Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘Italy

Roma

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This is the third, and final, instalment on my trip to Italy. And, as is common to blogs, it’s backwards, in that Rome is where our trip began.

On the way from the gate where we got off the plane, to the baggage carousel, there were all kinds of the usual retail opportunities that airports offer, and, indeed, depend upon. One of them was for the mobile phone company TIM, that internet research had shown to offer the best value for what I wanted. I bought a SIM card for my smart phone. It cost me 30€ ($46.87) of which about half was prepaid for calls, and the rest for 2G of high speed data (and unlimited low speed thereafter) and unlimited texts for the month. I think. The clerk’s English was barely adequate and all the documentation is, of course, is Italian. I was given documents to sign, and I though I was saying I did NOT want adverts by text. But it was the reverse. I got a daily barrage of incomprehensible offers by text from TIM the whole month. But now I was not dependent on wifi, and could access the internet anywhere. My phone also has Word Lens that is supposed to translate signs and stuff, and was almost entirely useless. I needed something to translate the translations. More than once I was glad of the data link to access Google Maps and sort out not just where we were but what direction we ought to head off in. It also meant that when I booked our trip to Venice, all I had to do was show the conductor on the trains the automated text message the FS system had sent me.

We were picked up from the airport by prior arrangement, and the journey into Rome was one of the scariest experiences I have had in a motor vehicle short of actually being in a collision. Afterwards we solemnly abandoned any thought of renting a car in Italy.

Roman parking

This is on the street where we rented an apartment. This car is not pulling out of a side street. It is parked. It is not unusual to see cars parked on the corner. They more usually park at an angle. The corner is usually the only place where there is a space to park. As pedestrians, we found that we were always taking what in a Canadian context would be very risky activity. If you wait at the curb, cars do not stop. You have to step into the traffic to show you are serious about crossing. Even then, motorcycles and scooters will simply weave around you as you cross. Fortunately many roads are narrow and often parked up on both sides. Most urban areas have one way streets, which result in much faster speeds.

Tiber embankment

Testaccio used to be part of the ancient Roman port facilities. It was redeveloped at the end of the 19th century as an industrial area with workers’ housing, and hosted the city’s slaughterhouse.

The river was prone to flooding, and the embankment process greatly reduced access to the waterside. Look at the height of the embankment and imagine that imposed on the Richmond dykes: or the waterfronts of Vancouver. Rome had to face floods every spring as it is surrounded by mountains – as we are. The rich lived on the hills: the ghetto regularly got flooded. That changed at the end of the nineteenth century for them. I suspect that it will have to change for us too, and in much shorter order than we are currently contemplating.

Riparian cycle track

Trastevere, on the other side of the Tiber, has this two way cycle and pedestrian trail. I was lucky to be able to catch a cyclist actually using it. The Lonely Planet Guide has this to say about cycling “The centre of Rome doesn’t lend itself to cycling: there are steep hills, treacherous cobbled roads and the traffic is terrible.”

City Bikesharing

We saw several of these stations, but never any bikes. The only information I can find on line is entirely negative. There were no bikes in 2011 either. Lonely Planet does not mention bikesharing.

Ancient Rome is still in the centre of the City and most is unrestored ruins. This is the Forum – a view taken from Il Vittoriano. What is very noticeable about this view of the Eternal City is the amount of tree canopy, and the absence of modern high rise buildings.

Centro Storico

Pedestrian street

There is a connected network of these streets across the Centro Storico.

Pop up road closure

I would like to see greater use of these barriers to car use in more cities. Robson St might be a suitable candidate, with trolleybus activation of barriers/signals.

Protected two way bike lane, Testaccio

Our neighbourhood had seen some traffic calming with this protected bike lane, and bumpouts for pedestrian crossings. Though you will note the pedestrian taking the more direct, diagonal route across the intersection. I did not actually see anyone use the bike lane, but I admire the vertical stanchions along the curb to prevent any danger of dooring.

There are many famous public spaces in Rome. Below is Piazza Navona – which was at that time the subject of some dispute between the authorities and the artists who rely on the tourists for their living.

Piazza Navona

Others are very impressive spaces, but seem to serve very little actual purpose. Or perhaps had one once that has now been lost.

The view from Pincio Hill

This is Piazza del Popolo, once the site of public executions. At least they managed to keep it clear of traffic unlike the similar Place de la Concorde in Paris.

We did use the two line underground Metro. There is a third line now under construction, but progress is slow possibly due to the huge haul of archaeological material uncovered whenever you dig anywhere in Rome. It was reliable in some of the worst traffic disruptions, but not actually pleasant to use due to the crowding and the persistent presence of piano accordion players – some very young children. Begging – and demanding money with menaces at railway stations – is a real problem. We prefer surface travel, but one trip on Tram Number 3 from Piramide (near our apartment) to the Modern Art Gallery at the other end of the line took all morning! Trams do have some exclusive rights of way – but they often have to share them with buses and taxis and seem to have no ability to affect traffic signals.

7029 with bow collector

There are two “albums” on flickr of public transport in general and trams in particular. Rome used to have an extensive tram network, but unlike other cities never abandoned it completely and has upgraded some lines in recent years with modern low floor articulated cars and reserved rights of way. Route 8 through Trastevere is one the better efforts. Our local service, route 3B along Marmorata, was curtailed during our stay due to track maintenance.  We did best by choosing some of the designated express bus routes, which simply stop less often than regular services, rather like the B Line. Bus stops in Rome have very detailed information on them about services – but rarely have real time information. And the sale of bus maps is a commercial activity, not a public service. In the event of service disruptions, having a smart phone was no help as no information was available in English.

We did a lot of walking in Rome. There are lots of parks – Villa Borghese for instance, which is no longer an actual villa just its gardens. And we were next to one of the nicer neighbourhoods, Aventino, sort of a Roman Shaughnessy. So we saw a lot of a relatively small area, and not very much of the rest of the city, apart from one trip out of town to Ostia Antica (fantastic) – and on a our return an overnight stay in Fiumicino, which is not really worth visiting if it were not for the airport. The biggest issue was the tourists. Many more people are travelling these days, especially those from Eastern Europe who were once forbidden to travel but can now afford to do so. They all want to go to the same places, so the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and Mouth of Truth are beseiged all day. Rome of course still attracts pilgrims. If you are not one of those avoid the Vatican on Thursday mornings when the Pope addresses the faithful in St Peter’s Square and the Colosseum on Mondays when it is one of the few sites that is open. And if you have the guide book and it promises you “secrets” you can bet your life every other tourist has the same guidebook in their own language and is headed the same way. How else to explain the line up to peek through the keyhole of a locked door on a monastery – to get as glimpse of the dome of St Peters, more easily seen from a park a few metres away?

They all read the same guide books

Written by Stephen Rees

June 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Venezia

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This blog is being assembled differently to my usual practice. I am going to start with one image, called to mind by a tweet by Taras Grescoe

Funny how people will cross oceans or drive for days for pleasure of being in a place without cars. (Venice, …

We were in Florence but decided to go to Venice on a whim. We could get there in two hours on a high speed train, but that’s too long for a day trip, I think. I booked on line and got a cheaper fare by extending the stay. So we stayed two nights, not one. And Venice is not cheap. (OK since you ask, round trip train fare $226, two 72 hour transit passes $110, hotel two nights $500 – but it was steps from San Marco, and included breakfast.)

Ponte della Constituzione

Ponte della Constituzione is new bridge that links the Ferrovia to the port and the bus station. On one side Venice is as it has always been. A city where you walk or take a boat. On the other side is the “real world” – buses, cars, a people mover to the cruise ship terminal.

When we got to this point, on our last day, I did not want to go any further. There was plenty of time before our train would leave, but it was not going to be spent on the other side of this bridge. Below is what you see when you look the other way

The view from the crest of the bridge 1

View from crest of the bridge 2

In front of the ferrovia and one’s first view of the city when you get off the train. Immediately in front are the fermata for the vaporetti. The guide books warn of the need to be careful about checking route numbers and boat directions, but we quickly found that to be a mainlander’s obsession. The secret to enjoying Venice is to get a pass covering the whole time of your stay, and just get on the boat you see first. It really doesn’t matter all that much (as long as you avoid the extra fee for the airport runs) as wherever you get to will be just as interesting and attractive as wherever else you might have been thinking about. In fact the very first ride we took, the No 2 was not going up the Grand Canal to Rialto and thus reach San Marco, but through the port and then the much wider (and, as it happens, more direct) Canale della Giudecca. So we didn’t see the Grand Canal that trip – but would later – and landed a little further east. Where there was a very nice and not too expensive place for lunch, on the terrace, with a view of San Giorgio Maggiore. Yes it was a longer boat ride, but that was actually a benefit. I relaxed and enjoyed the ride and forgot about schedules and check in times.

Fmta and Ponte degli Scalzi

In Venice we stopped trying to fit in the required “top sites” and art galleries. We just wandered until we felt like sitting down – or saw a boat going somewhere. We did not use water taxis or gondolas: they are far too expensive, and fit the needs of others, not us.

There is quite a new housing development at the outer end of Cannaregio. I got the impression the arch is simply decorative, whereas others clearly were needed to stop the buildings leaning towards each other. Note too the ramp down to the Fondamenta (wharf) there are very few concessions to wheeled traffic in Venice.

Newer archway

Venice may be mostly about walking, but the city is still dependent on fossil fuelled internal combustion engines. I think this arrangement is a lot neater than the Chevron barge moored in Coal Harbour, but no doubt the residents and seawall enthusiasts would disagree.

Gas Station

There is not, of course, a “typical” Venetian scene. This one of the minor canals through Cannaregio.

Fondamenta de la Capuzine

I took the title from one of the street signs on the side of the building. These use local dialect rather than more formal Italian which would render the same place Fundamenta delle Cappucine. If new signs go up that ignore local usage they are simply obliterated by locals who want to hang on to their identity rather than meet the needs of tourists, who rely on maps and worry about getting lost.

Campo Ghetto Nuovo

If Shylock had been real, this is where he would have lived. This now the location of the Museo Ebraico. That is a police box at the centre of the picture at the back of the square: our visit came just after the attack near the Paris synagogue and security was heightened. It was probably a good thing that I wasn’t, by now, paying much attention to the news.

Calle Goldoni

A fairly representative example of the size of the passageways between buildings. I found GPS useless as the phone quickly lost any orientation because of the buidlings’ proximity.

Rialto Bridge

One of the few bridges crossing the Grand Canal. The shops are pretty much devoted to tourist tchochkes. There are plenty of street signs at intersections that point towards Rialto or San Marco.

Rialto Bridge

This is the more familiar view from the deck of the vaporetto.

Campo San Polo

Not far from the Rialto is this large open square. We had dinner one evening at Birra La Corte and watched boys playing football over to the right. Those are EU Election posters. I got the impression that there were extra points for hitting a politician with the ball. The local police intervened, as all ball games are forbidden in Venice except in designated playgrounds.

We came across this place on one of our first long walks. Originally my partner thought we should walk from the station to the hotel: it didn’t look that far to her. But I had visited the city once before and had a very clear memory of how confusing the passageways can be. It wasn’t like we were pulling rolling suitcases either, thank goodness, but I said we would be better off on the boat, when we could then drop off the carry-on bags. Well, I explained above how that went. So after lunch and then checking in, we took the direct boat back to the station and then started walking the route Google laid out for us. And after a while, just put the phone away and wandered in the approximate direction, finding the odd dead end and plenty of photo opportunities.

She likes to walk for exercise. And I must admit that the arthritis in my knee did not bother me all month – until I was stuck for nine hours in a seat on the plane back. But I have also persuaded her of the joys of loitering. Becoming a flaneur in Paris. Using the camera as an excuse to stop and look around. Venice is even better than Paris in that respect.

Flickr is being more than usually balky this morning, so I am going to end this here for now.

More pictures have been put on flickr and added to the group there that I created and curate. It’s called Places Without Cars.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2014 at 10:24 am

Travel comparison

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I have just booked online a train journey between Rome and Florence – and back. That’s 284km and will take about 90 minutes each way, on one of these.

And just to compare I asked Google how long the trip from Vancouver to Seattle would take. That’s 227km and it says 3 hours and 10 minutes “in traffic” midday and ignores the line up at the border. By train the Amtrak Cascades schedule says 4 hours and 25 minutes.  Or 3:45 on the bus!

 

Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm