How to Ride Trains in Italy

A fellow passenger was struggling to put his luggage into the overhead bin on our train. The bin is adequate for airplane carry-on sized luggage. When you have a massive full size suitcase, or even a quite heavy smaller one, lifting it over your head on a shifting train is a dicey proposition. But we saw a few people attempt it.

Hubby had looked into “trani” before our trip and understood a few things.

“Here,” he called out to the struggling Aussie, “you just slide the suitcases between the seats like this, see?” And Hubby demonstrated.

“Oh!” exclaimed the tourist, “You’re a legend!”

And Hubby was.

Train seats are turned facing each other, creating a space between their backs that is exactly perfect for sliding your case between. The space keeps them from rolling around, unless a curve is taken a little too fast, then they all peek out from between seats, as if looking to make sure their owners are still close by.

Let’s take a moment to assume you are, and go over the finer points of riding a train in Italy.

If you are doing a little train-hopping in a single town, you won’t have luggage to lug. You may as well stand in the foyer and grab a handle. Once the train comes to a stop, you push the green button to open the doors. Sometimes, they open automatically. Don’t be that guy who stares at the door waiting for something to happen until a local leans over, pushes the button, and proceeds to lead a herd of buffalo over your head as payback for making them lose a precious two seconds of hustle time.

Perhaps the vicious rumor that Italian trains do not follow schedule has something to do with the restrained pandemonium. Perhaps it’s because the tourists don’t realize there are free bathrooms (aka toilettes, water closets, loo) on the train. Or perhaps you just have NO IDEA where you are going and all you have left is making good time.

If you are taking a train cross country, there is a definite plan of action.  You must get to the stazione early enough to find out whether your train is on time. Then you wait in a group huddle, watching the display until your train has a platform assigned to it. Once a number pops up, move through the gates – where they may or may not scan your ticket – and count platforms until you hit yours.

They hide trains, sometimes. Platforms 1 and 2 may have been moved around a corner or be three flights underground. They are funny, those staziones. You must be prepared at any moment to grab your suitcase by the scruff and haul it up steps and over gaps and around fellow cattle passengers. You have to want it. Get your bearings and keep an eye on that display because if, with two minutes to spare, your train decides to pull in to platform 3 instead of platform 7, you and everyone else who was standing at military attention on platform 7 will suddenly have to haul potatoes outta there.

Frantic people will stall in the stairwell, because while their feet got the message to run, their hands never actually grabbed their luggage by a handle. Don’t be that guy. Everyone is stacking up behind you and I will personally go gladiator and lift you and your effects up and out of that ant hill.

Turn onto your platform and stride purposefully down until you are standing beneath the car number assigned you on your ticket. If you are in a tiny town next to a train tunnel (and this works for the metro as well), you will feel the wind gusting ahead of the train first. Then you will see the headlight curve into view. Inch closer to the edge of the tracks, gripping your luggage and staring fiercely ahead. This indicates to others that you have every intention of – wait for it – boarding this train.

Wait for the train to pull up and stop right in your face.

Verify your car is actually the one in front of you and scramble aboard. Did you at least verify that this train is the right number? Does your ticket say “666” on it, but the train says “687” on it? While the Vatican approves this change up, you have two seconds to decide whether you are mass-boarding a train heading for Austria instead of Naples. The conductor waves you aboard, so you go.

And someone else has taken your window seats. And they are feigning death. You stare at your ticket wondering if you have enough gladiator left in you to argue, but the train begins to move, your luggage starts to roll down the aisle towards the snack car, and you just dive into a seat with a shrug.

Three hours next to a drooling tourist may seem a little tough. The other couple stares out the window and although Hubby sits facing you, your conversation will either be in mime or holler. Next time, order seats side-by-side. This is the moment you pop in those earbuds, relax, and listen to Rick Steves. Or maybe write a few lines in your journal:

“Dear Diary, Why must Hubby chat everyone up? He does it in restaurants, on trains, in lines, on duomos. He’s asking the trolley cart guy whether our train is on time when he should be buying crisps. We’ve missed lunch again. This time, specifically, the workers in charge of nothing else but feeding lunch to people on trains are striking. Striking. Here comes someone to check our tickets, finally.”

And this is as far as you go before you are leaning sideways, drooling in your sleep.

#onecasetorulethemall Maybe the red guy is just trying to help. Are you fast enough to catch a bullet train? Stampede. But act casual. Milan. Admire the stazione for a hot minute if you can. What do you mean, the train changed it’s mind? With a gust of hot air, your rippling shirt says the train is coming…. In a blur and a screeeeech, your train has arrived!

Rome, A Walkabout

Like fish and company, touring new cities begins to stink after three days. We filled our days to the brim and left while we were still having fun.

Another travel maxim is: you cannot possibly see it all. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. It has layers. Three days forced us to prioritize The List into something manageable. As this was not our first rodeo, we also took into account a little regular down time and things out of our control like jet lag, weather, or mood swings. If gelato sounded better than climbing the campanile, then we had permission to rebel.

But usually, we did both. Simultaneously.

Today, I wanted to begin at the Galleria Borghese, but I had not booked this museum ahead. I read that you could go early and try for walk-up tickets, so although the website said “Sold Out”, I was hopeful.

Now, a hotel concierge is a fabulous resource and I recommend asking them all of your foolish tourist questions, even if you aren’t technically staying in their hotel. In Rome, ours was “George from Venice”, who was very helpful when our electricity converter wasn’t working. George opened a drawer and pulled out a dozen different types that didn’t match and finally sent Hubby across the street to buy a new one. Meanwhile, I told him my plan for sneaking up on the Borghese. George frowned. He didn’t recommend it. He called the Gallery, speaking in rapid Italian. “They are sold out completely until two weeks from now,” he said. “Yes,” I explained, “but perhaps if we show up in person, they will have room.”

George talked us out of it. It wasn’t until Florence, when we snuck up on the Accedemia and won, that I realized George just didn’t want a screaming disappointed tourist in his face later, so I guess I don’t blame him. My asterisk is that if you want to gamble, don’t involve the concierge.

Instead, we opted to follow Rick Steve’s Heart of Rome Walk, beginning at Campo di Fiori. I had already downloaded his maps and tours into my phone and although Hubby is not a fan, he went along with it, choosing to let me listen and guide him through town. Campo di Fiori is a beautiful little morning market selling flowers, veggies, and the daily bread.

Brooding Bruno.

Rick was telling Bruno’s story when Hubby decided there were two more men in my head than he was okay with. Rick and Bruno had to skip to the end and direct us forward, and it wasn’t until the train ride from Rome that I sat back and enjoyed the full tour, using the photos I had taken and hearing with delight about what I had already seen.

You can do it too, from home: ricksteves.com. I preferred to form my own opinions before hearing everyone else’s but perhaps you want do it before you go, to get some context.

Piazza Navona is wonderful. Here is a selfie per Jenni’s request:

Piazza Navona selfie.

I didn’t say I was any good at it.

We studied the fountains and practiced selfies and enjoyed the group of lederhosen that joined us. There were kilts and wimples and ball caps. We followed them to the Pantheon. Not the Parthenon. Not the Panthenon. It was funny listening to people try to figure it out.

And it is something quite special. I don’t have a lot of intuition or “gut feelings” about places. There are tombs here and layers of religion and history and architectural genius and undeniable art in every stone. But the oculus – the space where there is nothing – spoke to me. Our day was a bit drizzly and the wet came in and made the marble floors slick. The area was cordoned off. I read that during the right time on a sunny day, a palpable column of light forms in the center of the room.

Empty space that isn’t empty.

It made me think this:

Here are mans efforts over the ages, marching in circles, trying to reflect/create/become/reach something and that Something is this space at the Center. The Light fills the gap and floods down into the arena of souls instead of the other way around.

It made me ignore the beauty around me and admire the Light.

The oculus is the only light source in the building.

Oculus.

From there we accidentally detoured into Piazza di Pietra and worked our way back to the Piazza Colonna, each with columns worth seeing. We found a shopping mall, cleverly disguised as a piece of Rome and this detour brought us back to the Trevi fountain. Why not?

This day had been pretty fulfilling, but now there was a practicality to figure out: the Metro. We wanted to practice before our Vatican tour in the morning, so we bought tickets in a tiny shop on the corner and headed down into the belly, looking for thugs. Once we decided which direction we needed, it was easy enough to hop on and back off at Piazza Popolo. Efficient, light, clean, and easy to navigate. No thugs in sight other than a grandmother returning from her marketing. I wish SoCal had a metro.

The Piazza Popolo is a spacious place to unwind and it comes with it’s own obelisk, fountains, statues and tourists. There are thirteen obelisks standing in Rome today, many more were lost in transport or invasions. They are legit stolen from Egypt and covered in hieroglyphics.  At some point in history the church decided that they were just a bit too pagan and engaged in a struggle with the townspeople to remove them. Romans were having none of it. Obelisks are cool. In compromise, the church topped each one with a cross to make them more palatable. It’s an odd combination.

Obelisk. Updated.

We went up to the little park area and crossed a bridge to a residential side of town. A statue of Pietro Cossa met us there and invited us to walk along the sleepy Tiber. We looked down on riverboats identical to those that Audrey Hepburn danced on. Hmm. A couple of hours later and we might have joined her.

The metro brought us back to home base, and we finished the day in a half-underground little restaurant with a curving brick ceiling, sipping wine, eating risotto with prawn sauce, and capping it off with a creamy dreamy tiramisu.

 

Surprise! It’s been soaked in espresso.

Favorite bit from Piazza Navona.

“Trying to get up on a Monday morning.”

Marcus Aurelius’ story goes literally in circles.

Hanging out in Piazza Popolo.

Fancy architecture around the Piazza Popolo, but I love bells!

Walking along the Tiber.

Below are the flatboats for dining and dancing.