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Italian Initiation Journey, Day 0: Into the Unknown

July 30, 2011

Preparation and Train Ride


It all started with a phone call from a friend – for the purposes of this blog, let’s call her Pink.

“You know what I’d love to do?” she asked me. “Just quit my job and go off exploring Europe by bike.”

“Take me with you!” I exclaimed, only half joking.

We’d both been dreaming of this for a long time, but were too chicken to do it alone. For years, heading to work on an early summer morning, I’ve been thinking, what if I just don’t get off the bus or train today, what if I just head on to the main station, hop on the next train to Somewhere and just travel from place to place. What more do you need but a passport and a bank card, and both were frequently in my bag. And even worse, riding my bike in the early morning, thinking, what if I don’t go to wherever I needed to go, but just kept going, kept going, somewhere, anywhere… There’s so much to see in the world, but I never had the courage to really just go and explore it.

Alone, it was scary. Together, Pink and I felt we could cope. Neither of us was really going to quit her job, not this year, so we talked to our bosses and managed to get one and a half weeks off at the end of July.

This didn’t leave us a lot of time to plan. We bandied about ideas for a few days – Italy? France? Somewhere else? Finally, we settled on Italy, because it would be warm and hopefully dry, not too far away, and we would understand at least some of the language.

We spent one and a half hours at the ticket counter at the train station – longer than I’ve ever spent there before – until we had found and bought the perfect (meaning, the cheapest) tickets – to Florence on the 20th of July, back from Bologna on the 29th, for the two of us and our bikes.

We wandered around stores, looking at camping equipment, but eventually ended up borrowing most of what we needed – a tent, sleeping bags, mats, saddle bags… the only things I really had to buy were a helmet and some bike shorts.

Usually, I’m a worrier and over-planner when it comes to travels. Not this time – there was simply no time to worry too much!


My best friend laughed when she heard of our plans. “Now you’re really growing up,” she said. “That’ll be your initiation journey – proving you can get by by yourself!”

She had a point. I’ve only ever travelled in the company of older, more experienced people – family, teachers, colleagues, mostly-online friends… I have ridden trains by myself, but I’ve always known there would be someone to pick me up when I arrived.

And while Pink had travelled by herself, or with friends of the same age and experience, that had been all-inclusive holidays, no “let’s see where we’ll sleep tonight” travelling.


And yet, no time to worry. I did start packing, or at least laying out the things I’d need to bring, days early – but in the end, packing only took about an hour, on the evening before we would leave. Two pairs of shorts, one pair of long trousers, three shirts, some socks and underwear, a sweater and my horrible, rubber-ducky yellow rain cape. Sleeping bag, mat, knife, shoes, camera, passport and wallet, a bit of food and lots of water – what more do you need, really? (Of course, a towel. Always know where your towel is!)

I took my bike in to the train station that evening, and tossed my bags into my mother’s car – the next day, she came to pick me up from work, and off we went to the train!

I loaded up my bike, finding that with all the luggage it was so heavy it kept falling over if I didn’t lean it against a wall, met up with Pink, and we headed for the platform.

I checked the carriage position indicator first so we’d know which end of the platform to wait on, but of course, we didn’t manage to find quite the right position, and had to hurry through the crowds of commuters to get to the right door – where we found we had to unload all our luggage to be able to lift the bikes onto the train and hang them on the hooks. The train was quite crowded, and several strangers ended up holding Pink’s bags and helmet while she handed the conductor one piece of paper after the other until he said, “Yes, that’s the right ticket.” We had quite a big envelope with tickets, reservations and timetables for four different trains, so finding the right one took some time.

At the next larger town, almost all the commuters got off, and we went on to Innsbruck in a nearly empty train. Rain falling outside, making it easy to leave – not the sort of weather we were going to miss. Overexcited and giggling at first, then getting drowsy in the quiet and nearly-empty train. Trying not to worry about the tent, mats and sleeping bags we’d left with the bikes at the end of the carriage, next to the door, instead of lugging them down to our seats, not allowing myself to go and check they hadn’t been stolen. Fishing my old mp3 player out of a bag, listening to a radio programme about Bob Marley that my parents had recorded when I’d been a little child – that tape had always been in the car, played every time we went on holiday, on all those twelve-hour drives to the harbour in Livorno… travelling just doesn’t feel right without the familiar notes of ‘Slave Driver’ and ‘Simmer Down’, without the crackling and buzzing of the old tape, without the quiet voice of the speaker telling about Bob Marley’s life between the songs.

A few essentials... the towel, the envelope with about fifteen train tickets, my slightly murderous-looking knife and the ancient Bob Marley tape. All right, the actual tape doesn't really get used any more now that I have it on my mp3 player and computer, but I keep it around in case I accidentally delete those files. That would be quite tragic.


Our camping gear was still there when we got to Innsbruck, where we tossed everything out onto the platform, lifted down the bikes, loaded them up again and then left them leaning against a wall while we wandered around the train station, waiting for the time to pass until the night train to Italy arrived.

Even though it was about 11 PM, we were now much quicker at loading our bikes onto the train. It also helped that this train had about half a carriage for bikes, instead of two hooks, and we didn’t have to lift and hang them, but could leave them standing.

Our seats were rather less luxurious, however. The carriage was ancient, rattling and creaking, the seats hard, too small to curl up in… there were five of us in the compartment, two guys sprawling all over the place, taking up the one empty seat and part of mine, and the third sitting up, across from Pink and me, studying, keeping the light on when we wanted to sleep. When he finally got off after several uncomfortable hours – during which we had decided to assume none of the guys spoke German and just talked about them as we pleased (quietly, but not exactly quietly enough that they couldn’t hear us) – we cheered quietly and put up our feet on his seat, which made our position marginally more comfortable.

When another guy arrived, we only had a moment to worry that he would take our foot-seat before he had crossed to the window and taken the seat the other two guys had sprawled over. They glowered. We gloated. Served them right.

One positive thing about that train ride was that when the conductor finally arrived at around three in the morning, he was so tired or disinterested that instead of selling us tickets for our bikes, he just waved us off, and our bikes travelled for free.

Outside the compartment, the train also got more and more crowded the further we moved into Italy – luggage and sleeping people on every bit of floor, in the corridors. I luckily didn’t have to use the toilet, but Pink reported that walking there was rather challenging because there was hardly room to set her feet. The floor might actually have been more comfortable than our seats, but we still managed to catch a few hours of uncomfortable sleep before we pulled into Firenze Santa Maria Novella, and the first day truly began.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2011 12:49

    Oh my, that’s sooooooo exciting! You are a very skilled writer, Ivynettle, I really enjoy reading about your travels! Also, it reminds me of my time in Italy… it’s been a while now. I’m looking forward to reading more! And to some pretty photos.
    BTW I’ll go to Lower Austria next week, want to visit the Arche Noah in Schiltern (and some other stuff, haven’t decided on it yet), then we’ll go to Kirchberg am Wechsel, my bf wants to join the Wittgenstein Symposium. I think I’ll hit the Freibad instead… but I really hope we’ll get the chance to go to Italy as well this summer! We’ll see…

    • July 31, 2011 13:00

      I’ve just exchanged flash drives with pictures with Pink, so there’ll definitely be pics in the next posts. We’ll see how many posts I manage to write before I leave for the Netherlands!

      The Arche Noah is awesome! I’ve been four or five times, and I still always see something new!

  2. July 31, 2011 15:24

    So exciting! I loved florence. I’m jealous of your train trip even if the ride into Italy sounds a bit…special. I love taking the train places…unfortunately, aside from back home, it’s a 2 day train ride to either coast and not much to do in between.

    • July 31, 2011 23:38

      Most of my train rides are a little “special”. The return trip was even more so!
      I don’t generally care much for towns, but Florence certainly was pretty.

  3. Sahi permalink
    July 31, 2011 16:09

    Sounds like a promising start of the holidays! I can’t wait to read the rest of the report!


  1. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 1: A Touristy Day « Letters & Leaves
  2. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 2: The Hah Hah Hill « Letters & Leaves
  3. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 3: The Hills Are Mountainous and the Hot Water Cold « Letters & Leaves

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