Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:  http://www.mit.gov.it/mit/site.php?p=scioperi

Where to leave bags for the day in Rome

When you rent a vacation rental it can often be a problem what to do with your bags before you can check in (usually around 3pm) and after you check out (normally around 11am) when you’re leaving the city later in the day.  I just discovered this service, near Termini station, that will not only store your bags for a small fee, but they’ll come and collect them at any point in Rome (station, B&B, apartment, etc) and will deliver them to you where you need them next.

Bags Free
Via del Castro Pretorio, 32
email:  info@bags-free.com
(+39) 366 26 76 760 (office hours are 8:00am to 8:00pm every day, holidays included)

Getting around London

by Steven Brenner

London is a big, spread out city.  Much of it is walkable, but there’s no one area you can stay in where everything will be close by.  Luckily, the variety of transport options are easy to use and reliable.  So let’s get familiar with them:

Walking

I’m not particularly athletic but I can walk around a city all day.  It’s definitely the best way to see things, but also the most tiring.  In London, I use a combo of an actual paper map that you can buy at any newsagent for under £2; the Map app for iPhone; and the Citymapper app, which tells you not only how far it is to walk, and how long it ought to take you, but how many calories you’ll burn. When you stuff your face like I do when traveling (ok, I do it at home too), this added incentive really makes an hour walk seem more reasonable.

 

Cabs

These are, of course, the best way to get around if you just want to get to your destination with as little effort as possible.  For such compact cars, they are very spacious – the back of the cabs have a bench seat that sits 3 and two “jump seats”.  They face each other, limo-style.

They can either be booked in advance or hailed on the street or from designated taxi ranks.  There’s also the Hailo app for iPhone.  It’ll figure out where you are through GPS and get a cab to that spot with just a few clicks.  Payment can either be done in cash or you can set it up with your credit card and pay through the app.

Here’s numbers for the different taxi dispatchers:
One-Number Taxi:    0871 871 8710  All London
Call-A-Cab:    020 8901 4444  All London
Computer Cab:    020 7908 0207  All London
DataCab:    020 7432 1540  All London
Dial-A-Cab:    020 7253 5000  All London
London Black Taxis:    07779 336 612  Pre-booked trips for all of London
Radio Taxis:    020 7272 0272  All London
Taxi Call Wimbledon    0208 099 7711  Wimbledon and surrounding areas
Xeta:    0845 108 3000  All London
There is a charge when booking by phone and other terms and conditions may vary so please check when booking.

You can also book a taxi using Twitter at @tweetalondoncab – more info at http://www.tlctaxi.co.uk

 

Buses

I get car sick easily, so I usually avoid buses, but I love London’s iconic double-decker buses.  Sit up top right near the huge windows in the front and get a great bird’s eye view (low flying anyway) of the city.  Buses use the same ticket system as the underground (see below).  You can also buy them on the bus itself, but it’s a bit slow and makes me feel like I’m holding everyone up.  Some stops have machines right outside at the bus stop as well.

 

Underground (Tube)

Over 400 kilometers of track, the London underground can boast being the first underground railway, opened in 1863. The lines are all color coded and have names, such as the Central Line (red) and District Line (green).  The direction you want is not necessary designated by the last station.  Instead, you have Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound and Southbound trains.  Sometimes, if the train changes direction, you might have to rethink whether it’s Northbound or Eastbound, but for the most part it’s pretty clear when you get to an intersection in the tunnels and have to chose which direction you want to go in – the stations are listed on the wall so you can figure out which way to go to get to the right track.

The best way to tackle the Tube is to buy an Oyster card.  Once you enter an underground station, go to a self-service machine and select a “new card”.  Put on however much you want – 5, 10, 20 pounds, for example.  Five pounds will be used toward a deposit on the card, and the rest will be applied toward bus and subway rides (which vary depending on where you’re going).  You can pay with credit card, or in some cases, cash (it says on the machine at the top what it accepts).  The card will then work to get you through the turnstiles until you run out of credit (at that point the light will flash red instead of green).  When this happens, simply return to the self-service machine and swipe your card and top it back up.

Here’s the awesome bit – when you’re done in London you can return the card and get any unused money back, plus your £5 deposit.

You can get more info and figure out which lines you need and the prices here:  http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx

 

Citymapper

This app really is the best thing ever.  Put in the address you’re going to and it’ll calculate every possible way to get there from wherever you are (including fun ones like “jetpack” or “catapult”). You’ll get a breakdown of how long it would take, and how much it would cost, either on foot, cab, bus, or subway.

Select the one you want and it’ll give you detailed instructions.  Once you arrive at the end of the public transport route, it’ll give you walking directions the rest of the way.  And it’s free!

 

Airport to City

London Heathrow (LHR) is connected to the city by the Underground.  London Gatwick (LGW) is connected by a commuter train called the Gatwick Express which runs every 10 minutes or so to Victoria Station (travel time 30 minutes).  You can buy the tickets from money changers at the airport too and will get a discount if you buy round trip (£31.05 r/t if you buy online in advance).

Road Trip, European Style

by Steven Brenner

Every year around April, Linda and I start to stress about the upcoming summer holidays, a time when the temperatures can soar to over 100°F/38°C and there are three months of summer holiday looming ahead and the dilemma of what to do with bored kids who can barely go outside it’s so hot.  The beaches are crowded with escapees from the city, and rather than the natural refuge they should be, the beaches turn into a party scene filled to the brim with folding chairs, umbrellas and sellers of acquafantacocacolabirrasprite.  A nice getaway in the countryside with a pool is out of the question because of sky high prices.

Crowded beach in Italy from The Global Traveler

Despite the fact that we live in a destination that many people dream of, the idea of being in Italy with the heat, the lack of interesting activities for our kids and all their friends away on holidays can be a real punishment for working parents here who have no family to fall back on.

This summer we decided to take matters into our own hands and go on a road trip – a somewhat crazy idea for a family of 5 + dog with a tiny Toyota Yaris. We figured it would be fun to go with only a loose itinerary, and rather than focus on the destination, enjoy the adventure of getting there.  Saving money by not buying airfare for 5 was also an appealing factor.

The Yaris packed up and ready to go.

The day we discussed this idea, Linda and I were driving down the autostrada and at least 10 cars with Dutch plates passed us by.  So we thought we’d do the reverse and drive up to the Netherlands.  Surely we could find a Dutch family who would exchange apartments with us?  We put the word out on Facebook, and ended up being offered a place to stay by friends in Amsterdam who would be away on holiday themselves (the Dutch get around!).  We planned our initial route through Chamonix, where we have friends; Cologne, where we have other friends; and EuropaPark, an amusement park we would hit on the way for my middle daughter’s 11th birthday.  We figured we would wing it on the way back, maybe find another home exchange in Paris, or visit other friends who are in the Loire Valley, and come back to Italy by way of Ventimiglia, where a friend said we could couch surf.

In the direction of Florence, with Goji at the wheel

The trip lasted a little over of a month.  Driving around Europe is so different than taking the trains.  With 4-8 hour stretches you have plenty of time to think.  Here were some of my insights/observations about the trials and benefits of roadtripping in Europe.

Scenery in Val D’Aosta just before reaching France

1.  Not having a departure time is really great.  I hate the stress of trying to herd the cats kids and catch a plane on time, making sure you haven’t left a mess, or anything important, behind.  With the car, you leave when you leave.  You aren’t held to a tight schedule, and that can feel really good and very liberating.

The girls were thrilled to come across a children’s circus in Freiburg im Breisgau.

2.  You see how national identities change.  As you cross a border, the language, food, customs and architecture changes entirely.  Sometimes within the same country, like Switzerland, where you’re pretty much still in France at one point but keep driving and all of a sudden you feel like you’re in Germany, even though you’re still really in Switzerland.  The experience reminded me of traveling by train when there were border controls and different currencies.  It’s amazing to think how powerful this sense of national identity is – strong enough to have helped propel two world wars.

Pizza in Courmeyer, Italy. Cross 20 minutes through the Mont Blanc tunnel into France and the pizza is just not the same.

Wood fired pizza oven built out of an Airstream trailer in Les Houches, France.

3.  There are many small towns that are worthwhile stops. We used the Osterie d’Italia guide to find recommended restaurants along the way and planned our breaks there while we were still in Italy.  A quick google search would help us narrow it down.  We found a cute town in Piemonte called Vercelli – the oldest inhabited town in northern Italy, known for its risotto; and meandering in Germany we came to the very picturesque town of Cochem and had some delicious apple strudel.

Apple strudel in Cochem, Germany

4.  There might be savings, but it’s not cheap to drive!  You save on airfare and train tickets, but man do you get hit by gas prices, tolls and parking!  Filling up our small Yaris was about €60.   Just passing through the Mont Blanc tunnel is €50 (it’s much cheaper if you buy a multiple entry pass). And parking in Amsterdam center was €4/hour 24 hours a day – a slight discount at night, but not much. (We had to park outside the city for the cheap parking and even then had to move our car every few days).

Burg Eltz near Cologne, Germany

5.  Difficulties in finding a place to stay.  In this day and age, with smartphones, I imagined it would have been easier to just roll into town and find a good place to stay. Wrong.  We were using the Booking.com app, Tripadvisor app, and even Airbnb and just found the whole process to be a pain.  As much as I wanted to just wing it, I’m convinced there’s very little benefit not planning where you’re going to stay in advance and making a reservation especially when traveling with a family.

Dumpy, but fine for a night hotel, we were very lucky to find last minute in Arlon, Belgium

6.  Keeping sane.  We downloaded audio books for our girls and that kept them calm and occupied. Remember to stop every few hours.  I think 3-4 hours is a good time limit before having a decent lunch break and try to pack picnic style lunches if possible.  In France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, we found nice, clean rest stops with picnic tables, benches, etc. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Italy where we found ourselves eating in hot and dirty Autogrill parking lots with many of the remoter areas of the stops smelling like urine.

Viola – 7 years old, listening to The Magic Treehouse Collection

7. How to use technology to your advantage.  The native map app for the iPhone actually keeps a GPS tracking signal even if you don’t have wifi or mobile network.  This is great news for people with roaming issues – that is until you get off the route and the phone wants to recalculate and can’t which can be a problem if you run into some road works that have detours.  We found connectivity issues in Germany, of all places, and some of the worst wifi I’ve ever endured in Amsterdam.  We had a USB charger in the car to keep the phones and iPods going, and would have to rotate between them because the GPS app was sucking them dry pretty quick.  It’s probably a good idea to have low-tech options as a back-up:  a good map and a decent guide book for each region you’ll be in!

Hiking in the French alps

We’ve been back now for over a month and every so often one of my girls will tell me about something from our trip they miss.  We traveled through 7 countries (but maybe Luxembourg, which you drive through in 30 minutes, doesn’t really count).  We visited old friends, made new ones, ate different foods, tried new things, and actually all got along well in the process.

Paloma, my little artist, tried to capture some of the trip by making this memorable art piece which she has hanging in her room:

Three Easy Day-trips from Florence

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

If you’re staying in Florence, chances are you won’t run out of things to do.  But if you want to make Florence your home base and venture out to see the surrounding area, here are three easy day-trip ideas.

Siena
Probably one of the most popular side-trips from Florence, Siena is a medieval city built upon three hills that converge at its main square, Il Campo.  Twice a year in July and August, the square fills with thousands of spectators for the Palio horse races, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, there is no shortage of things to see, from the city’s Duomo to the Pinacoteca filled with medieval art.  A must-see is Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall at the focal point of Il Campo, which houses the fresco-adorned civic museum.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also climb the 330-foot city tower for a stunning view of Siena’s signature brown rooftops.

While many travelers may be content with taking up a seat at a café on Il Campo, others may enjoy exploring the city’s maze of hilly streets.  Keep an eye out for the colorful flags that correspond with each of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods of Siena and their equally as colorful mascots, like a goose, unicorn and other medieval creatures.

How to get there: The easiest and fastest way to get to Siena is by bus.  The SITA bus station is just west of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station on Via Santa Caterina da Siena. Buses run twice an hour and you can buy tickets at the station.  Try to catch one of the buses labeled corse rapide (they’re faster, a little over an hour versus nearly 2 hours), and get off at the Piazza Gramsci stop along Via Tozzi in Siena.  When you’re ready to go back to Florence, there’s an underground stairwell across the street from the bus hub, in front of the NH Excelsior Hotel, where you can buy tickets.  Go to www.sienamobilita.it to view bus timetables.

Pisa and Lucca
This is an easy two-for-one day-trip from Florence, especially for travelers who want to make a quick stop in Pisa to check the Leaning Tower off their bucket list.

Pisa – photo by Natalie Armijo

If you decide to climb the tower, reservations are required so be sure to book your time slot in advance.  If not, you can still see the tower from the outside, along with the Duomo, Baptistery and other sights on the Field of Miracles.  Walk down the Borgo Stretto, the most elegant and expensive shopping street in Pisa (and the location where Galileo was born), or escape the crowds of tourists with a quiet walk along the Arno River.

Nearby Lucca is a well-preserved medieval city, most famous for its ramparts.  Atop the wall, which is paved and landscaped, you can rent a bike or walk the 3-mile loop for a scenic overview of the city.  Within the walls, Lucca is also a great place to wander since there is very little traffic.  Like other Tuscan towns, Lucca was once dotted with defensive towers, and the last of which remains is the Guinigi Tower near the city’s center.  Climb to the top, where several oak trees grow, for an incredible view of the city.  Similarly, the Torre delle Ore clock tower also offer great views, or you can pass your time shopping and strolling along Via Fillungo.

How to get there: Trains run several times an hour from Florence to both Pisa (about an hour away) and Lucca (about an hour and a half), so you can start with either one of these cities.  Check out the schedules at www.trenitalia.com.  The best way to get between Pisa and Lucca is an easy 30-minute bus ride that connects the two cities, with convenient stops at the Field of Miracles in Pisa and Piazzale Verdi in the western part of Lucca.  Then just hop back on the train when you’re ready to return to Florence.

Cinque Terre
Look one direction and see hills dotted with colorful buildings and vineyards, and the other direction to see the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean.  This day-trip requires a little more planning than the others, but the extra effort is well worth it.  Each of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre boast their own unique charm – be prepared for sensory overload!

Walk the Via dell’Amore that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola, eat a delicious lunch of fresh seafood or pesto pasta in Corniglia, kick back with gelato from Gelateria Il Porticciolo along the water’s edge in Vernazza or take a dip in the Mediterranean in Monterosso al Mare.

While there are many companies that offer organized day-trips to Cinque Terre where you’re guaranteed to see all five villages, you may also want to consider packing an overnight bag and stay for an evening in one of the towns before heading back to Florence.  You can read more about my recent trip to Cinque Terre here.

How to get there: If you want to forego an organized tour, take the train from Florence to La Spezia, which takes about 2 hours, usually with a train change in Pisa.  From La Spezia Centrale, pick up another train to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.  The five towns are only a few minutes apart by local train, and you can buy individual tickets at the stations.  Just be sure to check the timetables so you don’t miss the last train back to Florence.  If you decide to hike between the towns, you just need to pay the Cinque Terre National Park entrance fee of 5 euros.  More information can be found at www.cinqueterre.it.