First train, first obstacle
Traveling on our own during our first trip to Italy was madness in motion. We laughed and kept moving. After our first night in Roma, we called a cab rather than rolling our bags down the cobblestone streets. The ride was quick, but when we saw the rivers of people flowing through Rome's central train station, we were worried. The station has three main levels and two metro levels. The ground level includes shops, broad passageways and trains. The mezzanine has a few shops and a large bar, and the lower level includes shops and a small bar.
We found a place to wait with a good view of the large electro-mechanical display of arrivals and departures; we took turns exploring the station. When I checked the large printed display of hundreds of departing trains, I realized that our Arezzo train was bound for Milano. When that train clicked up on the display, I walked and found a second information system that used video monitors. The two systems didn't agree. We validated our tickets and found our seat.
Five minutes before departure, the train's PA system announced that this was not the train to Milano.
Imagine our frustration! We had done everything right and we still ended up on the wrong train. We raced back up the platform and across the station. OK, right train, but which coach? As the conductors motioned all aboard, we gave up looking. We jumped aboard as the train rolled out of the station. We pulled our bags from coach to coach looking for our seats, until Bettie tripped. We grabbed a couple of seats in a nearly empty coach to catch our breath.
We traveled through flat agricultural land before moving into low hills with orchards, vineyards and tunnels cut through hills that sloped into the valley. The countryside was beautiful; the further north we went, the more beautiful it became. Tuscany was ours to enjoy.
After enjoying our final Tuscan breakfast, we headed for Arezzo. The traffic was heavy and slow; I kept one eye on the road and the other on the clock. We had to find fuel, return the car and catch our second train. I saw that Avis was in an "interesting" location – a narrow, one-way street, sloping down a hill. I had to drive out of the piazza. I still wonder how Italians return rental cars.
We had four minutes to get on the train for Bologna. As in Rome, we scrambled aboard as the train started to roll. We gave up looking for our first class seats. We settled in to view the breathtaking scenery as the train climbed through a steep narrow valley. Our travel agent had told me not to worry about the four-minute train change; Bologna is a small station. Wrong. Bologna is third in passenger volume (70 million/year), and as Italy's principal rail junction, it is tied with Termini for train traffic (650/per day).
In Bologna, we learned our train to Venice would be late by ten minutes. Great. We saw our track number, pulled our bags toward a standing train. Wrong one. We hurried to the commuter platform. When we saw we needed to go through another tunnel, we knew we'd never make it. Bettie spotted a freight elevator. The operator invited us in, asked which track. We said, "Train to Venice". "No, just left."
We found a schedule, rode down and up another pair of elevators and changed platforms. I spotted stairs down to a busy pedestrian tunnel, reached the station, and asked an off duty conductor about our train. "No," he said, "you cannot take this train to Venezia; you must change platforms and catch another train." Down and up the elevators we went again. Into the second class coach with no air conditioning we went. The local train stopped at six stations and twice at signals. We came into Venice two days later. We rode our last train back to Rome.
No more obstacles – we figured it out
There is an Italian high-speed train racket that goes like this. You cannot reserve a seat until they're released, and you cannot reserve a seat after they're released because they're all reserved. For a few euros, in the right hands… In any event, we ended in first class on the slow train to Rome.
First class, second class; what's the difference? The second class trains had open windows. Is that it? Many tourists with huge suitcases were booked into our first class coach. They couldn't find seats, much less places to store their bags. Soon the passageway was filled with bags and people sitting on jump seats that fold down from the wall.
For the first time, we found the right seats, coach and train. As we relaxed, a well-to-do American couple joined us. A few minutes later, a second, much younger, but equally affluent, American couple entered our compartment. The six of us watched other passengers push, pull and trip over the bags in the passageway.
I didn't feel a bit guilty about sitting in my cramped first-class compartment. In fact, I chuckled when an American man, who couldn't find his reserved first-class seats, told his complaining wife, "You see that big number one on the side of the coach? That means first class, but it doesn't matter because half of Italy doesn't work anyway." By now I knew, the half that didn't work was the tourist half.
Our four American friends left us in Florence; we were joined by an Italian woman and two Italian men. When the woman entered the compartment, the seat was littered with empty plastic bottles. There was only a small trash receptacle. The cart man had passed twice selling snacks, but he never collected the trash.
After our final breakfast in Rome, we caught a cab and confidently walked into the airport. We had arrived without a hitch and survived four trains. What a mass of people and lack of signage! I asked for the check in for American Airlines and was told, "Over to the right." We walked around an enormous line of people, waiting to go the same direction, until we were stopped by armed guards who gestured to the line.
"Is this the check in line?" "Yes." After 10 minutes, an agent walked down the line asking, "American Airlines?" We said "yes," and she responded, "Follow me." (It was the Delta line.) She led us out of the terminal and back in past soldiers with automatic weapons. When we arrived at the American Airlines desk, we had to show our documents twice to check our belongings and get our boarding passes. Coming into Rome was more fun than leaving it.