Italy: Traveling By Night Train With My Dog
Traveling Through Italy By Train
A Thello Train Ride with Falco
Falco standing in front of the romantic gondala in Italy. Paul Wojnicki Photos.
By Paul Wojnicki
Falco standing in front of Italy’s largest ampitheatre. It’s not the Orient Express, I’ll admit, but after a long day pounding the streets of Paris the Thello feels comfortable enough. The private sleepers are small but cosy and Falco has already made himself at home on the end of my bed.
The Thello night train, which runs daily from Paris to Venice, provides everything we need for a relaxing journey including a washbasin with towel and toiletry pack, bottles of water, power sockets to charge our cameras and a space to secure our luggage. The only thing missing is a private toilet- there’s one at the end of each compartment– and access to the train’s restaurant for Falco.
Falco is fast asleep by the time we roll out of the station, bang on time, and I’m glad I had the foresight to request our beds being made up straight away because none of us are awake by the time the train rolls into Dijon a couple of hours later. Luckily the stewards took our passports when they checked the tickets early in the journey, which means a pleasant and uninterrupted sleep all the way to Italy.
We’re up and eating our complimentary continental breakfast somewhere between Milan and Verona and I catch a glimpse of Lake Garda’s shimmering blue waters as we roll through Peschiera del Garda without stopping. Ten minutes later we’re disembarking in our base city, Verona.
Third Largest Ampitheatre
The beautiful medieval city in which Shakespeare chose to set Romeo and Juliet has a wealth of sights for dog owners to enjoy and our first stop is the 1st century Arena- the third largest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world- and one which still functions as a live venue today.
It’s a truly spectacular sight, even though being with Falco means we only see it from the outside. We stop for a coffee at one of the cafes crowded around the Arena and note that dogs are sitting with their owners at virtually all of them.
Then we’re off exploring again. First stop Casa di Giulietta, or Juliet’s house, where we gaze up at the balcony under which Romeo supposedly declared his love to her. Seemingly caught up in the romance of the city Falco decides to drag me toward a Golden Retriever to try his luck.
A few sniffs later and the star crossed lovers are bored of one another, so we’re off again. Passing through the bustling outdoor market at Piazza delle Erbe we gaze up at the 12th Century Lamberti Tower, thrusting 84 metres into the ray streaked sky. Round the corner we peer through a 14th century iron fence at the Scaligeri Tombs.
The canine-obsessed Scaligeri family ruled Verona between the 13th and 14th centuries and several of them- such as Mastiff and Big Dog were actually known by canine names; we can clearly see their passion for dogs in the iconography on the tombs.
The restaurateurs of Verona seemingly share the Scaligeri’s love of dogs and finding somewhere to eat presents no problems at all, indeed it would be harder to find somewhere that doesn’t allow dogs. We enjoy a light lunch on Piazza delle Erbe, before walking across the river and up the hill to Castell San Pietro.
Climbing the path through scented cypress trees we reach a terrace in front of the castle, here we enjoy an unrivalled and tranquil view of the city with the medieval towers, churches and castles tucked behind the River Adige, and with the ruins of a small Roman theatre just below us. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Off to Desenzano
The following day we take a twenty minute train ride to Desenzano, a charming enough tourist town with a rich old quarter, full of cafés and restaurants. Desenzano also boasts a 12th century castle that looms above the port and the ruins of a large Roman villa, with fine mosaic floors. But it’s as a transport hub that Desenzano is best known. Trains arrive from Milan, Venice and Verona, while ferries radiate out across the lake to the other main towns and villages, so it’s from here that we take the short boat ride to Sirmione.
If you only visit one town on Lake Garda then make sure it’s the walled town of Sirmione, which sits at the tip of a two-mile long peninsula on the southern shore of the lake. It’s a fairytale destination only accessible by boat or via the drawbridge of a 13th century castle, built by the same Scaligeri family whose tombs we’d visited the previous day.
Beyond the castle and walls of the town Falco sniffs his way around the narrow cobbled streets and the ancient stone buildings, pausing only to greet a chocolate Labrador under a bougainvillea covered wall. Everywhere we look tourists are clutching gravity defying cones of gelato so we line up to purchase our own multi-colored mountain of ice cream before ducking down an alleyway to the outer walls of the town.
The crowds dwindle within a few steps of the main street and the first beach we come to has only a handful of tourists on it. We stop to swim together in the mild waters before following the promenade along the outer walls to a thermal spring which pumps warm water directly into the lake.
After another, much warmer, swim we follow the promenade to the very tip of the peninsula and the jewel in Sirmione’s crown. Grotte di Catullo is a huge excavated Roman villa that only a fraction of the day trippers even bother to visit. Standing among the ruins of pillars and colonnades, with the scent of rosemary and other herbs hanging in the dense air we gaze below to a long narrow beach at the foot of the cliffs and decide to take a swim there.
Falco eating his lunch and enjoying the scenery of the city.
Afterwards we catch a ferry to Peschiera del Garda, another town on the main train line and less than twenty minutes away from Verona. It’s a pleasant enough town with a 16th century fortress overlooking the shores. Walking along the promenade we find Bau Beach, a dedicated stretch of the lake for dogs.
Here Falco is allocated his own sun lounger free of charge when we rent our own. We spend the rest of day swimming together and relaxing on the beach. The air is warm and hazy so we’re unable to see the mountains on the northern shores of the lake, I can only just make out Sirmione a couple of miles away.
Traveling by boat and bus
We spend the rest of the week using the boats and buses to explore various towns and beaches on the lake. There’s a particularly pleasant promenade linking the towns of Bardolino and Garda with plenty of places to swim along the way. Falco is welcome everywhere we want to visit. We do however draw the line at visiting the local theme park, Gardaland, though even here dogs are welcome on a leash.
On our final day we take an early train to Venice, leaving our bags at the left luggage in Santa Maria station when we arrive; it’s 10am which gives us nine hours to explore. Venice is particularly dog friendly because there are no roads whatsoever. You’ll see plenty of dogs running off the lead, particularly early in the morning or in the evening when there are fewer tourists around.
We talk with three gondoliers, two of whom are happy to carry Falco in their boats but we decide to walk to St Mark’s Square instead, settling on a Traghetto ride across the Grand Canal, these are similar boats to gondolas but cost just fifty cents and always allow dogs on board.
It then takes us two hours to reach St Mark’s, partly due to getting lost in the narrow streets and party due to the fact that Falco is being stroked by what feels like one in every three British tourists, many of remarking on how they’d love to bring their dog away with them.
“Do it,” I tell them. “It’s much simpler than you’d think.”
By the time we reach St Mark’s, Falco is ready for his dinner and a drink so we pitch up on one of the world’s most beautiful, and expensive, squares and pull his bowls from my rucksack. Ahead of us on our left a five piece orchestra is serenading the guests of Caffe Florian, who are paying upwards of £30 for a couple of coffees. We sit and enjoy the music for free as Falco laps up his water and biscuits with St Mark’s Basilica, the clock tower and the Campanile behind him. There are few places on earth more romantic, but Falco only has eyes for his dinner at the moment.
Round the corner we sit and admire the view across St Mark’s Basin to La Giudecca island. Behind us we hear a crowd cheering and I turn to face the gothic arcades of the 13th century Doge’s palace. A young man has chosen the location to propose and is on bended knee handing a ring to his sweetheart. She smiles and nods, the crowd cheers again and we join in the applause as Falco looks on in confusion, then back at the waters of the lagoon hopefully.
“Not in there Falco,” I whisper, conscious of the pollution.
After lunch at a surprisingly inexpensive restaurant, we meander our way back through the narrow streets back to the Grand Canal. It’s a slow, casual walk, taking in bridges like Rialto and the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) and getting lost in the labyrinthine streets. Signs pop up at irregular intervals pointing the way toward the train station but we’re in no rush, there’s still another four hours to go until the train leaves for Paris.
Falco travelled with us on the Thello night train which leaves Gare de Lyon nightly stopping at Milan, Verona and Venice. You can leave at one station and return from another to maximise your time. Return fares in a two berth private compartment with washbasin and toiletries cost 290 per person. Alternatively you can book an entire 4 berth Couchette, which is more spacious but has no washbasin, for 440 return (this price includes up to 4 adults). Details can be found on www.thello.com
Where to Stay
There is no shortage of places to stay with a dog on the continent. We stayed in a holiday rental found on homeaway.com who have a policy of actively targets dog owners.
Paul Wojnicki is a freelance journalist based in the UK who has been published in most of the leading UK dog magazines.
For more information on Europe’s railway system check out GoNOMAD’s article “Everything You Need to Know About Railpasses“