Archive for February, 2009

Bikes, trains, and La Spezia

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Our goal for the day was to take a train from Trieste to La Spezia (about 500 km). Since we are traveling with bicycles, we could only take regional trains that have a special car for bicycles. We received several options from the folks at Trenitalia, and opted for the one that involved the fewest number of trains, three.

The first train gave us a false sense of security. The train was departing from Trieste, so we had lots of time to find the appropriate car and load our bikes. We learned that the bike car is either the first or last car on the train (in this case the first), and it is just a car with a room set aside for cargo and bikes. It still involved lifting the bike up three steep steps then turning 90 degrees and maneuvering it through a narrow door into the special room. The bike racks were of the hanging fashion – that is, you hung your bike from the roof. It is clear they were not intended for loaded touring bikes, and definitely not intended for recumbents. That being said, the staff on the train were helpful, providing a bungee cord to hold one of the bikes in place, and upon departure, opening a side door so we did not need to move the bikes through the twists and turns necessary to exit through the main doors.

The second train was much more challenging. First we had to get our bikes from one platform to the other – are stairs the only option? Fortunately at Venezia Mestre there are also paths across the tracks at each end of the platform, perhaps for wheelchairs. We used them – ignoring the “use stairs, do not cross the tracks” signs. Fortunately we had lots of time to get ready for our next train. Unfortunately, the train was late and it was a short station stop. The train turned out to be very long, and the bike car was at the back. To add to the confusion, the platforms were very busy. We had positioned ourselves in the middle of the track, so we could move to whichever side was necessary when the train arrived. Once we discovered which way we needed to go, we made a dash for the car (which was a challenge with all the people in the way). Scott got to the car first and started to load his bike on his own – which also proved to be an issue, as he couldn’t quite get it up all the steps. Becky, leaned her bike against a bench and went to help Scott. As we were just finishing up with the first bike, the train doors started to close. Scott held the doors open and tried to tell them to wait. Becky then grabbed the doors, while Scott jumped out to grab Becky’s bike. A passerby then helped hold the doors open while we loaded the second bike. The entire time, they kept trying to get the doors closed. Clearly the person who was supposed to be watching for people loading and unloading were not looking at the final car! With the help of a stranger, we managed to get everything on the car for the longest single ride of our trip (3-hours).

The third train was easy, but was almost a complete failure. We got off the train in Bologna in a rush as we were advised by the train attendant that the train would not be there for long. It turned out the train stopped there and we could have taken our time to disembark. Scott looked up the track for our next train on the paper schedule – track 3 – so we hopped over to that track, again using the pathways. Becky went in search of a beverage and bathroom, and fortunately checked the schedule again. She noticed that the track listed on the large schedule was 3w, not 3. She soon realized that there were several track threes (central, east – est, and west – ovest). (Why the abbreviation for ovest is “w”, we don’t know). We asked a train attendant who confirmed that we were at 3 central and needed to be at 3 west. Fortunately, there are large freight elevators at Bologna, so we called one. The elevator arrived with an escort – which was good for us. She took us through the bowels of the station, and up another elevator. Unfortunately that one jammed trying to open the doors, so baack down we go, and try a third elevator. Our escort ensured that we found the correct track (yay), and we still had lots of time. Boarding the third train was painless, as we had developed a system and this was the first stop, so we had plenty of time.

Travelling through the mountains to La Spezia, we were very glad we were on a train and not on our bikes. In several places there was 30-40 cm of snow, which would have been a challenge to get through.

Upon arrival in La Spezia, we were met by Mirco, our CouchSurfing host. Having the extra set of hands made disembarkation much easier. We also learned that our bikes are the right height to lean against the train. Leaning one on the train while dealing with the other ensures that the train staff can see that the train is not clear for departure! If only we had figured that out before our second train.

Unfortunately, La Spezia station only has stairs between the platforms, no pathways. Fortunately, Mirco helped us get the bikes out of the station, and in the pouring rain (do you sense a trend here?), he guided us to his apartment. Lucky for him, he stayed dry in his car while we rode our bikes. Lucky for us, it was less than a 2 km ride. After a quick dish of pasta and a warm cup of tea, we were all ready for bed.

The next morning (Tuesday), rather than jump up on too little sleep and immediately go someplace, we decided to spend an extra day in La Spezia. Micro graciously allowed us to spend the day in his apartment while he headed off to work. With fast Internet access, and a warm dry place, we were set for the day!

After work, Mirco returned home, and drove us around to see some of the sights around La Spezia. We discovered just how large the navy base in La Spezia is. It takes up almost the entire waterfront. So, there is very little public beach space in La Spezia (about 200 m), the rest is either military or commercial. Fortunately there are other beaches and waterfronts further up the coast, toward the Cinque Terre park. We walked around the beautiful old town Porto Venere, and saw the cave where Lord Byron sat as he wrote during his time here. It continues to amaze us just how much history there is, even in the smallest places. We’re glad we weren’t here in the summer though, since this is a very popular tourist destination, and the waterfront would have been packed!


Couch surfin’ in Trieste

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Becky enjoying the heavenly taste of a prosciutto-wrapped apple

Becky enjoying the heavenly taste of a prosciutto-wrapped apple

Our first night in Trieste was spent in a hotel because we arrived too late to find Internet, and had no other way to contact Elena, who had offered to host us. Once we did make contact, we made a new friend and had a place to stay, which was wonderful. Elena is studying natural history in Trieste. She was able to obtain a couple of grants that allowed her to do field work in behavioral biology in South Africa and Australia over the summers – we thought that was pretty cool.

When we disembarked, our second priority after securing a place to sleep, was to find some Prosciutto. Becky has been craving ham and pork products since we entered Turkey, especially Italian Prosciutto Crudo. Everyone talks about alcohol restrictions in Muslim countries, but we had no trouble with alcohol in Turkey, Syria or Jordan. We did have trouble finding pork products though. Fortunately for Scott’s sanity, we were quickly able to find some Prosciutto, and Becky was happy again.

Since the weather was rather wet, we spent the afternoon in her home. She cooked us up a yummy pasta with zucchini for lunch and we inflicted a whole pile of our photos on her (at least a thousand – scary, but she said she enjoyed the experience!). Later, we went out for a nice pizza dinner and Elena dropped us off at home – too tired to spend the night at the local pub with her. Apparently we didn’t sleep as well aboard ship as we normally do, and Scott has come down with a nasty cold, which is sapping his energy.

Elena, Becky and Scott

Elena, Becky and Scott

We have found the people we meet through CouchSurfing, Warm Showers and Servas to be uniformly interesting and friendly, and among the highlights of our trip so far. Even if you’re not a traveler, but like the idea of meeting interesting people who are travelling, we encourage you to think about becoming a host for one or more of these organizations – we have met both hosts and travelers between age 20 and 60, so there is a wide variety of interesting people using these services. If you don’t feel like offering a bed to someone, there’s the opportunity to meet for coffee or a tour of the city instead. If you’d like more information about any of these great organizations, we’re happy to share what we know. Drop us a note, or leave a comment.

A quick update in Italy

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Our thoughts are at home this week, with the sudden and tragic passing of my nephew of a heart attack. We’ll light a candle in remembrance when we are in Rome.

We had a great trip from Cesme to Trieste.

We are in Italy, where Internet is expensive and so far we have not been able to connect our laptop – so bear with us we’ll try and get some updates out soon.

We will make our way to La Spezia tomorrow (Monday) and then spend the rest of the week in Italy seeing various places (Rome, Pisa, Florence).