Home » Chronicles » Exploring Bella Italy By Rail

Exploring Bella Italy By Rail

Italy – I fall in love every time I visit!

Traveling this time to visit the places we had not yet visited, opened my eyes once again to the real beauty that Italy possesses.  This is truly an amazing country to visit – again, and again!

Relaxing on the rails

Using the rails in Italy is very efficient! I certainly prefer first class rail tickets! I relaxed in a personal, large leather seat with power and space – comfortable enough to even have a nap! The space comes with a table to work from, beverages and small snacks delivered. Large, clean washrooms are located at the car junctions. Yes, the “conductors” really do come by and check your tickets. Unless you are doing simple point to point travel – consider rail passes. They will save you money and time. When you are ready to confirm your European Rail Vacation just get in touch – I’m happy to share all my insights of rail travel with you!


Our journey began in Milan. This is an expensive city to visit – both food and accommodations are very pricey. It was just a 2 night stay here so we could take part in a walking tour and see the incredibly moving mural – The Last Supper.

This is not really a tourist destination like other cities in Italy, but what it does offer does not disappoint. The beautiful Piazza del Duomo should be something you visit, but the crowing glory for me is The Last Supper mural.

Shopping reigns supreme in Milan – high end shops are easy to find, and window displays are truly something to walk by and take pictures of. So, if you love to shop, don’t miss the Quadrilatero d’Oro, or Golden Quad!

A lady approaches for a “spin”

The beautiful and ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is home to the strangest tradition. Located directed across from the Duomo, where high end shopping rules, you will find a mosaic dancing bull tiled on the floor. Builder Giuseppe Mengoini fell to his death just before the completion of the project, and now, to avoid similar bad luck, tourists and locals grind their heals into the bull’s testicles (said to be the spot where he fell) and try to spin backwards three times. It’s not easy to do!!! The “mall” is beautiful – don’t forget to visit here as well.

The Duomo, with its white façade, 3400 statues and 135 spires that reach toward the heavens is really beautiful and unlike any other church. The interior of the church is beautifully divided into five naves being held up by 52 columns. There are incredible stained-glass windows, marble floors and incredible artwork from the masters. The Duomo houses the most precious relic: a nail said to be from Christ’s cross. Its location is marked by a light high in the apse. As is with the many churches of Italy, its crypts hold caskets of saints and martyrs of the early church.

The Duomo (Cathedral)

The Last Supper mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the world’s most iconic images. It has been replicated and commercialized. However, this incredible work of art is hidden away on a wall of the refectory adjoining the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie. You would never know it was there if you weren’t told to meet your guide at the Basilica. It’s a strictly enforced visitor experience here – you must have a reservation, and enter with a guide, in small groups of no more than 25 and are only permitted 15 minutes to visit the mural. It is also a sealed environment to further protect the image.

The room with the Last Supper on one end wall

One of the most moving aspects was to learn how everything surrounding the wall the mural was destroyed by bombs. It survived, in part due to the incredible foresight of those who sealed it behind pillows and sandbags. The ceiling collapsed and left the Last Supper mural exposed to the elements. Don’t miss it when you visit!

The Codex Atlanticus is the largest collection of da Vinci’s drawings in the world. You can see the sheets at the Biblioteca e Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Museums are everywhere and well worth your visit.


After our two-day visit to Milan, we hopped onto our train and headed for Florence. It’s a direct express train and takes about 2 hours. We arrived into Santa Maria Novella station our hotel, the Hotel Roma, was located a very short walk away – the perfect location for this visit to Florence as we were heading out and about and not focusing on the city. Like most Italian cities, be prepared for cobblestone streets – they can play havoc on our rolling suitcases – so don’t forget to lift or carry them over really bumpy sections!

The secret to finding less expensive amazing food is to move away from the piazzas and explore the narrow back streets. Food in Florence will not disappoint. Stop and talk to the locals – they will definitely share their favorite places to grab a bite, a coffee, or a glass of wine.

Lucca and Pisa

The next day, we were met by our driver who took us and 3 other tourists to Lucca and Pisa. This was a very long day, and we enjoyed every minute of it. For this tour, we basically paid for the driver and his expertise before coming into the two locations. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to just get out and explore on our own!

The wall around Lucca

Our first stop was Lucca. I loved it here! This town has never been bombed, so it’s beautifully intact walls, churches and shops are so inviting. The walls around the old city were built in the 16th and 17th centuries and either biking or walking them is a must when you visit here! Of course, churches and towers mark the center where everyone gathers, and the churches are plentiful and inviting. They house the most incredible painted and sculptural art. It’s an incredibly walkable town and getting around is easy.


We continued our semi-private tour to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower and the Field of Miracles.

This square is beautiful. It’s gleaming white marble buildings and green grass fields immediately draws you in and the busyness of the city behind you just melts away. For us it was a beautiful day, as the bright blue sky behind all this white marble, made it even more striking.

The Tower is the first building you see, and it cannot be explained with words. It looks unreal as if it were a painting that someone made an error with. You are able to walk around it and get all types of angles which enhance the 3.9-degree tilt. You can really get a sense of the tilt, by just looking at the base of this incredible tower. If you want to climb the tower, you will have to purchase a ticket. The line can be long – be patient! It’s really amusing to watch the visitors from afar as they look for the perfect distance and angle to get a picture of themselves “holding the tower” or something like that! I did not! You can really get a sense of the lean by taking a look at the base of the Tower.

The base of the tower really shows the leaning

The Cathedral and Baptistry are just as striking. It’s free to enter these two, but you must have a ticket – get yours before you go to the doors.

At the end of the tour, in the shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, our driver opened a bottle of champagne in celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary! It was incredibly thoughtful and enjoyed by the five of us!


With rail passes in hand, we boarded our train once again to travel from Florence to Assisi. It’s not easy getting there, and we did have a connection in Cortona. The rail station for Assisi is about 3.5 km away and it’s all uphill! You can take a taxi or the local bus which ran every 30 minutes.

Assisi really surprised me – it’s larger than I thought, and it’s perched high on a hilltop as well. Terraces separate the hilltop town into smaller sections. There are plenty of guided walking tours here – but we explored on our own. We took a full day here. If you plan to go, don’t schedule just a few hours – you may not be able to experience all Assisi to offer.

A view of Assisi on the hilltop from our train as we approach the station

Famous for being the home of St Francis, his presence is felt everywhere, and this truly is a place of pilgrimage for many.

As you approach Assisi, you really can’t miss the Basilica di San Francesco – it is visible from afar! The upper level of the Basilica is full of Giotto frescoes depicting the life of St Francis, and the lower level was filled with more incredible art from other artists, but it’s main draw is the Crypt below the lower level where the tomb of St Francis resides. Its quiet, humbling and moving.

It’s incredibly hilly here – I suggest starting at the top and working your way down – way down!

Perched at the very top of this hilltop is the Roman Amphitheater and the now private grounds of the ancient oval. The Amphitheatre dates backs to the 1st century! The Rocca Maggiore and Rocca Minore are another reminder of when the town was in need of refuge in times of attack.

The Cathedral of San Rufino holds the tomb of this beloved patron saint of Assisi. Both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were baptized in this church and their original certificates are held it the church near the baptismal font. The Basilica of St. Clare is a little further down the hill, and you are able to visit her tomb as well. Several other churches are also here in Assisi, and even if you are not there on a pilgrimage, you can’t help but be draw into their beauty and historic significance.

Amazing views are everywhere and stopping to enjoy them are truly part of the experience of your visit to Assisi. The people are incredibly kind and friendly. The food is all local – and you can have everything from a hotdog to the very best of pasta.

Looking down towards the Cathedral of San Rufino

Despite the heat and having to walk up and down so many slippery hills, my visit to Assisi stands as a highlight of this whole vacation.

Naples and Sorrento

Mt. Vesuvius from train approaching Naples

Once again we were on the rails – this time from Florence to Naples. We did not stay in Naples, but traffic here is crazy! If you plan on visiting this seaside city, be prepared for absolute madness on the roads. We then met our driver who took us to Sorrento, approximately 1 hour away and our home for three nights. Roads are narrow and very busy, making them susceptible to incidents that can create traffic nightmares. So, if you need to be somewhere at a specific time, be sure to leave yourself plenty of travel time just in case. Our drive to Sorrento took 2 hours because of an accident in a tunnel, but our return trip the Naples train station took the usual 1 hour.

While approaching Naples we noticed a very large mountain looming. Taking a look at Maps, we figured it to be Mt Vesuvius and snapped a picture just in case. Well, nothing could have prepared me for the inevitable “WOW” that was coming once we arrived at the train station.

Restaurant table view of Naples and Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius lies about 9 km east of Naples and a short distance from the shore. It literally takes your breath away when you see it. I’ve seen many volcanoes and even walked on some. This volcano is so close it dominates the shore and commands your attention. It amazes me that homes are built halfway up it’s slopes. Even before we visited Pompeii, we got a real sense of the absolute fear and feeling of helplessness one would feel when it erupted in 79 AD and when it will erupt again. There is no where to run from its fury.

Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast

Happy that we had a driver to take us to Sorrento, we sat back and took in the amazing views from the cliffside, ocean drive from Naples to our hotel. Located just a few minutes walk away from the main square in Sorrento I couldn’t have asked for a better location and hotel.

During the day, the roads are crazy with drivers trying to get from point A to point B. Stop signs, traffic lights and road lines are just suggestions. As a pedestrian, extra caution is absolutely necessary when crossing streets. In the evening, as the cars go and the people come, it becomes a much pedestrian friendly atmosphere.

Sorrento is the perfect base to get out explore this beautiful region of Italy. Naples, only one hour or so away, Capri, a short ferry ride away, and the towns of the Sorrento and Amalfi Coast easily accessible by boat, bus, or car (although driving the stretch from Sorrento to Amalfi requires much patience and time!)

Sorrento sits on a ledge under the mountains and over the Mediterranean. It’s very safe and its views are spectacular – limestone, blue skies and bluer water! It’s quite something to see hotels perched on ledges with long staircases descending to the water! Some of the more higher end hotels even offer elevators!

Looking up at Sorrento from the water
A gorge behind our hotel

At first, I was disappointed in Sorrento. The shear number of vehicles darting around and people darting between them left me wishing for a more relaxed setting. Then we discovered the Piazza Tasso. Pedestrian friendly and lively – I soon found myself in love with Sorrento. Shopping and restaurants are plentiful, and the narrow, winding streets lined with shops are absolutely charming.


On our second day we opted to take a guided tour to Pompeii. This tour was number one on my list of things to do and see and it did not disappoint. After experiencing just how close Mt Vesuvius is, I was even more determined to see the power of the 79 AD eruption.

A cast of a child “frozen” in time
Cast of an adult and other artifacts

Hundreds on hundreds of people are walking through this city dedicated to the memory of the 2000 men, women and children who died when Mt Vesuvius erupted. 15 feet of pumice ash buried the original city.

This site is immense! It has a dusty, empty and ghostly air about it. When you visit, wear good walking shoes or runners. Even with a guided tour, make sure you pick up the site map. You’ll need about 3 hours to visit on your own.

A shop

You can’t help but feel sadness and disbelief when you are there. The Ruins of Pompeii are remarkably well preserved, and you can get a sense of how life was in those ancient times. Wide and narrow streets, houses, temples, shops, cafes, theatres, downspouts, a brothel, water fountains and so much unfold with each step you take.

Brothel with explicit paintings on walls

You can join a guided tour as I did or pick up the headphones and do a self-guided tour. Get there early! It gets really hot here – carry several water bottles with you. There is water available in the main square of the ruins to refill your bottle if you need to. We learned how to tell the difference between a home and a shop. We witnessed remnants of the original (and somewhat graphic) art in a brothel, we saw firsthand some of the plaster cast covered bodies, and items used in their everyday life. It’s a somber place to visit. It’s still an active excavation site. It is not accessible-friendly except for the entrance and lower section. The only way to experience the site is to climb stairs. If you want to really experience the real artwork – head to the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

View of excavations with theatre to the left

Amalfi and Positano

The following morning, we made our way down to the Marina Piccola where we met our guide to take our boat trip to Amalfi. Did I mention that Sorrento sits on the top of a mountain -and the boats leave from the water at the bottom of the mountain? Well, there are two ways to get the marinas (yes, there are two) – take the steps (and there were a lot of them) or for E1.00 take the elevator…. hmmm… can you guess which route we went!

It is VERY confusing at the Marina. There’s a ticket station there selling tickets to everywhere along the coast including of course, the Island of Capri and the Blue Grotto. On this trip, we did not visit that island, but our boat did scoot right by it. It’s well worth a day trip here – and very easy to get to from Sorrento. Tour guides are everywhere trying to find people in their groups and get them going. It really felt chaotic. We left about 45 minutes later than planned.

The Sorrento coast begins at Sorrento and ends at a rock formation at Punta Campanella. It’s there that the Amalfi Coast begins…and the guides are there to let you know! We stayed on board until we reach Amalfi Town and worked our way back.

Our tour had short stops in Amalfi and Positano – enough to get off the boat for an hour or two, go and explore and find some gelato and a drink.

Amalfi Town

According to legend, it was founded when the girlfriend of Hercules was buried here.

Amalfi Town is wedged into a tight ravine and is a tiny fishing village and a small beach. There’s not much here at all. Tourism is strong here as well as the paper industry. You can get a peak into the a long, narrow, vaulted hall where ships were once built. You can visit a paper factory and you can visit the imposing Cathedral.


According to legend, the Greek god Poseidon created Positano for Pasitea, a nymph he lusted after. It’s located roughly halfway between Sorrento and Amalfi Town. With houses rising from water level up the mountain, hugging crevices, the view from the water is beautiful. Steep staircases are a way of life, and only the main street through town allows for vehicles. It’s a great day trip from Sorrento. The beaches are not fantastic here – but the water is! Rent a chair and an umbrella and go bobbing in the sea! The imposing Church of Santa Maria Assunta is the main tourist draw here, and the square in front of the church welcomes everyone with restaurants, shopping and activities.

If you choose to drive the Amalfi Coast be prepared for white-knuckle driving. We caught glimpses of the highway from the water and we all agreed we were much happier looking up than looking down.

What’s one to do on a hot and sunny day on a boat in the middle of the sea. Jump. Yes, just jump off (or dive) and swim! The water was warm and welcoming and tough to get out of. It was excellent. The company provided snorkel masks and lunch and beverages. It was a wonderful day!

Our final night in Sorrento we decided to see a show! The Sorrento Musical – sounds corny I know, but it was actually really good. The only downside was that it was completely in Italian and sadly we weren’t able to respond to the “interactive” part of the show.

The following morning, we transferred from Sorrento to Naples and were on the rails for the final leg of our Italian portion of the trip – Rome. From there we would take a flight to Athens for a two-night stay before flying over to the Greek Island of Samos.

Photo Gallery

Head over to my gallery and look for the album Italy and Greece (2109) to see all my adventures.

Scroll to Top