Monday, March 25

Train Travel in Italy: Riding back in time

I recently took the cool, cozy GoldenPass Classic train up into the Swiss Alps.  It was superb.  The huge (clean) windows, the 1940s dining car, the scenery...It was a blissful trip into the past while riding up into the clouds.  Anyone who has followed my blog or read my tweets knows that I love to hate the Italian train company. So much so, I’m expecting defamation papers being served at any moment.  And while they still have a way to go before they understand that web design is actually a profession, and not something you leave to your lover’s young son, I had a few laughs swapping stories with a cousin of mine over how far we have truly come in terms of train transport.
[Let me make a disclaimer upfront:  America absolutely sucks when it comes to train travel, their collective thrust of Amtrack under a Greyhound bus is both a disgrace and a tragedy from which we perhaps will never recover. So, by comparison, any country that can take you from a small town to a major metropolis in almost no time at all, and fairly inexpensively at that, is by my standards making magic.  It’s just that I travel often to Switzerland.  And when I come back to Italy, I almost always feel well, not like Dorothy returning from Oz, but a bit more like the Wicked Witch who got the house dropped upon her].
My cousin and I were reminiscing about our trips from Milano down south, just 20 years or so ago, by train. Sure, they cost a fraction of today’s prices, but we would be situated in cattle class.  Going home for the holidays meant standing in a crowded entranceway with a dozen or more other people, three-quarters smokers, or sitting on your luggage while all the other smokers on board made their way into your crawl space to cop a smoke when they didn’t just light up in the carriages themselves.  Hundreds more per train car were crowded in the aisles, again sitting atop of luggage, or on little collapsible seats.  When a conductor or the beverage cart had to pass, it was like whack-a-mole with seats and bodies popping up and down, luggage moved aside; as if we were participating in a musical chair marathon, only that there were no chairs to sit down upon. 
And that was because the compartments, made for six, when they didn’t carry entire families and luggage filled with every sort of amenity and gift imaginable, carried two people -- stretched across the seats as if a couple of bizarre modern-day emperors on cushiony litters.  If you dared knock and ask them to make room, they would hiss that they had reserved those seats [if they were polite].  And in actual fact, they had. 
TrenItalia - (then known as Ferrovie dello Stato - one of the many names their website still defaults to although no one on God’s green earth can actually type ‘Ferrovie’ let alone search it on Google) would allow people to reserve a zillion places, even though they only purchased one ticket.  The conductor refused to intervene in the skirmishes emanating along the 20 odd cars.  So there you were, standing all night long on an 11 hr train trip just to get to Rome for the holidays. 
Salerno further south was a 15 hr ordeal that not even sardines are put through on their way into their proverbial cans and I’ve since deleted from my memory banks all recollection of the heinous trips taken from Milan to Sicily in a combination of trains and all-night ferry boats, no cabins available for the ill-prepared.  [Although I must admit, the inconvenience made for a wonderful adventure usually having to do with long animated conversations, singing on deck, and brief flirtations--sleep is overrated anyway.]
On the bright side, you could take a train from the tiniest little town to pretty much anywhere on earth. And sometimes, you still can.   Although that prospect found you, like Spike, waiting for some sign of movement that wasn't a freight train passing at full speed in the middle of nowhere, your sights planted firmly on the horizon in the hopes that one might just show up before nightfall.
In short, today's three hour sprint - even with the standard delays - from Milan to Rome is a joyful breeze.  It almost makes you forget that you arrived sweaty up to the tracks due to lack of working escalators, or without a wallet given the pickpockets loitering behind you at the ticket machines.  But with their imposed ‘no standing room policy’ at least once aboard you’ll be sure to get a seat.  

You can find many more train insights on the TRAVEL TIPS section of my blog
and for a rundown of the EUROSTAR experience  Click Here
Rome's Airport Train Odyssey Here
and my quick review of the spanking new cool kid on the block, ItaloTreno

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I agree, the same disclaimer needs to be added for those of us from England! Ok, so the trains are old, graffiti covered and often smell. But they tend to run on time, you have a seat and are often about a third of the price!