At long last we boarded our plane. We climbed into our seats, which held a pair of headphones and a blanket to ease our overnight flight. Each seat had its own small TV and a surprisingly impressive selection of new movies to choose from, free of charge. After the plane lifted off the ground and the turbulence turned to a slow hum, we chose our unmemorable movies and settled in for the long flight.
Emirates’ drink varieties were as impressive as their movie selection, with a wide variety of alcoholic beverages available alongside the typical soft drinks and juices. Again, even the alcoholic drinks were free of charge (or more accurately, rolled into the price of our tickets). Unlike the budget airlines I was accustomed to, there were no hidden charges or unexpected costs thrown at us. Quite the opposite, in fact. I did not expect quite the level of luxury that awaited us. Even the food was more than tolerable, verging on tasty.
The only uncomfortable experience I had with the flight was being unable to recline my seat. The man next to me showed me how he reclined his, but mine refused to cooperate. As a result, I probably only slept for about an hour for the entire flight, but excitement and adrenaline for the adventure ahead sustained me well enough.
Because of the time difference (6 hours), we arrived at Malpensa Airport in Milan, Italy around noon. Oddly enough, there were no customs checks other than simply showing our passport to an agent in a booth. Not a single baggage check. While this was convenient, we kept doubting ourselves whether we missed a turn, questioning whether it was supposed to be so simple for foreigners like us to leave the airport.
Our plan was to ride the Malpensa Express train from the airport to Milano Centrale, the main train station in Milan about 50 minutes away. However, we found the airport confusing and could not find our way to the Malpensa Express. After wandering around for over a half an hour, we changed our plans and paid for the first bus we found featuring a sign for Milano Centrale. Fortunately, tickets were 10 euros each, so the price was comparable to the train and probably more comfortable. We were just happy to be heading in the right direction.
When we arrived at Milano Centrale, we found a ticket booth (biglietteria) and explained that we were looking for the next available, cheapest tickets to Venezia. Thankfully, almost all the ticket salesmen in Italy spoke English, so the language barrier was no big problem yet. We paid our 81 euros for two tickets and walked into the train station. While we had read about and seen video of Milano Centrale, we weren’t quite prepared for the chaos that is finding and boarding your train. Compounding the stress of the fast-approaching departure time were the labyrinthine levels and stairs required to climb before finding the boarding area.
Upon arriving at the main gate, there was a crowd of people looking up at an electronic board listing all the upcoming departures. Everybody was waiting and watching so eagerly because the platform number for your particular train does not get listed until shortly before boarding starts. We saw that our train was 5 or 10 minutes delayed, but when we saw our platform number come up and everybody made a dash to that platform, we followed the crowd and boarded. We were a little early, but we figured the train would just wait until the departure time to take off. The train left a little before the time printed on our ticket, but we didn’t think much of it. Sleep deprived and physically fatigued, we were happy just to be able to sit and relax, fading in and out of sleep. Only three more hours were left until we’d arrive in Venice.
An hour later, the train stopped and everybody got off, far ahead of schedule. We didn’t see any signs saying Venice and it certainly didn’t appear to be a busy enough train station to be Venice. Panicking, we talked to the first people we could find just outside of the train, an older Italian couple who didn’t speak a word of English. After asking as clearly as we could whether we were in Venice, it was clear we were not and that we should get off the train. A few minutes had already passed and it was becoming obvious it was not going any further. This was the last stop.
We had arrived in a train station in what looked to be a working-class, lower-income area called Bergamo. We talked to everybody we could find at the train station, including a woman at the ticket booth, and nobody spoke English. As time was passing quickly, we kept fearing this was a connecting stop, and that we were missing the next train to Venice. It was an incredibly unsettling feeling being in a completely unfamiliar city where your cellular data is so slow as to be almost unusable and you are unable to communicate with anyone, no matter how hard you try.
Thankfully, we finally found a friendly and helpful young Pakistani guy, perhaps 20 years old, who spoke a little English. He said he had time before his train was going to arrive and he graciously walked with us to the ticket office. With the help of his interpretation, we explained our situation to the man at the ticket booth, and he informed us that we had boarded the wrong train and that our current tickets were no longer valid. No matter how much we tried to plead with him, it was to no avail. We had to buy brand new tickets and eat the cost of the previous tickets as a painful learning experience. 75 additional euros and another hour or more later, we were back on our way to Venice again. This time, though, we were aboard the slow train.
There are two types of train tickets in Italy. The first is a general use ticket. These don’t have a particular date or time printed on them, but are good for one ride to a particular location, redeemable within 30 days of purchase. If you get this type of ticket, you’ll have to validate it before you get on your train. Otherwise, you could face a hefty fine. To validate your ticket, you stick it in one of the green machines that can be found on just about any train platform. The machine will print a date and time onto your ticket. The other type of ticket is only good for the specific date and time printed on the ticket. If you get this kind of ticket and you miss your train’s departure, you’re out of luck. But, you don’t need to worry about validating this type because it is only good once, anyway.
Because of all our delays, we did not arrive in Venice until almost 7:00 p.m., much later than our anticipated 3:00. While the city was absolutely beautiful, we were too worn out and hungry by this time to fully appreciate the scenery. We had barely slept at all in the past 30 hours, and due to the train fiasco we hadn’t eaten since our breakfast on the plane. Using our free T-Mobile international data, we pulled up Google Maps directions from our itinerary and followed the phone down a series of dark, yet peaceful alley-ways to our hotel.
We were immensely relieved to find that the concierge was at the front desk and that he spoke English. 24-hour English-speaking reception was a luxury we would soon find should never be assumed in a low-cost Italian hotel.
As soon as we arrived in our tiny room, we dropped our 20-25 pound backpacks from our shoulders and enjoyed a moment of relief. We didn’t stop for more than a few minutes, though, before we showered up, brushed our teeth, and went back out to the streets to find the nearest restaurant. Because of our extreme hunger, we didn’t spend time to look up restaurant reviews and costs ahead of time as we should. Instead, we opted for a nearby pizzeria. While we were excited to fill our famished stomachs with authentic Italian pizza, our excitement dissipated when the mediocre pizza, beer, and water arrived, followed by a 40-euro check. Ouch. Another expensive lesson learned on our first day in Italy.
With our stomachs fuller and our wallets emptier, we could finally appreciate the charm and beauty of Venice. Vaporettos (water taxis) and gondolas glided down the Grand Canal, the main waterway that weaved through the city instead of streets. Lining the canal were rustic houses, cafes, shops, and restaurants, filled with honeymooners and romantics enjoying each other’s company as much as my wife and I were.
For the next hour or so we wandered the city without any particular destination in mind, enjoying the cool breeze off the canal and the relaxed atmosphere before returning to the hotel for some long-overdue sleep.
The next day, the real fun was to begin. Our first full day in Italy…