Be it fun and exciting, be it frustrating and tiring, think of public transport as part of the travel experience, a grass-roots cultural activity, and whatever happens, just remember you’ll be laughing about it in a few months’ time!
When visiting a foreign land, the way you choose to get from one place to another can make or break your enjoyment.
Unless it is specifically your aim to do so, it is important to not find yourself stranded somewhere, no matter how nice it is, and also important not to assume that transport options are just like they are at home.
Firstly, in Italy, Sundays are not always considered a day of trade. Brothers and sisters (and sometimes cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents and various others!) gather around the table for even longer than usual lunches in the family home (and ‘usual’ lunches are generally an hour long!). That’s all part of Italy’s old-fashioned charm to be accepted and respected, no matter how inconvenient it may be!
Shops are often closed too, despite promises of doing a roaring trade. (If not closed on Sunday, they will likely be shut on Monday. Even most big-name supermarkets are closed too.)
And public transport is no exception. Monday to Saturday are considered ‘weekdays’ and Sunday has a different time-table. August is the exception to this, as there is a general mass exodus from Italy towards coastal or mountain areas to holiday, trains are often late or cancelled and many shops are closed.
But back to transport. When catching public transport, you must buy your tickets before boarding. If you don’t manage to use the automatic ticket machines, this may mean passing a half-day in line with other visitors slowly easing your way towards the face at the ticket counter. Times are all in 24-hour (‘military’) time, so be sure to read your ticket time carefully and do the maths well, as one Artviva staff member learnt when the 1900 (i.e. 7pm) train was NOT departing at 9pm!
For buses, you can buy tickets at stores where you see a large T sign outside ? it’s a Tabacchi (tobacco) store traditionally but they also sell tickets and you can put credit on any pre-paid Italian mobile/cell phone (most Italians still have pre-paid phones!), and buy stamps too.
Since the tickets are just general tickets that can be used on any day, you must time and date stamp them in the relevant machines. For trains and Venice ferries, these are little yellow boxes on the platforms BEFORE you board. For buses, you validate your ticket once on-board. If you fail to time-stamp your ticket, you may be given a lovely souvenir in the form of a fine. There are regular inspections, and the fines can be 5 to 10 euro if they understand you are just visiting and did not know the rules, or if they are in a good mood. The maximum fine is 50 euro if the ticket inspector is not in such a generous mood!
You must also validate Eurostar fast-train tickets, even though they are time, date and seat-specific.
Catching taxis to and from airports, most cities will have standardised fares. For example, from Rome to the airport and back, it is currently 40 euro. Extras may be added for excessive luggage.
Experiencing Italian driving can be a cultural experience in itself!
If you are planning to hire a car, do your research. The road infrastructure means the drive can oft-times be longer than the train trip, and a lot more stressful!
You can blame that on those Etruscans and Romans who cut the roads through the land some thousands of years ago without considering traffic!
From Rome to Florence for example on the Eurostar fast train, it is a trip of less than 1.5 hours. Driving, you are looking at 3 hours, and we are yet to hear of anyone saying it was enjoyable!
The way Italians drive is famous (or is that infamous?). Just trust that there is order in the chaos. And don’t forget to admire the parking skills of the locals who really are talented and creative when it comes to squeezing into impossibly small spaces. There is little space allocated for parking, being that the buildings and roads in the town centres were all constructed pre-motor vehicle. In fact, the squeezing is aided by the fact that many people don’t use their handbrake unless parking on a slope so that people can bump them forward or backwards to get into a space, without doing damage*.
There are parking stations, which can cost up to 50 euro per day if you are not keen on squeezing a car into a space the same size (or smaller!) as the vehicle.
In most cities of Italy, there are ZTL traffic restrictions, which means that you will be sent a fine for entering into the restricted zones. Signs are not usually in English either. If you do manage to figure out the ZTL signs, make sure you also take note of the street-cleaning, when the street sweepers pass by (usually several times a week) and cars parked there at those times are towed away to a parking station out of the city ? at the driver’s expense of course!
If you are staying in a property in the countryside, it may be well worth hiring a car to be able to visit all those little charms nestled in the hillside. However, if staying in a city centre, or near a train station, it may be best to rely on the relatively good transport infrastructure or hire a driver for one or two days to get you to those out-of-the-way places (and also let you relax over a few glasses of wine along the way!).
No matter how you are travelling, it is always advisable to pack as light as possible. Aside from the fact that you are visiting one of the best countries in the world for its shopping, you may also find that there are no lifts or escalators (certainly not in an charming Tuscan villa or tiny Venetian pensione!), and taxis can only squeeze so much in. Cars are smaller, hotel rooms are smaller and getting on and off of trains can be a nightmare, not to mention risky business if you have to leave items on the platform unsupervised to get back on the train for more luggage!
So whilst being a savvy traveler is indeed an art, it’s not too hard to be artistic and make your travels a highlight of your time here!