The mysterious ways of the Italian railway

All I wanted to do on that Saturday morning in late May was to catch an international train in central Italy heading north through Milan and over the Alps to Holland. Exposed to a vast, efficient European rail network that is often held up as the ideal to us beleaguered Amtrak patrons, I figured the trip would be a snap. Right? Wrong.

I hadn't counted on the fickle, mysterious ways of the Italian National Railways. If you have the time and patience, Italian trains are one of the best bargains on the Continent. But strikes, delays, and cancellations can render the most up-to-date timetable useless, which was the case the morning at Torontola as an added hour limped by before a distinctly un-international-looking train pulled up. It was going the right way, so I got on.

An advantage of riding European and especially Italian trains with a Eurailpass is that you can hop and swap almost at will. You don't have to get in line and buy a ticket; you simply go aboard, take a seat in first class, and wait to flash the red and white plastic card to the conductor. At $210 for 15 days, the pass isn't the steal it used to be, but you can make a considerable saving over individually bought tickets by using it extensively.

A blase young Belgian businessman in the compartment I selected said he much preferred to fly, but on the other hand he couldn't argue with Italian rail fares. Taking out a pocket computer, he calculated that his 450-kilometer trip was costing him $14 second class. "In Belgium and Holland," he said, "it would be twice and a half that much." He didn't seem to know he was in first class. The distinction is not always clear. There were six seats of faded green plush in our compartment, with small prints of Renaissance artworks on the walls. The second-class cars looked newer, the seats were of brown leatherette, and there was no art.

The Belgian and I went exploring, and in an otherwise empty baggage car we found a dozen wicker baskets piled one on the next and containing restless, bleating pigeons. A tag affixed to the top basket said the cargo was bound for Bolzano, in northern Italy. We were joined by the pigeons' escort, a young man in a green jacket who said the birds would be let go in Bolzano at 7 a.m. the next day to fly home to Rome. Back in our compartment, he took out his map and computer and figured the wining pigeon (if it arrived in Rome by late afternoon) would travel at 77 kilometers an hour.

At about 12:30 p.m. I got off in Florence, hoping to catch an overnight train to Holland. The station was one huge, chaotic pigeon coop. At a ticket window manned by an English-speaking clerk, I was told there wasn't a train to Amsterdam until 19:46 hours (or 7:46 p.m.) and the only sleeping accommodation available was a second-class couchette. A young woman from Baltimore, trying vainly to get to Paris, was told there wasn't a reserved seat for several days. On a hunch, I picked my way back to the platform and at Track 11 spotted a sign, "Milan, 13:28." In other words, I had two minutes to catch the next train.

My single shoulder bag and I made it aboard with seconds to spare. We were bound for Milan and, if I understood the conductor correctly, also for the Swiss Alps and Amsterdam. A few hours later under the towering glass galleriam of Milan's main station, the train did some shunting and coupling maneuvers, and suddenly this enigmatic international special, undetected on timetable and departure board, was a smoothly swaying northbound sleeper.

There was one problem. I was getting hungry and the train didn't have a diner, not even a snack car. As John Kremer, the first-class sleeping car attendant, explained to me: "You saw that train to Calais on the next track in Milan? It got the restaurant car this time."

Mr. Kremer a proud, efficient Dutch employee of the International Wagon Lit sleeping car company, had a few unsold berths in his cushy blue sleeper (and light meals to go with the rooms), but I was not about to pay the $100 surcharge. Not when I could experience my first European couchette for only $12 .First, though, food and sleep had to wait. There was the stunning blue expanse of Lake Como out the window, and as the train wound northward into the Alps it negotiated a series of tunnels while somehow circling the perfect, gemlike town of Wassen. A light lit up the town church steeple ("They do it for the tourists ," Mr. Kremer said), and high above the village the last shaft of sunlight glinted on white-capped mountains.

In the corridor I stood beside a young Dutch woman alternately praising the scenery and wondering aloud about my next meal. "Don't worry, I have some extra food," she said. From a nearby compartment a man approached, smiling benignly. "Did you say you were hungry?" he asked, and handed me a small Italian loaf of bread and a package of salami.Like most of hte passengers he was Dutch and resourceful. People throughout the train were sharing picnics. I feasted with the well-fortified Dutch woman and the young American-born couchette attendant.

Sleeping in second-class couchette means sharing a compartment with up to five strangers (first-class couchettes sleep four), and I have decided a person isn't a bona fide international traveler until he's passed that test. You sleep on a cushioned, pullout shelf in two stacks of three, not unlike the pigeons' alignment. You are given a sheet designed like a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a blanket. With only four of the six berths occupied and my companions all quiet, unsnoring Dutch couchette veterans, I passed the night in relative luxury and restfulness. I might even try it again.

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