Friday, July 29, 2011

Planes, Trains and Aliscafi

As the Venice portion of our trip comes to a close, we begin to face the grim reality that all travellers eventually must come to grips with.  To be a traveller you have to travel.  And as anyone will tell you nowadays, travel has become a chore.  Our romantic vision of the travel of yesteryear, with its sophisticated transatlantic crossings in black tie, bandying about such high sounding terms as staterooms and steamer trunks has been overtaken with the likes of cattle class, overhead bins and checked baggage fees.  But travel in the days of yore took weeks and was available only to the rich.  Today you can say what the heck in the morning and be sitting on a beach in Phuket before the sun sets.  There are so many options for getting from point A to point B that simply planning the logistics of a trip can take more time than the trip itself.

Our journey from Venice to the island of Ponza, about an hour off the coast from Anzio goes smoothly enough and along the way we meet up with our twin teenaged sons.  But there is much, much more to this trip below the surface.  It is a veritable replay of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," but without the misadventures.

And without the pillows.

How to get from Venice, a series of islands in a lagoon on the Adriatic side of Italy, to Ponza, a big rock of an island an hour off the other coast?  Working backwards, the final leg is pretty obvious.  We have to take some sort of boat to arrive on Ponza.  But what type and from where?  Enter Google.  And a lot of guesswork and patience.

Internet research, both of articles about Ponza and those of the handful of ferryboat companies that provide service to Ponza will tell you that there are a half dozen routes from the mainland to Ponza.  Departures run from a number of towns along the coast south of Rome to the island, some on big ferries that transport cars, others on smaller, faster aliscafi, or hydrofoils.  On our first trip to Ponza we decided to go the aliscafo route, a trip that takes an hour and ten minutes from Anzio to Ponza.  It may not be a transatlantic crossing in a stateroom, but it adds a little excitement and glamor to the trip, especially at the moment when you can feel the hull of the hydrofoil lift itself out of the water and begin what is essentially and hour plus waterskiing trip to this little rock of an island.

But how to buy a ticket, on which boat, how to pay, luggage, parking.  Oy moy, the logistics can be a bit much.  Although it is possible to buy your ticket at the small kiosk in front of the ferry dock in Anzio, it is best to make a reservation and buy your ticket in advance, especially on the weekend during June and July, when the Romans all descend on the island.  Our friends Collin and Yoko, deciding last minute to spend a couple of days on Ponza after departing from their visit with us in Umbria found the morning and early afternoon departures fully booked, requiring them to take a 5pm departure and forcing them to miss a day at the beach.  But Vetor, the aliscafo operator often throws up other roadblocks, such as posting last year's ferry timetable and price list and operating an online booking engine that can best be described as horrible.  This system requires you to enter a great deal of information about each passenger and finally confirms that you can pay by credit card.  It then navigates to the merchant credit card site which begins the process anew, requiring you to receive confirmation of your transaction (which took over 45 minutes in my case) before pressing the "proceed" button on Vetor's site to confirm your reservation.  I have no idea what would happen if I did not follow this strict procedure.  As it was, we never received an email confirmation of our reservation, requiring several phone calls to a tiny ticket booth in Anzio to straighten out the mess.  Integration between the two sites is not, as they say, seamless.  There is a very visible panty line.

After four successful crossings from Anzio to Ponza, these minor challenges in booking a ferry ticket seem like an integral part of the process.  This is probably how the Italians see them.  But for the uninitiated, it is not the aliscafo, but the parking in Anzio that is an unforgettable experience.  Upon arriving in Anzio for the first time on a bright, sunny day several summers ago, we had absolutely no idea what we were going to do with our rental car for the three days we were test driving the island.  I expected there might be a car park near the ferry docks, imagining a cruise ship-type depot with glass waiting rooms and a multilevel parking garage.  The dock in Anzio is not like that.  There is a cleat for the boat to tie up to and a narrow metal gangway to onto the boat.  In front of this is a small shed that operates as a ticket booth.  No champagne, no fireworks.  No parking.

As we arrived in Anzio and made our way from the beach area toward the port, a number of swarthy young Italian men in matching tee shirts were clogging the streets.  This is Anzio's parking garage.  We pulled up in front of the dock, not quite certain that we had arrived there and a young man asked us if we were going to Ponza and needed to park.  When we replied yes, he asked us when we were returning, wrote down a few scribbles in a little ticket book and tore off the bottom half, presumably our claim check but just as likely a raffle ticket.  He took our keys, unloaded our luggage and we began our three day worryfest, wondering if our rental car insurance would cover theft in the case where we actually gave the car away.

Needless to say our car was waiting for us when we got off the ferry three days later.  And it even still had its radio.

Travelling in Italy is always an adventure.  And most of the time it works out fine and leaves you with a good story or two.

* * *

So, how to get from Venice to Anzio.  Here's the Planes, Trains and Automobiles part.

Most travellers to Italy, I imagine, would rent a car and drive to Anzio, or take a train.  Both options would be acceptable, but as with all travel there are some tradeoffs.  Driving would require being on the highway with Italians, an activity just slightly more dangerous than knife juggling (the Discovery Channel ought to consider a new Italian autostrada show along the lines of Deadliest Catch).  And it would take hours.  The train would be more relaxing (they rarely derail) but would require a couple of connections.  We opted, instead, for flying.  Selecting an airline from Europe's myriad low cost carriers.

Low cost carriers.  Those words send shudders down travellers' spines.  We love the low cost part.  Maybe it's the carrier part we don't like, such as a carrier of typhoid or gonhorrea.  Because as most seasoned travellers know, what one lcc's hand giveth, the other taketh away.  Beware the add on fees.

American low cost carriers are expert at collecting additional fees - checked baggage fees, fees for "food," charges for blankets.  One even considered charging for using the toilet (talk about the rule of unintended consequences).  The American LCCs got so good at add ons that the legacy carriers got involved and showed that they are not too entrenched to pass up additional revenue streams.  But the European LCCs have the Americans beat by a mile, led by RyanAir which has reportedly been exploring the possibility of introducing a standing room class.  And here in Italy they charge their fees and set their rules in Italian.  It is a trap waiting to be sprung on the unwary American.

EasyJet. Some restrictions may apply.
Pilot and cabin crew not included.  See box for details. 
The trick to flying on a European LCC is to pack light and to pay for your luggage when you make your reservation.  On EasyJet, which we booked from Venice to Rome, we paid for two bags at 20kg each.  That's 44 lb. and don't expect to take an ounce more.  What's more, EasyJet allows you a single carry on bag, generously allowing you as much weight as you can carry on, as long as it will fit within specified dimensions.  This is useful for LLC passengers carrying gold bars.

The cost of adding a bag at the airport is prohibitive (it could cost you one of your gold bars).  As a result there are generally a bunch of travellers at the front of the check in line frantically repacking their bags after having been told they were overweight, trying to figure out which heavy items to move into their hand luggage (no lady, that thong is not going to help you make your weight and thank you very much for searing that image in my mind).  We travel with a portable electronic baggage scale that is 50% accurate, making us 50% certain that we are not going to be charged an extra fee.  Thankfully, this time the scale is accurate (accurate enough - we are actually 2 kg. over limit, but the check in clerk must like my smile) and we are able to declare victory.  Two tickets from Venice to Rome for a pittance.

* * *

Marco Polo Airport is not in Venice.  If it were, all flights would have to have pontoons.  Instead it is on the mainland, reachable by train, taxi, water bus or water taxi.  Water taxi, a private launch that will pick you up at your hotel (if it is on the canal as our is) and drive you directly to the airport, is the most expensive option.  But at a little over €100 it is worth it.

Our driver picks us up at the Grand Canal entrance to our hotel at the appointed hour and half an hour later we are making the 7 minute walk from the dock to the check in counters.  We have avoided dragging our bags to the vaporetto stop.  To the train station.  To the Piazzale Roma.  Not having to drag your bags through the narrow streets of Venice and through the hordes of tourists, swimming against the tide like a salmon desperate to spawn is worth nearly any price.  Not that we have anything against salmon.

Boldly going where
no man has gone before.
But in addition to convenience, included in the price of the private water taxi is a heaping dose of exhileration.  The day before our departure we took a canal tour with our friend/guide Alessandro who proclaimed the water taxi driver "the best water taxi drive in all of Venice."  He was dead wrong.  Our driver to Marco Polo airport is without doubt, Venice's best.  He took us up canals that hadn't yet been discovered, maneuvered under bridges with less headroom than our boat and then opened it up when we reached the canal, ignoring the 30 KPH speed limit signs and skiing up and down the wake thrown off by boats coming the opposite direction.  The whole trip lasted less than half an hour.  But it is a memory that will last a lifetime.

* * *

The final piece of our multimodal journey was getting from the Rome airport (where we spent the night after flying from Venice so we could pick up our twin sons who arrived from the States the next morning) to Anzio.  Again, we had options, including hourly train service from Rome's Termini station, which we have taken before.  But that would require taking the train from Fiumicino airport to Termini and then a connecting train from Termini to Anzio.  Not to mention schlepping our 42 kg of luggage from the train station through town to the ferry dock.  So instead we enjoyed the trip in a spacious private van, the six of us travelling door to door in airconditioned comfort.  And this really was door to door to door service, as the driver met our sons at baggage claim in the airport and then picked up the rest of our group at the airport hotel before heading south along the coast to Anzio.

* * *

Travel in Italy, as everywhere, can be an ordeal.  It is costly, crowded and dull.  But with a little, or perhaps a lot of planning, it can be enjoyable.  If it is true that life is a journey, you might as well enjoy the ride.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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