Hello again! I can’t believe its been six months since I last wrote here. Its been a little crazy busy here. My son moved away to university, and my husband negotiated two months off work and (of course) we decided to spend that time in Italy, so we (ahem, I) very quickly had to plan out a trip, find accommodation, book planes, trains and a car and so on… and then of course we were away for two, whole, long, lovely months in the bel’ paese.
Thankfully we’ve done enough longish trips to Italy before and knew the drill: knew who to fly with and what to pack and so on, and I have a go-to list of reliable accommodation websites. That part wasn’t difficult.
But… Italy has so many wonderful towns and places, and we often use our trips to ‘try out’ towns, and ask ourselves: “could we live here?”. How to decide where to stay? How to decide where to base yourself when you’ve ‘done’ all the main towns?
I pored over the map for days, and couldn’t decide where we should spend our time. North…? Mountains…? Sea…? City…? We couldn’t decide.
I started thinking about this dilemma, and realised I’d have to start with what we knew we liked.
We wanted a town that had a good weekly market. It had to have some life to it, have an active community. It had to be well serviced by public transport. This is really important to us, because we’d want to be able to go and visit other places too. It had to have enough residents, restaurants or bars that something would be open on a Sunday. And I wanted people to speak to me in Italian, not English.
A total bonus would be that someone in the town offered language courses, there would be an Apple Computer shop, and my husband wanted a guitar shop nearby. Maybe even a fabric or sewing shop too. A girl can dream.
Eventually, I realised that the towns we’ve really liked in the past that have most of those things ~ Lucca, for example ~ have had a population of about 100,000. So I started looking at towns with similar population sizes, and seeing if I could find one that was similarly well connected… and i came up with Treviso.
Treviso has 87,000 residents, of which only about 8,000 live inside the city walls. It has its own train station just outside the walls, and its own airport. Venice is only 25 minutes away by train, you can get a high-speed train from Venice to just about anywhere, and Venice has its own international airport too. I liked that the Dolomites and the sea are both nearby. Treviso had never popped up on my tourist radar before, and a little research told me that it doesn’t have any major attractions of its own, so therefore (I hoped) not many tourists or crowds, though it does have two rivers running through it, so it looked quite pretty. Its just a quietly prosperous town, going about its own business. Perfect!
I found a holiday apartment and booked it. Off we went. Husband decided that on the third week he’d like to go back to England to visit his family, and I decided to attend a language school while he was away. I fronted up, introduced myself, and enrolled, and in the meantime we got busy acquainting ourselves with Treviso. We rented le biciclette (bikes) and cycled around town, around the walls. Outside the walls. Followed the river. Pretended to be Trevignani.
We discovered that there are not one, but TWO huge weekly markets! One on Saturday and another on Tuesday, both open until 1pm. Woohoo! There are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, and many are open on Sundays, and there’s even a supermercato! Wow! Bliss!
The medieval walls only still exist on the northern side, although there are small stretches on the western and eastern sides. The walls are tall and wide and have trees growing on them, rather like a park, and you can wander through the town and suddenly come across the rivers flowing fast. Lovely!
The commune have built extensive cycling paths through and around town, and just recently have created a dedicated 70km cycling path that runs all the way to Jesolo, the beachside town just north of Venice. No cars. No traffic. Just bikes. An active commune! Fabulous!
Even more exciting and challenging was that the shopkeepers of Treviso spoke to me in Italian. Fabulous! Another tick!
So… we started looking at properties for sale.
Most of the time when we travel around Italy we take the train. Flying from Australia, we don’t usually have the option to fly into the city of our choosing, we have to fly into either Milan, Rome or Venice, and while those cities are great places, we usually want to go somewhere else too. The train is faster and safer than driving, particularly after a 22 hour flight when we’re likely to be exhausted. That’s not to say that we don’t rent cars — we often do — its just that we don’t often use a car to get us across the country.
When we started travelling around Italy, we’d typically turn up at the station (as you would in Australia) and book our ticket on one of those self-serve machines, usually one way, and we’d simply take the next arriving train, assuming that the price and speed would roughly be the same on each train. Not so!
In Italy, buying a train ticket is a bit like buying a flight. The price you pay for your ticket reflects the speed and the quality of the train, and how far in advance you buy the ticket. That is, the cheapest way to get from point A to point B is to book ahead, on the slowest, least comfortable train. But, as a tourist, sometimes the cheapest price is not the best.
We once turned up at the station and bought tickets from Venice to Milan, but then we noticed that there was a train departing for Milan earlier than our ticket showed, so we jumped on, not realising that that next train was a regional train. It had no air conditioning, hard seats, and stopped at just about every single stop along the way. The whole trip took us something close to 5 hours (instead of 2 hours and 45 minutes) and in the time that we were on that train we were passed by not only the train that we should have been on but at least 4 other high speed trains that departed after us and arrived in Milan before us. What made it worse was that we had actually paid for tickets on the high speed train, but used them on the regional train. Had we actually bought a ticket for the regional train that we actually travelled on train we probably would have saved €20 or so per person. But we’d purchased a fast train ticket and wasted a whole day sitting in a hot, uncomfortable train that smelled of… well, you can imagine. It was bone-crunchingly awful. We should have waited half an hour and gotten on the train we’d purchased the ticket for, that we’d selected on the machine.
What you’ll find is that if you’re prepared to travel on a regional train (or even part of the journey on a regional train) the price will be lower when compared to the high-speed Freccia (Arrow) trains. But you have to take care to look.
For example, looking at the trenitalia.com website today, there are currently two prices to travel by train from Rome to Treviso on the 1st of May: €42.30 and €52.30. The cheaper fare takes 4 hours and 44 minutes, the more expensive fare takes 4 hours and 2 minutes. That is, paying €10 more means saving 42 minutes of travelling time.
But: that’s the price I would pay if I booked the ticket today. If I book the ticket on the day, the price is likely to be much higher. Did you know that? I did not! For example, if you selected that same €52.30 trip on the day it could be as much as €80 (in second class, and if second class is sold out, it could cost you €109) if all the cheaper inflexible tickets are sold out. And, in fact, when I select the 10.35am train which costs €52.30 it shows me that there was an even cheaper fare which has already sold out. So… in addition to choosing the slower train we’ve learnt that the cost of the ticket is cheapest the further ahead you book. But beware: the cheapest fares are non-refundable, and not transferrable. This can be very expensive if you miss that train.
There are usually 3 options in each class on each inter-city train; the Super Economy (which is unchangeable) the Economy (which can be transferred) and the Base fare (which can be transferred and refunded). Obviously First Class costs more than Second, but it is possible — if you book ahead and are prepared to waive the right to change your ticket — to travel First Class for less than the cost of Second Class. Yes, its complicated!
So, I’ve learnt to book ahead; I almost always choose the fastest train, but not necessarily the cheapest ticket on that train. The other thing to remember is that Trenitalia only allows you to buy your train ticket 3 months in advance, and you must have the printed ticket with you on the train for the inspector to see. You can also choose your seats. My recommendation is to look at the train plan and choose seats close to the luggage rack ~ although this isn’t always possible as its position isn’t always clear.
Another mistake I made several years ago was to buy the ticket (at the station) and have the machine auto-select our seats. What a mistake. The train was full when we got on, and we were travelling with our son plus three large pieces of luggage… we discovered very quickly that our seats 17A, 17B and 17 C were on three different carriages. Fortunately a lovely young Italian man was happy to swap his seat up for mine so I could be with my young son, but we had no real idea of where my husband was sitting. This is another good reason to buy your ticket in advance, and select the seat yourself. Check that your seats are on the same carriage, as seat numbers will repeat for each carriage. (Tip: Carrozza = carriage)
One more thing. Apparently buying a train ticket using the TrenItalia website triggers a fraud warning at some of our Australian banks. Well, it does at my bank. Within seconds of booking a train ticket I usually get a text message from my bank advising me that they’re freezing all my accounts until I call and confirm that its me buying the ticket!
Having finally learnt from all my mistakes, I now find train travel in Italy to be a very comfortable, very fast and safe way to travel across the country.
If you want to read more about taking the train around Italy I can recommend Tim Parks lovely book called Italian Ways. He describes his various train trips to and from work, and around the country, and the crazy logic of the ticket buying system. Its a lovely read to get you excited before a trip.
I must say I’m no expert on trains in Italy, if anyone has any more tips please leave a comment ~ I’d be very grateful!
So we’ve just come back from one month of travelling around bel’ Italia. From mid-November to mid-December, we visited: Rome, Bracciano, Semproniano (in southern Tuscany), Florence, Bolzano (in the Alps) to see the Christmas markets, then back to Rome for a couple of days before we flew home. We travelled mostly by hire car and train.
It was quite a few moves in one month, and our luggage had to be small enough to be able to move easily and fit into the boot (trunk) of a rental car, but large enough to fit a change of seasons clothes plus the bits and pieces we bought along the way.
Firstly, when it comes to luggage, we ALWAYS buy luggage on wheels. Always. It means I can trundle along behind my husband and can handle my own bags. If our son is travelling with us it means he can handle his own luggage himself too. Being the frugal people we are (ok, cheapskates) I usually go to the Chinese markets in Sydney and buy ultra cheap luggage. I don’t expect it to last long; it usually only lasts two or three trips and then it needs to be replaced.
This trip, we dragged our grubby tatty luggage with us all around Italy… but towards the end of our trip (when the bags were at their heaviest) we noticed the zippers splitting open, and thought they might not last the flight home.
Cheap luggage isn’t easy to find in Rome ~ and it isn’t cheap. So we indulged ourselves. We went into La Rinascente and bought ourselves new Delsey luggage. I chose Delsey on the recommendation of several friends who work as flight attendants. What a revelation it is to have proper, well-made luggage! The wheels roll and turn so easily its no longer hard work to drag or push the bag along. The insides are lined with light coloured lining, which makes it really easy to see where everything is.
We bought the largest size they had, which does mean its tricky to fit two cases into the trunk of a taxi or hire car. When totally fully packed (as ours were when we flew home) they checked in at around 30 kilos each. We’re fortunate to have extra baggage allowance with our frequent flyers club, so while the weight wasn’t and issue for us on this trip, it could be a problem if your baggage allowance is only 20 kilos. And of course its simply too large and heavy for budget european airlines, some of which only allow 11 or 16 kilos. So with hindsight, perhaps the second largest size would have been better.
And then, there comes the packing itself.
Finally, I think I’ve got it cracked. I wore everything I took, I wasn’t overloaded with useless things… everything was practical, easy to wash and wear, and comfortable without being slobbish.
I took 3 pairs of pants – one pair of dark grey slim fit jeans. One pair of slim-fit black ponte pants, and one pair of Lululemon hiking leggings. All with a a little bit of stretch.
I took 5 tops – 3 of them were long-sleeved, 1 was short, and one was a more dressy drape style. I could have done with one more lighter top as it was unseasonably warm in November when we got to Rome, but it was cheap enough to buy a lightweight top.
I took 2 pairs of shoes. Yes, just TWO pairs. I took a pair of mid-heeled ankle boots which I wore through the airports because they slip on and off easily, (and they go with all the skinny leg pants I’d taken) and a pair of super-ugly but ultra comfortable walking boots. I took the walking boots because we did lots of long hikes. If you’re not hiking, then I’d probably swap them out for something like Converse style sneakers. However my walking boots totally saved my feet, and really were essential for me since the bones in my foot are still healing from the surgery I had. I thought I’d really stand out as a tourist in them but the thing to remember in Rome — and indeed in most of Europe — is that most Europeans don’t drive everywhere like we do, they walk everywhere, so they all generally wear low-heeled comfortable shoes themselves. Granted, they are usually italian made and really beautiful.
I took 2 coats and 1 cardigan. Right now in Italy everyone is wearing puffer jackets. Fortunately one of the coats I took was a black puffer style jacket. The other was a heavier, water-resistant style coat, which I have to say I didn’t wear as much as I thought I would. The cardigan I only wore a few times, but it was handy. The puffer jacket and the cardigan could both be layered under the larger coat if needed.
I took 3 ultra-thin Heattech thermal layers that I’ve previously blogged about here http://wp.me/p4jE2L-Q that I bought from Uniqlo. I took a camisole, a short-sleeved and a long-sleeved one, and a pair of their leggings to layer underneath pants, though I have to say it wasn’t really cold enough to warrant the leggings, but they also double as tights to wear with my flying dress. They are super thin and take almost no space at all.
I took 2 scarves, and wore one with my simple black shirtdress on the flight. I also took 1 woollen beanie, one pair of gloves and a fold-up umbrella. And a cheap swimsuit – which I used in one of the thermal springs.
As for socks and underwear – I only ever take a weeks supply, but we always rent apartments which usually have a washing machine in them.
And that’s it. I didn’t take a hairdryer, but I did take my straightening iron. Next time I probably won’t take it.
Packing light means there’s space in your luggage to buy a few lovely Italian things. x
Hello again…. I think I’ve finally (almost) completely organised our next trip to bel’italia. I managed to find a lovely apartment in the Ghetto area of Rome for the first part of the trip. It was very reasonable, although I think it has no windows facing outwards onto the street ~ which for some people would be a problem, but I don’t mind one bit, as it will mean no road noises. Then we’ll be renting a car and travelling northwards. I’m not sure how sensible it is to pick up a rental car from Rome and then try to drive out… but I’ll let you know.
I’ve never been anywhere in Lazio other than Roma, so this is our opportunity to see whats out there, so to that end we’re staying near the little lake Bracciano, about 45 km’s from Rome.
I had a little chuckle to myself when I looked at it on the map. Its 45km’s from Rome, well in the countryside. About the same distance from the CBD in Sydney you’d still find yourself in the outer Sydney suburbs. Anyway, I found a lovely little apartment in Bracciano near the lake. After that, we hope to spend a little time in the Maremma (northern Lazio/southern Tuscany) so that we can visit the thermal springs in Saturnia and le Vie Cave, and the abandoned town of Montemerano. After that we have a week in Florence, then… well, I’ll leave the rest as a surprise.
This trip we’re scouting a little, as we hope to spend a few months in Italy next year, and I suspect that northern Lazio might be a good place to be, being so close to Rome, and close(ish) to Florence too. Funny how us Aussies have such a different concept of what constitutes ‘close’.
Anyway… I’ve started thinking about what to pack for this trip too, as it will be cool in November, and this being Italy there will be lots and lots of walking. Actually I suppose we should be prepared for anything at that time of year. With the bones still healing in my broken foot I will be restricted to flat and very comfortable shoes, and clothes that are comfortable and easy to wear, and that don’t need a shoe with a heel. Luckily I have a really comfy pair of flat soled boots ~ which have already made the trip to italy once before. But I think I might have to invest in a pair of comfortable and stylish italian shoes when I get there. Happily Rome is the place where I can find a shoe that is both comfortable AND stylish.
Maybe ten years ago I bought a pair of Nero Giardini shoes in Rome. They were unlike anything I had ever seen before, but I noticed that lots and lots of italian women wore them. Styled like fashionable shoes, but built and soled like trainers. With a bit of a heel. Perfect for negotiating cobbled streets and walking all day long.
I know there are sneakers and trainers with heels out there now, but I’ve yet to try on a pair that are as comfy as those Nero Giardini shoes were. They looked fabulously good on the italian women, particularly on those who aren’t teenagers any more. Nothing like those dreary Homy-Peds, and not like I’ve stolen my daughters shoes either. I’ve only just thrown them away, so my first shopping expedition in Rome will be to find a replacement pair.
I just searched the Nero Giardini website and here are my two choices. I hope they still have some in stock when I get there!
These don’t look so stylish in the photo, but are fairly similar to the ones I had. Its not so easy to see, but they’re actually quite finely made. And I like the little bronze details.
These are so cute too! I’d be happy with either pair, although these are maybe more fashionable.
Firstly I must apologise for my absence. I’ve been off the radar for three weeks now, as I had to have surgery on some bones in my foot. I thought I’d be laid up on the couch post-recovery, researching and writing lots ~ and its not that the foot has particularly prevented me from writing, but the painkillers have prevented me from thinking very clearly at all. Many hours have been spent just dozing in front of the TV while the pile of books I was looking forward to reading went unread. Anyway, thankfully now the foot is on the mend and pain has subsided and the brain-fog is clearing.
Being denied the simple pleasure of walking anywhere at all for the last couple of weeks has made me realise this morning how much I really like to walk, and to hike, and how much a part of every trip away it is. Whenever I’m in any old world city I’d much rather walk everywhere, just to take in all the lovely little streets, to people-watch and so on, than take any form of public transport. One of the things I really love about European cities in particular is that they were built pre-car, so usually everything is usually within reasonable walking distance from anything else. Stumbling across local bars, trattorias or artisanal workshops are just as much of a joy as the final destination to me. As a result I feel like I know the streets – of Rome in particular – fairly well, even though I’ve never quite made it to all the tourists sights yet. I don’t mind that at all.
So I’m always on the lookout for an interesting and unknown walk or hike, and I recently came across this one that circumnavigates Florence. Its called the L’Anello del Rinascimento, or Renaissance Ring. It’s been created from little-used roads and trackways, and it includes sections of paved roads that go back to Roman or Medieval times. Its 178km’s crosses hills, woods and ploughed fields, and according to the Florence Tourism Authority the walker encounters “monasteries, castles and hospices to welcome pilgrims, ancient walled communities, country churches, and ideally the eye is always on the old centre of the city whose focal point is the dome of the cathedral, the masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi, which identifies Florence.” Sounds great to me!
Since I find about 12km’s a day (give or take) is an easy day’s walk, I recon it would take me a couple of weeks to complete the whole ring. To me, thats enough to get into the rhythm of a long walk without too much possibility of feeling like its an arduous penitential task. Of course if time allowed, I think it would be great idea to rest or maybe only walk a small amount say, every fifth day, so you’ve got time to rest and recover a little from any little injuries or strains.
According to the Florence tourist authority there are signs to guide tourists along their way, and since each section of the walk has a public transport link with Florence, its quite easy to get back into the centre of Florence when you’ve had enough. They have comprehensive downloadable documents on their site that you can use to guide you along each segment of the ring, describing the terrain, difficulty and places of interest in each section along the way. You can download them here:
The fact that I’ve never heard of this walk before is an added bonus. I don’t know anyone who’s ever heard of it either ~ hopefully that means it won’t be teeming with tourists, all jostling for position. If you’ve done this walk or know anything more about it, I’d love to hear from you.
Dreaming about a walk like this one helps me to tolerate the frustration of not being able to walk right now. Short term pain for long term gain. It won’t be long before I’m up and about, wearing proper shoes again. Can’t wait! Non vedo l’ora!
Just over the northern edge of Lazio the Vie Cave can be found. The Vie Cave are a loose collection of some 15 trackways, created by the Etruscans. They were cut deep into the tuffaceous rock of the area and provide safe passage ~ barely wide enough for two horses to pass, and up to 25 metres deep in places. Archaeologists think they were created to provide safe access between the settlements and cemeteries around Pitigliano and Sovana but they’re not really sure. Another theory says they were actually mining the tuffaceous rock, but I don’t find that theory convincing.
One thing that is for certain is that they are dark and mysterious. Much later when the Christians came to use the passageways, they seem to have felt the need to banish the darkness and “baptize” many of these pathways with crosses or little votive shrines.
I’m told that the best starting point to access the most spectacular section of the Vie Cave is the town of Sovana. The entry to the archaeological park is about a 10 minute walk outside of town, or a couple of minutes drive out of town. Follow the signs for Saturnia and head along the narrow paved road. After going under a small tunnel, the entrance and parking lot is on the right hand side.
I’ve heard that they’re a great thing to visit in summer when it’s searing hot as the caves are always cool, but make sure you have some water and mozzie repellent handy. There are picnic tables dotted about the park too. I’m not sure if you can use the tracks to hike all the way from Sovana to Pitigliano ~ perhaps its not recommended… I imagine it could be quite easy to get lost there.
Or if you happen to be in the area in spring, on the night of the Spring equinox there is a torch-lit procession along the pathway of San Giuseppe which is on the Pitigliano side. How amazing would that be?
One of the greatest things about travelling slowly through a place is being able to do things that not every tourist does, so I’ve started making a list of some of the things I’d like to do when we have time to spare in Italia. It’s a bit of a strange list, filled with things not usually frequented by tourists, and I haven’t come across lots of information about them. I’m hoping to learn more about them before we go next year ~ just having them on my radar means my ears are alert whenever someone mentions them.
The first is the Tomb of Cicero. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a great politician of the Late Republic and gave many great speeches around the time of Julius Caesar. I read a lot of Ciceros writing, both in English and in the original Latin when I was studying for my degree. I felt I’d come to know him quite well.
Cicero grew up in Arpino, which is a small hill town about 100km south-east from Rome, in the province of Frosinone. After becoming enemies with Marc Antony, he was hunted down and killed at his villa in Formia in 43BCE. I clearly remember the lecture where we were told how he’d died, first having his hands cut off ~ a symbolic gesture, since they were the hands that had written against Marc Antony ~ then his tongue was cut out and then his head.
I felt like someone in my family had died! Images of his death haunted me for days, and I recall sleeping very restlessly and weeping in the night ~ my poor husband wanted to know who Marcus was and what on earth had happened to him!
Anyway… Arpino is on my list, as is Formia. Formia is a pretty seaside town, with a well-built Roman port, it seems a lovely place to linger. Somewhere in the hills behind Formia is where Cicero had his summer villa and farms; its where he escaped to when he realised his days were numbered. Just outside of Formia on the ancient Via Appia is a monument traditionally attributed to be the Tomb of Cicero. Its not really known if it is indeed his tomb; there are no markings, nor is there any historical evidence to corroborate the story, but a little further along the Via Appia towards Formia are the remains of the tomb of his daughter, Tulliola. I’m not sure that this tomb is even marked ~ I’ve heard its difficult to find. Personally, I’d have thought they’d have been interred in the same mausoleum, and perhaps Cicero’s remains were first placed in his daughter’s mausoleum and then moved at a later date because of his fame. Who knows. I know Cicero loved his daughter very much and was heart-broken when she died in childbirth.
I could quite happily do a Masters thesis on this subject, but whether it would contribute anything to our knowledge of the Classical world is debatable.
Have you been there? Do you know any more? Feel free to message me or leave a comment if you’ve been to either of these places ~ I’d love to know more about them.
I often ponder this question.
I know lots of people end up in a certain city because work sent them there. That is certainly the case here in Sydney. Probably the next most obvious reason people end up somewhere far from home is that they’ve followed their partner away. My husband ended up in Sydney because I grew up here.
When my grandmother was seeking to leave Communist China in the fifties, she sought advice from the various embassies in Harbin, and found that only Australia and Brazil were taking immigrants. She didn’t know a thing about either place, but she couldn’t stay in Harbin… so she did what anybody would do in her situation. She set out to find out as much as she could on both places. She didn’t have the luxury of time (or the internet) to help her. In the end, she often told me that she chose to come to Australia because they drank tea there. She’d heard that Brazilians preferred to drink coffee while Aussies prefer tea, so that was that. Decision made. I guess when you’re facing a lifetime of racism or marginalisation you’re not so picky about where you go.
But what if you’re not in those categories?
I avidly watch that British TV program called ‘A Place in the Sun, Home or Away’. The premise of the program is that they help a British couple that can’t decide whether to move abroad or to stay within England by showing them houses that fit their budget in both countries, so they can compare. Typically they’re chasing the sun or looking for a more relaxed lifestyle. Maybe they’ve been to their chosen destination a few times before on a holiday, in the middle of summer. They’ve almost never seen their chosen place in the middle of winter, or in autumn, when everything isn’t looking so rosy. Usually they’re swayed by the sun shining, and the possibility of buying a home far larger (and more ‘wow factor’) than they ever could afford at home. For most of them, learning the language is an afterthought. How can they contribute to the community if they can’t communicate? I constantly marvel at those few brave (or crazy!) people on that program who are so desperate for some sunshine that they would consider buying property and living in a foreign country that they have never even set foot in. But sometimes, occasionally, they take the plunge and move. Such courage!
Our next trip will probably be around this time next year, probably for about eight weeks or so, and I’m thinking to spend this next trip in Lazio. Lazio doesn’t attract the thousands of tourists that the rest of northern Italy attracts ~ but it is dotted with locations rich with Roman history. I’ve had a few places on my list for a while now; Viterbo, Montefiascone, Tarquinia, as well as Ariccia and Formia. I’ve never been to any of them. But I feel that I should give Lazio a try. Besides… I like the bread there.