The West

The scenic long way down to Vernazza from Monterosso, in the Cinque Terre. Picture: Ron Banks

There is an alternative to the stress-filled business of hiring a car to see Italy. Take the train.

Last year, novelist Tim Parks published a wonderful personal account of his experiences of train travel in his adopted Italy called Italian Ways. Primed by the reading, my wife and I decided to eschew the dubious pleasures of the hire-car by simply flying in and getting on a train to see some of northern Italy.

I've heard too many stories from friends about the problems of driving in Italy, or more particularly parking in the popular tourist spots, and the train takes you to the centre of any town.

Besides, our driving days in Europe are probably over, as we endeavour to eliminate as much stress from our travels as possible.

Our course of action was to take three weeks to wander by train - and the occasional bus - from one town to another at Lake Maggiore, Como and Garda, as well as visiting the Cinque Terre for a spot of walking - or more precisely climbing - up and down cliff-side steps.

We would also take the train to Genoa, Pisa, Florence, Bologna and Verona before returning to our starting point at Milan - a great northern loop that encompassed several hundred years of religion, art and progress, with all the nuances of history and development.

Making sense of Italy, particularly if you don't speak the language, can be difficult at the best of times.

And the best of times is not the high-summer tourist season, so we saved our trip for the late season, when the mists start to come across the lakes and you get the occasional rainy day. It made the spontaneous booking of hotels easier and meant the ferry services across the lake didn't need to be booked in advance. The only problem was some of the ferries had already stopped for the season.

We found there was no need to book well in advance on the trains unless travelling between countries. Even the fast inter-city services tended to have seats available, and if they didn't, we could wait an hour for the next one. We became accustomed to using the ticketing machines at each station, where we paid either in cash or by credit card. But watch for scammers - those people, usually badly-dressed, who want to "help" you at the ticketing station. They're prevalent at Florence and Milano Centrale, where we were dudded out of €5 ($7.70) by a "friendly" passerby.

As far as accommodation goes, we found apartments were fun. We discovered, through the wonders of the iPad - for which we bought an Italian SIM card valid for a month with 5GB of downloads - that it was possible at short notice, say a day before, to book an apartment, even in the big cities, for a couple of nights. That's what we did in Florence, Bellagio on Lake Como, Verona and Milan. Apartment living allows you to experience Italian life like a local and to buy food from the local markets - a considerable saving on your expenses.

The only problem can be finding the apartment, given the directions supplied are sometimes minimal. Find the office of Central Apartments near the San Lorenzo markets near the Duomo, said our instructions in Florence, for example. Easier said than done. We finally tracked down the office by buying a map from a newsagent outside the station and it turned out to be not as hard to find as we thought, given the size of Florence and the number of tourists around, even late in the season.

Another strategy, if confused, is to ask the bus driver. On a suburban bus in Verona, I stood in the aisle thrusting a piece of paper at the driver with the address of our apartment on it. Glancing at the address, he called for help from anyone on the bus. A young man with good English told us to stay on until the last stop. So we were the last people to get off, and in front of us was our apartment block, with its fabulous balconies overlooking the river. And it was an easy walk back into Verona via the river paths.

A final lesson: trust to luck and you'll be okay. We decided to arrive on spec in Monterosso, the northernmost of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre. We needed a hotel for a couple of nights. Things weren't looking good - a German backpacker told me she'd paid €160 for a room up the road from the railway station. The couple of hotels I tried were charging similarly extortionate prices for a double room. Pushing deeper into the town, I found a hotel at the end of the road, fronting the hills, which was full. But the clerk knew a woman who rents her apartment, just around behind the hotel. Would I like him to ring her? So that's how we rented a family apartment for two nights, complete with full kitchen and second bedroom, for €90 per night. A bargain, it turned out.

Our luck nearly ran out the following day when heavy rain threatened to derail our plans to walk from Corniglia and Vernazza back to Monterosso. My wife was dubious about climbing on slippery rocks for four hours, but we met another couple about our age who'd come from the other direction. So we knew we could make it, even if we ended up drenched in sweat and rain.

The West Australian

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