Northern Italy is really suffering at the moment as we all know only too well.
Italy is probably the favourite European travel destination for many, and with good reason. It has to be hoped that we are able to visit the historic country again in a few months.
I have nothing but fond memories of the country, in particular this train tour that I undertook with Mrs Wilbur four years ago.
Bologna – Venice – Verona – Como – Tirano
The starting point for our tour of Italy (and Switzerland) was the magnificent city of Bologna, the second most important city in Italy during the times of the Roman Empire.
What a beauty she is – shades of ochre & saffron abound, the arches & decorated ceilings of the vaulted arcades delight, taking coffee in the leafy piazzas or a gin & tonic in one of the bars that dot the narrow medieval streets.
Bologna is unhurried with wonderful architecture at every turn. It is a city of learning & music as ancient university buildings and opera & classics that drift out of open windows to waft on the breeze testify to splendid effect.
As well as the obvious attractions of the imposing and richly decorated churches (Basilica di San Petronio is the 5th biggest religious building in the world), the twin (in a De Vito & Schwarzeneggar sense) towers that reach out to each other like stamen in a flower, the mighty fine university buildings and the picturesque fountain filled squares, it is the ‘hidden’ Bologna that also thrills.
We very quickly realised that a day and a half was wholly insufficient to appreciate the city properly, so saved a stack of experiences for the next time.
You can read about all the stand out attractions anywhere, so I will share with you a less well known gem.
How many of you have stepped onto an original Roman road?
You can in Bologna if you ask nicely. On Strada Maggiore near to the leaning tower, you will find an up-market furniture shop called Roche Bois. Downstairs and well below current street level there is a stretch of road with its wonderful rounded cobbles where horse & cart, white-haired soothsayers and armed legionnaires once travelled doing Caesar’s bidding.
Another must do (which we haven’t yet!) is to traverse by boat the the historic waterways that are completely out of view, either crowded out by more modern buildings or flowing beneath the surface where you tread. You can do a tour from Piazza Maggiore 2. Next time for sure.
Inside the covered arcade of the Palazzo de Podesta, you can discover the ‘whispering gallery’. If you and a companion stand in diagonally opposite corners and face the wall with your backs to each other, you can whisper something to the brickwork and your opposite number will hear the message loud and clear. Be careful what you say though as others could well be earwigging!
Go inside the Palazzo d’Accursio with its splendid courtyard and very interesting exhibition of old black & white photos showing children of yesteryear engaged in leisurely pursuits.
Take the lift up to the second floor and peer inside the Sala Farnese. Wonder at the opulent ceiling and striking artwork – aside from one exhibition in a room off the left hand corner, viewing is free. The view of the main square is also brilliant.
Of course anybody that is even only partially fit should clamber up the long and winding wooden staircase to the top of the highest tower for fab views.
Bologna to Venice Santa Lucia
After a memorable 36 hours it was time to make tracks to iconic Venice.
A journey of just over two hours and a half to kick off. The Trenitalia website was a breeze and two singles cost just €11 each for the 10.18 train.
We could have got a different express train taking just under two hours but that would have cost three times as much!
The regional train was smart, modern, uncrowded and punctual. The highlight of the journey was undoubtedly the approach to Venezia as the green countryside made way for lagoons and canals.
The sun shone brightly making the waters a lovely pale blue.
We were arriving somewhere special and very different to the norm.
Santa Lucia train station is slap bang in the throng of the action and your immediate sight as you exit is of a thriving canal, a picturesque bridge and vaporetto & private boats buzzing about their business. A wonderful arrival!
See my earlier post Venetian Find for a few ideas of what to do in the slowly sinking city.
Venice Santa Lucia to Verona Porta Nuova
Another bargain fare of €8.70 for a train taking just a tad over two hours. Again there were faster options taking just over an hour but again at nearly three times the cost.
We had toyed with the idea of breaking the journey at Padova (Padua). There were left luggage facilities we had determined but common sense prevailed as it would have just cut into our Verona time.
In the event it started to rain to further vindicate the decision. With Vicenza on the same route and also said to be worth a visit, we decided that we would be returning one day soon with Bologna as a base.
There was nothing remarkable about the journey, which was again on a very comfortable train. Our peace was shattered at Padova however when a large family group of Californians boarded and did a mighty fine impression of the McCallisters from the film Home Alone!
We were therefore pretty happy to arrive, even though the rain was dampening our spirits somewhat.
Verona was to prove a wonderful destination, especially when the rain stopped soon after we checked in.
Another short city break with a vow to return to see an opera at the Arena. We had decided to travel early afternoon to try and see as much as the city relatively crowd free when compared to our arrival day on the Sunday. You can read how we got on by clicking Juliette.
Verona Porta Nuovo to Como San Giovanni
The eighty minute leg to Milano Centrale was the most expensive Italian train journey at €22 each, but this was for first class seats (for some reason the same price as standard when we booked), which meant extra wide seats and a free coffee and biscuit. Our train was wonderfully called the Frecciabianca – no idea why but it sounded very suave I thought.
As we approached Como, I looked out for the lake and was disappointed not to see it. There was a very large monastery complex on the outskirts, which looked very interesting but apart from that it was just green countryside.
The train station was actually high up above the lake so it could not be seen. We struggled down a large flight of steps right outside the station but soon found ourselves lake side with a refreshing cocktail. That’s the life – read about our wonderful day and a half by clicking on Como.
Como San Giovanni to Tirano
Our final train leg in Italy was to take us right to the Swiss border in order to catch the Bernina Express into the mountains of Switzerland.
The €13 train ticket turned out to be just about the bargain of the holiday. First of all we headed back from where we had come towards Milan for a change of trains in Monza, home of the Italian Grand Prix held at the end of August every year.
The journey would take three and a half hours with a thirty minute stop over in Monza. We decided against trying to run around the town taking pictures like paparazzi and instead opted for a relaxing coffee.
We were soon off again, right on time at 10.32 for the 140 minute journey to Tirano. We soon left the Lombardy countryside and picked up the lake again with the train stopping at towns such as Lecco, Varenna, Bellano and Colico.
It was a beautiful journey in bright sunshine. The lake was a hive of activity backed by green hills and surrounded by pretty villages, each with lovely looking churches with their proud steeples.
We followed the lake for a very pleasurable hour or so, before the green countryside interspersed with vineyards took over. As we approached Switzerland, the hills turned into mountains capped with snow. All thoughts that I had had to do some writing went out of the window as I gazed at the scenery on offer instead.
It was almost a shame when the journey was over. We however only had a ninety minute lunchtime at the border town of Tirano to wait before we would be boarding the Bernina Express, one of the world’s truly iconic train trips.