Despite the endless rain and generally miserable weather, the early summer of 2012 has seen some positive developments, as far as cycling is concerned. Indeed, adopting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it’s been quite a successful year for the bike, in many ways, so far.
Two massive bike rallies, the London ride and Scotland’s Pedal On Parliament in April, the effective offensive against Addison Lee cabs and the odious sentiments of its CEO, the brilliant Times’ Cities fit for Cycling initiative, and the ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign that gave cycling issues such a high profile in the London mayoral, election have all kept cycling, and the need for greater safety for cyclists, in the headlines
Indeed cycling world champion and odds-on favourite to be Britain’s first gold medallist in the London Olympics, Mark Cavendish, has added his voice to the fight for greater protection for cyclists and called on Britain to adopt Dutch-style laws on harsher penalties for drivers
The contrast between the Netherlands – where riding a bike to travel from A to B is regarded as perfectly normal – and the UK – where cyclists are frequently regarded as collateral damage by motorists convinced of their “entitlement” to unrestricted use of our roads – could not be more stark, particularly for those trying to negotiate our crowded city junctions, or narrow country lanes.
A fellow Sustrans volunteer, recently back from a tandem holiday in the Netherlands made the following observations:
bicycles everywhere, ridden by all age groups
school teachers with bicycles, schoolchildren in tow, each wheeling their bicycle
huge cycle racks at stations; bicycles parked at bus tops; outside shops; everywhere you look!
the city of Leiden; the centre was full of people and bicycles but hardly any cars! It was busy yet so quiet
can you believe this: first time we went out – on the tandem – we approached a ‘Toucan’ style crossing. Though well away from the crossing, I was getting ready to stop and put my foot on the ground – but the car had already stopped!! Cyclists seem to have precedence – cars always let you across first!! Its another world!
well maintained cycle paths too – often 2-way – either side of the roads, with excellent signing
most of the bicycles are traditional ‘sit up and beg’ style with all kinds of goods attached front and rear – including children and girlfriends riding on the rear carriers!
It’s the culture that’s so different: cyclists are regarded as vulnerable people who have an equal right to the highway – and it applies to pedestrians as well.
But while more recent reports confirm the benefits of cycling to everything from the environment to the economy the lessons we should be learning from the Dutch still appear to be falling on deaf ears. Norman Baker, the Local Transport Minister may claim that: “Right across Government it is accepted that there is a hard-nosed business case for investing in sustainable local transport, and that includes cycling and walking.”
But his colleague, Mike Penning, the Road Safety Minister, refuses to even consider changing the law: “Making a motorist automatically at fault for an accident with a cyclist, unless he or she can prove otherwise, would be unfair where someone is driving entirely responsibly — or when there is an accident where no one is to blame.”
This lack of logic – championing the advantages of cycling on one hand, but refusing to do anything to make it safer for the majority of people – is perhaps most clearly illustrated on the streets of our capital. On the face of it, cycling would appear to be enjoying a renaissance in London – up 70% in some places, with the so-called Boris bikes proving very popular – but the incidence of cycling injuries has also risen and the general profile of users of the cycle hire scheme tends to be young, well-off and male.
Boris Johnson clearly enjoys being portrayed as the bicycling mayor, but if his claim to believe the “cyclised city is a civilised city” is to be taken seriously then he has to do much more to achieve this.His attitude to the notorious Elephant and Castle roundabout – the junction that received most complaints in the Times’ campaign – is a case in point. His blasé response that it was perfectly negotiable “if you keep your wits about you,” might attract some deluded lycra-clad thrill seekers, but will do nothing to encourage women, older people, parents and those who haven’t cycled for years to get back on their bikes.
These are ordinary people, the same kind of people who ride their bikes every day in Holland and Scandinavia; the kind of people we need to encourage to start cycling to work, or to the shops and to regard cycling as an ideal form of transport, not just a recreational pursuit.
If we can start to do this, then 2012 really will be a good year for the bike.
It is incredibly easy to take the train to Italy – or indeed, anywhere else in western Europe – and, when travelling overnight and going direct between city centres is taken into consideration, it can be just as quick and significantly less disruptive than air travel. For example, you can leave St Pancras late afternoon and be in Milan in time for breakfast – this includes time for an evening meal and a comfortable night’s sleep – and this compares very favourably with getting up in the middle of the night, spending a couple of hours in a soulless airport terminal and arriving early morning in another indistinguishable terminal, miles from your destination.
It can also be considerably cheaper (see Fares) especially if you travel as a group with lots of equipment and when the cost of overnight accommodation is taken into account.
But essentially, long distance rail travel is about adopting a totally different perspective about travel by making the journey an integral part of your trip. Sit back, relax, enjoy the changes in culture and landscapes as you travel and your journey will be one of the highlights of your holiday.
Seat 61 : is your bible when travelling by train. Much of the information and references that follow comes from Seat 61, apart from a few points that I have picked up on my travels. Find out the options of how to travel to Italy
Fares: the same principle of booking as early as possible, now obligatory in the UK, increasingly applies in Europe also. By booking about two months in advance, I secured Eurostar tickets to Paris for £36 each way and paid €32 each way between Paris and Turin, travelling by day. If you are travelling as a group, fares can be as low as £38 for a couchette – remember, this effectively includes your accommodation for the night.
I found Italia Rail the best method of buying tickets. You will be billed in US dollars, but any currency charges are more than offset by the savings made. If you don’t want to pay any currency charges, get yourself a pre-paid currency card, like Caxton
Eurostar: now gets to Paris and Brussels in about two hours. Book in advance and be prepared to travel out with peak hours and you can find good reductions (see above).
You will leave from the stunning St Pancras station, so if you leave during the day you can spend some of the money you’ve saved at the Champagne Bar.
Paris metro tickets are available, but only in books of 10. If you don’t need that many, make sure you have some spare Euro coins available (see below).
Changing stations in Paris: you will arrive at the Gare du Nord and, will need to take the RER Line D to the Gare de Lyon. Pick up a metro map at St Pancras and work out your route. It’s easy enough, it’s the green line D, just make sure you are going in the right direction by checking the last stop – Melun, Malesherbes on your way there, Orry la Ville Coye Creil on your way back to the Gare du Nord – as you go through the barriers and on the information boards.
A few trains to Italy leave from the Gare de Bercy which is one stop on Line 14 to Bercy from the Gare de Lyon.
Buy a metro ticket from the machines (instructions are available in English). Currently, a single costs €1.70.
Catering outlets are generally better at Gare de Lyon than at Gare du Nord (best to go outside to one of the side streets for a coffee).
Luggage and bicycles: most continental trains have large luggage racks at the end of each carriage – use them and put your smaller stuff in the racks above your seat. Remember, if you are going on an activity holiday, you are likely to have a lot of luggage and you will not be charged extra, as you are on planes.
Seat 61 gives information about travelling with bicycles. Folding bikes and those in bike bags can usually be taken on board with you.
Travelling by day vs travelling overnight: it’s your call, depending on your preferences and available time. If there are only one or two of you, it’s usually cheaper by day and the Alpine scenery is stunning. By going overnight, you use sleeping time to travel and it can be very cheap if there are a few of you.
Getting to Kokopelli: choose your option to Milan, then follow the instructions to Pescara from where you can either hire a car, or travel on to Chieti by bus or train. Use Rail Europe’s search engine for trains or look at the timetable for the buses.
Even the grey, raw dawn didn’t detract from the splendour of St Pancras as I dragged my damp baggage out of the Euston Road drizzle sometime before five am. Despite the early hour, it was clear Eurostar’s “cheap” deals were proving popular as the terminal was busy and the queue for the the only coffee outlet already snaked into the departure lounge. However, Cafe Nero’s young baristars coped resolutely and the short wait enabled me to strike up a conversation with the guy in the tiger suit (who everyone else was staring at, but wouldn’t talk to) cycling to Andalucia for MacMillan Cancer Support – hi Cathal, hope it went well. You can read more about his challenge here
Although it seemed difficult to believe, this was my first Euro tour for nearly three years; injury and the increasingly pernicious demands of a depressing day job interfering with my travel plans in the interim. This time, I had chosen to travel during the day, in order to enjoy the scenery, heading initially to Turin, before eventually stepping out into a warm Florentine evening with the Renaissance facade of Santa Maria Novella straight in front of me.
Thursday May 10 2012:
Florence: the city that first took my breath away as a 16 year old and now, still as beautiful, but inevitably, even more crowded than I remember it. The Albergo Duilio hotel is interesting in a quirky kind of way – a traditional building, small, but very clean, with a clever, en suite wet room, in an almost perfect location within walking distance of city, but away from crowds and, in Vincenzo, an extremely hospitable and helpful host. It also provides an ideal Italian breakfast: a voucher for coffee and pastry at the cafe across the road, the Cafe Communarde.
So, I start my first day in Italy proper with a velvety cappuccino, standing at the bar alongside some tasty Italian airline crew. Suitably invigorated, I cross the road to the Arno and stroll along towards the Ponte Vecchio.
Even at 10 am it’s packed and, after a quick wander across to take in the views, I head back and up towards the Uffizi to sniff around the plethora of tours available. Deciding to trust my own (fading) knowledge of Renaissance art later on, I head into the Piazza della Signoria and marvel at the statues – yes I know this David is a copy, but Neptune and Perseus are awesome and the Rape of the Sabine Women finally persuades me my hopeless school Latin wasn’t totally in vain.
One of Florence’s key attractions is its compact centre and, after securing a late afternoon slot at the Uffizi from the booth at Orsanmichele (no queuing and no additional charges) I head up past the Cathedral and stop for a few moment to look at the Duomo and Baptistry.
It’s difficult to keep a space even for a few minutes, but Brunelleschi’s masterpieces retain their magic, even after five centuries.
On a hot, sunny day, the next logical stop is the marvellous Mercato Centrale, whose stalls groan under the weight of cheese, ham and plump fresh vegetables. To get there, however, I have to negotiate the street stalls with their equally tempting array of leather goods and scarves, but fortunately I’m hungry, so for now anyway, I avoid the lure of a gorgeous Gladstone bag and follow my stomach to the food market.
After an afternoon nap, I’m back at the Uffizi for five pm. It’s busy, but not oppressively so and, although it’s difficult to secure an unrestricted view of Primavera, or the Birth of Venus, it’s empty enough in the early rooms to see the works of the Lippi family and and also, later on, to compare the Italian masters with the more realist school of Northern Europe.
There’s never any a definitive length of time you should spend in a gallery, but an hour and a half seems about right: just enough to take in the depth of art treasure on show, but not too much to be overwhelmed.
All these marvels have made me hungry, again, so it’s back over the Ponte Vecchio in search of some sustenance. Found my way to Il Rifrullo busy, but not with tourists and aperitivo buffet (€7 with drink) so good I doubt I’ll need any dinner.
From here it’s a short hop to Piazzale Michelangelo: where else to watch the sun setting over Florence and the Arno?
Friday May 11 2012:
The day starts well: another excellent coffee and more interesting airline guys. I try out a dummy run to the station in advance of tomorrow’s early start, waylaid en route, by a visit to the city’s English bookshop. More seriously, I find myself drawn back to the street market and, in particular, the leather stalls. I can be very persuasive when I want to convince myself I really need something, so force myself back on track to today’s first port of call –
This is my first visit and I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon enthralled by the masterpieces adorning this Dominican church. Masaccio’s fresco of The Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes for the Capella di Filippo Strozzi, before you even reach Ghirlandaio’s altar. A few more steps, another masterpiece: in some ways this is the highlight of revisiting Florence and the experience is marred only by a handful of brash American women taking photographs when specifically instructed not to do so.
A late lunch, a further selection of sumptuous leather bags and another plausible salesman – it would make more sense to wait until the final day of the holiday, but will they have these bags in Turin? – followed by a couple of hours reading in the shade.
Five pm and it’s cooled sufficiently for me to head back to the Campanile.
I still have a tiny instamatic print of the rooftops of Florence, taken on my school trip, its faded colours looking almost naive in today’s digital age. Today, the vistas taking in the domes and towers of the city, the Arno and its bridges and the surrounding Tuscan hills, are still stunning, their unique shades highlighted by the lowering sun.
This evening’s photos are sharper, but also the final confirmation I need another memento of Florence’s beauty to remember this visit. So, back to the leather stalls, momentarily panic when I can’t find the one I want, out with the credit card and then collapse into nearest bar, racked with guilt and the frightening realisation I have already spent the equivalent of Italy’s national debt on a leather bag.
However, every cloud and all that because, despite its dowdy decor and basic furniture, this place does a mean glass of rosario, the buffet is equally good and, it’s 1€ less than last night. Unfortunately, in my initial hysteria, I completely forgot to memorise the name of the bar.
Saturday May 12 2012:
All too soon, my two days in Florence have come to an end and, just after 7.30 am, I thank Vincenzo for his hospitality, grab a quick coffee – clearly too early for the pilots today – and head for the station.
After my first visit I vowed I’d come back. Now, I mean to return again, maybe in the winter, maybe as part of a wider tour of Tuscany and its hills and towns. But, I will come back. Florence has that effect on me.
The train is routinely packed, but comfortable and on time. The trains also provide excellent storage space for large items of baggage at the end of each carriage – Virgin Trains, take note. Despite this, most of the Italian passengers seem intent on keeping their luggage, no matter how large or heavy, right beside them on their seats!
Rome: a city I’ve always wanted to visit but, until now, never quite arrived at. Termini station is log-jammed, but despite the crowds, the information booths are well-staffed and helpful and I’m soon making a (lengthy) walk to a peripheral platform for my first taste of Rome’s suburban transport system. And, it doesn’t disappoint: 1€ fare, fast trains with adequate space every 15 minutes, what’s not to like?
I emerge out of Trastevere station to chaotic arterial traffic and a burning sun. Fortunately, the Hotel Roma Trastevere is only a few metres along the Viale di Trastevere and I’m able to park my expanding baggage until check in. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask for a map, so spend a rather pointless three hours mooching about in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. However, a tiny Arab cafe provides good coffee and an enormous sandwich and the views from the hill behind the main street open up right across the city, heightening my anticipation of what is to come.
This hotel is, in direct contrast to the Albergo Duilio, modern andrather soulless in its public areas. However, the bedrooms are roomy, with a small balcony and the exquisitely tiled en suite the kind of facility you look forward to in a decent hotel. And, it supplies a readable map.
So, after a short rest and shower and, armed with said map, I set off to investigate Trastevere after dusk. Quickly realise that if I had wandered a further few hundred metres earlier on, my lunchtime options would have included a cafe, bar or restaurant at every corner along the Via San Francesco. But at least it ensures I intend to make the most of Trastevere, now I’ve actually found it.
The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is thronged with families, tourists, street artists and people of all ages enjoying the balmy evening. It’s animpressive church, thought to be the first place of Christian worship in Rome and I nip in quietly, trying not to disturb the on-going Mass. Mosaics of saints and a series of panels by Cavallini are stunning and well-worth a future visit for a closer look.
From the piazza it’s a short hop to Via Moro 15-16 and the divine La Renella. Considered by many to be the best bakery in Rome, its wood-fired ovens produce a delectable range of pizza al taglio, focaccio and biscuits that attract a most diverse range of customers; people waiting for a bus, priests, workers from nearby shops and well-dressed couples on their way for a night out in the city. Take your slice of pizza with you, or eat it at the long bench along the width of the bakery. It’s not salubrious, but at less than €2 for a delicious portion of pizza ai funghi, with mozzarella and pomodoro, I’m not complaining.
Originally the artisan area of Rome,Trastevere’a narrow streets, closeted squares, trattorias, cafes, bars and night clubs are now some of the most popular areas of the city, for residents and tourists alike. Even past nine pm, it’s still possible to browse a bookshop, or look round a boutique between sipping a cocktail and enjoying some traditional and (for Rome) reasonably- priced cooking in traditional and unpretentious restaurants.
Sunday May 13 2012:
Benefitting from a comfortable and uninterrupted night’s sleep, I’m up and about early, determined to make the most of my only full day in Rome. The hotel breakfast (usual unappetising stuff at an extra €6) is easily resisted, so I grab a decent enough cappuccino and pastry at the bar next door, before catching the No8 tram into the city.
In less than 10 minutes, I’m stepping off the tram in Largo di Torre Argentina. My plan is to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, check out the best coffee and also take in a few of the beautiful, small churches in the Centro Storico before it gets too hot and crowded. It’s hardly ambitious, but I’m not going to see all that Rome has to offer in a day and, part of the thrill of visiting the Eternal City, is to discover the wonders of the little, unheralded churches found on almost every corner of the city centre.
The Pantheon doesn’t disappoint and, standing for a few moments to appreciate this magnificent building, it is impossible not to wonder how it continues to stay up, without any apparent arches and vaults.
It’s not yet crowded, but busy enough to share the view of Raphael’s tomb:
“Living, great nature feared he might out vie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.”
Pieto Bembo’s inscription sums up, not just the impact of the great artist, but of the Pantheon itself.
I want to savour the memory of the Pantheon before it merges with the other sights I hope to see, so head east along to the Plazza San Eustachio to try out what is generally regarded as the best coffee in the city, at its eponymous cafe.
This tiny shop, selling all things coffee on one side, with a bar on the other was already crowded with locals and other tourists. Quickly learning the etiquette, I’m rewarded with the best creamy cappuccino I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good I almost order another, but promise myself that abstinence now will be rewarded later with a chance to sample their macchiatos.
Suitably rejuvenated, I walk back towards the Piazza Navona and, although the square is already filling with people,
the magnificent Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi still draws my eye and I’m hard pressed to drag myself away from Bernini’s magical fountain celebrating the four great rivers of the world.
It now hits me (better late than never, I suppose) that trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning is not my greatest-ever idea, given that I don’t intend to participate in Mass and, after a disappointing stop at La Caffeteria – coffee very good, but pretentious service and silly prices – stroll down Via del Corso past the bizarre Palazzo Venezia and thence along to Arco di Tito.
My next visit will concentrate on Classical Rome, as opposed to the Baroque centre, but today even just looking in on some of the ancient monuments, it is humbling to think of them in a historical context. How appropriate then, that on this sunny Sunday morning in May 2012, the entire length of the Via dei Fori Imperiali is packed full of children playing a mini-football tournament in the shadow of the Colosseum, the most famous arena of all.
Monday May 14 2012:
Pack up my goods and chattels, leave in the luggage room and head back into the city. I start with the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio and wonder around the spacious interior, gazing at the amazing Baroque ceiling showing St Ignatius entering paradise and trying to reconcile that with my understanding of the contribution to humanity of Ignatius and the Jesuits. Ignatius, of course, isn’t actually buried here: he’s in the Gesu church a short stroll away that, conveniently, can be easily reached via San Eustachio cafe.
Decide that, despite the shortages of time, I can’t really leave Rome without at least seeing the Vatican. So, head back to find a bus – not sure which bus, but follow the priests and nuns congregated round the a particular stop and, happily, this piece of inspired logic delivers me safely to St Peter’s Square in under 15 minutes.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is high on my list of “to-dos”, but that will have to wait for another visit. On this sunny, but fresh morning – ideal for my kind of sightseeing, but the Italians are swaddled in scarves and down jackets – I’m content to wander among the colonnades in Bernini’s best-known piazza, taking in the extent, both of the square, but also the beauty of the Basilica and its dome.
Back in the city, I make a point of seeing the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church and home to a host of art treasures. Filippino Lippi’s fresco of the Assumption in the Carafe chapel takes my breath away and I’m thrilled to stand for a few minutes in front of Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross.
But, unfortunately, that’s it, my time in Rome is up and it’s off to Tiburtina station to catch the bus to the Abruzzo the next stage of my travels.
I say my goodbyes to Kevin and Jacqui as they drop me at Pescara station – very impressive modern building with good catering outlets and lots of lovely escalators to transport me and my ever-more-heavy bags. The sun’s out and Pescara, which looks almost like a resort on the Cote d’Azure, becomes another destination awaiting a return.
Another comfortable, civilised train journey – just how will I cope with Virgin and London Midland after this? – but the weather worsens as we head north and, by the time we reach Bologne, it’s as grey and dull as November in the Lake District.
Fortunately, the HotelInternazionale/en is well within trolley-bag distance of the station and I’m able to check in immediately.This is the most luxurious of the hotels on my trip, and today its comfortable room and plush ensuite are a welcome treat for my end-of-holiday shabbiness and constantly throbbing ankle.
Bologne is compact and its characteristic porticos are ideal in the afternoon downpours – Glasgow take note – enabling me to wander about fairly aimlessly without getting soaked. I suss out Bottega del Caffe and convince myself that 200g of their speciality coffee won’t make too much difference to my overweight bags. Their chocolate, disappointingly, is less impressive and a macchiato in the cafe is average at best.
Bologna is now considered by some as the foodie capital of Italy, however, this evening I sample the more basic end of its culinary offerings with a visit to Pizzarie Altero, virtually across the Via Indipendenza from the hotel. Ignore the strip lighting and wait your turn in the queue and you will be rewarded with an excellent choice of pizza al taglio (up there competing with Renella) for under €2 a slice.
Bologne’s history as a hot bed of socialism has always intrigued me and its leftish leanings are still evident in the names of many of its streets and squares and any city with Rosa Luxemburg as a bus terminal definitely deserves another visit – a taste of socialism perhaps might be an appropriate theme to sample its culinary and political heritage in the future?
Tuesday May 22 2012:
Another day, another train journey: this time the short hop (90 minutes) to Turin and the end of my tour. Fortunately, the sun is shining and Hotel Dock Milano (not as plush as yesterday and en suite wet room even smaller than in Florence, but perfectly adequate once I get the safe to work) is right across the road from the station.
Usual story of too much to see and far too little time at my disposal, so concentrate on getting a feel for the city and checking out some of the best cafes. Start by grabbing a sandwich and drink and head for the nearest park and, already, pick up on one novel aspect of Turin’s street life: the mobile book cart, stationed at the corner of streets and squares.
I’m soon on my way to Via San Tommaso, to visit its eponymous cafe, reputably the original home of Lavazza. First impressions are heartening – a little bar packed with non-touristy looking people drinking small cups of coffee.
And the verdict? The macchiato from heaven, the very best I’ve ever tasted; honestly. It’s only two pm and I do want to see more of Turin, so, regrettably, I force myself away from San Tommaso without trying its famous bicerin (cappuccino fortified with brandy) vowing to return this evening.
Given its location on the northern borders of Italy, some of Turin’s most famous cafes have more in common with those in central Europe. Indeed, Baratti and Milano and Cafe Mulassano would not look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. But be warned, although the gelato in B&M and coffee in Mulassano were both excellent, the prices you pay for gazing at their marble fittings and Belle Epoque interiors are high and in B&M be prepared to be treated with contempt by some of its more mature staff.
Continuing my sequence of cheap eats, in the evening I dine at Brek An interesting concept, and very popular with workers, families and sole diners, it’s essentially a self-service restaurant where you choose whatever combination whets your taste buds. My generous portions of pasta, salad, bread, fruit salad, bottle of water, 250ml jug of house red and coffee came in at a very reasonable €13.
Wednesday May 23:
The last day of my tour of Italy and, with some sadness, I cross the road to Porta Susa station just after seven am in time to catch the TGV back to Paris.
Travelling to Italy by train is easy, enjoyable and economic, read my tips on how to go about it.
Coffee: can’t quite decide between San Eustachio in Rome and San Tommaso in Turin, so will go for the cappuccino in San Eustachio and the macchiato in San Tomasso
Gelato: has to be the amaretto flavour in Baratii and Milano, Turin, despite the service
Pizza: no competition here: La Renella in Rome
Hotel: toss up between the style and facilities of Hotel Internazionale in Bologne and the hospitality, original building and location of Albergo Duilio in Florence
Overall: probably re-visiting Florence, but Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon comes a close second
And: being able to travel across western Europe and around cities, using efficient, clean, affordable public transport, although this always makes returning to the UK’s third word infrastructure eminently depressing