What to pack? The bare minimum! After all, we’re talking about Italy, style central. Best leave those hiking boots at home, unless you really are planning a trek in the Dolomites up on the Austrian border.
As ever, The Man in Seat 61 is a goldmine of useful information about train travel, spelling out the different categories of service. Although Italy is not a cheap destination, train fares remain reasonable.
Book on the spot or online through Trenitalia (Italian State Railways) to take up 15-day and 30-day advance-purchase discounts, although non-European credit cards may be rejected. Short regional journeys require no reservation and tickets are best purchased at the station. Don’t bother with expensive rail passes for travel within Italy (to which I would add, nor with ticketing agencies which add a hefty premium).
Italy is such well-trodden ground that online forums (try TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree) open up a huge hornet’s nest of contradictory and conflicting recommendations for places to go and places to stay – are there enough hours in the day to wade through all this stuff? Where possible, I prefer to rely on the recommendations of the frequent travellers who write for the major guidebook publishers.
We took the precaution of booking our room ahead in destinations that were fixed points on our itinerary. I’m not so sure it was necessary. In the villages of the Cinque Terre, for instance, which teem with tourists during the summer, every cobbled lane was festooned with signs offering ‘Camere’ to let. Some of our best accommodations were the ones we found on the spot, for instance the IYH Hostel in Lucca, a former monastery and palazzo, then private rooms in the same town. In Florence we discovered the novelty of convent accommodation at Casa Santo Nome di Gesu in the Oltrarno district, south of the River Arno, and have since learnt that a loose network of such lodgings spreads right across Italy (these are properties which you probably should reserve in advance, if not directly then through an intermediary like www.monasterystays.com).