Tag Archives: Train travel

Stopping and Going

Summer is my favorite season anywhere, but there is something about an English summer that gives me joy even more than a Minnesota summer.  Maybe it’s because I’m away from my usual surroundings and routine and everything—woods and streams and vines and birds but also even the sidewalk under my feet and the bus stops and the street signage—are different, exotic, even after many visits.  I love new and different, the sense of being an explorer.

But there is something else about the English countryside; many other writers have tried to capture it, to greater or lesser degrees of success. You might say, “Oak trees are oak trees, and meadows are meadows wherever you go, right?” So why go anywhere else but home?  But they do differ.  The English countryside is greener.  Saturated with green, drenched in green.  Probably because it is wetter, if that’s a word.  The trees are much older.  They are covered in shiny ivy and holly vines.  These are parasites but they add to the greenness.

And there is something about seeing a view of the English countryside from the top of a hill that makes me feel Everything is Okay, because I know it’s the same view that someone would have seen here 50 or a hundred years ago, and if I return in 50 years it will in all likelihood be the same.  In the US, we chopped down 90% of our trees to make way for farms, and now farms are rapidly being bulldozed over and replaced by suburban sub divisions or light manufacturing parks.

So I love things new (to me) and old and England ticks both boxes.

After a few days of idyll I had to go into London for a meeting at a big corporate foundation.  I had been wearing the same clothes for six weeks and felt pretty scruffy but I didn’t have time to buy anything new.  I spent an hour anxiously plotting how I would get there, and in the end it was easy but you don’t know that ahead of time, do you?

Anyone who thinks companies can do anything better than government has never used the UK rail system.  I use the word “system” generously.  I am not an expert on UK trains, but from what I understand the system has been parceled off to private companies, so I took Southwest Rail into London but one would take a different company’s train from London to Oxford, and a third company served the east coast, and so on.

This was my first time into the city and I was nervous.  I knew I had to get off at Waterloo to switch to the Underground.  There was no choice for “Waterloo” on the automatic ticket dispenser, so I went to the manned ticket booth and waited in the queue.

When I mentioned the glitch in the machine, the bored attendant’s response was, “Waterloo is called ‘London Station’ in our system.”

“But how would anyone know that?” I asked.  She shrugged and jerked her head for the next person.

Soon after we pulled out of the station, the automatic announcement said, “This is a Southwest Rail train for Windsor and Eton.”  “For” means “to” in Britain.  Hmmm…Windsor and Eton was our departure point, not our destination.

“The next stop is Vauxhall.  This train will stop at Clapham Junction, Putney, Sunnymeade, Twickenham, Staines …”  My palms started to sweat and I flashed back to my train journey in Italy the previous year.  The stops seemed to be in the wrong order but I wasn’t sure.

The announcement repeated three times that we were going for Eton and Windsor, not from.  It listed more stops whose names I couldn’t make out.  Grittam and Raysbury turned out to be Whitton and Rosebury.  I had the urge to jump off, but I was also pretty sure that if I just Stayed On the Train I would eventually arrive at Waterloo.

A live person came on the overhead speakers.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize for the automated message, which is backwards.  The next stop is Datchet, not Vauxhall.  Vauxhall is the last stop before Waterloo.  Thank you for your custom.”

Getting There

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was on a train traveling from Naples to Sorrento, or to Campania.  I won’t keep you in suspense; the train eventually arrived in Sorrento, which is in the region of Campania.  It was a mystery to me why the train a region as the final destination instead of the city.

I spent almost two hours on a train whose destination I was unsure of.  I refused to ask anyone for help because I didn’t want to embarrass myself.  I thought about getting off, going back to Naples, and trying again.  I told myself that the worst case scenario would be if I had to take yet another train from “Campania” to Sorrento.  In the midst of my fretting, we approached Pompeii.  It had started to rain, hard.  Should I still get off there?  Where there any covered areas or was it all outside?  Maybe if I got off I could make sure I got on a train to Sorrento this time.  It was already 3:00 pm and darkness would fall at 5:30.  Was it possible to “do” Pompeii in two hours?  At the stop, inertia won and I stayed on the train to take my chances on where I would end up.  Who knew?  Maybe Campania was a nice city.

It’s not a very exciting ending, I know.  The point of this little story is that I learned some things about myself and traveling:

1) Despite what the travel guides say, European train travel is not “as easy as 1, 2, 3!”

2) I would rather end up in the wrong city than ask strangers for help.

3) Given a choice between taking a warm, dry train to the wrong city or spending a rainy afternoon in a muddy archaeological site, I will stay on the train.

The Hotel Rivoli had emailed to ask if I wanted a pick me up at the train station.  “Oh sure,” I thought, “You want to send your brother in law, who will over charge me.”  I didn’t reply.

I’m not usually that suspicious or rude but it appeared the hotel was only a 10-minute walk.  I had written down the route:  From Via Marziale, left on Corso Italia past Piazza Tasso and Piazza S Antonino, right on Largo Padre Reginaldo Giuliani, right on Via Santa Maria delle Grazie just in front of S Antonino Church.  How hard could that be?

Except that it was still raining when I arrived, so I hailed a cab.  I did what you’re supposed to do—ask how much the fare is before getting in—and the answer was €15.

I don’t know if this is true for you, but it’s interesting how I had spent hours looking at Google maps to sketch out how I would get from one place to another, and it all looked completely different once I was actually there.  While technically it would have been a short walk, given my track record of getting lost I would probably have ended up in the next town.  Five minutes later, the driver dropped me at the entrance of an alley that was too narrow for motor vehicles and pointed to the hotel.  I had to squeeze through a crowd in front of the Church of San Antonino to get to my hotel.

“You took a taxi?” asked the young woman at the desk.  “Fifteen euros!?” she exclaimed.  “We only charge five.”

My room was on the top floor—the third floor—and after that cramped little place in Rome I loved its spaciousness.  It was also decorated with clean, modern furnishings instead of 1950s polyester cabbage roses.

Unfortunately, the lock didn’t work and the door kept popping open.  The rain had stopped and I was dying to explore.  I flagged down a blonde, blue-eyed young woman whose name tag said Ugne.

“Oh, it works fine!” she smiled as she slowly demonstrated how to lock a door.  I smiled and waited until the door popped open.  “Oh no!  I will get help!”  She trotted off, and after waiting 15 minutes I pulled the door shut as tightly as I could, hoped for the best, and went out for a wander.

Naples to Sorrento via Compania

This is a series about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The guidebooks and online travel guides all damned Naples.  “Noisy, crowded, filthy, smelly, and teeming with pickpockets and con artists,” was typical.  This was not alluring, so I intended to spend just enough time in Naples to transfer from one train to another.

The high-speed train to Naples was as advertised: fast, clean and comfortable, and punctual.  I was right on schedule!  I proceeded to wander around the Naples train station for almost an hour.  There had been a bathroom on the train but if you’ve ever used a toilet inside a fast-moving train, you’ll know why I held out for the train station.

There were no signs to indicate where the toilet was.  I walked what felt like a city block to one end of the station, then all the way to the opposite end.  Finally I spotted an information booth and asked the attendant.  The toilet was downstairs and, once I got there, I discovered it cost a Euro.  I didn’t have any coins so I walked back up to where the shops were.  When I waved my arms to make the toilet exit door open, half a dozen people pushed their way in without paying.  What a sucker I was!

I hiked back upstairs, grateful to be suitcase-free, and wandered to and fro trying to find the train to Sorrento.  It was called the Circumvesuviana—after Mount Vesuvius, I guess.  I found the train signage, such as it was, bewildering.  There seemed to be multiple names for the same train.  Or maybe it was like the Amtrak Acela, where Amtrak is the name of the company while Acela is a specific train?  Regardless, I saw no signs for the Circumvesuviana—which wouldn’t be hard to spot given how long its name was.

I approached the information booth attendant again, who informed me it was … downstairs.  It was at the end of a very long tunnel and I arrived to find throngs of people milling about the turnstiles.  Why?  There was nothing else there except a pastry shop, but they weren’t buying pastries or tickets for the Circumvesuviana.  I pushed my way through the crowd, bought my ticket, and slipped through the turnstile.

Here’s the station as we pulled away; other than this I didn’t see any graffiti or dodgy characters.


After the high speed train from Rome, the Circumvesuviana felt kind of old-timey—like a kiddie train at a fun fair.  There was lurching, stopping with no explanation in the middle of nowhere, and the occasional alarming metal-on-metal screeching noise.

It slowly wound its way out of the city.  Finally!  I was on my way to Sorrento.  I begun to relax.  I had survived the Naples train station without being mugged, and I had gotten on the right train.  I could just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Less than five minutes later, we stopped at a station.  Then another station, and another.  Little did I know, there were 33 stops between Naples and Sorrento.  Basically, the Circumvesuviana is the local bus.  All I knew was, this was taking forever, and I had planned to stop in Pompeii on the way to Sorrento.

A recorded voice came on to announce something in Italian, and thankfully it was repeated in English.   The announcement was so long that by the time it finished we had stopped at a few more stops.  There was the usually stuff about not sticking your head out the window, especially if the train was approaching a tunnel.

The British-accented voice finally reached the end “… and our final destination, Campania.”

Campania!  What?  I sat up and scanned the car, expecting other travelers to look alarmed, but they were all asleep or staring unconcernedly at their phones.  There was no official to ask; did the train even have a driver?   There were no route maps in the car.  There was no wifi so I couldn’t pull up Google map. (I had opted not to pay for international data.) 

Then I caught a glimpse of the sea on my right.  Use common sense, Anne.  If Mt. Vesuvius appeared on the left—which it did after a few minutes—we were heading south.  But to where?