Discovering Your “Inner Train Geek”

Discovering Your “Inner Train Geek”

I’m lucky to have Paul with me, at least for the first third of this trip. His company is enough – his willingness to write a blog post is icing on the cake. This one’s from Paul.

Here’s a tip for anyone staying near Orvieto and contemplating a day trip into Rome or Florence: it’s eminently doable, but simply rolling out of bed whenever you please (as we did) and showing up at the Orvieto train station (as we also did) with the intention of hopping a train to Rome (as we had) puts you at risk of a brief interruption in marital bliss (as we had), hereinafter referred to as a “BIMB.”

Here are two ways to avoid this and get the most out of your day-trip-by-train. First, don’t try it on your second day in Italy – you’ll be too jet-lagged to get moving early enough to make the most of your time in either city. Instead, do it on a day when you feel like getting up and out the door a little early. You can get to Rome or Florence by train before 10 a.m., but in each case count on catching a train that leaves Orvieto before 8 a.m.  (One Florence-bound and five Rome-bound trains do.) Don’t worry, the train’s rocking motion will help you recapture the sleep you bypassed. And it’ll be easy to find a train that gets you back to Orvieto in time for dinner (say, 7 to 7:30), if not a nap beforehand. This requires carefully studying the train schedule.

Which brings me to my second way to avoid having your day trip to Rome or Florence start off with a BIMB: one of you must be willing to find your “inner train geek.” Italian train schedules are readily available online. This easy access helps you familiarize yourself with the schedule and its symbols well ahead of time, long before you have your loving spouse breathing down your neck accusing you of misreading it.

Obviously, the definitive schedule (“orario”) is on the wall of the train station on the day you’re traveling. I find these schedules hypnotic, causing me to stand there for what must seem to Karen like hours, mouth agape in full fly-catcher mode. I dart back and forth from “Partenze” (the outbound schedule) to “Arrivi” (the return schedule), calculating trip duration (e.g., the fastest to Rome from Orvieto takes 52 minutes), and noting train types (the fastest are Eurostar, Intercity, and Euronight) and schedule changes for holidays (“festivi”), of which the Italians have un sacco (a lot). If you’ve mastered both the schedule and your traveling companions’ normal vacation pace, don’t be afraid to swagger to the counter and order up round-trip (“andata/ritorno”) tickets, rather than buying two one-way (“andata”) tickets. This should save you time on the other end.

One last piece of advice:  if you’ve got time to kill before the next train leaves for Rome or Florence, instead of cooling your heels inside the station’s sterile lounge, consider distracting your family or loved one with a coffee or spremuta (fresh-squeezed orange juice), or else a quick and cheap (€1) ride up the Orvieto funicular, which you can catch just across the street from the station.

Artist’s rendering of K&P, post-BIMB

Trapped at a Tollbooth

Because we can’t agree on the details of the morning, I am allowing Paul to comment on my report of the incident. His comments are in italics.  (Thank you.)

We were at an Autostrada toll booth and it wasn’t going well. My heart was beating hard and fast, my face was hot, and I wanted to cry. (You cried during “Up”!) Even Paul was uncharacteristically agitated. (Was not.)

The automated ticket-taker refused to accept the ticket we’d picked up when we entered the Autostrada. So we couldn’t pay our toll, and the gate trapped us from the front and the growing line of frustrated motorists trapped us from behind. Whilst continuing to try to feed the ticket into the slot, Paul kept hitting the “for assistance” button. (I pressed it twice.) The disembodied voice kept telling us — none too helpfully — to insert the ticket.

Italian exuberance was on full display behind us. Horns honked and people yelled. Still, the machine refused to accept our ticket or our credit card.  We would have paid anything at the point (would not), and the “for assistance” voice provided no assistance whatsoever. (What do you expect from someone small enough to fit inside a little ticket-taker?).

During the melee (it wasn’t that bad), Paul asked me for a pair of tweezers. TWEEZERS!?!!  (God only knows what you carry in that knitting bag of yours.) On top of everything else, now the ticket-taker that wouldn’t take our ticket also had eaten our credit card and wouldn’t release it. (Okay, THAT was mildly unnerving.) Finally, he was able to pinch it out.

At long last and for no apparent reason, the machine spit out a long strip of paper and the gate finally rose, releasing us from our little hell.  (Did you even notice that it also released the two cars behind us, who scooted through on our tail before the gate lowered again?)

The strip of paper was a bill for €58 (over $75, a little steep for having gone only 25 miles on the highway) and a long explanation about how we were being charged the largest amount possible (as a “penalty” no less) because we had failed (“refused”!) to present a ticket.

As bad as it was (it wasn’t that bad), Julie Andrews was right in “The Sound of Music” (never saw it) when, channeling Maria Von Trapp, she observed, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” (Isn’t that a little overly dramatic?)

The window opened in Spoleto. There’s a happy ending to the story that I’ll write about very soon.

The [Umbrian] Hills are Alive …

Paul didn’t come to Italy just to see me … it was also an opportunity for him to get his parents over to visit their parents’ native country. Proving himself to be a kind husband in addition to being a kind son, he agreed to write a post about one of their favorite days in Italy.

To get past the agricultural station at U.S. Customs, you have to say whether you’ve been on a farm while away.  Spending part of a day with the Chiacchiarini, a family of traditional sheep farmers in the green hills of Umbria, as my parents and I recently did, not only gives you something to talk about with the nice Customs agricultural officers, it also offers an authentic glimpse into real family life in the heart of Italy.

Although we started our visit with Francesca Chiacchiarini and her New Zealand-born husband Mac Ryde looking for wild asparagus in an olive orchard near the picturesque central Umbrian town of Montefalco, guests who visit them in warmer weather meet where the family and their 600 sheep spend the summer, in the cooler environs of the mountains across the valley from the town.

A gregarious guide whose English makes this experience completely accessible to Americans (except when he lapses momentarily into waxing about New Zealand rugby), Mac strolled with us through the olive grove, explaining the care and pruning of olive trees, some of which exceed a thousand years old; the mixture of olive varieties in the orchard, meant to ensure a balanced yield year in and year out; and the various picking methods used each fall – from hand-raking the branches, the method we’ve used on our own trees in Benano, to Mac’s preferred method of using a suction device to disengage the olives, to the ultimate purists’ somewhat anal-retentive technique of picking each olive one by one, to ensure that a little stem remains, preventing air from seeping in.

Well stocked with wild asparagus from our stroll thanks mostly to Francesca’s experienced eye, we went back to their home and were warmly received by the rest of her extended family, whose surname literally means “chatters” or, as she interprets it, “people who talk too much.” We watched as they turned that morning’s haul of sheep’s milk into authentic Umbrian pecorino, pitched in while they prepared lunch, and shared a feast of their homemade cheeses, pasta, frittata, greens, and bread, as well as a neighbor’s red wine.  Montefalco, by the way, is home to Sagrantino wine.

Karen has dedicated this blog to demystifying travel in the heart of Italy.  All in all, visiting with the hard-working Chiacchiarini family, strolling with them and their flock in the mountains, and then helping make, and sharing in, their midday meal is just about the perfect way to combine exquisite scenery with a glimpse into the real life of a working farm family in Umbria.