Impressions of Europe – Italy

A strange and wonderful country. Where else but in Rome can ancient ruins co-exist with modern office buildings and shops – sometimes in the same block! The food is plentiful and tasty (providing you do like pizza and pasta) and the Chianti and other wines accompany it well. But society and especially politics are chaotic. What sort of a country is it where the post office closes at midday so if you want to buy stamps in the afternoon you go to a tobacconist (but who can’t sell you stamps in the morning when the post office is open)? Why do they have 17 different types of cops including the semi military caribinieri? (don’t even think about trying to photograph them); and what sort of justice system is it where it is not uncommon for criminal or civil trials to drag on for several decades, often allowing the accused to die first?

And then there is the traffic. Italian drivers are, of course, completely insane and both road space and parking are at a premium. It’s quite a common sight to see cars double and even triple parked, or even nosed in longways onto the footpath in between two parallel parked cars. Outside one corner shop in Rome both side streets were double parked and there was even a car parked on the curb right on the street corner!

The most common traffic rule, possibly the only one, appears to be “My nose in front, I win” and the behaviour of motor cyclists in particular borders on the suicidal. Sneezing at the wrong time on your Vespa while going round a blind corner on a narrow road can easily result in a fatality.

As our Insight TD explained early on “In Italy, you are not a pedestrian, you are a target”. And indeed you can grow old waiting for the traffic to stop for you in the busy cities. A handy tip when trying to cross a road, is to try and get behind a nun or priest (Italian cities are chocka with em) as drivers seem slightly less inclined to kill them – and therefore you.

We did not visit Italy in 1979 so this was a new experience for me on arrival in 2013. We travelled by express from Zurich to Milan then via the new high speed train to Rome via Florence. High speed trains also service Rome to Venice and south from Rome to Naples. The Milan-Rome trip now takes three hours instead of the previous six or so. On arrival at the main station you walk out into a large open bus station with diesel buses, trolleybuses (which run on batteries in the city centre then on wires further out), whilst trams run along the street on one side. Jeanette was left guarding the suitcases whilst I got some preliminary coverage.

Rome does have some metro and tram lines but their coverage is quite limited compared to London or Paris so much of the central part of Rome (i.e where all the old stuff is) is covered by a bus system which is not the easiest to navigate. With large cases in tow we opted for a taxi to our hotel was opposite the back fence of the historic Forum.

We had a full day before our Insight Vacations tour started so we did some general exploring of both tourist and transport within the city centre. That evening the tour began with a dinner and city lights tour. Next morning it was off to the colosseum first thing. Now you can just see the outside of the thing while going past on a tram if you prefer, but it is going inside where history just comes up and bites you. All of a sudden you are standing inside an arena which was built over 2,000 years ago – or more than ten times the period of white settlement of Australia. You are using the same stone steps, now much worn down with time and use, as the Senators, Centurions or early Christians (to quote just three local bus industry related historic references!). Sometimes there is just more to life than public transport.

Repeat this experience for St Peters Basilica, Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (where the photo rights are owned by the Japanese), the Vatican Museum, the Forum, the Pantheon, etc etc. Will any of today’s buildings survive so long in any form? I rather doubt it. Having covered several places on the optional afternoon walking tour the previous day I rode some more of the tram system and also the suburban train to Ostia. This was my first look at a beach on the Mediterranean sea – where the sand is mostly black, the beach- front privately owned and you have to pay to even access the beach let alone swim. How lucky are we in Australia!

Rome’s buses and the older trams are in an orange livery and most of the buses are badged as either Irisbus or Iveco (both being descendants of the former Fiat heavy vehicles division). These are completely different Ivecos to the Australian Delta and Metro models which are descended from the International trucks range.

They are relatively uninspiring compared to their competing German and Swedish marques but they certainly dominate the country’s bus fleets. Even our Insight touring coach was an Iveco, probably something similar to a Eurorider but that term just confused our coach driver when I tried it out on him. There were, however a few Mercedes Citaros seen on route service at Ostia.

It was also the first of only two times I was accosted about taking transport photos in Italy. This was at the station at Ostia but I think the officials may have thought I was photographing the omnipresent graffiti rather than the trains. The second incident was when taking shots in the street outside the station and long distance bus terminal in Florence when a bus driver came along (with a mate) demanding that I delete the photo of the bus he had been driving. As it was a type of coach I had already shot several of, I had no problem in complying.

After the adventures related in the previous section about Insight, Florence provided more history in the form of the statue of David, the Santa Croce basilica and square, Giotto’s bell tower and the fabulous medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge.

Our hotel was next to a very small rail station (terminus of a single suburban line and more like a large tram stop) and was also nearby to tram lines, providing more tram and bus photo opportunities pre dinner and after breakfast.

I also took a shopping opportunity to buy a genuine Florentine leather jacket – at only 500 euros a pop. Getting the tax refund back proved difficult though. Normally you do this when leaving your last port within the European Union. But we were flying home from Zurich and Switzerland is not in the EU, nor in the Euro zone for customs. The two minute border stop at Domodossola on the train journey north would not suffice either. The problem was eventually solved in the city of Basle, where Switzerland, France and Germany meet, by walking into the German side railway station, doing the forms there, then walking back out and over the bridge back into Switzerland.

There was a side trip to medieval Siena. Like many Italian and indeed European cities this has an ancient city centre where the streets are too narrow for much traffic including conventional buses. Many such towns use minibuses to provide services within the old city area, connecting to the main bus network somewhere on the periphery. I was able to photograph several of these (Ivecos but about 18-20 seaters) and our tour group was nearly collected by a small school bus emerging from a side lane while we were walking to the main square where they still run an annual horse race.

Florence was followed by a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa which has probably the largest coach park I had ever seen. It would easily hold 200 vehicles. Alas time did not permit more than a rudimentary exploration and a dozen or so quick photos. To get to the tower area you can either catch a local shuttle bus (full size rigid Ivecos) but our group was “special” so we travelled in one of those fake steam train things which proliferate throughout the cities of Europe and America.

From where that drops you it is then necessary to run the gauntlet of beggars and spivs trying to sell you an umbrella or a $20 rolex. Or pick your pocket. But once inside the compound it is another unique experience, complete with the opportunity to do the photo of you or your companion “holding up” the leaning tower.

We then skirted Genoa to arrive at Lake Maggiore near the Swiss border where we spent the afternoon visiting the island of Isola Bella with its magnificent palace and gardens, which come complete with strutting peacocks. Now that was actually meant to be on the next day (Sunday), which was now unexpectedly free – we reckon the guide just wanted a day off. After a quick check of my European Rail Timetable I found it was only an hour and a half by train to Milan. So I headed off early to the station and spent several hours in the vicinity of Milano terminus recording the tram and bus scene. In addition to modern stuff, there were several quite old trams running which made a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Iveco buses. At the far end of the station was a road with several trolleybus routes along it.

Next day we travelled from Lake Maggiore to Venice via Verona. This city is home, not only two the two gentlemen, but also to Juliet’s balcony and a smaller version of the colosseum. To get to them is another fair walk from another suitably large coach parking area, but this time I had more opportunity for shots than at Pisa as we had to park up the far end and walk past them all. A few citybuses came past (yeah you guessed it — Ivecos) which were quickly photographed. The afternoon included a wine tasting at a rural winery. Yum.

Venice provided some more historic delights including a post dinner musical recital in St Mark’s square, the Bridge of Sighs, the gilded basilica, a visit to a glass blowing factory and the colourful island of Burano, not to forget the boat ride along the grand canal and your own private gondola ride. Did you know that by regulation all gondolas must be painted black?

In Venice someone has flooded most of the streets and as a result most of the buses are actually boats. There is an extensive system of public ferry routes both within the main city and across to the various outlying islands. As I wrote under the Insight section earlier there is a bus station at the end of the rail and road causeway from the mainland and this produced my first sighting of Scania “omnicity” route buses in Italy scattered amongst the ubiquitous Ivecos. Our tour coach was also left on the mainland and our luggage transported to the hotel by barge. One thing about hotel rooms in the city – they are tiny.

From Venice it was time to head south again, first visiting the church of St Apollonius at Ravenna which has stunning mosaics. We had the front seats in the coach this day so a few through the windscreen shots of coach- es coming the other way were obtained. In the afternoon we arrived at Assisi, home for St Francis, another hilltop fortress like city. There must have been bus activity somewhere but I only saw a couple of minibuses.

The next day was another long day in the coach travelling back across to the western coast, skirting both Rome and Naples to arrive at Sorrento on the Amalfi coast. Jeanette and I both found the visit to a local woodworking establishment boring and set out walking in advance of the group towards the hotel. This enabled a small coverage of local transport, several small Iveco buses and yet another of those bloody fake steam train trolley things. The whole coast is a UNESCO listed world heritage site.

The following day was taken up with a ferry ride across to explore the island of Capri. On arrival we were first taken on a small boat ride to the Blue Grotto and several other notable seaside rock formations.

Back at the ferry terminal up to the top of the town there are three transport options, a funicular, a local bus or convertible Mercedes cars. The group took the funicular up and spent several hours sightseeing and shopping. The town bus terminal is rather unique requiring the midi size buses to back in off the narrow and very busy main street, load under a canopy and then head off back down the hill (Large vehicles being prohibited beyond that point in the road). The whole bus terminal occupied about the same space as you would normally park two full size coaches. This was one of only a couple of places where I observed vehicles in service old enough to still be badged as Fiat rather than Irisbus/ Iveco.

If you have the time and the courage there is also a hair raising bus ride available which goes way further upwards along a narrow cliff face road to the town of Anacapri. Our return journey to the ferry was made in style in several of the open top Mercedes cars.

The afternoon provided an exciting excursion to the town of Positano using special minibuses as the winding cliff side road was not suitable for our full size coach. Several local school buses were noted parked up in small layovers along the road. The town itself is really one long one way main street which winds down through the town to the sea shore then back up another way to the cliff top road. There was a local half hourly bus route through the town which was duly photographed as it came past. Both Capri and Positano are true scenic highlights.

The next day was the last of the tour and we returned to Rome with a morning tour of Pompei. This is a drop and go place for coaches, the coach park being some distance away. A truly fascinating place preserved by fire and lava. After the tour there was even time for a gelati whilst awaiting our coach to return at its designated pick up time. To complete the “day of death” the afternoon visit was to the Commonwealth War Cemetery near Cassino. The tour concluded with a fabulous dinner in Rome and the next day we returned via high speed train to Milan then onto Brig in Switzerland.