The first time I arrived in Italy by train it felt completely different to anywhere I’d travelled already. It was the summer of 2000 and I had been travelling for a nearly 2 weeks. I was more than relieved when the train pulled out of Nice on that bright August morning, what a misnomer, Nice was in my eyes not very nice at all. So when the train wound its way around the rocky hillsides, passing over the coastal rocks below I put it from my mind and concentrated on the electric blue waters of the med and the thought of my first genuine Italian cappuccino.
From my window seat I could see the vibrantly coloured flowers hanging from the trees clinging to the banks above the bays, bright flowers in pots along the platforms of the tiny train stations, and the heart warming sight of an Italian Nonna sweeping her porch out, her house sitting right next to the train tracks. As I was later to travel this track many times she became my ‘Italian Nonna’ and I looked out for her everytime I passed by.
Arriving in Ventimiglia, the first real stop over the border from France, (Monaco was also along the way) into Italy I was pleased to see a distinct difference between the Italian locals and the French ones I’d left behind. Admittedly there is a real sense of the Mediterranean life all the way along the Cote D’Azur, with fairly laid back individuals, all there to soak up sun and wine, but these locals appeared even more so. The Carabinieri on the platform as we pulled up were looking so relaxed as to almost appear asleep, even the sniffer dog didn’t look at all bothered that 15 sweaty backpackers had just arrived. Nobody moved, no passports were checked, just a few cheery ‘ciaos’ and a ‘benvenuti’.
After leaving our bags with the guide to mind we set off to explore for an hour before catching the next train. Having already spent the better half of the previous hour practising how to order a cappuccino in Italian I was eager to try it out. We found a kerbside café and sat down. To my amazement the waiter understood my request on the first go and duly brought me the coffee. I was still grinning when we got back on the train.
The journey to Cinque Terre takes you through countless tunnels, carved into the cliffs hanging out over jagged rocks and pebbly beaches. Each time we hit the darkness, the curtains flapping dementedly in the open windows, I could still see the blue water imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. Nowhere else have I experienced that effect.
The locals and us were all chatting amongst ourselves until one guy asks me where we are all going in Italian. I answer Rio Maggiore. Then he asks me where we are all from. I explain that I am a tour guide and my group are all from all over the world. He is going to Calabria to see his mother and he is from Milan. He works in a factory there making cars. Another lady opens her travelling cool box to share some iced coffee in tiny plastic espresso cups with the 2 Korean girls in my group, and another one pulls out some ‘dolce’, sweet pastries to share with the Canadian girls.
Of all my train journeys in Europe I have found the Italians to be the most generous to backpackers, in terms of communication and sharing the contents of their cooler bags. Especially on the train going to Calabria from the north.
I once spent the leg between Pisa and Rome stuck in a corridor with an old guy of 60, a phrase book and a lot of sign language. He was very keen to tell me his family history and was most impressed that a kiwi from ‘lontano’ was trying to speak Italian. He even gave me grammar lessons and corrected my pronunciation. That never happened on a French train.
More recently on the train to Florence from Pisa I sat next to a girl from Romania getting an entire itinerary of what to see and do in Florence from the guy opposite her in Italian. The interesting bit was she only spoke a few words but seemed to grasp most of what he was saying. It was great to see the passion for which he was talking about what was obviously his home town.
On one trip I managed to fulfil the desires of one rather shy Chinese girl who had a thing for men in uniform. She was trying to collect as many photos of them as possible from all over Europe. Some Italian Navy boys had got on at La Spezia, obviously from the Naval base there, heading to Rome along with a couple of Air Force boys. They were filling the corridor outside the dining car, laughing and yelling, all only too willing to pose for a couple of photos with my now tomato-red-in-the-face passenger. We thought we hit the jackpot when some army boys were spotted on the platform at Ostiense in Rome, but they were waiting for another train. She got a photo through the window instead.
The most frustrating time on the trains can be Florence S.M.N. The letters could easily stand for ‘so many new platforms’ instead of Santa Maria Novella as they have an annoying pastime of switching tracks on you. You have to listen to the announcements very carefully. They do them in both English and Italian but as soon as one train is late arriving they start shuffling the rest of the platforms like a deck of cards. With a group of 12 individuals one day we were waiting an extra 45 minutes for the train to Venice, supposedly arriving on track 11, then it was track 9, then it was back to track 11 at the very last minute. We broke the rules and ended up hurling packs across the train tracks onto the end carriage as the guard blew his whistle for the departure and we had some stragglers who hadn’t heard the change walking back from the sandwich bar. Everybody made it with a sprint finish.
On the contrary, in Venice the train guard was very accommodating when I had lost an American passenger between the baggage depot and the train in the short space of about 10 minutes. I explained she was late and he smiled, said ok, and waited an extra 5 minutes with me. Eventually he tapped his watch and we had to abandon her. This was the last train out of Italy to Austria that day so I wasn’t sure when I’d see her again. When I eventually did she had an awesome adventure to tell, but that’s entirely another story.
For point to point travel you can’t beat the Italian trains for good value, not just in the price because with a train ticket you get so much more than just a seat. Sometimes you don’t even always get a seat, especially if it’s in the middle of August, but you get a fantastic opportunity to experience the local culture that just can’t be had from a guide book or the inside of a bus.