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Italy - General

 

Train Travel

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 "capotreno" from whom to buy your ticket. On some trains you may go as far as poking your head in where the engineer is seated. Occasionally there is no conductor at all and it's best to keep watching for one boarding at each stop so you can approach them.  "Guasto" or "Fuori servizio" are both phrases for "Out of order".

The same goes for validating your ticket--do it before your board. Before heading out to the platforms, look for the bright yellow box mounted on a wall at about waist level. Insert the left end of your ticket into the horizontal slot, usually favoring the left side of the slot with the ticket. You should hear a clunk as it prints. Check for small, faint printing to confirm you have a successful validation. If not, retry at the same machine or go searching for another. Like with boarding without a ticket, you can board without validating but scramble to find the conductor to rectify the situation before he or she finds you. Riding without a ticket or without validating your ticket before boarding makes you vulnerable to a 50 fine.

After traveling in Italy over the course of 9 years, we learned a new detail regarding the purchase of train tickets. If you are traveling 50 km or less, you may buy a "50km" ticket from the newsstand, which is often much quicker than going to a service window or using a self-service ticket machine. In June of 2009, such a ticket cost 3.30.

We also learned that if you are buying a ticket for yourself that costs less than the 3.50 fee for a 24 hour bike ticket, you can buy a second ticket for the same amount and use it for your bike. It appears that they have remedied the annoying situation of paying more for your bike than for yourself. Of course if you are taking more than a single, short trip on the train in a 24 hour period, you are ahead to by the special bike ticket. Either way, be sure to validate your ticket and your bike's ticket before boarding.

 

Holidays
 Here's a list of usual holidays in Italy:
    --January 1: New Year
    --January 6: Epiphany
    --Easter Sunday & Monday
    --April 25 Liberation Day (Popular for an extended holiday at the beaches & lakes).
    --May 1 Labor Day  (Popular for an extended holiday at the beaches & lakes).
    --June 2 Republic Day  (Popular for an extended holiday at the beaches & lakes).
    --August 15: Assumption or in the north "Maria's Himmelfarht"
    --November 1: All Saints Day
    --December 8: Immaculate Conception
    --December 25 & 26: Christmas & St Stephen's Day

 

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 2 week holiday.

Pentecost isn't a big to-do in Italy but it is for Austria and the Catholic regions of Switzerland and Germany. These folks use Pentecost as the ending weekend for a 2 week vacation that often occurs along the beaches and lakes of Italy. When it overlaps with an extended holiday for the Italians on June 2 (Republic Day) lodging at the holiday spots can be impossible to find. Pentecost is the 7th Sunday after Easter. My Google search with "german pentecost holiday" came up with www.german.about.com/library/blbraenche-ostern.htm, which was a site that gave the Pentecost holiday interval for the current year.


Bikes
    Italian drivers are legendary but we found them to be quite careful with all cyclists on the road. Don't weave in and out of parked cars and obstacles on the right side of the road but chart a straight course and stick to it--that's what they expect you to do and that's what the local riders do. Otherwise you lose your place in the flow of the traffic. When making a left turn across traffic, slowly drift out into the lane rather than smartly making a sharp angled turn--watch the older people on their beater bikes in town to learn the technique.
   
Bikes can go on many regional (slow) trains. Look for the bicycle symbol on the big sheets of paper listing departures by time and destination to determine which trains you can board with your bike.  Be sure to buy a ticket for your bike (3.50/day) and validate both halves of the bike ticket: 1 goes on your bike, the other in your pocket. In May of 2009, we discovered that the situation for bikes is no longer fixed. On 3 different train rides, we had 3 different situations. One used the familiar 2-ticket system for bikes; one used a single ticket that needed to be validated and kept in hand; and on the third trip there was no charge for the bikes.
  
 Venice is a delightful city to visit, but is decidedly un-bike friendly. Bike riding is banned and walking a loaded bike is a nightmare over the arched stairways that traverse the canals.  Leave your bike in one of the handful of budget hotels in nearby Mestre and take the commuter train into town as a pedestrian to enjoy this iconic city.
   
If you are traveling in the northern province of Trentino, ask and ask again for the "Cicloquide del Trentino." Bill was eagerly given a copy of "#5 Valli di Fiemme e Fassa" in Cavalese by a tourist info woman that seemed thrilled to finally give one out. The lovely little booklet with a plastic carrying case was of course in Italian, but about 1/4 of the pages were maps and it wasn't difficult to figure out that "in costruzione" meant "under construction." The maps weren't entirely accurate as to what was completed or not, but it was a huge help in locating the growing and extensive network of bike routes. Some would have been impossible to find without the map as they never intersected with a through road and there were no signs guiding cyclists to them. The few we rode were lovely dedicated paths. In the back of the booklet were listings of bike repair shops, lodging for some communities and  information about other resources. Here are the websites listed on the back of the booklet: www.ripristino.provincia.tn.it, www.trentino.to.
  
 Do be forewarned that dedicated bike routes in northern Italy offer no guarantee as to the ease of the route. Some that started out looking like what I'd call "family routes" suitable for children showed no mercy and would dish out grades as high as 25%. I don't think we were on a single bike route that didn't have grades into the teens. The locals take them in stride and just hop off and push their bikes up the stiff grades.

Electricity
     Often you'll need a special electrical adapter that is different that the rest of Europe in northern Italy as the pins on their plugs are a little smaller in diameter and the ground pin is in the center.

Unlikely Business Hours
    Long lunchtime closures are quite the nuisance for the traveler and in Italy they can be 3 to 4 hours duration. Even the cable cars in the Dolomites close for an hour and a half or more for lunch, so be sure to check their schedule before you hop on.
    "Rest days" for supermarkets can be a nightmare for hungry 'self-catering' travelers. There is no predictable pattern as to the day selected for rest. In parts of southern Italy and on Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, Wednesday afternoons are often the closure time. Up north, the in the city of Trento, Monday mornings were the time off for many retail markets, including bookstores. As we moved farther north towards the Dolomites, a number of village markets were closed on Thursdays. The best clue is to look at any posted store hours but that won't tell you what the routine is in the next political region. Fortunately, we've never hit day after day of closures as we moved through the week.

 

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