Europe is a wonderful continent. Culturally & geographically diverse and incredibly easy to navigate from the Arctic to the Mediterranean or even the Atlantic to the Pacific (OK stretching it a little, but Russia is considered as Europe!).
The best way to explore the region is by train with a vast network of train tracks criss-crossing the continent, connecting amazing cities and countries. Arm yourself with the European rail timetable and salivate over the possibilities!
I have now undertaken over 200 train journeys outside of the UK since 1987 and over the coming weeks I will share some of my favourite train tours……
Bologna – Venice – Verona – Como – Tirano
This tour was travelled in June 2016 taking in North West Italy.
The starting point 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 refresh the senses as well as the palette.
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, 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.
Behind heavy oak doors with black iron decor sit gorgeous patios bedecked with flora, the ceilings inside municipal buildings are works of art, frescos of the Madonna with child suddenly appear on non-descript walls without warning.
You can read about all the stand out attractions anywhere, so I will share with you some less well known gems.
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 sooth sayers and armed legionnaires once travelled doing Caesars’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 ear-wigging!
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.
Bologna has excellent cuisine as you would expect of the home of Bolognese sauce. It is indeed hard to find a bad pasta or risotto dish in this part of Italy, whilst pizza, sliced meats & cheese, gelato and patisserie fare are all sure to please.
Just around the corner from Basilica di San Petronio stands a little piece of Arabia. Naama Dolci sells every type of cake & biscuit from the region, all baked locally.
Baklava dripping in honey and countless other delicious morsels containing pistachio nuts, dates, figs and walnuts.
Although it is compact, if you are lucky as we were to get a seat, it is a great place to cool down and indulge, complemented by an iced tea or Arabic coffee. The immaculate bathroom is also very welcome!
The place is managed by a very pleasant young lady of Syrian descent named Aia – when we visited it was Ramadan, so the poor girl was surrounded by gorgeous aromatic bites, but couldn’t touch a thing.
Ramadan falling over the longest days like it did that year must be tough to take!
So there you have it, a few little tips to make your trip to Bolgna just a little bit more memorable.
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 in Bologna 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.
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!
You know all about the Grand Canal, the exorbitantly priced but must do gondola ride, St Mark’s Square and its magnificent cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, The Bridge of Sighs, The Ca D’Oro, The Rialto and La Fenice right?
These wonderful experiences have all been blogged to death, so I will leave those be.
Venice is an expensive city without a doubt and of course massively popular. This was my third visit following a few hours spent there during an inter-rail tour with very little money in 1987 and a decidedly more wallet bashing long weekend in 2005. Like Vegas it is a love/hate kind of place, but one that you must experience at least once.
It is possible to leave the crowds behind and get some true romance with a little bit of thought. At least this was the case in mid June 16 when we last visited.
First thing to do is to book your accommodation early to get a good selection. Look no further than Air BnB. For less than the cost of a two star hotel you can get a whole apartment overlooking one of the lesser but oh so quaint canals. The added advantage is that you will be just outside the centre and therefore able to shop and eat where the locals do.
A thirty minute gondola ride will set you back around €100. If you can resist the ‘when in Rome’ desires (or in my case in 2005 the wife’s prompting – I did succumb by the way!) another great way to float down the Grand Canal is to buy a one or multi-day pass and just go where the fancy takes you.
We paid €20 each for a 24 hour pass, a real bargain compared to the €7.50 flat fare single for a journey of up to 75 minutes. You could go all the way to touristic Murano and Burano too with the pass.
If you get on or off at the likes of Ferrovia (Santa Lucia train station), Rialto, San Marco or Academia you will be joining a scrum of people doing the same thing and will most likely have standing room only. Line 2 takes you down the Grand Canal past all of the main sights. Bide your time however and by San Marco nearly everybody has departed.
Grab those front seats out in the open, stay on when the boat docks at Lido and you will soon be turning around for the return loop. You now have prime seats for fabulous views of the iconic waterway and can enjoy watching the embarkation/disembarkation scramble at all the hotspots.
It’s hard to avoid a smug snigger, sorry if that sounds a little nasty! The round trip from Ferrovia to Lido and back is around an hour and a half and when you get back you can reward your ingenuity with a delicious gelato and macchiato.
In the evening get on board again, sail past the cruise ship dock in the open waters and get off at San Giirgio on the opposite bank. This area has some lovely churches and palazzos, but you have really come for the view.
Settle down on one of the canal side cafes, choose your favourite cocktail and watch the sun go down. As the sun sinks, the colours change and you get some lovely pink and golden hues on the iconic buildings and across the water.
Point your zoom towards San Marco and toast your good sense to relax far from the madding crowd with an iconic view (and your loved one) for company.
If Music Be The Food Of Love…….
My second tip for a romantic interlude is Palazzo a Musica. This slightly decaying mansion is a delightful venue for opera, but with a unique twist. It is not what you would call cheap at €80 a ticket but like yourself it is oh so worth it.
We went for Verdi’s La Traviata on Saturday evening at 5. The Barber of Seville also plays on other days/times. The major difference here is that you are not in a grand auditorium but in an intimate drawing room, right next to the musicians and actors. At one point, Violetta sang right into my face. My heart raced then melted and Mrs Wilbur didn’t mind at all!
Act One ended with toasts, with the extras being some members of the audience who were handed glasses of champagne to clink with Violetta herself.
At the first interval we were invited into a second room for a gratis glass of bubbly overlooking the Grand Canal. Acts Two and Three were then held in other regal rooms in the palazzo, culminating in the heartbroken soprano dying right in front of my feet!
Moments earlier she had been kneeling in front of the transfixed lady who sat next to me, holding her hands and imploring her to tell her why Alfredo didn’t love her.
After the show was over we were able to pass on our praise to the performers on a one to one basis. We hung around for some photos of the palazzo and were quite amused to see Violetta and the violinists in their civvies as they headed off into the evening.
Our two days in Venice went in a flash. Despite there being many tourists we never felt hassled and we were able to get lots of people free shots by venturing out before nine.
We were also lucky enough to watch Italy v Sweden in the Euro Football Championships in a bar full of locals – great fun, especially when Italia got their winner!
Enjoy Venice when you do go, it is a fantastic experience. A decent amount of planning however is a must if you are to return as relaxed as you arrived.
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.
The family run accommodation was housed in an historic building, which had been very tastefully renovated. Internally the decor was bright & airy, the bedroom colourful & comfortable and the owners very helpful in recommending non rip-off restaurants & bars. Location wise we were spot on too, so it was easy to see how they have earned their 9.4 rating on travel advice sites.
The recommendations were Locanda Il Bugiaro & Taverna Via Stella to eat and Da Ugo for drinking wine. We tried none of them as it happened, but I would not doubt the advice as genuine. Whatever you do, avoid eating near the Arena unless you enjoy decidedly average food & service at way above average prices.
After a coffee it was time to explore, the rain having helpfully stopped, albeit the clouds remained to ‘grace’ our photos.
Verona is a stunning place, in a hard to explain way, too nice. Every building ancient & modern is a gem be it a shop, hotel, apartment, duomo or amphitheatre. The camera went into overdrive even though we saved the city’s highlights for the next day when we figured the Monday crowds would be fewer and the skies bluer.
Happily we were correct, so having just wandered and spent plenty of time at cafes on the Sunday, we started early on the Monday, having decided to leave on the 3.30 pm train to Como.
The star attraction is the world famous Roman Arena, the template from which the larger Colisseum in Rome was built. World class opera is staged there annually from late June to late August and would be starting with Carmen the coming Friday, to be joined by the likes of Aida, La Traviata and Il Trovatore. We noted the prices for future reference – €25-€360.
The most renowned diva of all, Maria Callas, had performed at the Arena on many occasions and we noted that the city had an exhibition in her honour in Palazzo Forti near the duomo.
Juliet’s House was a must see despite its dubious claims to be the place that inspired Shakespeare’s classic love story. That lasted all of three minutes due to the crowds – just time enough to photograph supposedly the most renowned balcony on the planet, the doomed young lady’s statue and the love graffiti strewn on the entry walls.
I alighted the tallest tower (Lamberti Tower) in the city, whilst Mrs Wilbur took respite in a main square cafe. An elevator plus 125 steps for some splendid views.
There was still time for the duomo & the lovely San Anistasia church, the ornate Scaligere tombs, the castle bridge (Castelveccio) and a leisurely lunch in atmospheric Piazza Arbe, complete with the local alcoholic drink of choice (and very nice too) the Aberol Spritz, before it was time to retrieve our bags and head to the station.
How would I sum up Verona? A truly beautiful city who’s riches past and present are very evident. The Romeo and Juliette thing is a mite contrived, but who can blame them?
Shakespeare pinched the idea for the story from local poems and stories and like the Montagues & Capulets, there have been plenty of feuding families in the area as the wealthy and powerful of Venice & Verona fought for supremacy.
I thoroughly recommend a visit if you have not been. Choose your time carefully however, unless of course you intend to see opera at the Arena in which case you will surely see crowds.
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.
The road that ran alongside was actually transformed into a warm paddling pool due to the high water, a facility that children, adults and dogs were all too happy to avail themselves of.
So tired were we after our travel exertions thus far that we headed to bed after a walk around the lake and a stop at the supermarket.
We noted the funicular up to the village of Brunate that we had not known about beforehand and decided to partake the next day, alongside a boat journey on the lake.
Suitably refreshed, I awoke early to go for a wander in the morning light. I love a place when it is just waking up, when café tables are being laid out, shops begin opening their shutters, bakeries are doing a brisk trade and restaurants commence taking in their fresh fish deliveries.
The brilliant cathedral was open and a choir already singing to a small congregation. I loitered for ten minutes, frequently closing my eyes to drink in the vibe. wonderful!
After an excellent late breakfast where we were attended to by one of the cheeriest hotel breakfast ladies ever, we sauntered off to the hill railway.
Trains ran every 15 minutes, taking 9 minutes to complete their journey, so we were not in a particular hurry and took pictures and selfies galore as the sun shone brightly and boats went about their business.
Everybody loves a funicular and this one that had been operating since 1894 was no exception. Where to get the best seat?
The views from the top were wonderful on the clear day. There was hardly anybody else about as we ambled past millionaire’s villas and rows of colourful flowers to where we were promised the best panorama.
It was indeed fabulous, even if our peace was shattered a little by two very chatty Japanese ladies whose lunchtime conversation can now be heard all over the videos that I took!
After a coffee with a view, we descended and romped over to jetty four to buy boat tickets to Torno.
The €5.50 return funicular ticket was voted as money very well spent and we were confident that the boat journey would be equally great.
It is possible to get to other famous towns on the lake such as Varenna, Lecco and Bellagio but we just wanted the experience of a short jaunt and 30 minutes each way seemed perfect, even if we had absolutely no idea what Torno had to offer.
We docked at four other small destinations before pulling up at our stop. The lake was millpond like and the scenery lovely. We were the only non-locals on the way out and therefore the only ones without bags of shopping.
Torno turned out to be extremely pleasant with a picturesque little harbour frequented by squadrons of ducks, together with a beautifully decorated church. Again we agreed the return fare (€6.80) was well worth it.
We sat at Torno’s premier hotel/restaurant (Albergo Ristorante Vapore) with a comfy seat right by the water. It was now 3.30 and we were disappointed that the kitchen was closed but compensated ourselves with local beer for me and coffee & cake for Mrs W.
For the next 90 minutes we just chilled, something you are supposed to do on holiday but which I often forget to do in trying to pack so much in. As usual I have Mrs W to thank for being my sense!
Today happened to be the longest day and a full moon as well, the first time for seventy odd years that the two have coincided. With all that fresh air and a fair few glasses downed, we opted for an early night rather than taking in the sun and moon combo.
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 wait before we would be boarding the Bernina Express, one of the world’s truly iconic train trips.
Coming next – France