During the trip I started writing a story called “The Vacation Trip From Hell,” but it was getting overly long, so I parked the story until after the trip. I have now resurrected the concept as a series of clips. Here is the third.
The day trip to Assisi was an interesting experience with the Italian train system. We weren’t looking for a lot more of this kind of thing, because we had a plan. We did have a plan.
Our train pass got us onto Italian trains for a total of ten travel days. You just take your pass down to the railway station, fill in the day’s date and hop on board. You can now travel all the nation-wide rail system all day long without using up your travel day. That’s how we were going to get from Cortona to Siena, our next visit. That was the plan.
All we had to do on Sunday morning was get down to the station at Camuccia and hop on. To get to the Camuccia station we were going to need a taxi ride, and the desk at the Hotel San Michele was most helpful. It was arranged that when we were ready to check out the clerk was going to phone for a taxi for us. That was the plan.
Came Sunday morning, and we took our bags down to the lobby where the nice lady at the desk was prepared to get us a cab. To the train station in Camuccia. However, she had a bit of news for us.
TrenItalia Strike 20-21 September 2014
We have been informed that a strike affecting the Italian national rail carrier Trenitalia has been scheduled to start at 21h00 onSaturday 20 September until 21h00 on Sunday 21 September 2014.
That was a dash of cold water on our plans. I told the nice woman at the desk that we would no longer be needing a taxi to the train station. But wait!
We told her we were going to Siena. She said no problem. The taxi could take us to Siena. There was no point taking the bus to Siena, because buses were included in the strike. But not the taxis. The taxi could take us. For only 100 Euros.
The driver arrived with his taxi. Yes, he would take us to Siena. He needed to go that way in any event, because he had a fare in Florence for later that day, and Siena is on the way to Florence. But first he had another fare in Cortona, and that would take him 30 minutes before he got back to us.
That made a lot of sense to us, because we were getting an early start, and taking the taxi would definitely get us to Siena before we could check into our hotel. So we waited in the Hotel San Michele’s comfortable lobby and chatted. Mostly about the Italian transportation system.
The driver arrived back at the hotel, and we loaded all our stuff. Things began to go a lot better. The driver spoke English, and he explained all about making a living driving a cab it Italy. The government figured he made so much per fare and taxed him appropriately. He didn’t make that much per fare, so there was not a lot left over after taxes. He and his extended family shared a newly-acquired and comfortable home that was close to more than they could afford.
This was about our second cab ride in Italy and was not going to be our last. One thing I did notice about all the cabs in Italy is they are first class. American cabs have gone the same way. It’s not a sedan anymore. It’s a van of the modern style that’s becoming popular. When you look at modern cabs you begin to wonder how they ever decided that sedans would make for good taxi cabs.
His cab, like all the others, had GPS, and he was going to get us to our hotel in Siena. However, he did need the address. After motoring through the scenic Italian countryside for over half an hour the driver pulled over at a service station and got the address from Barbara Jean. Shortly we saw Siena on a hill top in the distance, and we were there.
Next the driver needed to navigate Siena’s narrow and winding Medieval streets. Siena was not his normal route. He stopped to check with a pedestrian, who also spoke Italian. The man knew the way, and he hopped in alongside the driver to ride part way with us.
Our hotel was near the center of town, in a driving restricted driving area, so our driver needed to be careful not to take any wrong turns and get boxed in. Finally, he muttered, in English, “Yes, I’ve been here before.” And he knew where we were. The cab poked along a narrow street while Barbara and the driver looked for number 73 on Via Salicotto. He unloaded our bags, and I laid out 100 Euros plus a 10 Euro tip. That’s about $140 for a trip that should have been already paid for with our rail pass. Wonderful!
Actually, it was not the full 110 down the drain. The cab ride from Hotel San Michele would have been 12 plus a tip, and the cab ride from the Siena station to the hotel would have been about the same. So we were only down 78 Euros or so. Not bad for a lesson in Italian economics.
But I still had a plan.
We wisely did not fill in that day on our train pass while still at the hotel. Once you fill in a day, in ink, it’s burned. Use it or not, it’s gone. So we now had an extra travel day we could blow before we left Italy, and we did turn up using it, but that’s for a later installment.
Our trip from Siena to Florence was secure. We had the train pass. All we needed was a cab ride to the train station. And that is a tale.
The manager at Casa Vacanze il Campo (really an apartment building, not a hotel) would call a cab for us. And he was quick. The cab driver was waiting for us even before Barbara finished closing business with the clerk.
The driver was in a hurry. You could tell he had things to do that day. And, unlike the driver from Cortona, this one knew the streets of Siena. And he drove them like the late, great Lorenzo Bandini. Riding to the train station was like riding a slot car. But the driver touched not a bit of paint on either side, turning the narrow canyons into a blur before finally emerging from the old city and into the light.
The handy train planner app on my Samsung tablet informed us we were in time to take an earlier train, and we hopped on board. The ride to Florence was another adventure in comfort. We found a first class car and settled in.
We were going to get to the Santa Maria Novella (S.M.N.) station an hour early, so we would have some time to kill before the driver from Santa Rosa Townhouse was scheduled to meet us. My plan was to use that extra hour to purchase, yes purchase, train reservations.
With the rail pass the train ride is free. However, for some trains, the high-speed luxury trains, a reservation is required. You have to pay extra for the reservation. Fortunately it’s not a tremendous burden, and it does ensure you will have a seat when you get on the train.
We couldn’t purchase the reservations at the Camuccia station. My information was that this small station does not have a full-time agent who can sell the reservations. Besides, the high-speed trains do not stop at Camuccia nor at Siena. We would not need the reservations until we set out later from Florence to Venice.
So we had an hour at the S.M.N. station to purchase the reservations, but that was not to be. Italian rail system efficiency came forward to meet us once again. As in Rome, the ticket windows were woefully under staffed, and staff that was there was were completely opaque to the needs of the train riding public. The wait time to get to a ticket counter was way more than we had, and we did have to meet with the hotel driver at the appointed time.
There was at the S.M.N. station a private, commercial travel agency, and they would sell us the train reservations, for an extra three-Euro fee. Barbara (Moneybags) Neuser resisted paying extra, and we skipped purchasing the reservations for another day. We were going to be in Florence for three days, during which time we would be passing through the station a couple of times for a day trip to Pisa. We would purchase the reservations later.
Later was no better. We stopped by the station during our stay in Florence, and the service was still absurd. There was a very short line at the travel agency window. I advised Barbara to burn the three Euros and get on with our lives.
The transaction was completely painless. The woman at the window was courteous, quick and kind. I gave her my rail pass and a scribbled note with dates and stations we would be needing—Florence to Venice, Venice to Naples, Naples to Rome. Barbara haggled on the departure times, and the woman came up with reservations that would suit our needs. It was 20 Euros for each trip (two people) plus the Agency fee of three Euros for each person per trip for a total of 78 Euros, and we were done with ticket agents forever. Almost.
Nah. We’re not through with adventures in travel. There’s more to come. Revisit this blog for tales of the Pisa day trip round about and the death ride to Sorrento.