Thinking of a DIY rail holiday in Italy? This is essential reading

Catching a train in Italy is a complex subject worthy of an Open University course, which is why I’m sharing my knowledge with keen rail travellers who might find Italian train travel utterly bewildering.

For instance, it can never have occurred to those who devise station announcements that passengers always need to know, first and foremost, the destination of the train as a way of identifying it. Not so in Italy. You are always told where the train has come from (…provinente da…) followed by a train number – which means nothing unless you are a train spotter. (And I’m not sure they exist in Italy. Anoraks are not smart enough.) Finally, just when the unsuspecting tourist has given up all hope of ever hearing the destination he wants, it will be mentioned, along with the time it’s due, often followed by how many minutes late it is.

The other obstacle to understanding station announcements is the word invece (pronounced invetchey) which means ‘instead of’. You will have been lulled into a false sense of security once you have found your platform and you’re standing waiting for the train to come in. Suddenly, you’ll hear an announcement with the magic word invece and all your fellow passengers will disappear. This is because your train will now arrive somewhere else, say binario 4 invece di binario 9. (Platform 4 instead of platform 9.) Don’t imagine for one minute that allowances will be made for people who haven’t understood, or who have to heave cases down and up the underpass to reach the new platform. You need to hurry.

It’s important not to forget to annul your ticket. Validating tickets is something we English travellers are not accustomed to, but it’s a favourite trick to catch us out if an inspector gets on the train. On every station platform there’s a small machine into which you must insert your ticket to stamp it with the date. If your ticket isn’t franked, you could have a fine to pay.

If you’re travelling any distance, you need to be aware that Italians have other names for foreign cities. Years ago when I was a student I missed several trains from Milan to Paris because I didn’t realise that Italians call Paris Parigi, so of course Paris wasn’t mentioned on the departures board. The same applies to Nice (Nizza) and curiously, Munich, which turns out to be Monaco. Great potential for confusion there!

So far I’ve portrayed a system which can be difficult for the tourist to understand. But there are pluses. One is that train travel in Italy is very cheap compared with the UK, and local fares are easy to grasp, being based entirely on the distance travelled. Trenitalia is run by the State and therefore subsidised, so that trains – or even lines – which might have been axed in Britain still run fairly frequently over a generous network.

What I hadn’t realised about the state railway system, was that in Puglia, for instance, there’s a regional company as well as Trenitalia. Lecce is an architectural delight of honey-coloured carved stone, but there’s always the need to see what’s beyond the city, and because I’d seen on a map that Puglia was well served by railway lines, we set off to explore.

“Two returns to Galatina, please.”

I had finally reached the front of the not-so-orderly queue at Lecce station.

“No, signora. I’m sorry. I don’t sell tickets for Galatina.”

“But do trains go from this station to Galatina?” I persisted.

“Oh yes, but a different train company. Go to the wooden hut at the end of platform one.”

Different train company? Nobody mentioned that in the guide book. Somewhat exasperated, we trudged along to the hut where the casual official, preoccupied with his cigarette, said it was a direct train which left from Platform 7. Armed with tickets, and surrounded by signs saying it was forbidden to walk across the lines, there was no choice but to step over the rails and join the eight people waiting for our train.

A cloud of dense back smoke heralded the arrival of the Galatina train, a metal box on wheels built about 1940. We climbed in and the inspector immediately came to clip our tickets.

“Change at Zollino, signora.”

I protested that we’d been told it was a direct line. The other eight passengers rounded on us, agreeing that we had to change, so we obeyed.

There was nothing in Zollino, not even a station. Just clusters of prickly pears and a few mangy goats scratching at the parched earth. We glumly resigned ourselves to a long wait in the middle of nowhere, but amazingly enough, 5 minutes later another dirty locomotive came along, rattling and snorting black fumes. Another inspector with nothing to do clipped our tickets.

At the next station – a real station this time – a pretty young woman wearing shorts and huge leather gauntlets emerged and began tugging at a large iron wheel. She was changing the points, manually.

But Gallatina, and Otranto by a similar train the next day, were both worth the time-travelling rail journey, giving a sense of achievement which we certainly wouldn’t have had if we’d merely hired a car.

At least the journey by Ferrovia Sud-Est trains was relatively simple. I once arrived at Venice airport, and miracle of miracles, walked on to a waiting bus. I congratulated myself at Mestre for arriving in good time for my train, but once inside the station I was greeted with complete chaos. Thousands of people were milling around and the hubbub was deafening. The electronic signs weren’t working and although I could vaguely hear that there were announcements, there was so much noise that it was impossible to understand them, even if, as many passengers were doing, you stood directly underneath a speaker.

I tried asking what had happened, and my heart sank when I heard the word sciopero.

Rail strikes are fairly frequent in Italy, and this one had happened without warning. (“The whole point of a strike is to inconvenience people, signora.”) Students at Venice University were demonstrating on behalf of their lecturers who deserved better pay and conditions. To make their point, the students were sitting on the track on the causeway between Venice and the mainland. Train drivers, being well accustomed to such stoppages, were happy to be prevented from moving their trains, with the result that everything had backed up at Mestre.

Occasionally a train rumbled slowly through the station, but it seemed impossible to find out where it was going. I remembered that Bologna trains normally leave from platform 10 and made my way there, where hundreds if not thousands of people were waiting with a resignation not typical of the Italian temperament. Eventually a long ancient graffiti-covered train crawled in and groaned to a halt. Nobody knew whether to risk it and get on. Boldly I decided to ask some passengers already on the train where it was going. It was one of those old trains with a corridor and lots of compartments. I slid back the first door and asked some workmen in boiler suits where they were heading.

“We’re going to Ferrara, signora,” was the reply. “Next stop Padua.”

 They politely made room for me and my case, then said I must be hungry and offered me bread, salami and their communal bottle of red wine.

This of course is the joy of Italy. No matter where you are, you are made to feel welcome. We battle together against the inability of Italian bureaucrats to organise anything and, with a shrug just get on with life.

After all, La Vita è Bella.

ESSENTIAL VOCABULARY

Regionale                                slow local stopping train

Regionale Veloce                    local train which only stops at certain stations

Freccia                                     (Arrow) express train (much more expensive)

Biglietto di andata e ritorno    single and return ticket

Binario                                    platform

Invece                                      instead

Sciopero                                  strike