Friday, September 17, 2010

Wheels

There must have been some mistake. When I asked car rental companies how much it would cost to borrow a car for a fortnight, they all seemed to think that I meant ‘purchase’ rather than ‘rent’, ‘hire’ or ‘lease’. It was clearly not a sensible option to go swanning around Italy on a road trip, so Beloved Wife and Goat made some fundamental changes to the holiday plan. Instead of driving, we’d use public transport and stay for several days in each of three towns.

“Dear Diary, today the petrolheaded Goat chose public transport...”

This plan turned out to be a good one. We’d only have used a car every few days, and had to pay to rent it plus park it and not use it, and this assumes that we’d have been able to locate a parking space.

The shortage of parking is of epidemic proportions in Rome. It’s worse in Florence. And in Naples, double-parking appears to be the norm. Most private vehicles are scooters. They’re everywhere. Some traditional 1950s style Lambrettas and Vespas remain, but nowadays most are modern, plastic and very Japanese. Those tiny wheels must be a lot of fun on polished cobbled streets when it rains.

Cars are also titchy, with plenty of Smart cars and others of their ilk in evidence, and almost no larger-than-life bourgemobiles. A possible consequence, perhaps, of petrol costing €1.50 a litre. Equivalent to about AED7.20 or ₤1.25 and that’s scary! Choosing public transport over driving was looking ever better.


We found a bus from Rome airport direct to the centre of town for not too much money, and bumped our small-wheeled luggage across the cobbles to our centrally-located hotel. From here, it was an easy walk to the nearest metro station, and the main collection of ancient Roman sights was only a slightly longer walk. Having showered off our travel stains, Beloved Wife and Goat set off in search of things to look at, photograph or eat.


Beloved Wife had got on line and ordered a ‘Roma Pass’ for each of us. We collected the ticket from a desk in the airport. It basically provides three calendar days’ worth of public transport, admission to some of the exhibitions, and allows the bearer straight to the front of the two-hour queue to get into the Colosseum.

Having walked around the Colosseum, Capitoline museum, Forum, Palatine and Circus Maximus (or what’s left of it), we grabbed the first bus and ended up going unexpectedly to the bus terminus. Not to worry; the metro station was nearby, so we grabbed a train back to our hotel.


I have a sneaky suspicion that Rome’s metro is smaller than advertised. Rather than descending the steps to an underground station as one might expect, there’s invariably a great long dingy corridor to walk along. Passengers walk halfway to their desinations, apparently. The trains are, however, frequent and quick. The rolling stock is eerily similar to Dubai metro, complete with video screens and three-way poles to hold.

We exhausted our Roma passes, and with a remaining need to use public transport, we learned that ticketing is time-based. Having paid one Euro, passing the turnstile activates the ticket and it’s good for 75 minutes of travel. How far can YOU go in 75 minutes? You can grab the train, then the bus, then another bus. Repeat ad nauseum or until your time expires. Unlike the Dubai metro, there is no requirement to buy a multi-use ticket (although such a thing does exist for regular travellers), nor a need to swipe your card on exit so that the system doesn’t believe you stayed on the bus until the end of Time. Crucially, you don’t have to go to a major railway station to buy a ticket before attempting to travel; you simply buy a ticket for €1 by inserting a coin in the machine on the bus, at a bus stop, or in the metro station.

The system relies on trust, especially on the buses. The driver does only that, and it’s incumbent on the passenger to validate his ticket in a machine on the bus.

In Naples, we were eventually treated to the Great Neapolitan Floor Show, starring a wizened old man with a walking stick and an expired bus pass, and a ticket inspector who wished to fine him €500 for travelling without a valid ticket. There was a heated and animated Italian argument (with added Semaphore) until the bus stopped. At this point, the wizened old man grabbed back his bus pass and legged it through the open door like Linford Christie, with the inspector in hot pursuit.

The ticket validation thing is vitally important on the trains too. A cheap train ticket is valid for a month, and the passenger has to get it date-stamped in a machine before boarding. Failure to do so can cost €40, although smiling sweetly, pleading ignorance and “Sorry, non comprendo Italiano” provided a lucky escape.

The very fast Eurostar train from Florence to Naples, at €78 each, was a lot more expensive, but took only three hours instead of ten. And 300km/h is faster than I’ve ever been before without actually becoming airborne.

We spent one day visiting the Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both buried in the AD79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius, they were rediscovered in the eighteenth century and are now thoroughly excavated and open to the public. The rather rickety local train stops at both Pompei Scavi and Ercolano Scavi, and a €20 buys admission to both sites. I only bring up Pompeii in some words about wheels because of the eerie wheel ruts in Pompeii’s streets. Think how many heavy wagons ground their way along the stone-flagged streets.


Horse-drawn traffic remains in evidence in both Rome and Florence. We chose not to avail ourselves of this well-known tourist trap, selecting Shanks’ Pony instead.


The Isle of Capri is an hour’s fast ferry away from the Port of Naples. The boat trip made a pleasant change from the rather seedy streets of Naples. There’s a great view of Vesuvius too.


Capri was awash with other tourists too. We grabbed the funicular railway up a very steep hill, and spent the afternoon wandering around some very tiny paths. The only vehicles were miniature electric golf-carts used for moving hotel guests’ belongings, collecting trash, and even law enforcement.


A long walk around to the southern side of the island eventually yielded some splendid views.


There are roads on Capri, but not very many. Of course, the buses are necessarily titchy in order to negotiate hairpin bends. Overall, the lack of motorised transport and the Italian buildings (surprise!)eerily reminded me of Porthmeirion.




There are advantages of not driving, besides the expense, trying to find a parking space, and adjusting to the interesting Italian style. Beer o’clock, and no worries about drink-driving. All that walking – and trust me, we walked miles – is very thirsty work, and sometimes a Coke really isn’t sufficient. Cheers!

]}:-{>

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

terrific photos bring back many fond memories to tmil...very happy it was successful. The groves in Pompei's stone left such an impression (no pun intended) that "chariot ruts" became a family mantra for many, many years. As Mr. Hope said, "thanks for the memories."

Mme Cyn said...

He knows ALL about chariot ruts, mother. I still use the phrase.

Mama Duck said...

We spent our honeymoon in Sorrento. We went to Capri, but took the open-windowed arthritic bus (O....M....G.....) up the near vertical road, leaning out towards the sea at a 45 degree angle all the way, I'm sure. Here's a video I found recently, of the Villa San Michele http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHS8pORw08U .

Never got to Pompeii or Herculaneum on account of a spontaneous train strike on the day we planned to go. Huh!

 

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