jackals for us to get up so they could bounce on our seats. They eventually trailed off to second class. M. thought they should at least get a partial refund. I decided not to think about it.

We licked our wounds. Marjorie had been pushed as we tried to board. She said she just shoved him back and neither of them had said anything. She had a bruise to prove it. I looked at my arm. I had one too. I hadn't even felt it in the rush of trying to get on board -- a way of life that both of us had not been familiar with before this incident.

When the train reached Roma, nearly all the passengers got off. We would ride the last three hours back to Firenze in an empty train car. We wouldn't get home until after 10 p.m. We'd spent the entire day riding trains and hanging around stations. We'd seen lots of Italian countryside and watched lots of people. We'd been lost outside of Napoli, hungry much of the time, and somewhat disoriented by the experience. We didn't get to see either Venice or Pompeii, but we had had a great adventure. Our neighbors weren't terribly impressed with our story. They wanted us to go to Venice and then tell us how to get there and back without too much hassle.

We put off the Venice trip until the following Wednesday. According to the ticket clerk, fewer passengers travel there during the first part of the week. He assured us that we would have no problem finding a seat on the Venice train if we went then. We did manage to get a reservation for the last Eurostar out of Venice Wednesday evening so we would be guaranteed a seat on the return trip. Even riding the fast train, we'd spend six hours getting there and back and we'd only have four hours in Venice.

Venice was so beautiful!
Somebody told me you can't take a bad photo of Venice.   It was as beautiful as everybody says - a wondrous place.

Four hours isn't enough time to see all the sights in Venice. But it is enough time to ride the vaperetto -- the Venice public transportation system -- to have lunch in the San Marco piazza, to stroll the cobblestone streets, to take photos on the Bridge of Sighs, to ride a gondola, and do some shopping. We missed touring the museums, visiting the Doge's palace and strolling through the cathedral. I was ready to leave Venice at the end of four hours. It was beautiful and well worth the effort, but it was hot, and crowded with tourists and thousands of merchants, of course. When our neighbors heard our report, they booked their reservations and repeated our trip. Four hours had been long enough for them too.

Our last Eurostar adventure would be from Firenze back to Milano. The only difficulty would be loading our suitcases onto the train. They were heavy and bulky so we practiced how we'd go about it. Good thing we did because we were one of the last to board the train that day and there was nobody to help us. The train left just as we got on. We had reserved seats but somebody else was sitting in them. We had to sternly ask them to get up as we waved our seat reservations under their noses, a procedure we had watched on other trips. It worked.

We decided to have a farewell lunch, as we still had fond memories of our first one. We managed to get a dining car reservation and when the signal came for lunch we headed out. The same beautiful linens, and flowers, even the wine bottle was waiting for us. The waiter lurched over and quickly poured the champagne. A few drops spilled out onto the cloth. He shrugged and moved on.

Next came the spaghetti. The same waiter came through, alone this time, with the huge plate of the steaming pasta on his arm. With his free arm he flung the pasta onto our plates and staggered on. No little shrimps, although the menu suggested that it would be exactly the same meal. No water this time. We'd make do. We had our own bottles with us. I signaled him to open our wine. He reluctantly came over, removed the cork and banged the bottle back on the table. I poured.

Next came the roasted potatoes and beefsteak. I watched the waiter serve the patrons across the aisle. As he dished the potatoes, one flew through the air and the diner caught it in his hand just before it landed in his lap. He carefully placed it onto his plate and smiled. We were next. He nearly fell into Marjorie's lap as the train rounded a curve. The food landed heavily onto our plates and the gravy spilled over the edge. No matter.

The dessert hurriedly arrived before we were quite finished with the main course. We wanted everything: cheese, fruit and tarts. That would cost extra. We shrugged. The cheese was rancid, inedible, and the bananas were over-ripe. But the tarts were good. Although the meal was fixed-price, he charged us an extra two thousand lire for the cheese. Whatever. We left an additional two thousand just to show off.

By this time I was giggling. The service had been a parody of our first experience. It was like watching a British comedy. I was thinking of Noises Off, a three-act play, where a scene is repeated three times, each time more grotesquely than the time before, until nothing goes right the last time through. Our service was like that, each dining experience deteriorated from the one before it.

We had wanted to ride the Eurostar one more time before we left Italy, but there were no trips that fit our schedule. We didn't want to take a chance of being stranded overnight somewhere because our plane home was leaving early the next morning. We'd been in Italy nearly three weeks now, and I was homesick. We were back in the same hotel where we had started. It was like a rerun now. We decided to visit Lake Como, another diretto ride of about an hour and a half northwest of Milano. We got an early start, not knowing exactly how long the trip would take.

The train slowly left the station and it seemed like we would never leave the Milano suburbs. Trains travel through the backyards, the rundown and neglected parts of town. We looked into balconies, watched the laundry flutter in the sooty breeze. I snapped photos of graffitied trains. Everything was covered in it. Earlier, we had asked an English-speaking taxi driver about the graffiti. He knew something about American graffiti and its links to gang membership insignias, tagging and that sort of thing. He said that Italian graffiti artists were simply copying what they had seen in American movies and on TV, but that Italian graffiti had no real hidden meaning. He said it was like scribbling, kid stuff. He didn't like it though. It was an embarrassment and a growing problem. Nobody knew what to do about it. Another American export. It embarrassed me too.


More grafitti

Here's an example of a graffitied train.  The local branch-line trains were all covered with it.  The local artists haven't gotten around to the Euros yet.

Eventually the scenery changed. The now familiar Italian rural landscape appeared with its hay fields, broken up by stone fences, Italian Stone pines and tall, thin cypress trees. Then they gradually gave way to rolling hills, that eventually grew steeper as we neared the Italian alps. The train wound its way up a large hillside with a rounded shoulder and then suddenly Lake Como came into view. It was a huge body of water, surrounded by steep slopes, with beautiful villas and small towns carved into its sides. Power-boats and hydrofoils stood at the water's edge waiting to take tourists around the lake.

We hopped on the fast boat to Bellagio. The day was humid but hazy so we couldn't clearly make out the length of the lake, or the stunning views depicted in the cartolinas that were sold from every newsstand we encountered along the way. Bellagio was where most of the tourists wanted to go. It was yet another little beautiful Italian town, again filled with the familiar shops, sidewalk cafes, and narrow cobblestone streets. This time the streets were carved into the steep hillsides, and we climbed the steps and looked into the shops one more time. We noted that everything we'd seen earlier in all the Italian towns was assembled here. Paper from Firenze, glass from Venice, clothing, shoes and linens from Milano all were for sale, as well as trinkets from everywhere else. A lazy tourist could just come to Bellagio, rent a villa, sit in a sidewalk café sipping wine, and buy trinkets to represent the whole grand tour, all in one stop. We'd have to suggest that to our neighbors.

This is a photo of one of the streets carved into the hillside. We lunched at an outdoor café along the water. Once more we'd eat the tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil salad, the rough peasant bread we'd had nearly every day, and share a small bottle of Chianti. We'd linger over our cappuccinos as dessert and wait for the boat to return us to our train, which would take us back to Milano one final time.

A bright hazy day in Bellagio

This had been my first trip to Italy, and my first time depending solely on trains and public transportation. It had been exasperating at times, when it seemed like we'd never get where we wanted to go, or we when couldn't stay as long as we wanted to, once we finally got there. It had been amusing when we thought of our meals on board. We'd had a few nervous moments, when we thought we might be lost or perhaps had missed our train, but at no time did I ever feel truly frightened or in danger in any way. Strangers had helped us all along the way, even when we couldn't understand each other. Ticket-window clerks sometimes grew testy with us when we pressed them for too much information, but we usually found out what we needed to know. We grew footsore, just like millions of other tourists, but sometimes it was from tramping around sort of lost, looking for a bus stop or a misplaced train station, rather than viewing grand ruins or museums. But all in all, I'd recommend seeing Italy by train. I don't think we missed a thing.
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