Italian Holiday: Public Transportation

I’m back from my trip to Italy, and I thought I might take the next few days to go over some of the various things I learned about traveling around the country. We’ll see just how much I’ve got in me, but my guess is it’s good for at least a week’s worth of posts. First off, I wanted to tackle what it was like seeing the country without a car.

This was my first time in a long time going without a rental in Europe. We decided on it for a number of reasons. For one thing, gas is through the roof at the moment. It was around $8/gallon, and the only reason it was that “cheap” is that the Euro has come down significantly against the dollar the last while. Right now it’s about even: 1 Euro to 1 dollar. When I was there last four years ago, it was more like 1 Euro to $1.25, which would have made gas $10/gallon. Additionally, rental car prices were stupid expensive. So since I lived in Europe quite happily for two years without a car, I figured this was a great time to try and give it another go.

Overall, I’m happy we went with that choice, though it wasn’t without its sacrifices. Right off the bat, you have to recognize that you’re going to be beholden to much more of a schedule, if you want to avoid hanging around waiting for buses or trains all the time, and you won’t just be able to go wherever you want. This was fine in the big cities we went to in Italy (and Vienna, which was right before), but when we were staying in a small town in Slovakia, getting anywhere was a big stretch, and involved a lot of time and transfers. The same would have been true in Italy. We had originally hoped to rent a villa in Tuscany for at least a few days, but without a car, that went out the window. It worked out fine, but if “staying off in the countryside” is an absolute must for you, then don’t just do public transportation.

It turns out that traveling from major city to major city is actually easier and faster by train in Italy. The trains go up to 250km/h, and there are no traffic jams. It cost about half as much to buy tickets ahead of time, so we did that for those big trains. Again, this meant we had fixed times for leaving and going certain places. We could have just shown up at train stations whenever, but it would have been more expensive and less efficient.

At the same time, it’s not as if trains never have their issues. We bought tickets on a high speed from Vienna to Venice that should have taken around 7.5 hours, direct. (Only $24/person!) But there was construction on the track when we needed to travel, so we ended up being shuttled off to a bus and a different train for the last 1/3 of the trip. It happens.

With those disclaimers out of the way, however, I really did enjoy the trains. For one thing, I didn’t have to drive at all, which meant no worrying about getting lost. In the days of GPS, you’d think that wouldn’t be an issue, but the cell coverage in Italy was decidedly spotty. Even in Rome, we would regularly have no internet at all, or else very slow internet. Driving in some of the remote places in Italy, I have little confidence that my phone wouldn’t give up at any point along the line. It also must be said that the Italian drivers were very aggressive. There were some beautiful roads, but at no point in time did I wish I were in a car driving myself along them. I was also able to actually look at the countryside and do other things when we were traveling, so when we arrived, I wasn’t nearly as tired as I typically have been.

The trains in Italy ran mostly on time, and they were generally in very good repair. There were a few that were on the warm side, but it was also very hot while we were over there, so that’s to be expected somewhat. It was clear about where they were going and what stops we were waiting for. I didn’t get lost (on the trains) once.

So, trains: good. But once you’ve taken the train from a big city to a big city, you still have to get to your apartment. We tried to pick places that were close to the main train stations, so that it wasn’t too difficult to do this. Yes, we could have just taken taxis everywhere, but I’m assuming people are trying to save money here (because if you just wanted to spend it, you could take a car, you know?) We went to Venice, Milan, Florence, and Rome. Venice is pretty reliant on public transportation no matter what, because you can’t have a car there. But the water buses were easy to navigate and even fun. In Milan, we just needed the subway to get between our place and the Duomo and train station, so I didn’t have much experience with anything else there. (The subway was great.)

Rome was generally fine. The buses or subway would almost always get you within a 5-10 minute walk of wherever you wanted to go. (Though they were almost always late, and it was sometimes bewildering to figure out which way you wanted to go. I know it shouldn’t have been. I’ve successfully navigated all sorts of public transit, but Rome just felt harder for some reason.) Most of the buses weren’t air conditioned, so they weren’t exactly an escape from the heat.

Florence had the worst transit by far. For Rome, Venice, and Milan, it was easy to buy multi-day cards. There were machines where you could do this at any train station. But in Florence, we took a train into a station that wasn’t the main one. It came in late at night, and the station was pretty much closed down. I tried for the life of me to figure out the bus system, but according to locals, you needed an app on your phone. Fine, except the app was only in Italian. So we ended up taking a taxi that time. The good news was that our place was two minutes from the Duomo, so we were able to walk around wherever we needed to go. The old city of Florence is quite compact. Walking was fine.

We did take three day trips to non-city places. One from Milan–out to Varenna on Lake Como. That was simple on the train, and then we took a ferry to Bellagio. No problem. The next was a stop by Cinque Terre on our way from Milan to Florence. This was trickier, since we had our luggage, but there was a place to store them at Monterosso, and then we just used that as our home base. Finally, we went out to Pisa and back, again on the train. Easy.

So overall, I enjoyed our jaunt with trains, but I don’t think I’d have it become the norm for our trips. It was fun to mix things up, but I generally like the flexibility and wider range offered by a car. When you just do city, city, city, it’s not as entertaining as seeing some of the more remote things.

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them.


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