June 4, 2012: Vienna to Venice on the Night Train and Tuscany

We got onto the night train in Vienna (this is actually last night, the evening of the third) at twenty until nine.  We got settled in after a while.  The two person cabin was extremely tight for the four of us, especially with Luciana attempting to put herself to bed the moment that we got on to the train.  Liesl sat with her on the bench seat while Dominica was crammed into the room attempting to get our stuff unpacked and set up for the night.  She had a “train bag” prepared with all of the stuff that we would need while on the train so that the main luggage would not need to be opened and sorted through in the tight space.

The space over the main hallway is accessible from the cabin and we were able to put the big luggage pieces up there, even the bumblebee backpack with the girls’ toys in it.  So we were doing well  from a “keeping the cabin empty” standpoint.  The stroller even fit under the bench.  They really make these things efficient.

There were a lot of Americans on this train.  In the cabin next to us were two girls from San Diego over to Austria for a wedding.  Way down the way was a couple from New Orleans and Baton Rouge who had been in Hungary for a wedding as well.  Nearer to us was a couple, David and Stacy, with their ten month old daughter Caroline who were heading to Venice without any particular travel plans – just seeing where the wind would take them.  I probably talked with David for more than an hour.

Pretty soon we had the room switched over to the bed, rather than the bench, configuration.  This actually provides tons more room and I am not convinced that having the room be convertible even makes sense.  If they made it always be two beds I think that they could shave even more space and make it even better.  The bench mode is pretty much useless.  Maybe if you really only had two people it would not be so bad, but I saw people attempting to use it that way and it wasn’t very good.

Liesl was pretty excited about getting to sleep on the train.  This was a cool treat for her.  We pretty much went to bed as soon as we were able to orchestrate it.  I did not look at the clock but I am guessing that it was around ten in the evening.

The setup was Liesl sleeping with me on the top bunk and Dominica and Luciana snuggling on the bottom bunk.  Liesl and I had to have the upper berth for safety reasons.  Pretty much there was no danger to anyone but me and the fall for me is quite a bit less, percentage wise, than for anyone else.  And I am larger so very likely to catch one of the safety harnesses before actually hitting the floor.  Liesl and I slept with our heads towards the window.  Luciana also slept by the window but Dominica slept backward with her head at the cabin door so that should would fit better with Luciana there.

We opened the window in our cabin.  For some reason whenever we get a cabin or a couchette in Europe someone seems to have left the heat on full blast so it is unbearable in there when we first get into it and we have to get it cooled way down to be able to use it.  We are very thankful that the window opened so that we were able to get some fresh air in there.  Even with the window open it was warmer than we would have liked, but it was cool enough that it would not be a problem once we settled down and relaxed for a bit.

I had originally thought that I would likely write on the train for a while but the reality of the cramped quarters meant that it was straight off to sleep.

Liesl, Luciana and I all drifted off to sleep pretty quickly.  I probably lay awake, or partially awake, for up to an hour after we went to bed.  The stops at the rail stations makes it hard to drift off initially and at one point I noticed that it had started raining but it really wasn’t raining in so we just kept the window open anyway.  That probably made it a bit nicer, in fact.  Dominica did not fall asleep at all, or hardly so, all night.  She used the iPad without Internet access and tried to sleep but the regular stops kept her awake.

I slept soundly all night.  I think that the train motion and noise kept me very much asleep.  I did not wake up until seven in the morning.  So that was probably around nine hours of sleep.  Both girls were still asleep still and stayed asleep for about another hour.  Our breakfast arrived shortly after I woke up.  I love room service on the train – this is pretty neat.  We got a welcome kit last night too that included water, wine, washcloth, soap and some other stuff.

When I first woke up I thought that it was dark out.  That threw me off for some time.  In reality it was dark because in Italy the trains are nearly always in tunnels.  That was the south-eastern Alps, likely in the Sudtirol, where we were in tunnels so much that I did not know that the sun was actually climbing into the sky.  Once we cleared the tunnels we were met by sudden, bright sunlight.

It took a bit of work to get everyone up, dressed, everything packed back up and ready to get off of the train.  We stopped in Venice just after eight forty.  The train ride on the overnight is not actually all that fast taking almost exactly twelve hours to do the journey that the day time Railjet can do in around seven. Dominica said that during the night it stopped for several hours in Salzburg which probably explains it.

We got off of the train and we are now in Italy.  Venice to be exact, out in and among the canals.  After all of these months discussing Italy it is rather surreal to actually be here.  Although this is just Venice which is not the same as the rest of Italy so this is still in the “not there yet” category.

Our plan for this morning is just to see enough of Venice to be satisfied and to get back onto a train and on to Tuscany to our hotel.  We were very thankful thank Venice does not use the locker system for storing luggage but instead has luggage handlers who do it so no issues with running out of space.  So we took our luggage straight there and dropped it off.  It is five Euros per back for five hours which is not cheap at all compared to the Vienna lockers which, for us, would have been somewhere around three Euros and fifty cents for all day storage, if it had been available.  Still probably the cheapest way to see Venice, though.  No complaints here.

Then it was straight out from the train station to the canal where we bought ourselves twelve hour passes to ride anything, anywhere in town including the new Grand Canal tour that we figured would be perfect for us on our crazy, limited schedule.

We took the regular taxi service out to San Marco and got off and walked around for just a little bit.  We checked out the square and saw the insane masses of early morning tourists already filling every nook and cranny.  We did not stay long, there is no way to do anything in Venice without being in a massive tourist queue.

We walked along the Grand Canal checking out the long line of junk sellers (literally an entire street of people selling junk) and stopped by the Royal Gardens for a nice, but extremely short, walk there.  Then we decided that there was almost nothing to see with little kids in tow so we got onto the tour boat and rode it for the entire length going out to the eastern-most point of the tour and then riding it all of the way back to the train station – roughly a thirty five minute boat ride from the farthest point back in.  So nearly fifty minutes on it for us.

The tour boat worked out well since we were about the only passengers and for half of the time we were actually the only passengers.  It gave us a chance to really see everything along the Grand Canal.  We were able to ride outside and I took tons of pictures and some good video too.

We got back to the train station and booked the first train for Florence which departed just about thirty or forty minutes after we got off of our tour boat.

Our takeaway for Venice is that it is pretty awful.  It is just a tourist trap.  Not like Paris or London or Rome, more like Universal Studios.  This is not a living city, this is a decaying, long dead city held together for the sole purpose of selling tickets to tourists to come look at the decay.  Some great history happened here.  Venice has a great past and played a major role in making Europe what it is today.  But the city that you take a boat ride through is not that city.  This city is just a facade, just a sad reminder that not everything lasts.  Nothing actually happens here.  There is no “real life” to find behind the tourists.  It is like a dirty, cheap and dangerous version of the worst bits of Disney World.  It lacks the good things about other cities in Europe.  It isn’t like a real city, just a fake one that gets turned on just for the tourists.

If you really take the time to hit the museums, tour the real back streets, really seek out the food, etc. I am sure that you can, with enough effort, turn Venice into something decent for a short stay.  But this is a city that requires a lot of money, patience and effort and I doubt that the returns for that are very big.  I wouldn’t avoid Venice, it is of such historic importance that it will always have a special place.  But I would definitely make it one of the very last places in Europe to go see.  Don’t go out of your way to see it.  Certainly don’t get excited about it.

We were happy to be on the next train although our seat reservations sucked so we didn’t even get to sit next to each other.  Instead we sat one in front of the other.  Pretty annoying.  The ride from Venice to Florence was actually very fast.  They seem like they must be much farther away from each other than they are although the screaming fast two hundred and fifty kilometer per hour train has a lot to do with it.  The Italian trains are crappy due to their cramped conditions and seat reservations but they are great from a luxury standpoint.

We got to Florence and quickly changed to the local “milk” train heading towards Viarregio.  Dominica had suggested maybe stopping in Florence too while we were there but I gave her that “you have absolutely lost your mind and the kids and I are abandoning you now and leaving you in Florence while we go on to the hotel” look and she decided that that was a bad idea indeed.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the tiny little train station in the spa town of Montecatini-Terme that Dominica had found as a potential place to see real Tuscany without needing to get away from the train lines.  So we got off of the train, checked some maps and started walking.

Now we are in Italy.  This is real Italy.  Not just a city that was conquered by Italy and forced into the country but real, central, heartland Italy.  Old school Italy with real Italian food, Italian culture, Italian weather.  Now it is becoming real.  This is not a tourist town, or very little of one as everything in Tuscany is a tourist town to some degree, but a real small city where regular Italians live and work and play.

The walk to the hotel really was not bad at all.  Had we known exactly where to go and how to find it it would have been trivial.  Even so it wasn’t bad.

We got to our hotel and got checked in.  No Internet access in our hotel room but there is in the lobby.  This will do.  Only two days here then on to Piedmont where, and we checked this, we have Internet access everywhere for five days.  So two more days of going down to the lobby to do everything.  I can do it.  It is just getting really stressful being so disconnected and knowing that people need me to do things.

The hotel is pretty nice.  Our room is quite nice, second floor (that is the third floor to you Americans) on a corner with big windows that open for a cross breeze.  Dominica and I have a double bed, Liesl has a bunk bed and a pack and play was in the room all ready for Luciana who is quite thrilled.  This is our first bathroom in all of Europe to have a bidet.  We are surprised that we have not yet seen one having been expecting to see them, even if infrequently, all along after having left the United Kingdom.

We got settled in but it was not long before we decided to go out and get some dinner.  We had eaten on the train with food that we had picked up at the station in Venice but both the Venice and Florence train station really are completely different than the British, Belgian, French, German, Swiss and Austrian train stations that we have seen thus far in that all of the others use the train stations as a place to consolidate tons of ready made and grocery food items.  The Italians seem to offer nothing more then the most spartan and rudimentary food stuffs at their train stations.  It is very surprising.  We had thought that the Italians would take the food more seriously, not less.  I supposed that maybe Italians focus on making great meals be great and let the other meals go?  Certainly the food in most European train stations that we have experiences is incredible by American standards.  Not so in the Italian stations.  So we were very much ready to sample some real Italian cuisine, especially out here in smaller town Tuscany.

We asked at the desk and the hotel owner gave us some recommendations.  So we set off for a walk through town, although it was not far at all, for a serious Italian meal at a nearby hotel.

Italians order and eat meals in courses which is confusing for most Americans to order and we are pretty bad at it but we attempted to fumble through.  For our first course, which is often pasta, we went for the obvious.  Dominica got a raviolo but it was huge and really delicious.  I went for the pasta with pounded rocket and olive oil which was amazing.  Dominica agreed that I ordered best for the pasta course.  Truly excellent.  Liesl got pasta as well, spaghetti with a basic tomato sauce but it too was really good.  We kept stealing some from her because it was so tasty.

For the second course I got salted cod in a tomato sauce with chick peas in the Livorno style.  It was quite good.  Not a dish that I would likely order again as it was not really my style but it was very well done and quite impressive.  Dominica went for a squid dish which, I feel, was foolish for her as she is always grossed out by the way that squid are presented and she can never truly enjoy a squid meal even though she really loved squid.  I tried a little of hers (I just ate some tentacles since she just throws them away anyway) and it was quite good but I liked mine better.

Sadly we had neither the camera nor the phone tonight so this amazing meal (in both taste and appearance) is recorded in words alone for you.  We were both pretty upset that we had forgotten both devices tonight.

For dessert I do not even remember what Dominica got but I went for the local cookies with sweet wine that I have heard from a few sources including “Under the Tuscan Sun” as well as from Rick Steves is a local specialty.  The cookies are what we call biscotti back in the States but here that term is just the Italian form of the British word biscuit which is just a generic term for that entire range of cookies so is way too general.  What is done here, unlike in the US where biscotti is dipped in coffee (weak, watered down American coffee) it is dipped into the sweet wine.  This seems completely crazy and many people cannot adjust to it but I tried it and really liked it.  They served a lot of it too and I ate it all.

After dinner we walked back to the hotel and pretty much just called it a night.  We are completely impressed with the food we had tonight and the price was not bad either.  Fifty nine Euros for what would, I feel, have been an eighty to one hundred dollar meal back home pretty easily once you consider that we had two courses, food for the girls, I had wine (not the dessert wine), we each had dessert and we each got coffee!  And that price is after tax, not before like in the US.

The walk from the train station to the hotel is less than impressive and we were worried about this town a bit but now that we have seen more of the town we can see that it is really nice and has tons of restaurants, hotels, spas, cafes, etc.  We are looking forward to exploring it tomorrow.  This appears to be very promising.

Off to bed a bit on the early side.  We were the first people into the restaurant this evening as we went out so early but I am tired overall and Dominica got almost no sleep last night so we need to make an early night of it.

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