Exactly one month after arriving in Italy, today I said goodbye to this crazy but lovable country, and headed north to the colder, more efficient, not-quite-as-fun world of Central Europe. Once again, I had to battle with my dear friends at TrenI-frikking-talia in order to get anywhere — boy, will I be glad to see the back of them — but even in the face of a nationwide train strike today, I managed to cross the border, to cruise through the majestic snow-covered peaks and still lakes of the Swiss Alps, and to reach my uncle and aunt in Zürich by the afternoon. Italy, it's been a pazzo four-and-a-half weeks, but I'm afraid it's time to say "ciao baby".
It was a lazy old start this morning; but eventually, I checked myself out of the guesthouse in Pisa, and I jumped on the midday train to Venice. The local train from Venice to Florence was fine; but when I reached Florence, I realised that the city has two main train stations, and that my connecting train on to Venice departed from the station that I wasn't at. Eek! Apparently, while I got off at the "main" station of Firenze SMN, the InterCity train to Venice leaves from the "other main" station of Firenze Rifredi. Anyway, I managed to get the high-speed EuroStar Italia service to Venice instead: that train does leave from SMN; and although it has the added cost of a compulsory seat reservation and supplement, it is quite a nice train, and it didn't get me there too late (less than an hour later than planned).
Very early this morning, my amazing three-week detour down to Sicily was concluded by a devastating and highly expensive little episode. On the night train from Messina back to Rome last night, I was the victim of some serious theft — by far the worst theft I've suffered anywhere this year. I didn't anticipate it at all; I observed nothing of the incident itself; and I had precious little help or support in the aftermath of it. Lovely welcome back to the tourist trail and to civilisation, eh? I can at least say that it could have been worse; although sadly, not much worse. They took a hell of a lot.
I don't know how the hell I did it — I don't know who else to thank, so I'll thank G-d — but after the reunion drinks and the crazy adventure last night, I still managed to wake up at 5am this morning (tired and hung-over), and to jump on a train out of Rome at 5:45am. And what do you know: 11 hours, 3 train trips and a ferry ride later, I was in Sicily! It was a long day on the train — and with my crazy bike with me, I was quite the unorthodox passenger — but I got through it, and now the adventure of a lifetime can begin.
This afternoon, I popped into Rome's Termini train station, to buy myself a train ticket down to Sicily. Since I've just bought my new bike, I'm going to have to take that with me on the train — but I'd heard that trains in Italy were particularly bike-friendly, and that you can take your bike on most inter-city trains; so I wasn't expecting this to be a problem. Turns out that this isn't quite true: you basically can't take a bike on any of the "express" or "long-distance" trains; you can only take them on "local" trains, which stop at every little village along the way, and which only travel within regional boundaries. Eek! It's going to be an interesting trip down to Sicily.
The Rome metro is a great underground railway system. It's cheap, simple, fast, and frequent. Only problem: there are a mere two lines in the whole city — so there are very few places to which the metro actually goes. So the metro is really handy, but only on the rare occasion that it can actually get you where you want to go. This — combined with the city's haphazard and hard-to-decipher bus system — inevitably means that for the tourist, Rome is inevitably a city where you do a lot of walking. And for the locals, a city where you do a lot of driving. Public transport in Rome could use some expansion.
No matter where we go for the day, it seems that every single afternoon here in Boston, my dad and I inevitably end up standing on the same platform in Park Street station, waiting for a train back to Newton Center where we're staying. I can't help but feel really, really sick of this station! The fact that it's underground, ugly, and badly overheated doesn't help either. Every afternoon, we stand and wait for a train on the same Green C line, looking at the same flamboyant posters advertising iPods, hearing the same drone of pre-recorded announcements. I didn't come to Boston to become intimately familiar with Park Street station. I came to see my family.
It's been a nice day-and-a-half in New York — but the time has come to head up to Boston, and to see my family there. This afternoon, I hopped on the train with Amtrak, and did the 4-hour journey the scenic way. Unfortunately, the train ended up leaving NY's Penn Station about 40 minutes late, and it was an hour late by the time it reached Boston. Plus, it was absolutely packed — all of this because of it being Columbus Day long weekend, I assume. Bit of a pain for my uncle, who was waiting around when he came to pick me up from the station. Also a slight ripoff — apparently, the Amtrak tickets are much cheaper if you book them a few weeks in advance — I bought my ticket yesterday, and it cost me a whopping US$111! In retrospect, perhaps I should have just gotten the bus with Greyhound. Anyway, it was a good ride, and I got there in the end.
One thing that Santiago should really be proud of is its underground train network, the metro. Very fast, very modern trains. Quite safe and clean at all times of the day and evening, inside the stations and on the trains. Really frequent services, and thus not too crowded on the lines. And quite cheap, too: only about $0.50 a ride (and they accept int'l student cards, so show yours at the ticket booth if you have one). I've been using it to hop around town, for my past two days here in the city, and I've found it to be useful and enjoyable. Certainly better than the trains back in Sydney — althought that really ain't too hard!
This morning, our group of six people met our tourguide for our three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni, we piled into the customary Toyota Land Cruiser 4WD that's used for such tours, and we began our tour with a trip to the "train cemetery" just outside the town of Uyuni. Quirky, although not-so-beautiful, start to a beautiful trip. Big wreckages of trains, piled onto a bunch of tracks. Makes for an interesting 5-minute stop, although not worth much more than that.