My ideal job would definitely be a travel writer so I try to do something when I go on a journey. Check the Korea or Nepal sections on this site for examples.
I have recently been in Italy for a few months and thought I would write up the story of how I got there. The return journey was also eventful but I haven’t got round to writing the story yet.
A Journey from near the top of Europe to the bottom in two and a half days by bus, trains, a ferry and a bus again on a tight budget.
Going to Sicily for a few months, don’t like to fly, that is why I did it this way. I knew there would be some problems because of the French transport strike and was particularly worried about having to get across Paris in about an hour to catch the train to Milan.
Left Glasgow at 11am on Tuesday the 20th, arrived in the town I was going to on Thursday 22nd at about 9.30pm.
Part 1 – Glasgow to London (Bus). Depart Glasgow 11.00,
Leaving Glasgow on the bus at 11am I had to go through my usual emotional hour. You know you won’t see your family and friends for a while and when the bus is going out of town the feeling really hits. This is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that your first stop is Hamilton.
The journey to London was fairly uneventful. I got overcharged at service stations and as usual the Glaswegian bus driver was unnecessarily officious and unpleasant. Why do these people always behave like that? I had the same thing when I came back from Korea and Nepal.
The bus was about an hour late by the time it got to London and for some reason I thought I had three hours to wait instead of one and nearly made a bad mistake by going off for a meal somewhere. As it was I did make a small mistake and changed some money from euros back to pounds for which I was charged a fortune. After that I checked in and then waited out the hour and got on the bus.
Arrived London 20.45
Part 2 – London to Paris (Bus)
Depart London 22.00(ish)
There was a 20 minute delay on this bus because our driver, Didier, seemed intent on running about the station with a piece of paper for some reason or other.
Once underway you go through Peckham in London, which is a shithouse, and out onto the motorway. I managed to get an hour of sleep and woke up just about when we were coming up to the channel tunnel.
The bus parks and then French border police come on and take everyone’s passport away. They then come back about 30 minutes later and give everyone them back. I got the impression that the strike was delaying this process in some way because Didier was getting a little agitated.
Eventually, the barrier goes up and we drive through to where you wait for the bus to go on the train.
We had half an hour to leave the bus and have a cigarette and/or a coffee. I got talking to a French guy who works in a bar in London and asked him what the prospects for getting across Paris were. He didn’t seem too hopeful and was giving me conflicting reports about whether or not the metro would be on but he was certain that the metro would be faster than a taxi. He seemed very nice.
The bus goes onto the train and is sealed into its carriage. The journey takes about half an hour to go through the tunnel.
When you get out the other side there are no checks to speak of and Didier got onto the road and began his bid to get one of the vacant Renault seats for next years formula 1 championship, the bus absolutely flew toward Paris.
I couldn’t sleep for this spell but was happy enough because at this rate we would get to Paris early and I would have plenty of time to get across town to Gare du Lyon for the Milan train.
When we got near to Paris the traffic was ridiculous, even at about 6 in the morning (clocks forward an hour in eurotunnel). The strike meant everyone was out early trying to get wherever they were going so of the hour that Didier had made up by driving like a Parisian royal photographer, 45 minutes of it had gone.
Arrived Paris 06.30
Part 3 – Paris Bagnolle to Paris Gare Du Lyon
The shortest part of the trip became the most difficult. I had to get across Paris during a strike. I arrived at 6.30am and it takes 15 minutes to get your cases etc. I had to be at the train station for 8.04am.
I got off the bus and Frenchman I had been talking to was going the same way, nicely enough he took me to where the metro station was and we studied the screens. The service was reduced to one in four and it was unlikely I would make it because I would have to change trains a couple of times so connections would be late.
I walked out of the metro with him and one of those guys who stand around and wave their keys at you and say ‘taxi’ was there. The Frenchmans English had obviously improved in his time in London as he told me that these guys were ‘dodgy’, which I already knew but it was funny to hear that word used by a frenchie.
Outside I got told ‘non’ by a couple of taxi drivers. My French friend was still trying to help me but it was becoming clear that all the taxis were doing good business because of the strike and I wasn’t going to get one.
The only option then, if I wasn’t going to miss the train and mess up my entire itinerary was to go back and get the dodgy guy with the keys.
I said thanks to the French guy and off I went with the supposed taxi driver to where he had a knackered old Peugeot that I didn’t think would manage to go 500 metres.
Before we started he asked me for 45 euros. That price was bullsh*t. He knew it was bullsh*t, I knew it was bullsh*t. 10 would have been fair. However, he also knew I had no options. He knew it, I knew it.
I gave him the money and talked in spluttering French. The guy was Portuguese and didn’t have much money. Well, he had a good amount of mine, but other than that he said, he didn’t have much and that was why he did this unlicensed taxi driving thing.
The traffic was even worse now than before and we struggled our way through, eventually getting to the station at 7.40.
As fast as I can I get into the station and look at the screens with the platform numbers. Suspiciously, my train didn’t seem to be on any of them. I asked someone and he was convinced my ticket was fake.
I found the information office and was told that due to the strike my train had been cancelled.
I had paid a fortune to get across town and the bloody thing was cancelled anyway.
Arrived Gare du Lyon 07.40
Part 4 – Paris Gare du Lyon to Nowhere yet (aka ‘Platform 9 ¾’)
The real platform 9 ¾ has a different name and is in (or rather not in) Paris Gare du Lyon. If you look in one of the sections where you see trains leave from you will see numbers 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 23. If your ticket says platform 22 you know you have a problem.
The information guy told me that it was in a different part of the station. This reminded me of a few weeks before when I went to the Scotland game with my friend. Our tickets were for section Q of the stadium and we couldn’t find it until a steward calmly told us that section ‘Q’ was between section A and section B!?
Anyway, I went along in some stupid hope that the train was there anyway. It wasn’t, but neither was the bloody platform. So I go back to the information office which I had left immediately without getting any more information because I was so upset the train was cancelled. I found out that the next train to Milan was going to run at 15.55.
I now had the option of just hanging around the station all day or taking a wander around Paris. Well, I thought I had the option but what with the strike and the fact that the left luggage was closed too (important because I have an old suitcase without wheels) and that I was very tired by this point, I decided just to stay near the station.
This meant of course that I would not only have to pay Paris prices for everything but also ‘next to or in train station prices’, which are always absurdly expensive. I paid 7 euros for a bit of bread and jam with coffee, and that was the cheapest I found. I then paid for 3 more cups of coffee in quick succession because I was doing my absolute best not to fall asleep.
In the exchanges with French waiters and information people I managed to surprise myself with some not too bad French but was also constantly thinking of the word in Korean first. I must have picked up more Korean than I realized.
I made some phone calls and did some texting to let people know what was going on and then I checked and rechecked with the ticket and information offices that all my tickets would still be valid and I wouldn’t have to pay again. I wouldn’t. Then I went back and asked them all over again.
After that I just had to wait it out so I found an internet café and did some emailing. Finished with that I went to watch the strikers in action. Using an unusual tactic they sound sirens themselves to save the police the trouble of doing it.
I was worried when the French news were saying that there had been various acts of sabotage on the train lines but there was no more news of cancellations.
Eventually, the time for the train came around and I went straight on and stole a first class seat.
Departed Paris Gare du Lyon 15.55
Part 5 – Paris to Milan
Depart Paris 15.55
After the delay this was the easiest part of the journey. I had a first class seat with a table to myself and no one sitting opposite.
The TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) is fantastic and you don’t really have any concept of how fast you are going because the thing is so smooth. It is all superclean and superefficient (strikes notwithstanding). I managed to get about two hours of sleep. It was getting dark though, so I didn’t see any of France on this particular trip.
The train sped through France at an impressive rate and then when you get near to Italy it begins to slow down and you start to go through plenty of tunnels as you come into the alpine towns. Again, it was dark, so I couldn’t see much other than tracks and snow but one of the towns, the name of which escapes me for the moment, looked worth a visit.
About an hour into Italy the guard came up and kicked me out of first class but we were almost there so I wasn’t bothered. The train goes through Turin but you can’t really see any of the town.
I got off at Milan in a hurry. All of the tickets following on from Paris were now the wrong times because of the strikes, and although the Paris information people assured me there was no problem and that the tickets would still work I wasn’t sure.
Arrived Milan 22.50
Part 6 – Milan to Rome
Depart Milan 11.20
Milano Centrale is a bit dingy to be honest but I didn’t have any time to explore. I should have been on this part of the journey from about 15.20 in the afternoon. Then I would have a sleeper ticket for the train from Roma to Messina. I was hoping I would be able to get one of the sleeper cabins on this train but thanks to the delay I wasn’t sure.
I eventually found the right train and showed the guard my ticket who considered not letting me on till I bleated something about the strike and he told me to go to carriage 14, in which there were always seats.
Looking jealously at the people going into their sleeper cabins I marched all the way to the front carriage of the train and sat down in the cabin with the least people in it. I moved someones bag along a bit so I could put my suitcase on the rack and the other people were looking at me with ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’ expressions. Too tired to care, I did it anyway.
Minutes later the local psycho comes in and looks upset someone had moved his case. He growled at me. Not wanting to acknowledge it too much I played the dumb foreigner and chatted away to a guy reading a book sitting next to me. He was also trying to avoid looking at said psycho.
Most trains are a step down after the TGV and this train was old, rickety and ice cold.
I sat there for a while watching the psycho play with his two mobile phones. I had already reasoned he wasn’t a Mafioso type by virtue of the fact that if he was a mafia person he would not be sitting in the cheap cold seats of a rickety old night train.
When he picked up one of his phones and started cooing like a teenager in love into it I thought ‘f*ck this’ and went to see if there were any cabins with more space. I found one with only two people in it, an Italian and an oriental looking type (more about him in a minute).
I had noticed other people folding down the seats in other cabins so I followed the example and wrapped myself in my jacket and hoodies from my case and whatever else I could find. I managed to get a couple of hours of that half-sleep you get when you are traveling.
I was woken up by the Oriental type speaking Korean into his phone. I waited till he was finished and then said hello to him in Korean. I enjoy doing that because in a year there I picked up a few things and they simply don’t expect foreigners to speak any and it always gives them a little fright.
I did ‘where are you from’? etc in Korean and then we switched to English because I had reached the limit of what I could say.
He told me he was going to Florence to meet an Italian penpal of his. Both of their respective English teachers when they were at school had made them get penpals to practice their English. He had a letter from when they were both 15 in which she had said they should get married. He was now 26.
Me – “When was the last time you had a letter?”
Him – “4 years ago.”
Me – “Oh.”
He had only an old address and had no idea where she was.
Now this was clearly insane but part of me got to thinking it was very romantic (Florence and everything), even if it seemed to be a pointless trip. However, a little later he ruined the effect by telling me that whilst he was here in Italy he would quite like to get involved in one of the football riots, if he wasn’t too busy that was.
After he got off the train I got back to dozing till we got to the outskirts of Rome where the person selling drinks on the train threw a kitkat at me to wake me up and gave me an espresso.
Arrived Rome 07.00
Part 7 – Rome to Messina
(Supposedly) Depart Rome 08.30 but not actually until 9.30
Had a bit of difficulty finding the right platform (incidentally, the platforms are different in Italy, they are not raised and you climb up into the train).
I went to the information office and she told me my ticket to Messina was not valid because it was for the day before and as I was now more than 24 hours late I would have to pay again. Now she was wrong anyway, but once I explained that I had just got off the train from Milan and not stayed the night somewhere in Rome she stamped the ticket and updated it.
I got on the train and sat down and they announced there would be an hour delay. I asked someone what for and they didn’t know. About an hour later some important looking suits and dresses swished in and went up to first class so I assume the train was waiting for them.
We got going eventually and after you get out of Rome you really see the land start to change. The vegetation is different and the further south you go you start to see cactuses everywhere, then you get into vineyard country. You also see cool mountain dogs being used as sheepdogs. Unfortunately, the vineyards are interspersed with ugly industrial plants but I suppose that those are a problem in most places.
On the whole it was very beautiful countryside for a while and as we rolled along toward Naples I was drinking in the scene and feeling quite happy and refreshed. Some of the houses reminded me a little of Nepal in terms of the style.
The coffee trolley man on this train sauntered past saying “coffee, tea, chocolate” and then completely ignoring anyone who tried to buy one from him (including me). This reminded me of the old zen story about tying the cat to the bed because it appeared he now viewed his job as simply pushing the trolley up and down the train rather than making use of it.
You get to Naples and some of it seems a little run-down. The train slows a lot and stops several times. The mountains come into view and eventually Vesuvius but I have to say I wasn’t totally overwhelmed the way some people said I would be, I think this is because after you see the Himalayas there isn’t much to compare.
After Naples it is wonderful coastline and the mountains for a few more hours till you reach Villa San Giovanni when the train splits into two and drives onto a ferry. The whole process takes a little while and I got off the train and went on deck only to see that after the wonderful sunshine a storm was coming in. I had been told that Etna is extremely impressive and I wanted to take a look but I couldn’t see the thing and I still haven’t.
Arrived Messina about 16.15
Part 8 – Messina to Catania
Depart Messina about 16.45
This was an uneventful trip other than that I didn’t have a ticket for it at all and the guard came on and was going to charge me the 50 euro fine that my brother had warned me about. Luckily for me he spoke perfect English and when I told him about Paris he let me off with it and didn’t charge me anything at all.
It was dark again, so I couldn’t see anything.
Arrived Catania 18.15
[The picture is from Taormina, near Catania and was taken a few months later]