Coping with a train strike in Italy

This item appears on page 17 of the January 2012 issue.

During my Italy trip in May ’11 (Nov. ’11, pg. 15), I was set to travel by train from Riva del Garda to Varenna on Sunday, May 22, when I heard the ominous news: Trenitalia was on strike!

The first part of the journey went as planned, by taxi from Riva del Garda to Rovereto, about 27 kilometers away, for €40 (near $55).

For the rest of the trip, I had purchased tickets for reserved first-class seats on RailEurope by calling RailEurope (800/622-8600) while in the US and using an agent at a charge of $15. The Intercity train to Verona cost $18, transfer to Milan on an EuroStarCity train cost $41 and the final leg, Milan to Varenna, cost $14.

As I waited at the station in Ro­vereto, an Italian couple grinned at me, crossed their fingers and said, “Speriamo!” (“We are hoping!”). Our hope was rewarded; other trains were posted “Delayed,” but ours came in only slightly late.

We crossed paths once more in Verona and waited again, breathing a sign of relief upon boarding.

In Milan, however, my luck ran out. My last train for the one-hour ride to Varenna was a “local,” and locals are the ones most affected during a strike. Sure enough, on the sign above my platform, opposite “Varenna” was “SOP” (for “soppresso”), which, I quickly learned, meant my train was canceled.

What to do? At the information office I learned there was another train to Varenna at 4 p.m. but no guarantee that it would go. (I learned later that the strike didn’t end until 9 that evening.) I knew the local buses would be full of people trying to get home, plus I had no idea where to find one or buy a bus ticket or even if I could get myself on board with luggage.

Outside the terminal I found a taxi stand. First in line was an older car with an elderly driver who didn’t speak English, but he understood “Varenna.” He began putting my luggage into the trunk, but when I got a quote from him I found I didn’t have enough euros on me and he didn’t take credit cards. He unloaded the luggage.

Finally, the driver of a new Volvo taxi came forward and said he could accept a credit card. After he made a call to the head office, we drove off. He didn’t go too fast and he spoke good English, both of which were comforting.

After we crossed a bridge and drove into Lecco, at the foot of Lake Como, there was a detour because of a race. We had to turn around and find another bridge, which ran up the meter. Proceeding along the lake, we got to my hotel in Varenna.

When he ran my card, however, his credit card machine didn’t get a signal; he even tested his own card. We headed back up into the little town, where we both had seen a Bancomat. Leaving both pieces of my luggage in the taxi but taking my purse, I waited in line to use the machine; we both could see each other.

With euros in hand, we both were greatly relieved. I don’t know what he would have done had I not been able to pay.

He honored the fare he quoted in Milan, €130 ($179), although our detours had run the meter up to about €150. I tipped him €10 and his face lit up. He gave me a receipt and his contact information (Mirko Taxi #1303; phone 393402313237) in case the credit card charge had, in fact, gone through somehow, but it had not.

With traffic, the taxi ride took about 1½ hours; the Milan-Varenna train, for which I had prepaid $14, takes just over an hour. RailEurope is not responsible for strikes, however, so I received no refund for my unused ticket.

On our way to Varenna, the taxi driver told me that Italian Rail employees usually strike on Sunday or a holiday in order to best enjoy the day, themselves.

But all’s well that ends well, even if the end result is very costly.

Portland, OR