I learnt an important lesson to do with trains in Italy on Saturday. I was travelling from Como to Bologna, via Milano Centrale. I had booked a cheap (€10) ticket online departing Milano at 11:35am that didn't get into Bologna until nearly 2pm. But my time here is so limited, I decided to pay the extra for an earlier, fast train, to get to Bologna as quickly as possible. I didn't buy my ticket in advance and arrived in Milano Centrale stazione to find that the tickets for the 9:20 train I wanted to take had entirely sold out apart from €99 sests in first class!! So I had to buy a ticket for the next train at 10:20 (€44). I located the 9:20 train and tried to convince the guard to let me on with my 10:20 ticket, but he was having none of it... "You want to take this train? You must visit the ticket office and pay to change your ticket". I would have been quite happy to stand for my hour long journey, or even do a Jeremy Corbyn & sit on the floor by the loo but apparently standing on trains is not a thing in Italy. I'm not sure if the Italian train companies are missing a trick here, or whether to be annoyed anew that UK train companies think nothing of continuing to sell tickets when there are no seats left on the train and that us Brits are so used to this situation that we pay £80 for the privilege of standing in the aisle for two hours & the train companies get away with it!
There are many things that I think Italians must find bizarre in the UK. Train platforms (binari) in Italy are often announced at least 20mins before departure at the station of origin, so there is not that mad rush to get on that you often find in Paddington or Waterloo when the platform announcement comes less than 10 minutes before departure and everybody legs it to try to get a seat.
Other things that are a bit weird in Italy include having to "validate" your ticket before you board a train by putting it into a machine to be stamped. Same with buses- buy the ticket before you board, then validate in the machine on the bus. The bus journey is faster as the driver doesn't have to sell tickets, just stop and drive. I think you can buy tickets on the bus but they are more expensive - encouraging people to buy them beforehand in a tabaccheria. I guess the temptation would be to not validate, as the bus tickets are not dated so you could use it again - but there is a fine if you fail to validate your ticket. Validating the bus ticket makes a little hole in it. Validating a train ticket puts a departure station & timestamp on it so the guard can see it has been validated. I'm not quite sure if it's a sensible system or not.. The trains have guards, who check the ticket has been validated. You buy a train ticket for a specific day so I don't think you could use it on another occasion even if it hasn't been validated, which makes it seem a bit pointless really..
Other British oddities include prevalence of prepackaged sandwiches (I would agree with them on this - gross), varieties of peanut butter, the range of sliced bread, our love of cereal and baked beans. Salad dressing - again, not really a thing here.
I think it's weird to eat cakes for breakfast, but the Italians are quite into that. There are literally NO diet drinks available in Italy apart from Diet Coke / Coke Zero. I miss sugarfree Fanta, Vimto & 7up! It's annoying how many shops shut for 2 hours in the afternoon, and how things are closed on Mondays!
Some things are loads better in Italy, like they sell these single-serving cans of all sorts of beans in packs of 3 in the supermarket, that are SO HANDY. Fresh olives are delicious and cheap and olive bread is everywhere (& so delicious). I was pleased to find at least one variety of soya milk in every supermarket, even the small ones, and soy cream cheese was everywhere too (although the brand Valsoya is not as nice as Tofutti or Bute Island creamy sheese). The fruit is lush, obviously, but all of the grapes have pips in!! Which is kind of annoying although actually ok once you master the technique of split, spit then chew. They love their Nutella so much. I guess the supermarkets have as many varieties of Nutella as we have PB in the UK and they even sell vegan ones (I bought one, it was bloody delicious). Anyway. I digress.
It wasn't the end of the world to get the later train.. I sat in the sun outside Milan station (which is an impressive building itself) and ate three delicious yellow peaches (pesche gialle). My high speed train to Bologna was lush! Super spacious, comfortable, clean & nobodys ass in my face as they stood in the aisle lol.
Arrived into Bologna before 11:30am and made my way to the hostel. It is unstaffed, with a scary system whereby the owner communicates by what's app! So I had to message her, she sent a QR code, that opened the door to my room.. Very high tech!
Into Bologna by midday. It was hot hot hot (32C but felt more due to being in the city, after a few days by the lakes).
I located the informazione turistiche & got a map that had a handy "Bologna in 3 hours" walking tour detailed... I've only really got half a day in this city so I figured this was a good way to see all the important things, whilst following a logical route! It was a good choice.. The route was easy to follow so I didn't have to spend too long looking at the map. I basically just wandered, along a logical path that connected all the main sights, with a bit of accompanying explanation. I saw pretty much everything in 3 hours that I had identified as the things I most wanted to see from my Lonely Planet. It was perfect. I didn't have time to do anything inside - I focussed on churches, buildings and landmarks. I could definitely spend more time in Bologna, visiting the many art galleries and museums.
I like Bologna very much. It is: red brick, arches, graffitied, alternative, grungy, studenty, arty, intellectual, scruffy, regal, high end, cultured, sophisticated, gastronomical, historical, interesting. In spite of the graffiti it felt very safe. There wasn't much traffic at all in the centre, many streets are pedestrianised. Loads of people on bikes. Street performers - really good ones not the usual touristy crap. People sat on the curb eating gelati listening to the music. LOTS of gelaterie with vegan flavours clearly identified. Lots of organic (bio) eateries & bookshops. Bologna was I guess most similar to Padova, and I really loved that city too.
Today, Sunday, I took a trip to Ravenna. 1h20 away by train. It might seem a bit odd to spend a day elsewhere when I only have 2 nights in Bologna & there was plenty I could have seen in that city, but I really want to see the Ravenna mosaics. Ravenna is kind of out of the way in the arse end of nowhere on the East coast, near nothing else that I would particularly like to visit, so I think it's smart to take advantage of 2N in Bologna to visit there. I can see myself returning to Bologna in the next couple of years, to visit other places around this area so I don't doubt I will have time to continue exploring that city in the not too distant future. Art galleries / museums can easily be done during a "part day" in a city eg if I arrive there late morning, whereas a day trip like Ravenna really needs a full day in between 2 nights to make it worth it.
The mosaics were beautiful! One ticket (€10) buys entry to six sites: two baptistries, two basilicas, a mausoleum & a chapel that's within a museum. They are all UNESCO world heritage sites & it's easy to see why. The mosaics & buildings mostly date from 500AD, making them almost 2000 years old, which is nuts when you think about it. The mosaics are mostly on the ceilings and walls of the buildings, depicting religious scenes in minute detail, wonderfully preserved & vibrantly colourful. Lots of apostles, stories from the bible, virgins & stars and thrones. Again I followed a suggested walking route between them, that took me through other areas of interest. Each mosaic site is just one room (albeit a couple of vast basilicas!), so the maximum time you can really spend in each is 20-30 minutes. Coupled with walking between, four hours was the perfect time here. Ravenna is a great town. It's up-market but not poncy, clean, leafy, interesting, with loads of churches, museums and other things to see but not too many tourists. It was market day so lots of stalls in the squares and really buzzy. It was perfect really, I could easily have spent another day here but wanted to get back to visit a gallery in Bologna late afternoon. I'm definitely glad I made the effort to come, it was worth every cent paid and the time spent on the train!
Back in Bologna, I visited the free art gallery, Collezione Communali d'Arte. Located in the state buildings up a weird staircase that was actually a slope with frets, designed so horse drawn carriages could go all the way up to the second floor. The rooms themselves were spectacular, with elaborately frescoed ceilings and friezes, with works of art from the 13th-19th century. It was a really excellent gallery. Better than some that I've paid to enter. I enjoyed it very much.
After sitting on a bench in a piazza to eat my dinner, I meandered slowly back to the hostel, soaking up the atmosphere of a Bologna weekend. I like this city a lot. It's totally unique. It's exactly as the Lonely Planet described it, an enchanting mix of things that somehow together just work. Off to Roma tomorrow, my final stop! *cries*