europe: of majestic vistas and petty crimes

memory & reality disconnect –  europe 15 years on

vernazza – one of the cinque terre villages

i remember italy with fondness. the tragic history of pompeii; that to-die-for margherita at a roadside pizzeria in napoli, the grand and imposing st petersburg in roma, the cool wind-surfing dudes at lake garda. these left an indelible imprint on my mind.

and a close brush with a mafia-like car rental in napoli. they attempted to haggle an obscene sum from us for a small side mirror (shattered, our fault). we got that fixed for €15, ruffled feathers were soothed, body count was zero.

in europe recently, it is not uncommon to see big guys in full military garb (and rifles) patrolling around popular tourist sites. well, that didn’t stop our wallet from being nipped (in milano). trip to the police post: 1; euros lost: a few hundreds. 😦

the place where we lost the last of our euros

certainly, europe isn’t as safe as it was 15 years ago (and you never know when terrorists are going to show up). the only consolation: losing those monies on the last day.   

the itinerary 

paradiso park

crime or no crime, people still flock to europe in summer like flies. because there’s just so much beauty and history to explore and enjoy. nevermind that each year, entry fees get more and more expensive. we are masochists, all of us. and this is how this masochist packed them in, in 15 days.

day 0 –  singapore to milano
day 1 – milano to firenze (malpensa->milano centrale->firenze s.m. nouvella)
day 2 – day trip to siena (by bus – sitabus)
day 3 – firenze
day 4 – firenze to la spezia, side trip to portovenere (portovenere bus)
day 5 – cinque terre (get the cinque terra pass at la spezia station)
day 6 – la spezia to torino, collect car, drive to locana
day 7 – paradiso park hike
day 8 – back to torino, bus to aosta to courmayeur (savda bus)
day 9 – hike at courmayeur, then bus to chamonix (la vachey bus; chamonix bus)
day 10 – chamonix, aiguille du midi, mont blanc, montenvers hike
day 11 – chamonix to zermatt (gornergrat)
day 12 – sunnegga 5 lakes hike
day 13 – zermatt to milano
day 14 – milano
day 15 – milano to singapore

i have my hiking advisors lai and wendy to thank. in fact, this course was based on their template, already very thoroughly researched. that’s tip # 1: enlist the help of domain experts.

name the originals please 

firenze’s duomo – view from piazzale michelangelo

just so you don’t find yourself lost, in the middle of nowhere looking for that exit on the highway to ‘florence‘, there’s no ‘florence‘. in italy, they call it firenze. how firenze became florence or vice versa may lead to a rumination of hundreds of years’ worth of history (we’re not going there). meanwhile, milan is milano, venice is venezia, turin is torino and rome is roma.

i don’t recall having this problem with chamonix and zermatt though.

transport

train station – milano centrale

whether you are taking the train or the bus, if you are able to fix the schedule and generate the e-ticket, do it. print a hard copy of the ticket with the qr code if you can. if not, save it on your mobile but a hard copy is always more convenient.

booking tickets online saves time and all that hassle frazzle looking for the ticket booths, waiting in line and getting pissed off by the not-so-customer-friendly train staff. and if you arrive late, say after 7pm, they may not even be there. so go ahead, book those tickets online whenever you can. pre-planning also helps to reduce the number of train transfers.

you need a train to get up near matterhorn too

for italy, trenitalia is the site to go to. there are no train passes city-to-city in italy though there may be promotions from time-to-time. if you are getting in and out via milano, you should consider the malpensa airport express. this is a return ticket between milano’s malpensa airport and some key stations in milano (not just milano centrale). it is cheaper than single-trip tickets (by about €6).

view from bus

buses are a great way to travel especially between mountain resorts. they are cheaper and you get unobstructed, gorgeous views enroute. again the same rule-of-thumb applies. buy tickets online whenever possible especially for long-haul trips. if that is not possible, buy them at the bus terminal. if the buses ply a more local route, buy them from the tabacchi shops. don’t waste time trying to buy them from train stations. they don’t sell them.

cars are a must

cars are a must if you need to get to remote areas that are hardly serviced by buses. rental cars are not expensive if there’s enough people to share the bill; they cost up to €100 for a normal sedan, manual, includes 48 hour of use time or 200km (gas, insurance included). again, book your car online and pay when you collect it. we used trenitalia’s car rental service maggiore.

gotta get back to the car asap

more tips:

  • there’s usually only 1 toilet in train stations and you need to pay a bomb to use it (€1 per entry). alternatively buy something from macdonald’s then you may get free access to their bathroom.
  • trains in italy are almost always late (10-20 min is usual).
  • check your train platform number on the notice boards next to the platforms. the platforms may change at the last minute but should not be very far from the usual one.
  • get to the airport at least 3 hours beforehand. they are notorious for … (fill in the blank yourself).
stay

house at locana

airbnb is the way to go; book early to get the best locations/prices. almost all the airbnb we stayed at were friendly, flexible with the time, allowed us to leave our luggages at the premises. and we got to meet the hosts, most of the time.

view from hotel croux, courmayeur

but the 2 hotels we stayed at offered something else – a concierge staffed by knowledgeable staff who short-cut our learning process considerably. we got good recommendations, had reservations made for us and a wonderfully sumptuous breakfast in the morning. the breakfast was a godsend, on a day we were going to do a long trek. the best start ever was one that began with a full belly. this mix-and-match suited us perfectly especially when some places (say, chamonix, zermatt) were expensive so we had to be flexible.

internet connectivity

the signal’s bright and clear even in the mountains – courmayeur

getting a tourist sim isn’t as straightforward as in southeast asia. in most airports here, you can purchase a tourist sim card at the arrival hall without much fuss. i couldn’t find a price-friendly pan-europe tourist sim card that met my needs but likely my telco service had a plan that allowed me to data-roam in europe for 1 month for an affordable fee (singtel’s 35-country s$35-for-1gbps data). in italy, tim offers a €20 and €30 plan for tourists. note that these take a while to activate (1-2 hours). for a more comprehensive discussion on sim cards, refer to this post here.

sightseeing tickets

duomo

many popular places are booked out early in summer so as much as possible, get the tickets online. places like firenze’s uffizi and duomo require visitors to not only the book tickets, but also reserve the timeslot you wish to visit. typically, a reservation fee applies (€1-3) but it’s totally worth it because you reduce stress and fatigue (that ticket queue can be 1-2 hours long). some venues are so popular (the last supper at milano), tickets and reservation slots are completely sold out/taken up online, months before. looks like europeans are not immune to kiasuism afterall.

epilogue

bravely i must go forth -aiguille du midi/mont blanc

when i watched the mont blanc squad trek out into the snow, i was filled with trepidation and admiration for them. what an adventure it’s going to be. and it brought to mind this little passage from dr seuss’s oh, the places you’ll go!:

you’re off to great places!
today is your day!
your mountain is waiting,
so… get on your way!

i was introduced to dr seuss 15 years ago, while getting on my way in europe, thanks to my learned friend. it was beautiful then as it is beautiful now.

i’ll be back.

visited 23 jun – 8 july 2017

 

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