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Trains: A Learning Experience

by Tyler

The morning started with a paradise-like sunrise which we excitedly photographed before promptly going directly back to sleep. A few hours later we awoke to lazily pack our camp and prepare for another day of easy, flat riding. Our first stop was about 20 kilometers to the south of us: Reggio Emilia, the home of Parmesan cheese. Tara had been really excited to visit but as we rolled into town we were quickly disappointed.

Sunrise at Re del Po

Reggio Emilia (at least the part we saw) was an ugly, industrial sprawl of traffic filled roads and department stores. When we cycled by the dirty and uninviting Parmegiano Reggiano cheese factory Tara had hoped to visit, we gave up on culinary dreams and decided to leave town. We located the train station at the center of the city thanks to some very succinct directions from a passerby who I asked for help in broken (but slowly improving) Italian.

Reggio Emilia Train Station

While Tara waited with the bikes, I went inside the train station and managed to buy us a pair of one-way tickets to Florence for the paltry sum of €30! Tickets in hand, we determined the platform we needed to be on and then started on the next problem: how to get there. It would be an almost impossible feat to haul them up and down the long staircases connecting the platforms. With a bit of hunting we found the elevator and took turns riding down; our bikes barely fit.

With both of us safely on the right platform, we had only wait a half an hour for our train to arrive. Right on time, our train pulled into the station and we rushed to figure out whether the bike area was at the front or the back. It certainly wasn't at the front so we ran with our bikes the length of the train. When we got to the end, we were dismayed to find out that it wasn't there either!

As we hurriedly looked for a way to get our bikes on the train the conductor wagged his finger at us and slammed the door in our faces. Apparently we were not welcome. When I knocked on the closed door, miming through the window for help, I received another annoyed finger waggle and then the train started to move. It picked up speed and was gone, leaving us both behind.

Amazingly, we remained calm and I went back to the ticket office, valiantly attempting to explain the situation to the ticketing attendant who spoke no English. I did my best to say that I had specifically stated we were traveling with "due bici" and when he finally understood he wasn't exactly helpful, saying that we couldn't put our bicycles on that train. Tell me something I don't know!

If it wasn't for an extremely friendly blind man (in my rush I didn't get his name) in line who overheard my broken/confused Italian I'm fairly sure we'd be cycling to Florence as I write this. He kindly offered to translate and with his assistance, I managed to change our tickets to bicycle-friendly trains.

Unfortunately in order to get to Florence we would need to make three transfers! First to Bologna, then to Prato and then finally to Firenze (Florence). Given how much trouble we were having boarding one train I was a little overwhelmed. After I agreed to the new itinerary, the blind man helped me with the final task of convincing the ticketing agent to refund my original purchase (something they apparently do not normally do).

With two bikes and three transfers, our ticket ended up being cheaper than the original booking! Armed with four more euros and three more stops, I thanked the blind man for his help and went to tell Tara what our new mission was. She wasn't surprised there had been someone there to help, saying, "there will always be someone!"

We managed to get on the first train without too much trouble, though the "bike area" wasn't exactly bike friendly. We had to heave our bikes up a couple of high stairs and squeeze them into a very small car. Leaning our bicycles against each other, we took seats on a bench near our bikes and breathed a sigh of relief. Step one complete.

As we arrived at our first stop we hauled our bikes down the stairs and immediately began looking for our next connection. We quickly located it as it was arriving on another platform! Rushing to another round of elevator rides, almost certain we wouldn't make it, a very friendly employee (who spoke excellent English!) took it upon herself to personally help us to our connection.

We wound up missing our connection but the attendant was unconcerned, directing us up and down the elevators again to locate the correct platform for the next train. Once we were safely installed she went off to help someone else.

When our train arrived, we again heaved our bikes up several steep steps into a small bicycle car and found a pair of seats with a good 10 minutes to spare. Phew! Step two complete. While we were waiting we noticed a couple sitting a few rows down who was reading the exact same copy of "Cycling Italy" that we were! We started talking and it turned out they were from Ohio, on their way home from a 2-week cycling tour of Italy!

For the entire train ride (through the Apennine mountains) we chatted with JoAnn and Fritz, sharing our travel plans and histories. Sooner than we would have liked, our time with them was over. Arriving in Prato it turned out we didn't have to say goodbye quite yet! They were taking the same train as us to Florence on their way to Rome. Yet again, the connection was extremely tight; about 8 minutes.

When the train came to a halt, all four of us sprang into action. Fritz helped us lower our bikes out of the train and we began a collective sprint to the right platform. Joanne and Fritz' bikes were feather-light compared to ours; they took the stairs as we ran to another round of elevator rides. We quickly located the elevators and after I made it to the bottom, Tara followed, somehow making the descent with an elderly lady who squeezed in at the last moment. After dashing down the underground walkway to the next elevator we made our painfully slow ascent to the right platform, arriving without a minute to spare thanks to a five-minute delay on our final connection. Step three complete!

The connection from Prato to Florence was a short ride and when we arrived we said our goodbyes with JoAnn and Fritz, trading cards and promising to keep in touch. If we ever pass through Ohio we will definitely visit. It was really a pleasure meeting you both!

Fritz and JoAnn

As we wheeled out of the station we exchanged a big high-five, ecstatic that we'd not only navigated our way through a complicated affair without being able to speak the local language but we'd met some really nice people in the process.

The final step for our day was locating the campsite listed in Lonely Planet's guidebook. I punched up the general area in our GPS and we took off through the heavily trafficked city of Florence, doing our best to pay attention to the road amidst all of the truly amazing architecture. Thankfully we found it with no trouble and it turned out to be pretty affordable as well!

Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral

After showers and food we set off back to town on foot, deciding we'd spend the evening site-seeing. We're going to stay in the city tomorrow before heading off on a two-day trip to Siena. There, we'll meet up with Tara's family for a week of "vacation"!

Firenze By Night Firenze Stairs Arno Bridge Locks Niccolo Machiavelli @ Uffizi Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral Florence Street by Night

Holy crap we're in Florence! Our first gelato here:
Tyler: FOUR servings of Amaretto
Tara: Peach Orange, and Amaretto

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Wow! These photos are so gorgeous. Have a wonderful vacation - it looks a beautiful place for it.

However, I wish to protest: I find myself craving gelato each time I read your blog! Thank goodness many Italians migrated to Melbourne after the war, I hope to indulge myself today!
Posted by YvetteDownunder on September 13th, 2009 at 6:26 PM
Ah florence! There is an amazing gelato place one block to the right of the duomo. I'll try to remember the name. Hugs!
Posted by Eliza on September 14th, 2009 at 1:49 PM
To think I walked by the Duomo everyday. Crazy. I hope you enjoy your stay, Siena is breathtaking as well. Italy does things to you that I still can't quite explain... :)
Posted by Naomi on September 14th, 2009 at 4:15 PM
Great stuff guys, I'm really enjoying your blog...Unfortunately Italy, my country, is not at all a bike-friendly very sad to say but no one cares about ciclists here!
Enjoy Florence and Siena! Maybe we'll meet in Rome, who knows.
Good luck.
Posted by tommaso on September 15th, 2009 at 6:00 AM
Thanks everybody!

Yvette-- Hope you got your gelato!

Eliza-- We went to a gelateria with my parents that was just a block from the Duomo called "Grom". It was really good!! Was that the one you were thinking of?

Naomi-- Tomorrow we're off to check out Siena. We really do love Italy!

Tommasio-- Aw, actually we've found that the Italians we've met are really friendly about bikes! Countless people come and talk to us about them, and drivers have been relatively careful.
Posted by Tara on September 18th, 2009 at 5:19 PM