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Italian Trains: A Terrific Family Break

Italy makes a great destination for travelling kiddies. The food is kid-friendly. Even the pickiest eater will relish the pasta, the pizza and for dessert, the 100 flavours of Italian ice cream that we made a point of testing daily last summer. Babies and small children are truly welcomed in a country that almost idolizes its smallest members while older children are often treated as grown-ups. Our young teen and pre-teen were charmed when one seaside restaurateur greeted them with glasses of champagne!

But there is another good reason for visiting Italy with children - The Italian Kilometric Rail Ticket or Biglietto Chilometrico. This fold-out ticket lets up to five people, not necessarily related, travel around Italy for 3,000 kilometres (1,875 miles) or make up to 20 rail journeys within two months (whichever comes first). It's an amazing bargain. A first class ticket for five people costs $298. We opted for the cheaper second class ticket. For$176, the five of us lugged our backpacks by rail from the Swiss border to Lake Maggiore in the north, down to the Italian seaside resort of Rimini on the Adriatic coast, up to Venice, over for a stay on Lake Garda and back through the mega-city of Milan.

The beauty of it was that we could take either short trips or long trips depending on the mood of the kids. The ticket master at each station simply subtracted the number of kilometres we were using from 3,000. With little people in tow, the kilometres go even further. For those between four and 12 years, only half the distance is subtracted; those under four are free.

If the children were tired, hot, and arguing with each other, we journeyed only a short distance, sometimes to the next town for a change of scenery and a picnic lunch. If they were civilized, we knew we could ride longer. They could play cards, listen to music, or watch out the train windows - not the scenery which kids find uninteresting but the people at the stations where we stopped. Our youngsters were particularly curious about young soldiers crowding onto trains to report for military service, soccer fans shouting for an Italian victory, or young couples making goodbye kisses last as long as an ice cream cone.

The other benefit was that we avoided European summer gridlock on the roads. Instead, we flew by the sprawling suburbs and landed in the middle of town, often the most interesting area to explore. We never had to worry about parking. We could check our bags at the baggage check or in the lockers and wander around bag-free for an afternoon. Sometimes we stayed in hotels close to the station and were able to walk over and check in. No taxis needed.

Of course, there were some limitations. The ticket is good only on regular trains. If you want air-conditioned Intercity or Rapido service (which we did at mid-day in 41-degree heat), you had to pay a supplement of a few dollars. Also, the food on the trains was outrageously priced. A coke could cost $4; a cheese panini (sandwich), $6. We watched as an Italian lady argued ferociously about paying $2.50 for a small wax cup of ice cream. The vendor would not be swayed. We learned to stop at supermarkets for fruit or even the train station café to buy bottled water, sandwiches, and biscuits.

The washrooms in second class often lacked hot water taps, paper, and even toilet seats. And despite attempts, we never quite mastered the train timetable book, the Pozzoraria, updated each June and October and available at every newsstand and hotel desk. Listing seven types of trains crisscrossing the country, and filled with as many names and numbers as a small telephone directory, the schedule often defeated us and we had to ask for help at stations, travel agencies, and hotels. Occasionally, there weren't seats available so we had to take turns until people got off.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the train adventure and the people we met. On one empty old train, each of the kids was able to set up Cleopatra-style in an individual compartment, laid out on a banquette with a can of pop and a book. On many trains, the windows opened up sending in fresh breezes, sunlight, and on one journey, a wasp that terrorized the whole car until a British woman took command and urged it back out the window. And we'll never forget the last rail ride of the holiday. As our train was being called, we five were running down the platform beside it. Seconds before the doors slammed shut and the train began to pull out of the station, we were able to jump up the stairs of our car and hustle inside. It was a dramatic exit right out of the movies!

The Italian Kilometric Ticket can be bought in advance from the CIT (Compagnia Italiana Turismo Inc.) World Travel Group., 80 Tiverton Court, Suite 401, Markham, Ont., L3R OG4. Tel: (905) 415-1060 or 1-800-387-0711. For both first and second class tickets, a $10.70 administration fee is added. The Pozzorario can be ordered by mail from

Editrice Pozzo Gros Monti SpA, Via Cernaia 59, Moncalieri, Torino by sending an international money order for L17,000.





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