Note to Seasoned Travelers: As of September 2007
your are no longer invited to hop on a train in Italy and buy your ticket from the
conductor. If you board in a small town where there is no ticket office or
machine available, go ahead and board without a ticket. As soon as you board,
walk the length of the train looking for the conductor from whom you can buy
your ticket. "Guasto" or "Fuori servizio" are both phrases for "Out of order". Riding without a ticket or without validating your ticket before
boarding makes you vulnerable to a 50€ fine.
Italy-Central 2006 , 2007, & 2009
Biking Cinque Terre: Oh My, The Map Errors - 2006
On a hot and humid day in July 2001we walked the open portion of Cinque Terre and in May of 2006 we biked the much higher secondary road through the area. An unexpected challenge in biking was the surprising misinformation on the maps of this very popular recreation area.
As we were considering the pro's and con's of riding the hilly route, we were alarmed at the Colla di Gritta that was marked on both of our maps as being at 930 meters. At just over 3,000', that would be a significant challenge at the end of a short but severely and up and down day as we headed north on the route. It seemed like an error given that that would make the pass higher than the nearest peaks, but knowing that it was a very steep area, we couldn't just discount it. We dedicated an hour in the morning of our riding day to find several other maps, some of which indicated the pass was at 330 meters, which made more sense. If you are looking at Cinque Terre maps, the Colla di Gritta is north and a bit west of the western most port town of Cinque Terra, Monterosso.
Bill looked at about 8 different maps to sort out what we should expect. About a third of the maps indicated a pass at either 930 or 330 meters, about a third indicated that the road wasn't through, and about a third showed a tunnel. In reality, The 'pass' was probably about 330 meters though it was no longer a pass but a junction. We guessed that it was a pass at the high point on the road between the seaside towns of Monterosso and Levanto before the connection with the much higher road we were on was built. There indeed was a short tunnel nearby and fortunately for us, the roads did actually connect.
We dodged that planning problem but actually fell victim to another map glitch that cost us about 3 hours, an extra 1300' in elevation gain and needless bouncing around on dirt and rock trails. This map error was at the other end of Cinque Terre, the south end before actually entering the park area. We were coming from La Spezia on road number 370. At the 1 km long tunnel, we took the road to the right that goes through the village of Biassa, deviating from 370. Our maps indicated that we could detour around the tunnel, go through Biassa, and rejoin 370 well before Riomaggiore, the southeastern coastal village of Cinque Terre. We expected to do some extra climbing but thought it worth it in the scenic area.
The short story is that the maps were wrong and there was no road linking the other side of Biassa with 370. We rode for miles up steep grades to the top of the ridge. When Bill asked some picnickers on the top, he was told that there was no connecting road, but we could take a mountain bike route to Riomaggiore. We rode along the ridge until we saw Riomaggiore pass behind us and we began to drop over the opposite side of the ridge from it. At that point we stopped and noticed a steep, narrow footpath that indeed led down to the coastal village. Bill scouted it out and decided it was way too treacherous for us to coax our loaded bikes down, leaving us no option but to retrace our steps. Part way back to the tunnel Bill inquired at a little restaurant and they confirmed that there was no road. One free map from tourist info showed it accurately, but the others they gave us and the purchased maps all erroneously showed a connecting road.
So, the short story is go through the tunnel so as to stay on 370 until it ends in Manarola and bring illumination for the tunnel. The narrow tunnel is lit enough for you to see your way, but not enough for cars to see you. We put on our Illuminite vests, fired up Bill's headlight, and turned on both of our tail lights for the mostly flat ride through the tunnel too narrow to walk the bikes. The next 2 tunnels were short and bright enough not to be a worry (only 1 of which was indicated on the maps).
It's a quick, all downhill trip from the tunnel to the turn-offs for Riomaggiore and then Manarola. If you actually go into Manarola, the closest village of the 5 to the main road, it is a tough, almost 6 km ride up from the village to the first high point on the through road on your way out. We had to push our bikes out of Manarola because of the 10-15% grades in the pedestrianized streets of the village. That in itself was a big effort. Back on the main road, the grades quickly became 10% and there were numerous runs of 12-14%. In our first 3.3 km we accumulated over 300 meters of gain, making the average grade almost 10%.At the 6km point, the rate of gain was only a little lower.
A scenic walk had resulted in us getting on the road after noon and at that rate I worried that we wouldn't make our 26km ride before dark. I was surprised that I could sustain pedaling the 10% grades, but the bouts of grade in the teens was requiring rest stops every 100-200 yards. The resting wasn't essential yet, but it was enough of a strain that I felt a need to conserve my energy as we had no idea how much of the road would dish out such steep grades.
After about 6-7 km out of Manarola, the grades eased and our average speed moved out of the realm of a walking pace. There were occasional pulls on 10% grades and a few in the teens, but overall it was much easier going. Just short of 2/3's of the way to Levanto, we saw the last of the steep stuff.
So, before taking on this route, make sure you are up to doing sustained steep grades with whatever load you'll be carrying. Once in the area, you are pretty well committed to climbing to get out. Putting the bikes on the coastal train might be an option, but exploring the options is hard too. We were at about 500 meters above sea level when we came to the turnoff for Vernazza, which was 5 km away. The math was easy: that road too would average 10% grades for its entire length. That would be OK if you were assured of being able to load your bike on a train, but if not, you'd be stuck getting yourself back up to the through road.
We spent 1 night in Cinque Terre at Manarola on May 10 and had been advised by the La Spezia tourist info clerk that no reservations were necessary until July. With all of our wandering about in the hills, we arrived in the village close to 5 pm and some hotels were already full. We did get a room, but had little choice and Bill felt he had to grab something quickly rather than shop around. So, if you are planning on spending a night in one of the villages, I'd book ahead or arrive early. I would recommend it too as the charm of Cinque Terre doesn't come through on the high road--you need to at least visit 1 or 2 of the villages if not do the walk between a couple. Riomaggiore and Manarola are only 1 km apart on foot, and Manarola is the closest village to the main road, so it is a good choice for a stopover.
There are markets in the port villages of Cinque Terre but not on the paved road, so plan ahead for your food and water needs. The first village out of Volastra might have a market, though we didn't drop down into town to see what was available. Keep in mind the 2-3 hour long afternoon closure of most of the smaller food shops in Italy.
Biking Cinque Terre: May 2009
We got the route right this time and it was a lovely, though hard ride. From La Spezia to Levanto was about 45 km (28 miles). The experience breaks into 3 parts. The first phase is the 200m (660') climb up into the hills behind La Spezia. Once you finish the "big up" it becomes more pleasant riding as you accumulate another 100m (330) gain and stunning views to Manarola. We didn't go all the way down to the sea at Manarola but stayed on the main road.
Manarola to Volastra is the second phase and the toughest part of the day thought it is only 5 or 6 km. The 10-12% grades just keep coming and coming and we accumulated something like another 300m (985') in this short distance. Volastra is a good place to stop for lunch or a rest. As you approach it you'll see a small shaded parking area with garbage receptacles and a large covered bus stop on the road. It's a good place to shelter if the weather is bad. Should it be hot, proceed slightly downhill towards town past the bus stop and aim for the church and seating area to the right. If there is no shade here, push your bikes along the uphill side of the church building to find a big seating area with shaded benches on the far side. We left our bikes against the church to avoid the few stairs. The only convenience water tap we found on the route was here, below the bus shelter and adjacent to the church/park. It is to your left as you aim downhill and right on the street.
The 3rd phase of the day begins with a disappointingly long climb after you leave Volastra though your 12% grades are done for the day. After a couple of km the route becomes a delightful 'ridge ride' for quite a ways. You will again hit some 10% grades on this segment of the route but its not as punishing as the approach to Volastra. You'll reach your highest point of the route in this segment, which is about 525m (1722').
In the area around Fornacchi the road splits. The high road is the sensible 'ridge ride' route and it is signed as going towards Levanto even though the park map designates it as a mountain bike route. The low road is signed towards the remaining seaside villages and would surely make this a huge day. Our total gain for the day as it was was 840m (2756').
Levanto to Sestri Levante
The next day's ride after Cinque Terre to Sestri Levante (if heading west) is only 35 km (22 miles) but it is also steep in the beginning. The pass is at 615 m (2020'). We did a total of 700 m (2300') gain but we racked up 300 m (1000') in the 1st 5 km (3 miles). It is essentially all up for the first 600m (2000') in gain though it never goes over 10% grades and usually the maximums are around 8%. It is a pretty ride though not at stunning as the route above Cinque Terre.
A Cinque Terre Hiking Vacation
In 2009 we seriously evaluated how and when we would return to Cinque Terre in the future for a hiking holiday. At the end of May, it was already too hot and humid to be inviting to linger. Late April or early May might be a better gamble, though the transition from cool and damp to hot and dry seems to occur quickly in Italy. The train schedule for the area that we received was dated 4/ 12 which might mean that's when they switch off of their low season schedule.
There are 3 general options for places to base: Levanto beyond the northwest end of the park; La Spezia at the southeast end of the park; or one of the Cinque Terre villages within the national park. The cities at either end of the park are viable options because the cities are linked by train service along the sea. The train trip between Levanto and La Spezia takes 30 minutes.
We settled on Levanto as the place where we would base as it is a pretty and pleasant seaside resort town bulging with hotels, B&B's, and food markets. It has lush parks, promenades, and ample resources. Much of Levanto's lodging is within a 5 to 10 minute walk of the train station and the first village in Cinque Terre is only 5 minutes away from Levanto by train.
The Cinque Terre villages are of course the premier place to be because they are the attraction but lodging comes at boutique prices. In addition, other resources that we treasure, like supermarkets, are scarce. La Spezia is another option but it is a sprawling port city without a concentration of nice lodging near the train station and it's not as relaxing a place to linger as Levanto.
The official website for Cinque Terre is: www.parconazionale5terre.it. The best website we found for B&B's in Levanto was www.bed-and-breakfast.it. Once in Levanto, the tourist info office will give you a list of lodging options though we couldn't find the same list online.
Be sure to bring a good sun hat, sunscreen, and a big water bottle as there is little shade on many of the hillsides which are through low vineyards instead of forests.
Other people's holidays are always a problem for us as they can unexpectedly close the food markets, change transportation schedules and make lodging expensive and scarce. The assortment of holidays before and after Christmas and Easter are always a headache but there are 2 others that encroach on the traveling season:
May 1, Workers Day is a big holiday in much of Europe
June 2, Republic Day also closes many markets and jams the holiday areas in Italy. This is an especially difficult holiday to navigate around when it overlaps with Pentecost, which brings swarms of Northern Europeans south for a holiday.
Tuscany Hotels That Accept Bikes (also see Italy-Bed & Breakfasts)
The following hotels won't make it on to anybody's list of charming boutique hotels but all met our basic requirements of putting our bikes behind locked doors at night; were moderately priced for the location; and were centrally located in the old quarter of the city. Prices are in Euros for 2 people in 1 room for 1 night in the spring of 2006.
Florence: Hotel Basilea
In December of 2005 and the spring of 2006 we stayed at Hotel Basilea because they were the first place that would accept the bikes when we arrived in town in December and Bill had knocked on a lot of doors. The off-season price of 74€ was more than we wanted to pay but we were in a bind and it seemed like a fair price for the city. The rooms have that characteristically Italian tired look about them, our mattresses were in need of replacement and the lack of English on the TV was another disappointment. But the rooms are of ample size, amply illuminated and they were generous with the heat. The bikes were stored on the street level through a very secure second entrance. The internet terminal in the lobby is free though lagging in the upgrades needed to support AOL.
If you have a problem and need front desk help, hold out for the fashionably dressed, fortyish woman wearing a lot of black. We needed to stay an extra night in March because of wheel repair problem and the friendly guys at the desk kept saying "Sorry, check back tomorrow." When we spoke with her it was "Don't worry, it's my problem, we'll have a room for you somewhere" which totally changed the complexion of our next 2 days. She was also the one who happily accepted our bikes and offered changing to another room if needed when one became available.
Do ask for a room on the quiet side of the building. On our first stay they were down to 2 rooms and getting a quiet one meant looking into a ventilation shaft. But in March we got an expansive view into the 'backyard' of the city block and saw a corner of the Duomo. Aside from the quiet, I love to see the sky each morning and having a chance at the stars at night.
Hotel Basilea; Via Guelfa, 41; 50129 Firenze, Italy; Tel: 0039 055 21 45 87; Fax 0039 055 268 350 (0039 is for calling from the States, try dropping the "0" of "055" if these numbers don't work); Basilea @dada.it, www.florenceitaly.net.
Florence: Hotel Guelfa
We didn't actually stay at this hotel but it was our back up if Basilea didn't come through with the extra night we needed. It is on the same street from Basilea, down a couple of blocks. At 70€ it only has 2 stars, whereas the Basilea displays 3. It is a much smaller hotel and a few of the rooms don't have a private bath. The room I saw was little smaller and perhaps not quite as nice as the Basilea but quite acceptable. They also had a locked downstairs room to keep the bikes.
Hotel Guelfa, Via Guelfa, 28, 50129 Firenze; Tel: 0039 055 215 882, Fax 0039 055 216 006; email@example.com; www.hotelguelfa.com
Head northeast on Via Nazionale from the train station and turn right on Via Guelfa. You will come to Basilea first. It will be on your right and Guelfa is farther down on your left. The neighborhood is loaded with internet shops and has a couple of laundromats. There is a supermarket in the direction of the Central Market. These hotels are in a good location for both travelers resources and sightseeing.
Siena: Albergo Tre Donzelle
Via dell Donzelle 5; 531000 Siena; Tel 0039 (0577) 280358; Fax 0039 (0577) 223933; 46€ without a private bath & 60€ with. We had the shared bath arrangement and the showers were smokin' hot with wicked water pressure after about 7 pm. Very barebones rooms and ours was outrageously noisy on Saturday night but OK on Sunday & Monday. Near Il Campo and a great location. Bikes in the garage. Nice staff. There is a big Conad supermarket hidden away and down a level in the square across from the Post Office--you'll likely need help to find it.
Colle di val d'Else (near Volterra): Hotel Arnolfo
On the top of the hill in the old town at: Via Campana, 8; 53034 Colle Val D'Elsa; Tel 0039 (0577) 922020; Fax 922324. 70€, spare furnishings but with CNN on the TV and a refrigerator. There is a nice little archeology museum down the street that is open in the afternoons featuring pre-Roman finds in the area. The big supermarket is back down in the valley but a small market and produce market on your right going up the hill will cover your basic needs. Take your camera when you go shopping for some nice panoramas on a clear day.
Volterra: Appartamenti l'Etrusca
At 70€, this apartment was an excellent value, especially located in the heart of old town. Usually apartments aren't rented for single nights, though this place will (we stayed 2 nights) and often apartments don't provide amenities like towels and shampoo, but this one did. It was the best of both worlds: all of the goodies that come with a hotel plus more than one usually gets with an apartment. The fully equipped small kitchenette included detergent and a cutting board, which are often overlooked. The heat didn't come on until after 8 pm, which was a little late for us. There was no English on the room TV but they were gracious about turning the sitting room TV to CNN so we do catch-up on the headlines in English. They had a separate housekeeping room in the next building for the bikes. Via Porta all'Arco 37-41, Tel 0039 0588 8 40 73.
Pisa: Albergo Helvetia
At 60€ with a private bath, this 1 star hotel a few blocks from the cathedral was a great value. The water pressure for our shower was annoyingly low and the TV with BBC fed into it was on its last legs, but the bright, spacious, clean room in a quiet neighborhood was a delight. Our bikes were unhesitatingly stored in a covered portion of their inner courtyard. We weren't allowed to lock them but were assured that they were safe in the center of their home. A double room with a shared bath runs about 15€ less. It would be a long walk from the train station pulling or carrying luggage. Via Don Gaetano Boschi 31; Tel: 050 55 30 84.
Ancona is one of those cities that we keep passing through, usually because we are arriving or departing on a ferry serving Croatia or Greece. Here are our favorite resources in Ancona.
We usually stay at the 3 star Hotel Fortuna which runs around 70 Euros a night for two people. Expensive by our standards but a good value for Ancona and very handy. It's about 2 km south on the road north from the port. Well, when you are there, that makes sense. If you arrive at the port, get on the first upper level road and turn to your right (the immediate lower level road goes to the customs area for trucks). Follow the signs to the train station,"Stazione," as the hotel is across the street from the it. The hotel's addresses are: P.zz Rosselli 15, 60126 Ancona, www.hotelfortuna.it, and firstname.lastname@example.org. The telephone outside of Italy is (0039) 071 42663. The friendly young staff speaks English and they will happily store bikes in the backroom on the ground floor. There isn't any English on the TV but the rooms and bathrooms are fresh and quiet. WiFi is available through tin.it for about $3 for 1 hour or $5 for 5 hours of continuous use. There is a tiny food market a block or so to your right as you exit the hotel for shopping when the supermarkets are closed--we always seem to arrive on Saturday or Sunday when its all but impossible to buy food. You do need the northern Italian electrical adapter for the Hotel Fortuna electrical outlets, which has slightly smaller diameter pins than the standard European plug.
The Librerie Feltrinelli bookstore with a good selection of maps is however open on Sunday evenings. Ask the hotel staff what the business hours for the shops in the evenings if you arrive in the afternoon when the shops are closed. They are located at C. So Garibaldi 35 in the shopping district up the hill from the port area.
The city's archeology museum: Museo Archeologico Nazionale Della Marche has beautiful exhibits if you need an activity near the port. It's also up the hill in a picturesque neighborhood at via Ferretti, 6 and is open from 8:30 am until 7:30pm, closed Mondays. Unfortunately none of the extensive descriptive information is in English but the Neolithic biface axes, Bronze Age pottery and Iron Age finds are unusual and worth seeing anyway.
We were advised that a taxi the short distance to the Museum would run at least 15 Euros, and perhaps 20 Euros for tourists. We rarely take taxis but considered it as we were in a hurry--at those prices we took the bus. Buy tickets at the tobacco shop out on the platform at the train station and take either the 1/3 or 1/4 going to the "centro" (chen-tro.)
Roma May 2007
Don't arrive in Rome without a general sightseeing plan unless you have plenty of time to develop it once there. The tourist info folks will give you a free map with the top sights with the current hours, which have likely changed since your guide book was written, but beyond that they are primary only available to answer "Yes/No" questions. Don't expect them to be much help in sorting out the transportation system, recommending sights, or directing you to specialty shops for forgotten items.
The ATAC, which is some portion of the local transportation system, does staff a tiny booth out in front of the Termini, the main train station. We found that person extremely helpful in answering our bus questions. That day the staffer spoke excellent English and was in customer service mode. We told her where we wanted to go and she gave us a tiny strip of paper with the 2 buses to take to the first transfer point, the name of the transfer point, and the 2 buses to choose to hop on to the second bus. The well hidden booth is the first of many bus platforms as you head out the main entrance of the train station as though you were heading for the Metro entrance to the right side of the bus parking lot.
You can buy tickets from a machine on many of the buses, but they give no change and the largest coin they take is 1€. When we were in Rome, 1€ would buy you 75 minutes on the metro and/or buses. We started buying our tickets by the handful when it was convenient: 4, 6,or 8 at a time as we were there many days. That way we never got caught behind first-timer tourists with the wrong bills at a ticket machine in the metro station or looking for the suitable tobacco shop vendor on the streets when we were in a hurry. Be sure to valid your ticket once on the bus unless its already been stamped by your prior metro ride. A ticket only has to be validated once, though if you validate it on a bus then hop on a metro, you still run your ticket through the metro validation machine to be read.
The Rome main train station has no lockers but it does have a left luggage office in the basement. The Saturday morning we hoped to use the service had a hopelessly long line, so don't plan on it being available in a hurry. However, a couple of other times when we passed by the line was much shorter.
Oh, and don't plan on a Monday being one of your big shopping or sightseeing days in Rome. Most, if not all, of the major museums are closed on Monday's and many shops don't open on Monday until 3 or 3:30pm. There is certainly still a lot to do and see on Mondays, just plan for it to be more of an outdoor rather than an indoor day.
We've been to Rome several times and still don't have a recommended place to stay, with or without the bikes. We'd love to hear from you if you've found a quiet, pleasing, and moderately priced place to stay near the center or with good access to public transportation.
Roma May 2009
Bikes on Public Transport
We had only planned on whizzing through Rome on a train to the Ostia archeological site--which was ancient Rome's port. Unfortunately we ended up spending the night in central Rome as it was impossible for us to use public transportation to get to Ostia with our bikes. We spent hours in a classic run-around as we stood in lines patiently waiting to repeatedly get wrong information from tourist info, the metro office, the passenger assistance office of the train, and the ATAC office at the bus terminal regarding transporting our bikes. The general theme was "We can't take your bikes on our mode but the other guy can."
What we learned after all but being kicked out of the tourist info and train info when pressing for details and being physically extracted from a bus and the metro is as follows. Bikes are never allowed on the Rome buses though some may tell you otherwise. Bikes are allowed on the Metro on Sundays, holidays, and after 9pm. I was also told they were allowed on Saturdays, but I doubt that that is correct. There are 3 Metro lines and bikes are allowed in all stations for the metro B or blue line and the Roma-Lido line. The metro A or red line does not allow bikes in 6 stations: Spagna, Barberini-Fontana di Trevi, Repubblica-Teatro dell'Opera, Termini (the main train station), Vittorio Emanuele, and S. Giovanni. There is no charge for the bikes on these 3 lines. www.atac.roma.it
There is a private train company that operates from Piramide to at least Ostia and they have the same restrictions on bike transport.
Service to the airport, Fiumicino, is only by 1st class train and so bikes are not allowed on it either.
As to riding one's bike in Rome, it is doable but is not for the faint-hearted. The road surfaces are often in disrepair, adding to the stress of being in very busy city traffic. As elsewhere in Italy, the key is to be assertive/aggressive without being rude or belligerent. Often the intersecting traffic patterns give no clue as to right of way and so drivers seem to zip-out into traffic and then slow a bit, which seems to be their way of communicating where they want to go and also asking for accommodation from the other drivers to do so. On a bike, be decisive and keep going rather than be deferential or wait to be given space on the road. And don't weave in and out around dumpsters and parked cars but instead generally hold a straight course so the drivers know where you are going--and keep moving!
Hotel Pyramid came to our rescue as we unexpectedly began looking for a room at 6pm. With a great location and only 80€ for 2, we'd stay there again. Our smallish room was fresh and comfortable, the bed was in good condition, and the English-speaking staff were gracious and helpful. It is off the main street Ostiene(?) though we got a fair bit of street noise with the window open. The bathroom was disappointing as the shower has no dedicated basin and so the entire bathroom floor floods when showering. The floor was shaped so as to drain well however and they did provide a bathmat. Be prepared to pay in full when you check-in and to leave a 20€ deposit to use the TV controls that gives you access to BBC. Air conditioning is availalbe upon request though guests don't have control over the temperature--it's turned on and off at the front desk. Our bikes were stored on a landing near the front door and reception desk. There is a GS Supermarket about a 5 minute walk from the hotel and bus, metro, and train stops are all within easy walking distance. Via dei Magazzini Generali, 4; 00154 Roma; Tel +39065748029 or 0657800059; email@example.com; www.chc.it. It is one of several hotels in the Central City Hotels group.
This is a charming knoll-top village in the foothills of the Apennines that is undisturbed by tourists as there isn't much there for tourists to see other than the archeological museum displaying the finds from one of the oldest human habitation sties in Europe (La Pineta, 700,000 bp). We stayed at the Hotel-Ristorante Sayonara, which was 85€. The desk staff spoke English (one woman is from the Bronx) and they were quite helpful. Unfortunately the recent remodel left the orange sink and countertop in our bathroom, which was next to the blue and white tile. But it was a large, comfy room with a frig and was only 200m from the train station. Via Giovanni Berta, 131; Tel: 0865 50992; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.sayonara.is.it.
Puglia May 2009
La Bicocca hotel in the hilltop (662m) village of Motta Montecorvino in the vicinity of Campobasso was a real find at 60€ for 2. We'd expected something regrettable for the only lodging in this town, but not so. "Smartly decorated" might not be an adapt description of the decor in some regions, but it popped out of my mouth here. The shower was great though the stall was a bit small and a seat on the toilet would have been a nice touch, but it was fresh and clean and well-appointed. The bed was great and the little frig was welcome. The balcony with a grand view of the valley and village was treat. The hostess spoke no English but was eager and accommodating and the bikes spent the night indoors without a fuss on our part. Tel: 0881.551118; Fax: 0881.551.500. The tourist info office in Lucera made the recommendation and reservation for us. The little "alimentari" owner looks like she is on her last legs so you'd be well-advised to bring your own groceries for self-catering though there are eateries in the village and hotel.