Backpacking through Europe
My wife Katherine and I scurried across the piazza between the two tiny rail stations in Tirano, Italy. I had my convertible backpack-style suitcase slung on my back, while Katherine pulled her wheeled version behind her over the cobblestones. We’d learned there are two ways to travel through Europe – light and easy, or the wrong way.
The two rail stations are at right angles to each other – the one we’d left marking the terminus of Swiss Railways famous Bernina Express line. The other station belongs to Trenord, the Italian rail line in the region.
We had only just arrived in Tirano but there was no time to linger. We had just 10 minutes to buy tickets for our next train – towards Milan. In theory this should have been plenty of time, but in fact proved more difficult than expected as the ticket office was not at all obvious. Nor were there ticket machines we could figure out how to use.
Buying train tickets in small Italian towns
We walked around the station building looking for a ticket booth. Finally we wandered into a small café to ask where tickets could be purchased. It turned out that the woman behind the coffee counter also ran the adjacent ticket booth – actually just a desk with little signage. Just as soon as she finished serving the espresso to the customer at the counter, she would be right with us – at least that’s what we took her hand gestures to mean.
I pulled out my iPhone to check the time. The minutes were ticking down quickly. But fortunately, the espresso was soon served and the woman took her place behind the adjacent counter. Two tickets were quickly issued and moments later we were on the train platform outside, just in time to watch the train to Milan approach. We boarded the train and found an empty foursome of facing seats to claim. I threw our bags into the overhead bins and then settled in for the two-hour trip to Milan. Never had I been more appreciative of our small hybrid duffel suitcases than at this point. Katherine wondered if we would have caught the train if we had lugged around traditional suitcases.
Travel smart, travel light
I was sold on the concept: ‘pack-light, travel-light’ by the travel writer/tour guide Rick Steves. He pushes this approach in all his travel guides, and in his overview Europe Through the Back Door – travelling light is the core concept in his travel philosophy.
For more reading ideas, check out my post on the best European Travel guidebooks.
The previous year I had bought an eBags convertible Weekender suitcase for a solo European trip and been very pleased with how it worked out. I’d convinced Katherine to get one for this year’s trip – she opted for the version with wheels. As it turned out, I think she made the right choice.
The trip to Milan was uneventful but passed through ever more beautiful landscapes, particularly when it skirted the shores of Lake Como. A strong breeze created choppy whitecaps on the water. Italian lakeside villas stood grandly watching the famous lake, unimpressed by the locals and tourists on the passing regional train.
How not to do Europe
At Varenna, a commotion at the doorway brought our attention back from the scenery. The incongruous sound of loud American voices broke the Italian spell. Much grunting and grumbling could be heard followed by several large thumps. A large woman with long, Dallas-style, blonde hair and carrying a small valise came into view down the central aisle of the rail car, looking for an open seat. I’m not sure if she was, but her hair made me associate her with Texas.
Shortly after, a man I surmised must be her husband, followed carrying a large trunk. ‘Trunk’ may no longer be a common term, suggestive as it is of a time when Victorians made their grand circle tours of Europe. Yet ‘trunk’ seems an entirely appropriate word to describe the enormous suitcase the man bore.
It was fortunate that he was a large and fit man, for the trunk would not be easy to carry. Despite his size, he was having a difficult time navigating the trunk down the train’s central aisle, filled as it was with high school students heading home after class in an adjacent town.
The woman found two seats and the man dumped the trunk nearby. To my astonishment, the man quickly left the train and returned with another trunk of equally stupendous dimensions. Dumping it near the first, he turned and retreated to the door once more, returning with two smaller suitcases. Smaller than the trunks that is – each was probably still larger than the backpack suitcases Katherine and I had travelled through Germany and Switzerland with.
I looked up the aisle towards the door expecting a brood of children to follow, but none appeared. The doors closed and the couple tried to settle in as best they could surrounded by their mountain of luggage. A mountain which was effectively cutting off the only aisle through the train.
Katherine and I smiled at each other with a slight shake of our heads and returned to enjoying the beauty passing outside as the train picked up speed. We just couldn’t imagine taking along so much stuff for a vacation in Europe – or anywhere for that matter.
Travel light, do more
Before long, the train arrived at Milan’s grand Central Station. Katherine and I threw our backpacks over our shoulders, picked up our day-packs and headed towards the doors in the direction away from the heavily burdened ‘Texans’.
As we alighted onto the platform and headed towards the terminal, we passed the ‘Texan’ husband as he deposited the first trunk onto the platform. Sweat was already beading on his forehead. His wife stood to one side, the small valise at her feet, giving directions. The passing Italians threw them dirty looks for blocking the platform.
By the time we were picking up a couple of sandwiches for our next train – a high-speed express to Florence – the husband was still standing on the platform looking bewildered, apparently trying to find a porter to help with their luggage.
Katherine smiled at me, and said three words that summed up our feelings: “you were right”.
There are two ways to travel through Europe – the light and east way, or the slow, hassled and heavy way. I’m now convinced the first is the right way.