Lifestyle & Culture

Expat travel pro Beth Hoke: Lessons learned from the worst trip ever to Italy

I’m not a travel rookie. I’ve traveled my entire life through multiple family moves, vacations both stateside and abroad, and my current nomadic state of being.

I can pack everything I own in one carry-on bag, know which airlines are super strict on weight restrictions, and how to tweak an Airbnb search to get the best price.

But a recent trip to Italy left me feeling like a lost sheep. A very, very frustrated lost sheep.

My daughter and I left Croatia for Italy at the end of last month. We checked out of our Airbnb near the beach and headed to the airport in Split with our dog. (Traveling with pets is something that adds another level of fun to any trip. See my previous article on this topic here.)

Everything went swimmingly. Efficient check-in. Straight through security. On-time departure.

It wasn’t until we landed in Italy that our troubles began.

We had chosen an Airbnb that was in a central location for the cities we wanted to visit during our stay. To get there, we took the Leonardo Express from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to Roma Termini, the main train station.

Roccasucka

We learned later that taking a local bus would have been a fraction of the cost. Barely missed the morning train to Arpino. But okay, we’re adaptable. We decided to leave our bags at a luggage facility across the street from Termini, grab some lunch and visit a site or two.

The dog was with us, but she travels like a princess in a rolling carrier, so not a big deal. We had a great sandwich and cappuccino and walked over to the Colosseum.

Once we got back to Termini, we realized that we had made a mistake with our departure time and we still had two hours to wait. The nice thing about Roma Termini is that it houses a pretty legitimate shopping mall with name brands like Victoria’s Secret, Moleskine, and United Colors of Benetton.

But it was a hot day and the gallery, as is the case in most buildings in Italy, is not air-conditioned. So we settled in to wait, only to have a ranting homeless man sit right next to us. When the time finally came to depart, we headed to the right track and boarded our train. The train to our first stop had no air conditioning either, so our journey of several hours was a bit uncomfortable in the nearly 90 degree heat.

Since we were traveling on a Sunday, nothing was open at the next stop, Roccasecca, which was a sketchy little station in the middle of nowhere that smelled like pee and was covered in graffiti. The weeds growing between the tracks didn’t add to the ambience and I (rather unkindly, I admit) nicknamed the stop Roccasucka.

Arpino

After about an hour’s wait on the platform, we boarded a two-car train to our final destination, Arpino. We foolishly assumed there would be either public transportation or a taxi available at the Arpino station. Nope.

The Arpino station was only about 5 kilometers from our Airbnb, but there was no way to get there but walk. Uphill. A really, really steep hill. We ended up calling our host, who kindly agreed to come down and rescue us.

We were charmed by Arpino. It is a beautiful village with a spectacular view of the valley. And our Airbnb was twee (if I, as an American, am allowed to culturally appropriate a British term to describe an Italian studio apartment).

Decorative pottery lined the open kitchen shelves that hung above a professional stove. The sturdy dining table was made of Italian marble and sat on complementary Italian tile that covered the kitchen floor. An adjoining sitting room/bedroom/office area was lined with bookshelves filled with the owner’s collections of old records, classic books, and other collectibles.

But once you looked beneath the surface, the problems came to light. Let me preface this by saying that I have slept on gym floors, on school buses, in airport lounges, and in a sleeping bag on the ground where I had just seen a rather large, hairy spider crawl down the wall and disappear.

I’m not thrilled, though, when I’m paying to stay somewhere and I pull the sheets from the shelves to find a multitude of moths nesting in them. The moths were a minor annoyance compared to the lack of privacy in the bathroom. The hand shower was not my favorite feature, but that was nothing compared to the lace curtains over the window that left us fully exposed while showering.

As I am 5’9”, I had to adjust the shower head to its highest setting, not realizing that this would cause water to drain under the bathroom door into the kitchen, soaking the surrounding area. We had one bath towel each and no washer or dryer in the apartment, so we had to soak up as much water as we could with paper towels and leave the tile to air dry.

It quickly became evident that moisture was going to be a problem in the apartment. Even after the water from the shower had dried up, the apartment felt (and smelled) damp. The sheets felt damp. Our clothes felt damp. The air felt damp. After several days, I picked up a cord I had dropped on the ground and realized it was wet and dirty. I moved the sofa bed away from the wall to see water leaking in a crack between the wall and the foundation.

Mystery solved.

Several of the appliances mentioned in the Airbnb listing were non-existent, including a microwave and coffeemaker. There had been a refrigerator in the photos, but our host told us that it had broken and a new one would be delivered the following day. It never materialized.

Wanting to spend as little time as possible in the apartment and lacking some basic kitchen necessities, we went into Arpino for meals and had some Italian specialties like pasta e fagioli, pizza, and gelato. A bartender made us his specialty drink, Ginger Zen, which improved our mood every time we drank one.

The landmarks of Arpino only take a day or two to see, and we had other places we wanted to visit, so, after several days, we headed back to Rome for a day of sightseeing.

Can’t get there from here

We had learned through extensive internet research that in order to get to the Arpino train station, we had to take a bus to a nearby town, board the train at that station and backtrack through the Arpino station on our way to Rome.

There was no bus that went directly down the hill to the Arpino station. I repeat, there was no bus that went directly down the hill to the Arpino station.

We have decided that Rome has earned its title as the cradle of civilization simply because it has a public transportation system that gets you directly from point A to point B. (Read about our day in Rome here.)

We almost made it through a day in Italy unscathed, but our train returning to Arpino was delayed by 40 minutes and then disappeared off the departure board, so we took the next train in that general direction. Because everyone had the same idea, the train ride (which was several hours long) was standing-room only.

The delay caused us to miss the last bus back to Arpino from the neighboring town and none of the taxi services listed on Google answered the phone when we called. A kindly stranger took pity on us and offered us a ride to Arpino even though it was miles out of his way.

Nothing like teaching your young daughter that hitchhiking is okay.

Naples (or, ‘no bus, no schedule, no problem’)

Our initial plan included several other side trips, but we were quickly becoming discouraged by our living situation and the difficulty in taking public transportation, so we decided to wait until we went to Naples at the end of the week to do any more sightseeing.

The trip from Arpino to Naples was supposed to take about three hours, so we figured that we’d book a hotel, spend the afternoon exploring the sights, visit Pompeii the next day, and then head to the airport.

Wrong, again.

The trip from Arpino to Naples took almost nine hours.

We located the train station nearest to our hotel and used Trenitalia to book our tickets and map our route. When we arrived, we couldn’t find a bus stop or a taxi to take us to our hotel. Using Google Maps, we located a nearby bus route, walked to it and waited. And waited. And waited.

The biggest problem is there were no schedules posted at the bus stop, something we found to be true in every small city we visited during our stay in Italy. Everyone we asked indicated that a bus would be probably be along eventually, but they weren’t sure when or if it would get us where we needed to go.

A RARE BRIGHT SPOT (Photo by Beth Hoke)

We decided to retrace our steps back to the train station where we could regroup and hopefully find someone who could point us in the right direction. When we arrived, we saw a bus stop sign that we had missed. Literally steps from the exit, but covered by leaves. Alas, there was still no schedule or any indication of the route.

As luck would have it, we ran into someone who spoke English well enough to understand our dilemma. She offered to talk to the front desk clerk at our hotel and gave us directions to a train station that was no closer to our hotel than where we already were, but one with a bus connection.

So, off we went again. When we arrived at the next train station, we felt like we were no further along than we had been.

There were signs for bus routes, but no timetables. Anywhere. And again, no one seemed to know when the bus we were told to take would show up. A food vendor finally pointed out our bus. An hour wait, half an hour trip, and a 45-minute walk later, we finally arrived at our hotel – tired, sweaty, and headache-y.

All thoughts of visiting the historical center of Naples went out the window as we slept off the headaches and went in search of food. Dinner was a bright spot in an otherwise completely aggravating day.

We went to a local agri-tourism restaurant which either hadn’t started dinner service yet or were closed in preparation for an event the following day. But they took pity on us and made us a heart-shaped Pizza Margherita and served us Cokes.

Being the optimists that we are, we were still thinking about visiting Pompeii the next day, but that idea was nipped in the bud when we realized that we had no idea if the same bus we took earlier in the day also ran on weekends.

A special price for you, my friend

Neither did the front desk clerk. But he assured us that for only 50 euros, a cab would pick us up and take us to the main train station.

Fifty euros …. to go less than 6 kilometers.

No thanks.

We called several cab companies ourselves who confirmed that for a special price (50 euros) they could take us to Napoli Centrale. Or for the same 50 euros, they could take us to the nearest train station, a mere 3 kilometers away.

Uhm, no.

Given our experience with public transportation that morning and too cheap (smart?) to pay that much for a cab, we decided to skip Pompeii, leave early, and walk to the train station, take the airport transfer, and park ourselves at the airport.

We really didn’t want to tempt fate at this point. So we had a good night’s sleep and set off for the train station after breakfast, dragging our luggage and our dog behind us.

The first third of the trip went well, but soon enough, the sidewalks disappeared and we ended up walking on the side of the highway dodging pile after pile of garbage. I read later on Wikipedia that Naples is still experiencing a waste management crisis that apparently peaked in the summer of 2008.

APPARENTLY, THIS IS AN IMPROVEMENT ….. (Photo by Beth Hoke)

I can’t imagine how bad it was at its peak, because it is unimaginable even now. There is garbage everywhere.

We watched in amazement as two little girls wheeled a buggy filled with trash bags and casually added it to one of the piles.

A few unlicensed taxis came by and offered us rides at the going rate of 50 euros, but we turned them down and trudged on. At an intersection, a woman and her friend offered us a ride just as we were wondering how many more times we would have to run around piles of garbage while praying that we didn’t get hit by a car.

We tried to turn her down, but she laughed, pointed to her child, and assured us (in Italian, but we got the gist) that she wouldn’t do anything nefarious with a kid in the car.

We accepted the ride.

After another hour long wait at a the train station, we took one train to another train to Napoli Centrale, where we would catch the bus to the airport. Arriving in Naples, we actually patted ourselves on the backs for the (in hindsight) wise decision not to have gone into the historical district the night before.

Naples is crowded, dirty, and unappealing. It was honestly a relief to finally make it to the airport and leave this incredibly frustrating travel experience behind us.

Morals of the story:

• If you’re going to travel to Italy, rent a car unless you’ll be in an urban area.

• Only book Airbnb properties that have reviews. Many, many positive reviews.

And resign yourself to the fact that, if you’re a frequent traveler, you’re bound to have a less than positive experience every once in a while.

BETH

About the author: Beth Hoke is rejoining the expat life after spending her childhood in Europe and the United States, then settling in Chicagoland to raise two daughters.

Now an empty nester, she is roaming Europe, armed with a TEFL certificate and an online position teaching English for EF.

Beth has been traveling around Europe for nine months. She’s filed posts from six countries including Italy, Germany, Croatia and Madeira, Portugal.

 

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