Travel

Memories of Italian train travel

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. The sleepy calm that descends as you watch the world drift by, the slight changes in the landscape, houses of different coloured stone, different crops, different languages, different people. The slowness that only comes when you settle into a window seat and gaze as the scenery speeds past.

Trains are universal, they are used by everyone, for everything: ten minute journeys between one dozing Italian town to the next, summer trips to the Adriatic, slick commutes to Milan and back in a day “for business.”

When I moved to Italy, I’d never so much as set foot on an Italian train, yet as the summer wore on, they became my main mode of transport. The trip became something I actually looked forward to almost as much as my arrival at the destination.

There was the mad rush beforehand, checking just how in ritardo your train was (at times I saw 100+ minutes up on the board, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just cancel the train and move the passengers onto the next service), remembering to convalidare (date stamp) the tickets and watch that no borseggiatori (pickpockets) ran off with your luggage. Even thinking of the announcement puts me back on the platform of Bologna Centrale, running for the train.

Railway lines form a backbone down both the east and west coasts of Italy, with additional local routes running in between. The main lines stretch from Turin to Salerno, via Bologna and Rome; Milan across to Venice; Venice down to Rome, via Florence; Rome to Reggio Calabria; and then there’s the slower train from Milan down to Bari and Lecce, which runs south alongside the Adriatic.

Trenitalia, Italy’s national train company, has four main types of trains, classified by speed and with names that include different colours to differentiate between them. Frecciarossa being the fastest and most comfortable option which offers smooth leather seats and special train attendants who bring you snacks and bottled water. This makes the whole experience feel rather more like a flight than a train trip, but is entertaining nonetheless.

Outside the main business or tourist routes there are a host of older, slower varieties of train, known as Intercity, which stop at almost every settlement you could think of. This might range from the outskirts of a city, to a couple of houses in the middle of an olive grove, or a small town on the flats of the Pianura Padana.

There are no business suits on these trains. Nor are there any tourists, festooned with rucksacks, bum bags and ‘Italia’ hoodies. In their place are locals, students, and children. Things move slower, things smell different. Windows are grubbier leather seats are more sticky and there’s always one carriage where the air conditioning doesn’t work, or where someone is doing something extremely odd, yet this seems to only add to the authenticity.

These regional trains formed part of our weekend routine. Two and a half hours each way to Rimini to escape the 40 degree heat? No problem! We’d listen to music, exchange stories and nap before descending onto the soft sandy beaches.

We’d spend afternoons lazing on sunloungers, playing volleyball and nibbling on Piadine from the beach stalls, between sips of Birra Moretti. As the sun dipped, we’d pile back onto the train, sticky with suncream and smelling of the sea. Ready to repeat it all again the next weekend. 

Having used trains to navigate the country for a summer, I returned the following year. This time meeting a friend in Milan and traveling nearly 800km – again on the train – south to Bari. We’d agreed to meet in the north, I’d come south from Geneva the previous night (also on a train) and was suitably hot and bothered when I got to Milano Centrale. The train into Italy, although scenic, had been awful. I was travel sick as we wound our way along the side of Lake Geneva and through the Alps into northern Italy. As a result, I was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of yet another day spent on a train, even if I am usually pretty fond of them.

We boarded the Frecciabianca early on a sticky July morning, cappuccinos in hand, picnic packed and ready for our nine-hour-long expedition. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who’d thought it a good idea to make the trip that morning. The platform was packed with people of all ages, suitcases in hand and all jostling for a seat to ride south and away from the industrial northern metropolis.

Many seemed to be returning home for the university holidays, or from visits to a relative in the north, but the contrast between the passengers who got on at Milan and left at Bari was immense. Things remained grey and fairly quiet until we reached Ancona, a port town on the Adriatic. Here the sun emerged and with it people’s moods seemed to lift. We were heading south. The crystal clear Puglain waters beckoned, as did the promise of a holiday.

Both my friend and I speak Italian, which made us quite a curiosity as I am far too tall – and apparently my hair is too light a shade of brown – to trick anyone into thinking that I could be from the country. People were confused. Why would you want to learn Italian when you are fluent in English? Che strano. Is your mother Italian?

Nevertheless, the Italians were incredibly friendly. They chatted to us, offered us bits of their picnics, told us what we absolutely must visit in Bari. It was almost as if the fact we spoke their language, and had decided to take the train, not fly, meant we were accepted, even if only for a few stops. It wasn’t just the mood, the landscape also altered as we moved south, with the fields taking on a golden tinge as we glided past. Fruit and vegetables gave way to arable and eventually to olive groves as we approached Bari, the regional capital of Puglia.

Trains down here were random at best and no one seemed to have any idea where they were departing from, or heading to. They were incredibly cheap, yet followed the most random routes, taking forever to get anywhere and apparently lacking in either regularity or a timetable. If I had been trying to commute, this could have been problematic, but down in Puglia, it seemed only to add to the charm of the holiday.

I look back fondly on my days of taking the slick, speedy Frecciarossa down to Rome, and of catching the confusing Puglian trains on holiday, but mostly of weekends spent living like a local, welcomed onto the trains of Emilia Romagna. Memories of removing my salt-encrusted person from the sticky blue PVC seats at the end of a long day in the sun, sandwiched between my friends and longing for a shower and my bed.