It has been a while since I posted on this blog. That’s because I’ve been to Italy on holiday. I thought I’d write about this, even though it is slightly off the subject of responsible volunteering, but relevant to the broader topic of responsible tourism. When planning the holiday, I spent a lot of time researching ways of making it a responsible trip where possible. I knew I wanted to travel in Italy and see a few different places to make the most of the trip. I also have recently developed a passion to go to Venice – perhaps motivated by the idea that with climate change, this water-based city may soon be flooded and changed forever!
A key wish for my holiday was not to fly. I’m not a frequent flyer and have rarely taken more than two flights in a year, not being attracted by low cost flying and city breaks. However recently this has reduced to zero flights in 2011. So I thought why not try another non-flying year. I’m not going to never fly again and still intend to visit some of the many long-haul destinations on my travel wish-list, however when visiting Europe, if it is possible, I’d prefer to take the train to reduce my impact. I find the whole experience of flying – airports, queues, waiting around, needless purchasing due to boredom, baggage claim, close proximity to holiday-makers in a confined space and worse of all, actually flying in a metal box – very stressful, so I do have another reason for choosing train travel!
To travel to Italy by train is actually very simple and enjoyable. Take the Eurostar to Paris then travel two stops on the RER train from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon and you can take either a daytime or overnight train to Italy. I chose to take the overnight train to Venice, returning from Milan to Paris during the day. The overnight train was quite an experience, operated by a train company called Thello who run a daily overnight service to Venice via Milan. I opted for the cheapest fare in a six-bed couchette compartment. The seats convert into two lower bunks on each side of the compartment and then there is a pull-down top bunk on each side. It was definitely very cosy and if I was going to do the journey again I would opt for a four bed couchette, which is basically the same compartment with two less people! I paid the full fare of 100 Euros however if you manage to book early enough there are some cheaper fares which are best accessed on the Trenitalia website rather than Thello’s own site. There is good information on the different options, timetables and descriptions of the trains available on the excellent seat61 website.
The return journey was on a more comfortable French TGV train, which takes about 7 hours from Milan to Paris and gives you a chance to travel through the Alps so you have some lovely scenery to pass the time. This leg of the journey was surprisingly good value, £38.50, booked on the raileurope website which I found helpful for looking at train times with Italy as well. They were charging a bit more for the overnight Thello train though.
Within Italy, train travel was very simple and much cheaper than UK train fares, for example the train from Trento to Bologna, a journey of 2 hours 40 mins, cost about £12. I’m not sure if I can go to many places for £12 in the UK!
The other element of my trip that I wanted to make more responsible was my choice of accommodation. I stayed in small, locally run B&Bs where possible, including a wonderful agritourism accommodation in the Dolomites. Agritourism usually means staying on a farm or rural accommodation and part of the concept is to experience rural life and try the local food and produce. I stayed in a beautiful converted barn in Valle de Daone which is in the southwest of Trentino province. The owners, Ascanio and Edda, were so hospitable, welcoming us into their home, cooking us wonderful local food, picking us up from the bus station and driving us to a hiking trail and waterfall. The food was typical of the region – dumplings, speck, polenta with sausage were highlights, Breakfast was home-baked bread and homemade yogurt on muesli with an apple and sultana strudel to finish. Edda cooked using food from her garden and following local recipes that have been passed down generations. Some recipes are even from individual villages!
Staying in an agritourism accommodation is definitely something I would do again. It was a great chance to meet local people and find out about their lives, traditions and food and explore the beautiful rural regions of Italy.