Getting around Italy by train is enjoyable, convenient, and inexpensive. But there’s another kind of train worth taking where getting from A to B isn’t the point: trains for foodies, or more eloquently put, gastronomic train tours, offer a unique mode of transport and fantastic scenery combined with either a full meal or a taste of seasonal regional specialties. There are five fun food trains in Italy worth highlighting: a couple are easy for non-Italian speakers to book while there are a few that are a full Italian immersion day while you go off the beaten track with the locals. Let me guide you through the options…
Trenonatura in Siena, Tuscany
A historic steam train departs Siena in the morning and returns about 9 hours later, after several stops in the Tuscan countryside. Riding this train is a unique experience in itself but even native Tuscans comment after doing the Trenonatura that they didn’t realize they had such spectacular scenery in their own backyard (I know, really?). And the food-related part of it: departures are on Sundays (not every Sunday) and are scheduled around local food festivals, so most of them are in April and May and then in October and November. The 2013 Trenonatura fall schedule includes truffle, olive oil and chestnut fairs, as well as a Christmas market.
What to know about the Trenonatura: This is a very beyond-the-obvious, off-the-beaten-track activity for foreign tourists; your first hint is that the website is only in Italian. Tickets are easy to book (email them in English if you don’t want to navigate the Italian website), if they’re available, and at just 29 EUR per person (note that does not include any food), the Trenonatura is excellent value for money. But this is an Italian immersion day. There are no headsets offering information in multiple languages, and the guide giving the explanations on the train will not have time to translate for you. I have booked this train for clients in the past, and while some saw it as an exciting opportunity to immerse themselves in Italian, for others I’ve also hired a personal guide to accompany them and translate. On the other hand a ride in a steam train, gorgeous scenery and a local food festival are experiences that don’t require a translator.
Treno dei Sapori, Lake Iseo
This restaurant on wheels runs every Sunday and offers diners views of beautiful Lake Iseo (not far from Milan or Verona) while they feast on a three course lunch of regional specialties paired with local wines. The Treno dei Sapori day starts with a guided city walk and then diners board the train about noon. Depending on the excursion, the afternoon might also include another stop. You’ll see right away that the website is in multiple languages, which is a big hint that this train experience caters to foreign travelers – but you’ll also see the English version of the website currently displays the 2011 schedule so check the Italian version for the up to date departures. When booking tickets, it’s a good idea to ask whether the local guide doing the city walk can accommodate English speakers (and if they can’t just print your own information and bring it with you). This corner of Italy is relatively unknown to North American travelers, but it’s a fantastic wine region called the Franciacorta, definitely worth exploring if you like getting beyond Italy’s more well-known wine producing regions that make Chianti, Amarone, Barolo, Prosecco or Brunello.
What to know about Treno dei Sapori: Tickets sell out fast so book them early.
Due Golfi Train Tour, Sorrento
Make no mistake about it, this is a tourist train (albeit operating far away from the throngs of tourists). However, it’s also a wonderful option for exploring the Sorrentine peninsula, which is the picturesque countryside near Sorrento that is not easily explored without a car. The Due Golfi Train Tour is reasonably priced, lasts three hours, caters to English speakers, runs frequently, and includes several stops to taste locally produced limoncello, wine, cheese, and olive oil. In addition it offers some spectacular views, such as in the photo above with the island of Capri in the background.
What to know about the Due Golfi Train Tour: If you’re traveling with a small group of people of various ages and interests and you need an English tour but don’t want to hire a private driver, the Due Golfi train is an ideal way to sample some regional specialties and relax while being driven through beautiful scenery. On the other hand, if you’re a hard-core foodie or if you don’t like tourist trains, a private and more in-depth food tour is probably a better fit for you.
TrenoBlu, from Milan and Bergamo
The TrenoBlu is another full-day train that takes travelers – mostly Italians – to a destination for a (usually) food-related festival. So you don’t eat on the train; the train takes you there in the morning and back in the late afternoon, but you get to ride the historic steam train and enjoy a local food experience. This means that departures are scheduled around local food festivals or Christmas markets.
What to know about the TrenoBlu: There’s no tour guide explaining things in Italian on this train, but it’s a day of full Italian immersion, so don’t expect any English translation. As long as you get get on and off the right train, anyone of any language can enjoy the ride, the scenery, and the festival. For tickets, send an email to email@example.com (and ask politely if they can respond in English). Here’s the 2013 calendar of TrenoBlu excursions – the next one is November 10th.
Treno A Vapore to the Marradi Chestnut Festival, Tuscany
The same type of steam train (treno a vapore in Italian) as the Trenonatura and TrenoBlu above, goes from various destinations to the Marradi Chestnut festival every October. The first weekend of the festival, Treno a Vapore go from Bologna, Imola and Faenza; the second weekend the festival is on, they go to Marradi from Pistoia, Prato and Florence.
What to know about the Marradi Chestnut festival trains: Just like the Trenonatura and TrenoBlu, these trains are full of Italians going to local festivals and they are not designed for non-Italian speaking travelers. However the train will just take you to the festival and take you home, so as long as you can buy a ticket and get on and off the right train, you very likely do not need a translator to enjoy this day. This is a significant festival and tickets sell out in advance. For tickets email firstname.lastname@example.org or call tel. 0577 207413 / 338 8992577.
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