Italy by Rail

27 June 2021

It initially started as a city break to Rome when I first looked at organising our tour of Italy. But then some amazing cheap flights popped up that flew into Rome and out of Venice, and I couldn’t say no to seeing two cities for the price of one (sort of!). By the time I’d booked the flights I’d already sneaked Florence into the itinerary too – the train was going to stop there anyway, and although it hadn’t initially been on my wish list, it ended being my favourite part of the trip.

Starting out in Rome, we stayed in a great little apartment five minutes’ walk from the Spanish Steps. We walked from the main ‘Termini’ station for twenty minutes or so to get there over cobbled streets – I was instantly relieved that we had travelled light and used backpacks, as bumping a suitcase over the wonky pavement would have been a challenge in July.

Obviously, there’s a myriad of sights in Rome, and there’s certainly no shortage of booking options for each attraction – ‘skip the line’ ticket sellers litter the streets of Rome and you can barter yourself a good deal if you feel confident, but they’re not always necessary. If you plan your visits just right you can take advantage of quieter visiting times and tick off several places in one day. We managed to squeeze in the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day we arrived, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and the Catacombs on the second day, and the Vatican and St Peters’ Basilica on day three, as well as finding time for shopping and dining.

Obviously, the distinguishing feature of Rome is the Colosseum, so it was first on our list of sights when we arrived. It was far smaller than I had imagined, but the structure is meticulously preserved and filled with interesting artefacts. It is actually possible, if you plan well in advance, to book a tour that takes you down into the underground tunnels to see the exact place where the gladiators of Ancient Rome would ponder their own mortality as they prepared to fight.

There’s an abundance of options for getting around the city – hop-on-hop-off buses interlink the most famous points of interest, or the basic Metro system bypasses the frenzied traffic. Most of the stations close to tourist attractions are on Line A, except for the Colosseum, which is on Line B (you can change between Lines A and B at Termini). The main historic centre of Rome is certainly small enough to navigate on foot, but I quickly found I should have packed some comfy walking shoes with good soles – my sandals didn’t quite cut it on the cobbles and I had to source an emergency pair of trainers on day two so that I could continue exploring.

The catacombs were an interesting and often overlooked point of interest. The labyrinth of subterranean passageways are located outside of the ancient city walls – burials were prohibited within the city during the period they were created. There are five different catacombs open to the public, but over sixty of them exist, adding up to hundreds of kilometres of ancient tombs. We made a rather challenging trip made on a local bus to reach them – even my Italian father-in-law struggled to understand the bus network in Rome – but we eventually found our way and were relieved to bathe in the cool and musty air beneath the city. If you have visited the catacombs of Paris, you might be disappointed, as we were, to find a shortage of skeletons inside the tombs. The Roman catacombs are many hundreds of years older than their Parisien counterparts, and have mostly been cleared out. They still make a great visit though.

We also discovered in Rome after one dodgy meal by the Spanish Steps to travel out of the centre to find good grub - don’t get me wrong, the food was fine all over, but if you’re a real foodie or prefer something more authentic then follow the locals and book a table in Trastevere. We ended up making the trip over the river there on two evenings and one lunchtime to get better food at a much more reasonable price. And it was lovely to finish the evening with a stroll along the river Tiber, which is lined with pop-up bars and restaurants and little market stalls to peruse.

The only exception I found to this food advice was the most amazing Gelateria near the Trevi Fountain – I haven’t stopped dreaming of their extra dark chocolate gelato since we left Rome!

The journey to Florence took just ninety minutes on the high-speed ‘red arrow’ train. Italian rail is efficient, clean and comfortable. It’s also relatively affordable compared to UK rail. We arrived into Santa Maria Novella station right in the heart of Florence just after lunchtime, and headed again for our hotel, close to the Piazza del Duomo, where the giant gothic Cathedral stands proudly, probably the most significant landmark of the city. It is clad almost entirely in marble in varying shades of pink, green and white and boasts the worlds’ largest brick dome at one end. It is possible to purchase tickets to climb the steps inside the dome and view the city from a height of around a hundred metres, but the queues were astonishing when we visited – at eight in the morning, before it had even opened, we walked down to find that the queue time was already three and half hours long. We opted instead to climb the narrow winding stairs of the Campanile, which stands just next door at a height of eighty-five metres, to be greeted with views of hundreds of terracotta rooftops and the Tuscan countryside in the distance.

Florence is tiny. The streets are so small and narrow that they even have little miniature bin lorries to collect waste. You can’t drive around the centre unless you’re a resident, and to be honest, there’s really no need to as its perfectly accessible by foot, and you would miss out on so much beautiful architecture if you were cooped up in a car.

Most of the sights, such as the Uffizi Gallery, The Accademia, where stands Michelangelo's David, and the Duomo, are on the northern bank of the Arno, which is traversed by five bridges within the main centre of the city, one of which is the Ponte Vecchio, a well-known medieval pedestrian bridge, lined with expensive jewellers and art dealers. We strolled along one evening as the sun was going down to find musicians singing love songs and watched couples wander hand in hand, and I tried to convince my now-husband that an engagement ring from here would be oh-so-romantic, to no avail!

The bridge leads south towards the Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens – a large private garden where you can wander for hours (although not for free). We also found better value dining on the southern bank of the river, and in hindsight, probably would have chosen accommodation here too. Ours, although conveniently located and otherwise beautifully presented, was really noisy on a night, with people drinking nearby until three am.

We stayed for just two nights, but had we had longer we would have ventured out of the city into the countryside and visited a vineyard for a Chianti tasting, called in to the beautiful hill town of Siena, and made the trip to Pisa for the bucket-list photo with the Leaning Tower!

Instead, we moved on to Venice, for the final stop on our journey. The high-speed train arrives into Santa Lucia station in the most north-westerly part of the historic centre in a little over two hours. The station brings you right to the edge of the Grand Canal and is conveniently close to Piazzale Roma, where you can catch buses back onto the mainland towards both airports. It’s also close to the main ferry/cruise port, and being so close to the canal enables access to the ‘waterbus’ service, which taxis up and down the length of the Grand Canal, as well as out to the other islands including Lido, Murano & Burano and Giudecca.

We put walking directions into Google Maps (as we usually do with most new places we explore) to be informed it was just a twenty-minute walk to our hotel in San Marco; off we embarked with backpacks in the thirty-five-degree midday heat.

Around two hours later we flopped into our hotel lobby, exhausted and dehydrated, vowing never to trust Google Maps again! We hadn’t realised that the walking directions had included a ‘ferry’ crossing to get us from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, and when we reached the crossing point there was no ‘ferry’ to be found, just a rickety old wooden pier that looked like it hadn’t been used in about a century. We decided to ask a local Venetian shop worker how was the best way to cross the river, and recoiled at his suggestion to pay fourteen euros to get the waterbus just one stop to make the crossing. We decided we would backtrack a little and cross at Rialto bridge. It was a slightly longer walking route, but was going to save fourteen euros. Except we got lost in the tangle of tiny pathways and canals and ended up walking in circles for the first hour. Eventually we did find Rialto bridge and then followed signposted directions to Saint Marks Square, knowing our hotel was only five minutes from there. The cold stone floor at our hotel reception could not have looked more inviting by the time we had checked in.

We have since learned from our mistakes – there's an option on Google Maps to ‘avoid ferries’, and we actually managed to make the walk back to Piazzale Roma successfully on our last day in about 25 minutes, leaving us with a generous hour to spare to catch our bus to the airport.

Once you find your bearings it’s actually fairly practical to navigate Venice by foot. You just have to keep in mind that there are only four footbridges to cross the snaking Grand Canal – in the north, Constitution Bridge linking the station and Piazzale Roma, and Ponte Degli Scalzi, linking the station with Santa Croce. Then San Polo is linked to San Marco by the Rialto Bridge, and San Marco back to Dorsodouro by the Ponte dell’Accademia - easy!

We stayed in a lovely little three-star boutique style hotel called dell’Opera. They had a small but quiet roof terrace with an honesty bar and served the best breakfast we had in Italy. Our room had a little terrace attached to it, accessed by climbing out of the window! From the edge we could watch the gondolas gliding past and hear the musicians and singers serenading the couples as they sailed along. We opted one evening to have dinner here to save some money – we bought fresh bread from a local baker and an array of meats and cheese from a delicatessen. Venice is as expensive as the rumours all purport, and it’s also really hard to find nice food – it is true that some of the restaurants on the waterfront actually have signs admitting to serving average food for high prices, justified by the promise of a great view.

We did, however, find great pizza at a rustic and inexpensive little place called Rosa Rossa. There are doodles on the ceiling here illustrated by Johnny Depp, who was a regular there when he filmed in Venice for ‘The Tourist’.

If you do want to splash out on food or drink then of course you can pick up a coffee and croissant at Café Florian in Saint Mark’s Square for twenty-something Euros. For an extra ten euros each you’ll get the privilege of watching the orchestra play outside. We opted not to sit down or order anything, but stood and listened to them play for some time on an evening when we walked through the piazza. The café is the oldest in the world, having just turned three hundred years old, and is incredibly ornate.

Instead, we chose to spend a small fortune on a gondola ride - there is absolutely no point in trying to barter here – the price is fixed solid at eighty euros for a private twenty-five to thirty-minute trip during the day, or a hundred euros for slightly longer on an evening. You can also choose to add optional singers or musicians if you have another eighty euros or so to spare. If you’re travelling with others, or are happy to befriend another couple, then you can split the cost. Each gondola seats six and the price remains the same whether there are just two of you or you fill the boat.

Another way to fill your time is to get the waterbus over to Murano (famed for its decorative glass ornaments) or Burano, where you’ll find brightly-coloured houses and lace-makers. You can book private or group tours to the islands too, but it’s far cheaper to make your own way over, and there’s really no need for a guide.

You might even decide to visit Lido, where you’ll find a huge stretch of beach to relax on. There are also plenty of hotels to choose from here if you wanted to stay away from the main centre of Venice, but with easy access to see the sights.

We left Venice after three days to head home, but could have definitely spent longer in Italy. It would have been easy enough to catch the train from Venice to Lake Garda to finish with a week relaxing. Or across to Milan for a little more sightseeing. We completed the trip in a week, but could have definitely stretched it out to ten days and still found plenty to do. Each city had a very different feel to the last, and offered entirely unique experiences – there was certainly something to interest everyone and plenty of opportunities to tick things off that bucket list.

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