Adventures on an Italian Train
Traveling by train in Italy can be an interesting experience. We have experienced everything from cars so old they have rusted through to sleek modern high speed trains that swiftly take you from one destinationto the next. The biggest problem we find is if you have luggage. If there is no room in the luggage area in the car, you are often left standing between cars just to stay with your bags. It was with all these possibilities in mind that we were not exactly looking forward to a two hour train ride to Santa Margharita on the Ligurian coast, but we were in for a pleasant surprise.
After rushing to get on our assigned car at Milan Centrale we discovered the train had compartments, each holding six people with room for luggage up above the seats. We have had experience with these where everyone sat in silence plugged into the iPads, but today there were four interesting passengers: a young mother originally from Slovakia and her three year old son Alex, and an older well dressed couple. David and I sat facing each other by the window, the mother and child in the middle, and the couple facing each other by the door. David and the man started talking about Italian films and they immediately developed a nice rapport. We learned the couple was married on Lake Maggiorie and that he had been a chemical engineer. "Has Italy changed much since you were a boy?" Dave asked. "My story is a long one," he said. "I was born in 1929."
Throughout the rest of the train ride this man who looked like a little college professor told story after story. As his English improved as he spoke, we realized we were in the presence of a brilliant mind with interesting stories about history. We sat fascinated listening to stories ranging from how the Vespa Italian motorbike was invented to his life under Mussolini as a child. "I remember it all," he said.
While all these stories were being told, there was some entertainment from Alex. Desperate for attention he touched his lollipop to each of our legs and the man's shoes before popping it in his own mouth. His mother had brought an activity bag with coloring pages, puzzles, and plastic figurines to entertain him, but with his short attention span, he was in and out of the compartment with his mother close behind, showing us his toys, or offering us milk out of his bottle. At one point he was siting on my feet. His mother had some parenting skills to learn. Right as the man was saying, "When the Allies invaded Sicily..." Alex and his mother got into a power struggle with an empty soda bottle. I have to admit, though, keeping a child that age entertained for two hours would be a challenge, Our journey ended with handshakes and we felt very enriched from this cultural experience.
Exiting the train station in Santa Margharita we were a little concerned, When we called our accommodation from the train to alert them we would be late, they told us they had never heard of us even though we made the reservation in April. Thinking there must be a mistake, we headed over anyway and received the same message. "This is bank holiday weekend in Italy. There are no hotel rooms anywhere. The whole town is booked." The man at the desk finally agreed to look for a room on his computer for us. "Well ok.There is a room at the Park Hotel Suiss. It's a 4'star, but I think it's really a 3 star," he said with a look of disdain on his face. What could we do? We had to take it. While waiting for the taxi I got online and looked it up on Trip Advisor. It ranked 21/21 hotels- the lowest ranked hotel in the city.
We were told our room had a sea view so we headed over in a taxi expecting a back alley hotel with a tiny room with a small dusty window with a far off glimpse of the sea, but we could not have been in for a bigger surprise, The hotel is undergoing renovations and although our room decor is bland, it's big and clean with a huge balcony with expansive views of the harbor. This is the kind of view you get at a four star hotel. There's a new pool and the hotel is just down the street from all of the action.
To save money we decided to stroll around and look for a cafe for a slice of pizza, salad, or toasted cheese. We ended up recognizing a restaurant Ristorante Michele that was featured in a Dennis Callan video on YouTube. Dennis Callan has hundreds of travel videos following European tours he leads from Hawaii. I tried telling the wife of the owner we had seen the restaurant on TV. She spoke no English, but was so curious what I was so excited to tell her that she brought her daughter over to translate. As it turned out they had seen the video and were so touched we mentioned it that they treated us to limoncello.
All around us in this outdoor cafe was an Italian holiday vibe. Although it was 10:30, children of all ages ran and played while the adults sat happily just enjoying their table which is yours for the evening. We struck up a conversation with the couple beside us from Genoa. They were as interested in us as we were them.
When we travel we travel on a budget. We do not stay in fancy hotels and we don't dine at fancy restaurants. This way we are closer to the people and in our minds, that's what good travel is all about.