A few weeks back I tried out the new privately run train service Italo, from Rome to Milan, en route to speak at the excellent Travel Blogger Elevator conference in Genova. Here’s what I made of it.
I’m always very curious about graffiti I spot on my travels and quite by chance I saw this in Chiavari, Liguria.
Now I was a little slow on the uptake with this one, so my Italian friend explained: ‘Oh they don’t want high speed trains here. They think it will change the character of the area. And it probably will, but still, we really need them.’
Every Italian I spoke to at the conference said the same thing: Trenitalia’s service is severely lacking and frankly any competition is long overdue and spells good news for customers.
Enter Italo then, Italy’s first private rail company operating several routes since April 2012 with more on the way soon. Could it ring the changes? It’s already driving prices down for starters, but how does the service stack up?
The first thing that’s different about Italo is that it uses Rome’s secondary station, Tiburtina. It’s an odd station, built around an open plaza with vast modernist slabs of coloured steel and glass.
Quite striking in a way and a pleasant enough place to dwell, even if facilities are pretty limited; one shop, ticket kiosks and the obligatory ‘drink and go’ cafes popular with Italy’s no-nonsense espresso drinkers.
I’m in Prima (first) class, so no cinema for me but otherwise first impressions are excellent. The carriage has that ‘new car smell’ with nice deep blue leather upholstered seats and plenty of legroom. The seats offer some nifty design features too. I particularly like the light switch built into the armrest and the personal bin, which looks a bit like a pair of binoculars.
Seat numbers are well marked, but weirdly there’s no system for displaying which seats are reserved, something of a bugbear of mine since my recent InterRail experiences. I have the car virtually to msyelf, apart from a group of businessmen noisily decanting their oversized laptops to use the free wifi.
Within 10 minutes the speedometer is at 260mph and Rome’s urban sprawl is swiftly replaced by haze covered hills on the horizon dotted with stone pine trees (or possibly cypress), chalky gullies and little clusters of clay roofed villages. The section between Rome and Florence is easily the most scenic stretch, with just the odd patch of light agriculture to break up the scruffy greenery.
Before long my lunch arrives. At first glance, it looks pretty promising. It comes in a snazzy little rectangular box, assembled by foodie retailer Eataly, who now have a small chain of stores in Rome, Turin, Genoa and New York. But when I open it up… my heart sinks a little…
It’s a deeply unsatisfying experience. All of the items are tasty enough, but none are substantial. The box comprises several jars of various antipasti, including cuttlefish with olives and pesto, accompanied by nothing more than a tiny bag of breadsticks and mini crackers, plus a strange apple amaretto paste thing which I was completely flummoxed by and had no idea how to eat. Together it would make maybe a nice Christmas gift for your Italophile auntie, but I was still hungry enough to crave a burger immediately afterwards. The lunch box normally costs 18 – 20 Euros.
What’s more, the box comes covered in a load of flowery blurb about ‘local producers, time honoured traditions and the finest artisanal methods’, but methinks the label doth protest too much. Pre-prepared lunches make economic sense of course, but to come away hungry from lunch in Italy? (or Eataly even) Unforgivable surely? In fairness you do also get a decent cup of red wine, coffee, water and nut-based snack later on.
After sitting at Florence Santa Maria Novella station for a fair interval we shunt off towards Bologna. This stretch of the journey seems to largely disappear into a series of very long tunnels.
We emerge back into real world around Bologna. We run parralel with the motorway for a long stretch and Northern Italy’s heavier industry begins to make its presence felt. Soon enough Milan’s curvy sided and shiny tiled apartment buildings rear into view. I step off the train craving a greasy burger.
One interesting feature the train offers are the security cords for cases in the vestibule. These seem to cost either 50 cents or a Euro, it wasn’t clear to me which, but seem to me like a no-brainer which more train services could and should take note of.
Whizzy speedometer displays aside, at 3hrs 30 minutes this particular train is actually slower than Trenitalia’s new Frecciarossa high speed service, which can take just 2.55 from Termini.
There seemed to be a surfeit of attentive staff, which made the lacklustre catering all the more puzzling. I was issued with 2 (fairly unneccesary) lemon wipes within 15 minutes of each other and in general the staff looked like they were kicking their heels a little…
Overall I found the train perfectly comfortable but felt short changed by the food.
Have you tried the Italo train on any of its other routes?