Italy by Train
This is a collaboration post by my friend, Warren P. He did 5 days in Italy, touring 5 cities by train, over the holidays. Warren is graciously sharing his experience with GritsNGiggles.
Italy has a lot to offer in terms of culture, art, sites and its epicurean range is one of the best in the Mediterranean, if not the world. The Autobahn is exceptionally well maintained so getting around from major cities using that medium will not be problematic. However, side and city streets are crowded and not as easily navigated as are the highways. Both Uber and Lyft are relatively non-existent in Italy, so resorting to rentals, trains and taxis are the only real options. This trip, I intended on using trains and taxis only.
I arrived in Florence in the late afternoon, and getting a taxi was almost immediate as they are usually parked just outside baggage claim. Unlike the United States, taxis operate in order. So instead of selecting a preference, you must take the next available at the head of the line. While the cab navigates the city streets enroute to my B&B, I began to see the art in the Tuscany region, in all its splendor, as the museums came into view.
Tip: Taxis start the meter upon being dispatched when called. That’s not so if they are waved down. Additionally, there was a weird additional charge at the end of each fare. The driver would press a button and anywhere from 4-6 Euros would automatically be added to the displayed fare. My Italian was not that sufficient to get into the why of the charge. So in lieu of that, I just didn’t leave an additional tip.
Updated 24 Aug. 2019: There is a taxi app that is reliable and convenient.
Hotel and Bed and Breakfast Costs
Hotels depending on where they are and if they are privately owned or recognized names are very different in Italy. Be careful with the privately owned, smaller hotels as the amenities and maintenance may not be of the caliber expected and seen in the United States and other countries. With that in mind, Bed and Breakfasts are a much more intimate and economical way to go. On this trip I stayed in bed and breakfast that once was an oratory. The new owner redid some of the floors and walls and in my bedroom there was still evidence of frescos that had been plastered over several times. It was an amazing feeling and experience being in the oratory of a larger church in the hills of Florence. There was a butcher and bakery with a farmers market in walking distance from the home, so I had access to things I could use to prepare meals if I so desired. The cost for my room per night was 30€. An amazing price! Hotels vary again based on name, location and ownership.
Things to see and do in Florence
If you see nothing else in Florence, you must see the marble stone carving of David by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell’ Accademia. The Uffizi Gallery is also another stunning location co-located with the Piazza Della Signoria. The Uffizi contains the world’s largest collection of Medici commissioned Renaissance art. The Piazza del Duomo and Bell Tower is another historically significant piece of architecture that should not be missed. Centered in the heart of downtown Florence, and center piece of all other architecture in the square as it is surrounded by most all museums and historic sites.
Tip: If you plan to visit the interior of the Duomo, I would highly recommend getting your tickets at its online site as the lines are extremely long to get to the pay window. But can be bypassed with prior purchase as a tour.
From Florence to Venice was just around two hours by regional (bullet) train. Unlike the intercity trains, the bullet trains have very limited stops between regional cities. The train travels anywhere from 130-160 MPH, and the scenery is breath-taking to say the least. Architecture, wine groves, and farms line the rail routes. The amenities on the train are just as adequate as those of airline. There are cars selling amenities and sufficiently well maintained water closets (WC). Prices range from $140-$160 or the Euro equivalent. They can be purchased at unmanned and manned kiosk at the station, or online. The trains are very punctual. So it behooves you to be on time as they pull away within a minute or two of the scheduled time.
Things to see and do in Venice
Gondola rides are the absolute best way to see the architecture and history of Venice proper. The Grand Canal is a busy waterway, but expertly navigated with river taxis, private boats, security, and industry and of course your own personal Gondola. The prices of the Gondola rides are based on time. I had a half an hour ride and it cost me 140 Euros. For that price, I navigated every water avenue and I submit it was the best way to see the sites without walking. I saved walking for dining and the shopping.
Tip: Buy gondola tickets with Venice Tours by Gondola (online) to save money. This will be a shared ride.
Venice is well known for two things: Venetian Masks and Murano Glass. You will be overwhelmed with Venetian Masks choices, but take your time and preferably buy from a brick and mortar merchant than an exterior kiosk. Not that the kiosks aren’t genuine, just that you are more inclined to get defected, poor quality than from a merchant. Despite the possibility to find deals on Murano Glass on Venice proper, I would submit that you take a water taxi over to the island of Murano and purchase there. Venice does offer a city pass. Check out the official city pass website to see if it will work for you. In addition to better deals, you could also catch a show of the artisans at work creating various pieces of glass art revered and appreciated around the world. With enough time, you could even commission your own piece while you wait!
Tip: If you are crunched for time, ensure you take a water taxi that is going relatively directly to Murano as some navigate all the other provincial stops before arriving. Despite that, the total ride time should you circumnavigate is a little over an hour of boat ride. With a direct ride, your travel time is 15 minutes.
From Florence to Pisa was the shortest ride. The train took a little over 1 hour to arrive at the Pisa Centrale’. A short 3 minutes by taxi gets you to the Province of Pisa proper and the Leaning Tower, Cathedral Square and the Pisa Baptistry. Arrive early if possible for the best pictures with the tower. I arrived around 7AM and had almost an hour before the crowds started arriving. I had coffee and breakfast at an awesome café right by the tower. So I had ‘eyes on’ the whole time as when to make my move should the crowds arrive early. Being early also guarantees you first access to the tower and the Baptistry and their tours. There are plenty of kiosk shopping in and around the square for keepsakes. Restaurants and pizzerias are plentiful and most are located on quaint, intimate streets tucked in inconspicuous corners and alleys. Should you have time to see the rest of the street, a horse and buggy ride is a highly recommended way to do this. The sounds of the horse’s shoes and the buggy’s wheels on the cobblestones are memorable along the narrow and historic streets. The buggy drivers like the gondola pilots are very knowledgeable and present their material in overtures of jokes and reverence.
Tip: For those military travelers wanting to stay in Pisa, the military MWR facilities at Camp Darby are very well maintained and carry all the amenities of a cabin. The “American Beach” is about a 30 minute drive from Darby, and the Leaning Tower and Baptistry are under an hour by taxi and about 20 minutes by train from Darby to the square. The American Beach during the summer is a beautiful place to spend a day as there are lots to do and vendors from various cultures wear elaborate and brilliantly colored clothing as they stack their wares very high on their heads as they navigate the beach seeking customers. Their skills in balancing these wares on their heads while walking through uneven sand is something of awe and grace.
What is there not to say about Rome? It is the bastion of renaissance, wars, religion, history, power, collapse and a rebirth. I recommend purchasing all your tickets through a tour company if you are inclined to see the top five sites. Simply because it is easy to waste almost a half day waiting in lines. Also, consider downloading Rick Steve’s audio tours app versus paying for a tour guide.
Things to see and do in Rome
Must see are Vatican Square, the Pantheon, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Temple of Venus and Rome on the Palentine Hill. The Roman Forum, Arch of Titus and the Piazza Campidoglio, just to name a few. Most sites are all in walking distance of each other, weather permitting.
Tip: Make sure to ask the tour companies what order are the presenting their tours. For instance, the tour for the Forum, Palentine Hill and the Colosseum was pitched by the agent on the street that the Coliseum would be first. Once I purchased my ticket at the office however, the tour guide started with the Palentine Hill and the Coliseum was last. I only wanted to see the Coliseum because I had done the other two on a previous trip. This is a significant change if pressed for time for another tour.
CT can only be accessed by train as cars are unauthorized for none residence. The regional train only stops at the main station which is in Monterrosso. However, to access the other cities the intercity trains run every 10-15 minutes and the trip is anywhere from 3-5 minutes.
Things to see and do in CT
Must sees are the Church of San Giovanni Battista, Statue of the Giant representing Neptune and the Soviore Sanctuary which dates back to the XVII Century. Vernazza was and is my favorite of the five towns because of its stunning clear waters, the lagoon, shops and the scenery from the lagoon looking back on the hills of Olives and Grapes. The shopping is awesome and I stayed until the sun set for dinner at a restaurant on the cliffs. The lights reflecting off the water is phenomenal! Corniglia, Manarola and Rimaggiore are equally as stunning but not as intimate; many tourists boats dock making it much busier and crowded. All the shops are privately owned and operated and the local artists are very good. I recommend buying a piece of art in each shop. They are inexpensive, but very well done and can be signed and dated by the artist in person.
If you enjoyed Warren’s travel experience, please share and let me know what we missed out on.