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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Questions from National Geographic Traveler

I am very interested in your experiences with the Italian Rivera trains. I am thinking about the train from Marseille to Pisa, but if you have a suggestion for a better route, please provide it. Why Marseille to Pisa? Just a question. I spend most of my time in Southern Italy which is rarely written about or traveled to by Americans. I'm not talking about Naples or Sicily, but the stretch of land in between - South of Amalfi: Praia a Mare, Scalea, Diamante, Paola, Vibo Valentia, Reggio di Calabria. The food and life there is an absolute contrast to the north. It is a seafood lover's paradise. The beaches are pristine and rarely crowded. One time I  spent the night at a hotel in Cirella when I was the only guest. While I love Northern Italy, the southern part offers sights that are rarely seen by the average American traveler. (NOTE: The Mafia presence there is over-hyped.)

1. What is the highlight of the trip? I'd read about the Cinque Terre before my trip, but none of the articles adequately prepared me for the hike north from Vernazza to Monterosso. By the time I was heading down those nearly vertical stairs into Monterosso, I was thankful that I hadn't started at the north end. The most amazing part of that hike was the thriving agriculture. I mean - people actually live there and pack all of there products up those cliffs. When my sister and I hiked the southern leg from Vernazza to Romaggiore the following day, we finally saw how the locals accomplish this feat. And I've never seen a photograph or an article about it before. We were hiking down the trail when we came across a single metal track (like something an old slot car would run on) running up from the beach to the top of the cliffs. At the side of the trail, an old elementary school chair lay bolted to the track with its legs removed. A grimy lawn mower engine with a pull-rope start was attached to the rear of the chair back. That's what they use to get their olives, lemons, and other products out of there! Talk about a hazardous job. You have to go there just to see that. 

I don't know if that was really "the highlight," but it was pretty amazing. That and the spinning toilet seat up at the bathroom at "Bar il Castello" above Vernazza (beware: I think I stopped counting the stairs up to that bar at around #600). Or maybe it was the festival on the piazza that night. Or dancing in the bar...

TRAIN: From either direction on the main train route, you can take ES/Eurostar, IC/Intercity, D/Direct, or R/Regional. Get off at Levanto or La Spezia to catch the inter-village Cinque Terre train that runs through all 5 villages.
2. What is the most spectacular sight along the trip? That glistening blue Mediterranean.

3. What is the most important thing for someone considering the trip to know? I doubt that I am the only American that's ever been naive to the ways of European train riding, so I'll just say this: TAKE YOUR TIME. Buy a Eurail (flex) pass in advance so that you can jump off and on any train whenever you want. They're good for 24 hours of train riding per day. If you have questions about the 24 hour time period, ask the on-board train attendant. ALWAYS, ALWAYS date your ticket. When in doubt, ask the train attendant for help right away - BEFORE he fines you (if you wait until later, he will fine you for any mistakes you might have made).

4. What is an insider tip you can give someone to get the most out of the experience? Depending on the time of year, you might feel rushed to get on your train, find your seat, and stay put. If you bought a Eurail Pass, you can go to the ticket booth and reserve a seat ahead of time. This means that your car and seat number will be pre-printed on your boarding card. Once you find your seat, check your windows - if they're so dirty that you can't see out of them, ask the Capo (train attendant) if you have time to clean them (on the outside). That might sound odd, but I really regretted not doing that, then went down to the bathroom, grabbed some paper towels, and did it on the first 5 minute stop.

Get off of the train whenever you feel the urge. 
5. What, if anything, about the trip should the traveler know that might be a problem? Getting fined - it happened to me - 50 Euros for not writing the date on my pass when I entered the train. If you ask the train attendant for help up front, he'll help you with anything, even upgrading to a better seat on the spot if you want.

Getting stuck on the tracks/delays - be prepared - one time we had to wait 3 hours for another train to come push us up the tracks.

6. What makes the train so special? You can see the countryside in a way that isn't possible from a car or by air. The other advantages are the ability to get up and walk around, socialize, or get off at any stop you might feel inclined to.

7. Is there a particular route (point to point) or direction (from where to where) that a traveler should take to have the best experience? I don't think it really matters which direction you travel, just get a seaside seat. That may sound easy, but keep in mind that your train might make a stop at a station where it goes head in, then backs out - leaving you on the land side of the train. That's not to say that the view of the land is bad by any means, I just love that view of the Mediterranean Sea!

8. What are the stops along the way a traveler should plan to spend some time at? Monaco is a bit like Vegas on steroids, but I still think it's worth a stop - if for nothing more than to check out the ENORMOUS yachts in the harbor and all of the Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentlys, and Maseratis parked in front of the casinos.

San Remo - if you're into horticulture, I'd recommend stopping here. My (Italian) boyfriend brokers flowers, so we've made several buying trips to San Remo and the hillsides covered with greenhouses and endless flowers of every variety never cease to amaze me. We've visited warehouses bigger than 10 Costcos there - each full to the rafters with flowers. TRAIN: on the main route from Marseille.

The Cinque Terre - see above. 

Pisa was cool only because I wanted to see the tower, but it was a bit anti-climactic after the awesome vistas in the Cinque Terre. TRAIN: Catch the village train out of Cinque Terre to La Spezia then transfer to the IC, D, or R train to Pisa.
9. Are there any special rules or restrictions on the train? If so, what are they? When in doubt, ask the train attendant. He'll be hanging out by the steps when you enter the train.

10. Is this a good train for children? Wh or why not? Trains are better for kids no matter how you slice it. They can get up and stretch, go to the bathroom, etc. As long as they mind their manners, everyone will be courteous and enjoy your kids as much as you do.

11. What is something that I have not asked about or that is not on the websites that a traveler should know about the train? Food and beverage: not all trains have a food car, so consider that. It's pretty common to see vendors coming through the trains at longer stops with sandwiches, beer, and water, but you can bring your own. When we were stuck on the tracks for 3 hours, it was pretty cool that we had a bottle of wine, glasses, and some munchies to tide us over.

Another thing: I didn't understand what a "bin" was in Italy. Those travel guides mentioned the word "binario," but didn't explain that the abbreviation for platform was "bin" in Italian. That means you need to find your "bin" on the overhead reader boards once you know your train number. In larger stations, you might not see your train number and "bin" on the board until 20 minutes before its arrival time. And that could change if another train pulls into that "bin" first. So KEEP watching the sign until you see that your train is arriving (I believe it will say "in arrivi").

If you end up at a train station on a day that the ticket booth is closed or the ticket vending machines are out of order, just find the Capo (on-board ticketing attendant) and tell him your situation. Even if he doesn't speak English, he'll understand if you explain that you couldn't buy a ticket and he'll sell you one on the spot. Say "no ticket at the station" and he'll get that. Of course, speaking the local language helps, but THEY WILL HELP YOU IF YOU ASK. This applies to all trains, including the city metros.

Side note to the last tip: If you are at a station with no electronic means for checking your train schedule - the booth is closed, the machines are down, worst case scenario - you'll find paper schedules posted inside the station. Any route that lists both your ORIGIN and your DESTINATION within the route will get you where you need to go. The route number functions like a flight number at the airport. When that train stops at the station, CONFIRM with the agent that you can get to your destination on that train - he'll either sell you the ticket or tell you which train to wait for. 

Speaking of ticket vending machines - those are pretty handy in the major stations. They work like ATM's. On the touch screen you'll see flags representing country languages. Press the British flag for English and you can find out anything you want to know about any train. And you can pay by credit card for any ticket there without waiting in a line.

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