Our journey to Italy began with final preparations Friday afternoon. We had our luggage out on the living room floor and when Kellie arrived home at about 5, I was almost done packing. A piece of mail had arrived at my school for Geoff, the teacher from three years ago, who still lives in town and works at the university. I offered to get it to him, and after some text messages, he planned to stop by our place. When he stopped by, he asked about our plans and we quickly discovered we were on the same trains to Italy. His girlfriend is visiting from the US and they are apparently traveling through Italy on break, too. We saw them at the station where we transferred trains, but not after that.
Our travels actually began with walking the leisurely course down to the train station, though there was no hurry at all … we left comfortably early. “Early” meaning we arrived about 15 minutes before the train’s scheduled departure. We bought the tickets, no problem. And as we waited on a Track 4 bench in the not-too-cold Friday evening air, the message board lit up that the train was running 15 minutes late. The train eventually arrived, the ride was uneventful (about 1hr 10 min) and of course there was the usual falling asleep on the train. At our scheduled arrival time in Gyekenyes (on the border of Croatia), we looked out the window, saw the sign, and (as usual) were surprised that this was our stop to get off. We didn’t rush, though, because I knew the train stopped for an extended time at this station. The station looked basically deserted, but signs were written in Hungarian and Croatian. It seemed very desolate, but we walked over to the benches, and as I headed in to check on the status of our connecting train, I saw Geoff and his girlfriend sitting there. We chatted for a few minutes, before we boarded the arriving EuroNight train. We had a reserved 2-person cabin…not sure what they had, so we parted there.
Our “sleeping car” consisted of a narrow hallway on one side, from which 8-10 cabins opened. There was an attendant in charge of our car and we were able to ask him questions, have him lock our doors, etc. Our cabin was probably 5 x 7 feet, so you know I could barely fit when lying on the bed. Actually, I had to sleep with my legs bent and curled up, so I kept waking up. I was actually impressed that I was able to sleep at all. I’m sure I slept better than Kellie.
We got on our train around 10pm, but didn’t get ready for bed until about 11:30 or so. That 1.5 hours consisted of unpacking, discovering there was a sink hidden under our in-room table, eating some snacks, and having Hungarian and Croatian immigration and customs officers come through the train. I think we got 4 or 5 stamps in our passport on this trip. It was kind of strange. Once the train was in motion, we had our attendant lock our door, and went to the dining car for two orders of broccoli soup and 1 plate of “pickled cucumbers.” We paid in forints, went back to our cabin, and got ready for bed. I think we went to sleep around midnight, and I know we were woken up around 12:45 which is when we crossed from Croatia to Slovenia. More checks, more passport stamps. There was no check between Slovenia and Italy; it must be one of those Schengen/EU things. We set our alarm for 6:15am.
The alarm woke me up at 6:15, and I fell asleep again until about 6:30. This was the assigned time for our attendant to wake us up and bring breakfast, since the train was to arrive at 7:04. Oh, it was kind of warm in our cabin, so I fell asleep on top of the sheets, with my regular clothes on. Anyway, I got up, put on my shoes, turned on the light (to wake up Kellie) and opened the door to step into the hallway just as our breakfast was being delivered. There were two packaged half-sandwiches which were kind of disgusting, as they seemed to be salami, (American?) cheese and cream cheese. Well, I ate mine because I was hungry. Kellie took one bite of hers, spit it out, and then I decided it probably was actually disgusting. There were also two cappuccinos, 2 orange juices (+ 2 from last night) and four individual bottles of water from last night. We packed those to go, brushed our teeth, etc. and started to head out the door at 7:05 (We were told it was running 10-15 minutes late). Our attendant let us off of the train, and I tipped him 2000 forints (less than $10 us) because it’s what I had with me and wasn’t sure if I should tip).
We were in Italy! A quick look around showed us the way to the ticketing area. It was about 7:20 and we need to purchase tickets to Bologna, about 90 miles away. The cheaper trains (high speed trains cost 3x the price) leave at :34 and :09 past the hour. The next train was arriving about 5 minutes late so we aimed for that one. After a quick minute or two in the ticket line, we decided to try the self-service machines. It was very easy to use but the machines hated both of my credit cards. Actually, I do think it was a machine problem, because I have a travel advisory on my cards, for Hungary and Italy, and there have been zero problems using them in Hungary. I will check my account online, though, and give them a Skype call if necessary. I asked the information desk where an ATM was, and she pointed to the left and said it was 30 meters away. We found it instantly and I took out 250 euros with my ATM card, no problem. We went back to the ticket machine, bought our tickets (which can be used on any regular train) for 20.20 euros total, and walked toward track #10. Unlike in Hungary, you must validate your ticket here by getting it stamped in a little yellow machine found all throughout the station. We got to our track, got on a train that looked really nice, for 2nd class. It also seemed to be traveling much faster than regular trains in Hungary do.
My observations of Bologna: lots of shopping, lots of traffic, lots of people smoking! I’ll focus on the first one. Yes, it is Saturday. However, I get the impression that everyone in the city goes window shopping and makes some purchases on Saturday. And these weren’t cheap stores; these are the high-end stores with $100 sweaters and $200 pants.
Lots of people carrying their purchases around, not many tourists that I noticed, and just lots of traffic! I don’t think Bologna is known as a tourist city within the USA, so I was really interested to try it out…but I don’t think I need to come back again.
I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it here…there are just so many people. The street from the train station into the downtown is sort of the main shopping street and at times we felt like part of a herd, walking slowly in a crowd of dozens of others… there are way too many people here for the amount of space!
With all that said, we did enjoy the sights. We wandered on a little walking path, taking in a beautiful church that was almost unnoticeable from the outside, we went to the two towers which originally looked over the city (one can be climbed, the other is leaning too steeply), passed lots of great-looking gelaterias but didn’t stop, and we also took a free walking tour. This weekend includes “Urban Trekking Day 2011” throughout the world, and there were about 40 tours within Bologna, completely free and 1-3 hours long. I somehow found out about this ( I don’t remember where) and discovered there was one English-language tour, focusing on the old food/drink stores in the area. We met at 4pm and a group of about 12 people and our guide went to a drugstore, a candy shop, wine store, deli…and others that have been in operation for well over 100 years. We got to sample chocolates and balsamic vinegar.
We tasted 10-year balsamic which was really good, and then tasted 12-year balsamic, which was thick like molasses almost. It was incredible and we really need to buy some. Balsamic can be aged up to 120 years, so I can’t imagine what that tastes like. I have heard it is drinkable and is great on vanilla ice cream. I asked about the products afterwards and the 10-year was about $15 US for a 100ml (7 tablespoons) bottle. The 12 year was about $70 for the same size!
The best part about Bologna is an architectural feature. It seems like most of the buildings here are made of beautiful red brick. Aerial pictures are really beautiful (look on your own). Also, every street in Bologna has an arcade (covered walkway) in front of it. You can basically walk throughout the city, over 25 miles worth, and never be without a roof over your head…except for intersections, I guess. Our tour guide explained that when the university opened in the year… 1100? 1200?… a long time ago, there was a demand for housing, so land owners literally extended onto the front of their homes (from the 2nd story up) and used pillars to support it.
Next post: a day trip to Ravenna.