Let’s get things straight. I love to travel. I like to think of myself (like many others) as a seasoned traveller.
And when I do, I prefer travelling by train and I have seen my fair share of them. With a former girlfriend living in Germany (I was living in Paris), I would often take the TGV and the German ICE, whose interior dwarfs anything we might try to come up with here in North America. Among others, I took the St-Petersburg-Moscow night train, which according to legend Tsar Nicholas I had built in a totally straight line by laying a ruler on a map and drawing a line between the two cities. While in Africa, I got to the station, but the lonely train never arrived. A small steam locomotive operates in Tiradentes, Brazil where I lived, and is quite thrilling, especially when hearing its whistle from miles away. You can watch a movie of the train here.
Yet there is something about Italy and its trains which takes my breath away. Why? I guess because it feels like a true adventure. Run by Trenitalia, the train is a microcosm of Italian society. It will get you there, but not very fast, might break down, and is often late.
1: The Ticket: To buy or not to buy?
For many of us who come from more Northerly latitudes, a ticket is considered a prerequisite for travel. Not always in Italy. Negotiating with authority and trying to get out of a dicey situation is a true art perfected over millenia by Italians.
I even got in a fight with my friend this summer on the matter. We had arrived at the station and the train was leaving in two minutes. Being Canadian, I promptly went to wait in line, hoping that I would have time to buy a ticket and board the train. My Italian friend, on the other hand, looked at me oddly and urged me to get on the train without a ticket.
“Not an option”, I told him. When we missed the train, I was subject to a barrage of Italian insults from my friend, accusing me of being a tool in the hands of “capitalist pigs” who were exploiting us by forcing us to pay for passage. A very Italian moment.
Ah Italy with its late trains…Not knowing when the train will arrive can be annoying, especially if you are on business or running late. I once had a train arrive 135 minutes late.
This often happens with trains which cover long distances and get delayed over and over along the way. I particularly enjoy the long night trains which can be quite an adventure. Good luck on finding a seat in the dark, especially when no one wants to give up some extra space. I once simply stayed in the corridor for six hours straight because it was simply too hard to find a seat, which are often not assigned. Watching out for thieves is also highly encouraged, since I have “enjoyed” their company more than once…The Polizia Ferroviaria (train police) actually patrol the train, since a sizable amount of illicit activity often takes place.
My dream? Taking a sleeper from London to Venice on the Venice Simplon Orient Express (not part of Trenitalia, given the price). 1830£ for a round trip. 24 hours each leg. You can book here on their site if you dare! Or have tons of money.
3- The “romantic” aspect
In my opinion, nothing beats travelling in an old carriage separated by different compartments. Old school. More often than not, I feel catapulted in a Fellini movie, or maybe in the more recent The Talented Mr. Ripley. Clanking away with a view on the sea, the window open, and the wind in your hair. The sun welcomes you. The smell of the sea brings back that familiar feeling every time I am near it. Who cares if the train is late.
You are alive and enjoying it.
Unfortunately, the Italians have recently “updated” and now propose new trains. Sniff sniff. Bland, sanitized, they are exactly the same as trains in other EU countries, and cost way more than before... Everything is new and impersonal, and with such changes a bit of history is brushed under the rug. And gone are the days when you could do Milan-Florence for 10 euros in an old ramshackle box of metal.
As a result, I slowly am losing ” that” feeling of adventure I used to get when travelling in trains. A shame.
- In Transit Blog: How to Save Money on Train Trips in Italy (intransit.blogs.nytimes.com)