Riding the rails in northern Italy


I have been moving through Europe by different modes—plane, bus, rental car, metro, and ferry. Of them all, the train is the easiest and most pleasant way to travel. No check-in or security. No navigating or expensive parking. Before arriving in Italy, I purchased a rail pass online, good for any seven days of my choosing during a two-month period on the country’s primary (and unfortunately named) rail line, Trenitalia.

Of course, leaving Venice requires a boat, in my case an early ferry to the train station. Gabriele, the hotel manager, fixed my breakfast. He had been up all night anyway, filling in for the night manager who was stranded at an airport due to a strike. (Strikes occur frequently in Italy.) At the station I had the start date on my pass validated and boarded the train.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Unfashionable in Milan

With its attached shopping mall, the Milan train station is huge. I took the sloping people-movers down three levels to the metro station. Fortunately the system is easy to decipher and the ticket machines easy to use, despite the sketchy characters who linger nearby and offer to help. Four stops later I emerged in front of Milan’s magnificent cathedral, just a short walk from the hotel.

Milan is the second-most populous city in Italy, its greater area having over five million residents. Crowded Venice, in comparison, is a small town. The Romans, the French, the Spanish, and the Austrians took turns dominating Milan until 1859 CE when it joined the kingdom of Italy. Since World War II, the city has prospered and become the country’s leading industrial, commercial, and financial center.

Duomo, Milan

Of course, it is known internationally as a fashion capital. I have never seen so many ways to tie a scarf. I was conspicuously underdressed in my travel-friendly rumpled microfibers and hiking shoes.

Based solely upon my observations, everyone in Europe smokes, both men and women of all ages. Shop girls often stand in their doorways smoking and blocking the entrances. At least in Milan, however, they look stylish while doing it.

I walked up Via Dante, a pedestrian-only street built in celebration of Italian unification in 1870, and boarded a tour bus. The guide spoke both English and German into my headset. Among other nuggets, she admitted Milanese food does not compare to that of other regions of Italy.

Perledo, Lake Como

We toured La Scala Opera House and Museum, which opened in 1778. The floor of the auditorium is quite small but the boxes are stacked six tiers high, all of them gold, red and white. The connected museum contains a collection of busts, paintings, and memorabilia from the theater’s historical who’s-who, including Verdi, Rossini, Toscanini, Puccini, and Callas. Interesting was the display of items left behind in the boxes over the years, including tiaras and swords.

I strolled through Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the four-story glass-domed arcade on the cathedral square, occupied by Prada, Versace, and Louis Vuitton, the foundations of fashion. In one corner is Bar Camparino, considered the birthplace of Campari bitter. Opera-composer Giuseppe Verdi and conductor Arturo Toscanini used to stop in after performances at La Scala.

Sforza Castle, built in the late 1300s as a military fortress. Later, the Sforza family made it their residence and invited Leonardo Da Vinci to be their houseguest. From the 1500s through the 1800s, it housed various occupying forces. A statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the leaders of Italian unification, guards the entrance.

Lanner falcon
Lanner falcon

However, the real reason I signed up for the tour was to have my fifteen minutes with Leonardo.

Da Vinci’s The Last Supper adorns a wall of the dining hall at the otherwise unassuming Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Amazingly it has survived for over five hundred years, despite general deterioration and the WWII bombing of a supporting wall.

A twenty-one-year restoration project, completed in 1999, pared away layers of touch-ups, leaving the painting faint yet powerful in its delicacy. Groups of thirty are shunted in and out of the heavily protected room at scheduled intervals every quarter hour.

Later, on my own, I visited the Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world. It took over four hundred years to complete. Napoleon ordered the construction to be sped up so he could be crowned king of Italy in 1805. Up in the rafters a little red dot of light marks the spot where a nail, supposedly from the cross of Jesus, protrudes. Piazza Duomo, the square around the cathedral, is crowded with tourists and vendors day and night.

Toured Pinacoteca Amborsiana, an art gallery and library, housing numerous works by Brueghel, Da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, and a copy of The Last Supper that captures the original’s colors. Most interesting were the pages from Da Vinci’s papers, Codex Atlanticus, with his backward handwriting and sketches of various inventions.

Varenna, Lake Como

No, I didn’t see George Clooney

The next day I was back on the train, heading north to the small village of Varenna on Lake Como. I wrote the date on the rail pass, important to do before the conductor comes along.

I am surprised a spot as tranquil as Lake Como is only an hour north of Milan. The rich and famous have kept villas along the shore since Roman times, including now George Clooney. The lake, surrounded by mountains, is shaped like an upside-down Y with the small villages of Bellagio, Menaggio, and Varenna located at the intersection. A ferry service runs between them almost every half-hour.


Rita the taxi driver delivered me from the train station to my B&B on the side of a cliff just outside of town. It was once a remote monastery. The view from the balcony is spectacular with  the snow-topped Swiss Alps to the north. The inn is on a hill so steep that some of the rooms require a funicular ride. I stayed in the lower level and rode the two funiculars to the upper levels for the view. The car is the size of a small elevator.

Many hotels in Italy ask that you leave your key on the rack at the front desk when away during the day. To help you remember, the key is often attached to a fob as big and heavy as a paperweight in your pocket.

I hiked up the mountain to Vezio Castle, built in the late 1000s. Ghostly statues haunt the grounds, made by draping volunteers with chalk-soaked gauze until it dries. Birds of prey are kept and trained at the castle, including a great-horned owl, a barn owl, a Lanner falcon, and a Harris hawk. The view to the rooftops of Varenna is straight over the edge.

Smoke on the water, Bellagio, Lake Como

Next day I took the battello navetta (shuttle boat) through the fog to Bellagio and strolled around town, up and down the hills. Badly in need of a haircut, I stopped in a salon where, with sign language and a few words, I managed to convince Carmine the barber to cut my hair.

Perhaps the morning’s fog was smoke. All day long, three orange water-bombers skimmed from the lake and released in the mountains behind Bellagio, as plumes of white rose from the trees. Back in Varenna, from my room with a view, it was difficult to see whether they were making any progress. The smoke was seeping from the back side of the mountain just above the village.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Town-hopping Cinque Terre

In the morning the fire above Bellagio was apparently out although a low yellow haze lingered over the lake.

I climbed back aboard the train. Three changes between Varenna and Vernazza, a five-hour trip in total. (Later, I stayed in Volterra. Lots of V towns to keep straight.) The flat farmland dotted with bell towers and brick barns ended at the mountainous coast.

Vernazza’s platform, at the end of a long tunnel, was jammed with tourists, some arriving and some leaving. Many were dressed to backpack between the towns. I found my B&B on the main street, up eighty-nine steep and uneven stone steps. (During my stay, I began to think twice before tackling the steps to my room. Do I really need a jacket?)

Raining in Riomaggiore

I walked around town to get my bearings, which took all of two minutes.

Shop owners display clothing on the street for sale. Residents hang laundry out to dry. It is difficult to tell which is which. I wonder if the chambers of commerce hang laundry in these villages in order to enhance their quaintness.

Cinque Terre (Five Lands), located on the rugged west coast of Italy, is comprised of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coast, the villages, and the surrounding hills are part of the Cinque Terre National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Part of the area’s charm is the lack of visible corporate development. The stubbornly independent locals like to keep it that way. Trails, trains, and ferries connect the villages. Over the centuries, the residents have built stone-lined terraces on the hillsides. Grapes and olives are cultivated. Monterosso’s anchovies have Protected Designation of Origin status from the European Union.

Manarola, Cinque Terre

A local specialty is pesto, made from basil, garlic, salt, olive oil, pine nuts, and pecorino cheese. A couple of my favoritie dishes: trenette, a pasta with green beans and house-made pesto, and tegame alla vernazzana, a casserole of anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine, olive oil, and herbs.

Vernazza, dating to at least 1080 CE, bars car traffic between the station and the harbor. Its economy is based upon tourism, fishing, and wine and olive-oil production. Doria Castle on the harbor was built in the 1400s as a lookout tower to protect the village from pirates. (The towers of all of the five towns can be seen, one from another, up and down the coast.) In 2011 Vernazza was struck by torrential rains and flooding that left the town buried in thirteen feet of mud and debris.

Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre

The next day, with a trail permit, I hiked from Vernazza to Monterosso, the next town north, only a mile up the coast but a lot of it vertical. Uneven rocky steps and narrow ledges.

I was alone at first but about halfway I encountered the “conga line” coming from the other direction. Many nationalities on the trail, so pleasantries were expressed in Italian, English, German, French, and Spanish. Good day, thank you, you’re welcome. An enterprising farmer sold oranges. Others worked on the terraces, clearing the groves and vineyards of prunings.

Monterosso has two parts, old and new, separated by a mountain and a tunnel. Broad pebbly beaches and its accessibility by car make it popular with tourists in the summer. I was glad to be staying in quieter Vernazza. Toured the black-and-white striped Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista (Church of Saint John the Baptist), dating from 1307 CE. And next door, the black-and-white striped Oratory of the Dead, a civic association founded in the 1500s to bury the deceased and take care of widows and orphans. Its symbol, over the door and on the ceiling, is a skull-and-crossbones. The stripes are created by alternating courses of dark-green and white marble, a style from Pisa.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

In the tunnel a musician played an electric keyboard for spare change. I watched two police officers shake down the only selfie-stick street vendor I saw in the Cinque Terre. Unlike Venice and Milan, where unlicensed hawkers practically outnumber the tourists, Cinque Terre is devoid of them. I imagine the villagers run them off with pitchforks.

I woke the next day to rain. Too muddy to hike on the trails. I met Rob and Mandy, my friends from Columbus, at the train station. Last summer we planned to combine our tours in Italy for a few days. We strolled the town and the waterfront, watching the local kids play soccer and the local grandparents scold them.

At dinner the restaurant owner told us he is married to a woman from California. I asked, “How did you manage that?” He responded, “I said to her, ‘Do you want to make the sex with me?'” We laughed, a little uncomfortably. He explained, “When you know you are going to Rome, why take the long way? Why not go straight to Rome?”


Raining again the next morning so we decided to town-hop by train. It’s easy. The trains between the Cinque Terre villages run hourly. They are so crowded with tourists jumping on and off, it is questionable whether conductors bother checking tickets.

The next morning Rob and I set out on foot for Corniglia, through the hills and terraced vineyards. Rob posed for a photo on a tiny monorail train used for riding uphill to pick grapes. Unlike the other towns, Corniglia is not located on a harbor. Instead, it sits on a bluff, surrounded by terraces. To reach it from the train station below requires climbing thirty-three flights of steps. We went the other direction and took the train to Riomaggiore, then boarded the coastal ferry for a view of all of the Cinque Terre villages from the sea.


Climbing Pisa; cycling Lucca

Up at 6 am. We lugged our bags down the eighty-nine stone steps and up the hill to the train. At Pisa we stored them at the station and caught a bus to the Field of Miracles. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the familiar tower but was mesmerized instead.

The tower, duomo and baptistry, together and separate, are grand and beautiful. Previously we had purchased tickets to climb the tower at a scheduled time. I was okay up the tilted steps to the seventh course but, by the eighth (the belfry), my knees were a bit wobbly.

The tower is nearly two hundred feet tall and leans at a five-degree angle (fifteen feet from vertical). It started to tilt almost immediately after construction began in 1173 CE. The tower was built over two centuries by at least three different architects, each of whom tried to correct the lean by angling subsequent courses the other direction. Finally, after vacuuming tons of soil from under the north side, engineers have straightened it slightly.

Church of San Michele, Lucca
Church of San Michele, Lucca

We caught the next train to Lucca. This city, like Nicosia on Cyprus, is surrounded by a massive medieval wall, punctuated with pointed bastions.

Built between 1550 and 1650, it is two-and-a-half miles in circumference with a promenade on top. We rented bikes and rode a victory lap.

Rested in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, a plaza encircled by arched buildings on top of the foundations of a Roman amphitheater. The theater once seated ten thousand. The current street level is nine feet above the original arena floor.

Duomo, Florence
Duomo, Florence

Naked statues and leather jackets

Next morning we were back on the train, this time to Firenze (Florence). Our rooms were on the fifth floor of an elegant old building near the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. To get into my room required four different keys and a ride in an old-fashioned cage-style elevator. The breakfast veranda overlooked the Duomo’s elaborate dome and bell tower.

Mandy led us to a leather-making school and shop, Scuola del Cuoio, behind the Church of Santa Croce. The school was started by Franciscan friars and local leather artisans after WWII to teach war orphans a practical trade. I was expecting older Italian craftsmen and found younger Asian ones instead. Florence is well known for the manufacture and sale of leather goods. Shops and street vendors all over town sell handbags, jackets, and shoes. In some cities you walk down the street and smell food. In Florence you smell leather.

Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence

We sauntered across the Arno River and climbed to Piazzale Michelangelo where the duplicate statue of David enjoys a great view of Florence. We continued our tour through Oltrarno, an artsy area along the river, enjoying the hacked street signs of Clet Abraham. Crossed the crowded Vecchio Bridge (Ponte Vecchio), lined with jewelry shops, and watched the sun set from the other side.

The next day we immersed ourselves in art. Florence gets credit for kicking off Europe’s period of fresh thinking, known as the Renaissance. Its wealthy tradesmen encouraged the city’s artists, architects, and philosophers to think big and define Florence culturally.

We visited the Uffizi Gallery, the best collection of Italian paintings anywhere, with works by Da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, including the Birth of Venus. Rembrandt and Rubens are also there. It was too much to take in at one time.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Already satiated with great art, we moved on to the Galleria del’ Accademia for more.

Michelangelo’s David was more beautiful than I imagined and much taller. He towers godlike over the tourists.

After breakfast the next morning, I walked my friends to the train station and said goodbye. They were off to Venice for a couple of days before heading home. I will miss their companionship while touring.

I stood in line for the Duomo, a half-hour wait. The cathedral was begun in 1296 CE. The massive and architecturally influential dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was built between 1420 and 1436. The outside is a fancy checkerboard of green, white and pink marble, but the inside is surprisingly stark, except for the massive painting, The Last Judgment, inside the dome.

Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The Church of Santa Croce, built in the 1300s, is notable not only for its art but for who is buried inside: neighborhood-kid Michelangelo (1475-1564), Galileo (1564-1642), Machiavelli (1469-1527), and Rossini (1792-1868). Also inside is a monument to Florence Nightingale. She was born in Florence and named for it.

The next day, April 25, was a national holiday, Italy’s day of liberation from Nazi Germany. Lots of speeches and music in the streets. On my way to a museum, I passed Galileo on his way to work as a “living statue.” The Galileo Science Museum contains a huge collection of historical scientific instruments from the 1400s through the 1800s—clocks, telescopes, compasses, thermometers, maps, and much more. I particularly enjoyed the giant globes. Not so much the bottles containing Galileo’s fingers and tooth.

Il Porcellino
Il Porcellino

Pitti Palace is a monster of a castle with the second largest collection of paintings in Florence and fourteen furnished and decorated royal apartments. Each huge room is decorated ceiling to floor with chandeliers, statues, and oil canvases by Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt, and Raphael. The Bargello Museum houses masterpieces of sculpture, such as Donatello’s David, and a collection of Medici treasures—ceramics, tapestries, ivory, and silver.

A busy hole-in-the-wall booth sold lampredotto sandwiches, made from tripe, the stomach of a cow. It is cooked with tomatoes, onions, parsley, and celery, chopped fine like a Philly cheesesteak, and served on a crusty bun that has been dipped in the broth. At Mercato Nuovo (also known as the Straw Market) everyone stops to rub the shiny brass snout of Il Porcellino, the wild-boar statue, for good luck.


Speaking of snouts, street vendors throughout Italy sell wooden Pinocchio toys.

I had forgotten that, pre-Disney, The Adventures of Pinocchio is an Italian novel, published in 1883 by Carlo Collodi. I bought a puppet for my niece.

The next morning I rolled my bag to the train station and boarded the 10:10 for Siena. After all, when you know you are going to Siena, why take the long way? Why not go straight to Siena?

4 thoughts on “Riding the rails in northern Italy

  1. Enjoyed reading about Italy. I like the small references to pop culture along with beautifully written descriptions of culture, people, landscape and food.

  2. Another great read Kirk and took me back to many places I have visited in the past especially as a necessity on researching for Art History Degree. Such a chore!! It is a wonderful country but then you are finding wonders wherever you go. I agree totally about the train travel. Why can’t it be so good in UK. (what do you think of our election results by the way? Amazing or what). All the best Kirk.

  3. Are you a natural at writing? You do it so well. Or, were you a professional writer in your work life?
    I thoroughly enjoy your blogs.

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