• All aboard for a first-class train trip in Italy

  • Discussion about railroad topics everywhere outside of North America.
Discussion about railroad topics everywhere outside of North America.

Moderators: Komachi, David Benton

  by David Benton
 
All aboard for a first-class train trip in Italy

01.12.05
By Peter Calder


We had wanted a sleeping compartment, what the Italians call a "cuccetta", after the French couchette. It was, the woman at the ticket counter explained as she justified the extra cost, "a whole different matter" from a simple seat in a first-class carriage.

Starched bed-linen, a private bathroom, the railways' equivalent of room service, she said. Very nice, she said.

She made it sound like Shangri-La or at least the Orient Express. This had the effect of adding to the disappointment when she told me that there were no sleeping compartments left.

It turned out that I should have reserved it. Armed as I was with a first-class Eurailpass, I had grown quite used to marching up to stations a few minutes before departure time and climbing on board.

The first-class carriages - even though the fare is only about 15 per cent higher than second class - are usually almost empty. The aisles are wide, the windows expansive. And, for a not inconsiderable premium, you can have a cuccetta. Did I mention the linen?

Sigh. No loss is more keenly felt than that of something glimpsed but never gained. The night train from Palermo to Rome pulled out without us at 8.40pm and we had to settle for the regular service an hour later.

This did not seem like an insuperable obstacle. In another lifetime, I rode the train from Sucre, in the east of Bolivia, to Sao Paulo in Brazil, a journey unaffectionately referred to by its veterans as the Death Train.

This is not because people die on it but because people who have boarded it soon start wishing they were dead.

Suffice it to say that the trip seems to last eight months but probably lasts only three, and that it does not appear in any collection of great railway journeys.

I shoved aside dreams full of longing for white linen and waiters bearing drinks and we clambered on board.

Ensconced in our old-fashioned six-seat compartment, we were playing with the seat-recliner controls and feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Even the arrival of our fellow passengers - an elderly man escorting his wife, who gasped loudly and emphysematically for every breath - failed to dampen my spirits, although my wife initially looked like she was going to have a major asthmatic incident in sympathy.

The man, his hair brilliantined into place, his white shirt buttoned carefully to the neck, turned out to be a cheerful travelling companion, unfazed by the task of caring for his wife ("That's old age," he said philosophically) and happy to correct my clumsy deployment of Italian verbs.

He did have a disconcerting habit of asking me repeatedly whether I was German.

It's something that happened a lot to me in Italy, not, I suspect, because I have a particularly Teutonic air but because nine out 10 tourists are Germans who have slipped south for a cheap weekend.

Thus, assuming a tourist is German is safe. "Nein" is the default word for "no".

The woman finally settled into a fitful rasping doze and, although we could have put the seats back to almost horizontal we found the compartment next door empty and I stretched out full-length on three seats.

It made for a very comfortable night's sleep, interrupted only by a magic spell in the small hours on the deck of the ferry into whose maw the entire train had rattled somewhere around 1am for the crossing between Sicily and Italy.

It was easy to believe, as the huge, lumbering ferry performed a 180-deg turn in mid-strait so as to arrive, stern-to-land, as it had departed, that we had been seized by the turbulent waters mythologised by the Greeks into the monster and the whirlpool of Scylla and Charybdis.

With a titanic groaning and screech as wheels strained to slot into the mainland, the train disembarked and began the night's journey up the peninsula. Naples by dawn. Rome for a late breakfast.

Mussolini commanded the adulation of the Italians because he got the trains running on time. His legacy - in that regard at least - survives.

After a fashion. They depart on time but almost immediately they seem to start running late. The arrivals board at any station has a column headed "rit" for "ritardo", meaning delay, and it is seldom blank.

A few minutes is routine, a quarter-hour common.

The traveller in Tuscany and Umbria will see little of note without hiring a car. And it's cheaper by far if you do it through your travel agent before you leave. An impulse hire of a car in eastern Sicily cost me more for three days than I paid later for a pre-booked week in western Sicily.

With a car you can travel the side-roads, calling at the dozens of vineyards who are happy to let you taste their produce, and hunting for isolated agriturismos, which are farm buildings refurbished as comfortable apartments where you can save a bucket of money by preparing your own food from fresh market produce.

But train travel is the way to cover serious distances in Italy. The rail network is comprehensive - although the trains don't climb into the hill towns that are the main attractions of Tuscany and you'll have to get a bus or taxi from the stations on the valley floors - and the departures frequent.

Only in summer, the peak of the tourist season, when any sensible traveller gives Italy a very wide berth indeed because it's so hot and crowded, or on the main routes, do you need to think about booking.

Given the profusion of services, there is a wide variation in the quality of the rolling stock. But even the few older carriages, made before the days of air-conditioning, are well-maintained and the lavatories as clean as the last person who used them.

If renting a car makes you more independent, train travel does not mean sacrificing the freedom of making it up as you go along. Major and minor centres are connected by services that leave at least hourly - often more frequently.

Most stations are well-equipped for short waits - Termini in Rome encloses a huge, mostly underground, mall - although there is a curious and frustrating shortage of public seating, presumably to discourage long-term residency. Be prepared to sit on your bags.

As in most countries, including New Zealand, the rail corridor tends to be unlovely, particularly in cities. But you get to peek into people's backyards in rural settings in a way the road-bound traveller never does, particularly if you choose local trains, which rattle at a more sedate pace through the countryside, stopping at every station.

The national rail company, Trenitalia, has not yet adopted the sensible Britrail practice of making certain carriages cellphone-free and the Italians, among the world's most enthusiastic practitioners of the anytime inconsequential babble that cellphones allow, are apt to bellow "pronto" - meaning "ready", it's the word you say when you answer the phone - without warning.

But that's another reason why trains are better than buses. You can move to the next carriage. Or get off at the next station. If you regret your decision, there'll be another train along in a few minutes. Please excuse us if it's a few minutes late.

* Peter Calder was provided with a Eurailpass by Rail Plus New Zealand.


The train system
The partially privatised Italian state train system, Trenitalia, operates a good website (www.trenitalia.com - link provided below) which assists travel planning.

Tickets and passes
Tickets for all services are cheaper if bought in Italy. Children under 12 pay half fare, free if under 4.The various kinds of Eurailpass, valid for travel in 17 European countries, must be bought outside Europe. These are excellent value for money if you are intending to cover long distances but not if you are travelling in short hops. Trenitalia also sells discount cards for travellers under 26 or over 60, and its own passes, valid for four to 10 days of travel. Reservations may be advisable on busy routes. They can be made at most travel agencies and any station, but usually cost a little extra per ticket. With a Eurailpass, you just climb on board regular or inter-regional services and avoid the wait in long ticket queues, although you must book and pay a premium to use the faster, long-distance Eurostar trains.

Luggage
Left-luggage facilities are expensive. It may be smarter to leave your bags with your hotel reception.

Contact
Rail Plus New Zealand can be contacted on (09) 377 5415 or www.railplus.co.nz
  by george matthews
 
[quote="David BentonThe various kinds of Eurailpass, valid for travel in 17 European countries, must be bought outside Europe. These are excellent value for money if you are intending to cover long distances but not if you are travelling in short hops. Trenitalia also sells discount cards for travellers under 26 or over 60, and its own passes, valid for four to 10 days of travel. Reservations may be advisable on busy routes. They can be made at most travel agencies and any station, but usually cost a little extra per ticket. With a Eurailpass, you just climb on board regular or inter-regional services and avoid the wait in long ticket queues, although you must book and pay a premium to use the faster, long-distance Eurostar trains. [/quote]

Inter-rail passes can be bought in Europe. Whether they cost more or not I don't know. I haven't had one for about ten years but they are good value. The last time I had one I travelled fromHoek van Holland to Amsterdam, had a dasy in the Netherlands and stayed in Sneek. Then back to Amsterdam and to Belin with a Couchette. Then to Dresden,, into Czech Republic, on to Krakow in Poland, back via Budapest, Wien and Hoek van Holland.

Also I have been up to the far north of Sweden and Norway and down to Switzerland on the same pass.

Eurostar (Italy) must be distinguished from Eurostar (London-Paris/Brussels). Appatrently the Italians had registered the name before Eurostar started.