Thursday, January 14, 2010

The only way of catching a train I ever discovered is to miss the train before. ~G.K. Chesterton

Travelling by train in Italy was very easy. We bought ‘ticketless’ tickets online using the Trenitalia site but also used the machines at the station which you could change to English, took both cash and credit cards and out tickets with reserved seat numbers. Apparently not all credit cards work on the site but we had no problems with both our New Zealand and our Cambodian cards. We even changed a departure time, online from the airport in Zurich, which you are able to do once for each trip without incurring any more cost.

Most of the trains we caught either originated or terminated, or both, at the destinations we were departing from or travelling to but when they didn’t they don’t stop for long so it pays to be ready and move quickly especially when you have a couple of layers, hat, scarf, gloves and packs to don! All the seats we had came with electrical plugs, should you have your computer with you, and either a tray table, or in the case of four seats facing each other, a shared skinny table between the seats. There didn’t seem to be much difference between 1st and 2nd class seats although maybe the 1st class toilets were a bit bigger but no one would have stopped you from walking the length of the train to use the bathroom in 1st class if you’d wanted to.

Most of the journeys we took were only a few hours long and during the day but we chose to travel by sleeper train from Brindisi to Milan as it was easier and more reliable than flying Alitalia, which is notorious for delays and cancellations, and it meant we saved the cost of a nights’ accommodation. It turned out to be quite a cosy, comfortable experience even with the four of us bunked up and down in one cabin though with all the rocking I don’t think I did much more than doze all night. The train originated at Lecce about 30 minutes drive from Brindisi and pulled in at the station in Brindisi at 10-30pm for about 2 minutes to let 15 people including four of us on. We had hedged our bets and were standing in the middle of the platform, still wearing jackets and packs, and had to trot to nearly the end to find our carriage. B had just lifted his foot from the last step into the train when we felt the cars begin to move. The cabins, which were as warm as a just toasted crumpet, were already set up as bunks with a doubled over sheet and small square pillow on each and a, still surprisingly clean in the morning, shared toilet cubicle similar to an airplane bathroom at either end of each carriage.

Once at our destination we used the bus or tram or in Pisa just walked. We found it easier to buy biglietto, tickets, from the tabbacci- usually a newsagent- for a euro each for the busses and trams but used the machines for metro and vaporetto tickets. We bought the Roma Pass in Rome which, along with free entry to three of the first attractions you see and discounts for most others, came with three days unlimited travel on all public transport.

There is a big thing about remembering to validate tickets on all the forums and information websites I used for our travel research. You do still have to for the busses and trams, there are yellow boxes at either end and in the middle of the vehicle, but metro ticket validation is now a part of the automatic entry barriers on the way down to the platform. You do still need to validate for a long haul national train if you don’t have reserved seats or if you have changed your booking –again the yellow boxes are at the end of the platforms- but are still using the original tickets but not if you have a ‘ticketless’ booking, which we had printed out, but you can just quote the booking number to the conductor or even show him an email or texted copy which we saw people do too.

The first train we took was from Milan Centrale to Venezia Santa Lucia, a three and a half hour ride in the dark, too tired to be that interested in what was out the window but nervous enough not to allow ourselves to fall asleep completely. The trip on Christmas day from Venice to Roma was very different. Again we sat in four seats facing each other and spent the time reading, talking and watching the Italian countryside pass by. The next trip from Rome to Brindisi was the longest daytime trip we took lasting about 5 hours. We sat airplane style in twos across the centre aisle. B had his computer so, after swapping seats with M and I as his electrical plug didn't work, he and his father spent much of the trip watching 'Bad Lieutenant' which J said was indeed very bad! I spent a lot of time scenery gazing. The Italian countryside reminded me a lot of parts New Zealand; lush green farm land, rapid filled streams, vineyards and olive groves. The farmhouses are quite different, however, with stone or adobe like buildings in regular square or rectangular shapes with tiny dark windows as opposed to New Zealands obsession with the sprawlling wooden villa with huge windows and a wrapped veranda. The biggest difference, I thought, was the distinct absence of farm animals. We saw no more than a handfull of cows, goats, horses and sheep in the whole time we were in Italy and the sheep were in a field at the Catacombs!

The average sized farm in New Zealand is about 536 acres (215ha)out of a total land mass of 103 738 square miles. The average size of an Italian farm is much smaller at just 6.5ha out of a similar total land size of 116 346 square miles. New Zealand farms have to be bigger to be profitable as our government does not provide subsidies like Italian farmers get. It used to be said that there were 20 sheep for every New Zealander in New Zealand, now the number is more like 14 but it still makes for a lot of sheep. Add to that 1 dairy and 1 beef cow, 3 cartons of exported apples and pears, 40 trays of kiwifruit and even 13 litres of wine produced per year per person in Aotearoa and all from just 268 680 km² or 103 738 sq miles. Incidently there are 4 million 350 thousand odd people in New Zealand. Italy has a population of just over 58 million and according to this site and only 11 million sheep and 7 million beef cattle. It is, however, the second largest producer of wine in the world and ranks right up there in Olive oil production too. The vast majority of the land between Naples and the coast, it would appear from the window of our high speed train, is wine and olive orchards and often both together.

The land of the boot has a long long history in viticulture. The Etruscans and Greeks were producing Italian wine in the country long before the Romans began in the 2nd C BCE. Today grapes are grown in nearly every region in Italy with more than 1 million orchards under cultivation. We managed to sample quite a few bottles of both red and white and much of it we found fairly palatable (that was quite hard for a proud kiwi to say) even a bottle we bought for less than 2 euro!


Jakarta Rocks said...

Oh boy I envy you. Such a different experience when you are travelling with a youngest who is a teenager and us who's youngest is 6 and our oldest is 11. We found the train system VERY STRESSFUL - and that is after travelling through France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria two years ago and finding it fantastic (with a 4 year old). When we got to the end of the english version to book at machine - it turned to Italian for the warnings (which we found out meant - sold out, move the time - but not until we had waited an hour in a queue. Anyway - I am enjoying reading your experiences and find it bizare that we were at the same place at the same time.

Tanya said...

JR, I too was amused to read we both went to Italy at the same time and that we had such different experiences. I've got to say Im in the same boat though. I envy you being able to travel while your kids are young (stress or not). We could never afford it back then beginning very young and with only one income and a Deaf kid with ADHD to cope with (stress an understatement!)I probably wouldnt have wanted to try it anyway. Now at the other end of being a family all under the same roof I feel like I'm running out of time! I hope they will want to keep traveling with us even if it means -like B did this time - flying to whereever we are first.