Navigating the Italian train system

why am i doing such a specific post on this? well, for one thing, i was completely bewildered by the italian train system when i first came to the country for my exchange. and i took such a long time figuring out how to even navigate the trenitalia website and the different train options available. it was totally mind-boggling and exasperating for me, and i hope that this post would help you to understand it better! (:
this is going to be a wordy post without many pictures, but i hope it helps! it’s mostly my experiences and anecdotes which might be useful for you to know and be mentally prepared for! (: 
so, random things that you need to know about the italian train system…
firstly: type of trains. there are SO MANY varieties with different pricing structures that it is so confusing -.-
Frecciarossa/frecciabianca/frecciargento are the high speed trains. they’ll take you from Rome to Milan in around 3hrs? they’re the fastest but also usually the most expensive. buy early and the super economy prices can be REALLY affordable though! like from €20+! (: but as the cheaper tickets get sold out closer to the travel date, the prices just get more and more expensive!
Intercity trains in contrast, are the oldest and slowest trains ever. they are usually in pretty terrible condition and are honestly not very nice to be in. but they’re cheap (can start from <€10). if you take an overnight train, it would be an Intercity Notte train. and honestly, i would tell you NOT to ever put yourself through such torture. i tried it ONCE and i’m never going to do it ever again. it was worse than sleeping overnight in the airport (which is the second worst ordeal haha) because it is just absolutely claustrophobic in the small cabin, and the train c…r…a…w…l…s…which is really unbearable and exasperating if you are already feeling so uncomfortable. if you are traveling in a group with multiples of 4, you might want to consider the type of cabin with beds (couchettes), but i’m not sure how different it is since i’ve never tried it. they only allow you to book the whole cabin though, so if you have a group of <4pax, it wouldn't be worth it anymore. 
Regionale Veloce trains are the in-between trains that are the most convenient in my opinion! ;) no need to buy tickets in advance actually, because the price doesn’t change, and there are usually quite regular timings available. even if you want to buy tickets in advance, they are only purchasable within 7 days before the travel date. no assigned seats for this, just purchase the tickets from the ticket machine and they can be used within a few hours from the purchase/the day itself (something like that, check the tickets for the validity)
secondly: to search for the trains, you need to know the italian names of the cities. here are some common ones and their most central stations:
Milan = milano (milano centrale)
Rome = roma (roma termini)
Florence = firenze (firenze santa maria novella)
Venice = venezia (venezia santa lucia)
Naples = napoli (napoli centrale)

thirdly: always remember to validate your tickets at the ticket machine before boarding the train!!! even for tickets which have specific timings written on them, you might still have to validate them (if i remember correctly). for regionale tickets, you DEFINITELY have to. only after doing so, they are considered “valid” (duh :p) for the ride. otherwise when the train conductor checks and you didn’t validate the tickets, you might be fined anyway, even after paying for the tickets! :O ridiculous, i know. but that’s how it works.
fourthly: the trenitalia website allows you to book international trains as well, e.g. trains from italy to switzerland or france etc. but my advice is NOT to book from the trenitalia website. especially when going to more stable/efficient countries (*ahem*) like switzerland, get your tickets from their train companies instead! if things go wrong, it’s much more likely that you can get your problem solved by them, rather than the lousy and unfriendly italian train station people who wouldn’t lift a finger to help.
one thing you need to be prepared for is the unreliability of the italian train system. 
#1: they can go on strike anytime. apparently they give a warning on the website, but still, most people are caught unaware.
#2: they can change the train schedule for all sorts of random reasons, such as a public holiday, even after you’ve bought tickets for the train that was supposedly operating -.- (and if you were to board another train, you would have to pay much more to buy that ticket from the train conductor on the train itself). 
#3: the ticket printing machines don’t always work. ridiculous, but it does happen. and if you don’t speak italian, the italian train staff very conveniently don’t help you with your problem. (my advice: just board the train anyway, with whatever confirmation slip you have and try to explain it to the conductor. it might work. no promises though.)
#4: trains can be delayed. severely. and if you have a connecting train that is within 10mins from the time your first train is supposed to reach the station, it’s pretty hard for you to catch it. (my advice: don’t arrange connecting trains with such a short interval in between!!! always expect the unexpected)
because trenitalia has been the monopoly for years, that’s how all these inefficiencies came about. a competitor, italo is giving it a run for its money with newer high speed trains! they might be a little more expensive and don’t travel to many cities (or the major train stations), but they’re worth a try! especially since their trains are newer ;)
haha idk whether i sound like i’m complaining about the italian train system :p but it’s really not very user-friendly :p makes me appreciate singapore much more!!! <3 haha. 

Milan? Don’t bother, but…

…if you really have to…

haha okay, looking at the title of this post, you know what my main point is. really, if you don’t have time during your trip in italy, SKIP milan. it’s really one of the most dull places on earth. not worth the time at all, especially when you should really be spending the bulk of your trip nearer the south of italy in florence & rome ^^ if you wanna see the real italy, that’s where you should go! and forget all the nonsense about milan being the fashion/shopping capital. florence has the BEST shopping.

anyway, if you really do want to go to milan though…there are a few things you could do. please don’t stay there for more than 2 days though. it’s really not worth it at all…
haha so quitting the whining, here are the tourist spots to visit in milan! 
What to see in Milan
the most famous, and perhaps the only worth-seeing attraction in milan is the Duomo. it’s magnificent both on the outside and inside. i particularly love the stained glass in this Duomo! (: it’s probably one of the most intricate and detailed designs i’ve ever seen. 
the Castle is another relatively popular building to see in Milan, but it’s pretty much just like a museum.
i would say that Parc Sempione is one of my favourite places in Milan! (omg do you notice that my face was slimmer then? :( i don’t know how am i ever gonna lose these chubby cheeks now…) even though it was freezing cold when we were there. but i’ve heard it’s much prettier in the spring & summer!
The Last Supper: I didn’t manage to take any photos of this, because photos aren’t allowed inside. but this would be one of the places i believe are worth visiting! (: there is a lot of historical and religious value placed on this attraction and it was pretty interesting! it’s really popular though, so it’s best to get your tickets (€8) early. each visit lasts about 30min if i remember correctly. you can also purchase the audioguide at the counter when you’re there. it’s very useful in explaining the painting! 
for football fans (realised that no one in europe calls it soccer…haha), try to get tickets to a match at the San Siro Stadium! i’m not sure how tourists get tickets, or whether it’s even possible, but we had to go to a bank to purchase them for €20. 
Teatro Alla Scala: probably the most famous theatre in italy – catch a ballet/opera if you’re an artsy one! (: tickets are REALLY expensive and sell out fast though! so you have to book them way in advance. apparently you can get last minute tickets for less popular shows if you queue up on the day itself, but you’ll have to google for that! not too sure how it works. 
What to eat in Milan

so like i said…milan doesn’t have the best food in italy. but there are some worth mentions that make it special (: Apperitivo is really popular in milan, and that’s where you can get a buffet spread of food with a drink that you’ve ordered. for more insight into the italian food culture, you can check out my post here
anyway, singaporeans would totally go CRAZY over apperitivo, knowing our kiasu/greedy culture xP haha embarrassed to say, but i’m known to be one of those people who stuff myself silly during buffets, just because i love the spread and i wanna try everything! 

the BEST place for apperitivo in Milan is Maya! (: there are actually a row of restaurants/bars along the Navigli district, kinda like italy’s version of singapore’s clarke quay, which serve apperitivo, and most are likely to be pretty decent and relatively affordable compared to the higher-end districts. (of course, the prices in castellanza are unbeatable, but the spread is less desirable. and who would go all the way there anyway??).
Maya has the largest food spread, and the cuisine is slightly mexican, which makes it stand out among all the other apperitivos! (: i LOVED it. something different, finally ;) apperitivo is always very carbs-laden though. so it actually makes you full really quickly. maya is super popular, so be sure to go there early (they open at 6pm), or be prepared to wait! btw they do have dessert for this, and they usually only bring it out after 8.30pm ;) so if you wanna try it, wait around or come later! they don’t usually like people to stay for long because of the queues, so perhaps later would be a better option ;) drinks are around €9 if i remember correctly! 
Maya Milano
Via Cardinale Ascanio Sforza, 41, 20136 Milano
Tel.: +39 02 5810 5168
there was also this other bar as well, not quite as popular as Maya, but also very crowded! i can’t remember what the name of it was, but it was good!!! it was just next to the nutella ice cream shop below.
Nutella is big in italy, because everything hazelnut is big in italy ;) and you have to try this nutella gelato!!! it’s the best ever, trust me on this, and you won’t want to eat the same gelato anywhere else after it ;) rich, creamy, chocolate-y, hazelnutty. it was soooo delicious!!! it’s really filling though, so don’t be too ambitious :P i was, and completely regretted it. although it was really super yummy ;)
Rinomata Gelataria
Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 1, 20143 Milano
Cioccolati Italiani is another place that you have got to go to for your gelato fix! ^^ it’s special because of their focus on chocolates, and get this, the best part is how they drip chocolate sauce into your cone before topping it with gelato! :D and so you get more sweetness at the end, just before you finish it up ;) we opted for three scoops of chocolate, and i’d say, just stick to the chocolate flavours! they have many. although we couldn’t really tell the diff between them :P but they definitely outshine the other gelato flavours by leaps and bounds. 
Cioccolati Italiani
Via San Raffaele, 6 
it was hilarious how we chanced upon cioccolati italiani as we were looking for Panificio Luini. they are just around the corner from each other! no excuses not to get both ;) luini is famous for their panzerotti, which comes in both savoury and sweet flavours! i absolutely loved the fluffy bread and crisp exterior, that somehow reminded me of ham chim peng!! it was delicious :D 
Panificio Luini
Via Santa Radegonda, 16, 20121 Milano 
and so that’s it for my milano adventures (: remember, no more than 2 days and perhaps you’ll love it ;) 

What I’ve learnt about Italian food & dining experiences

[pic is from the post on drink me bar]
this is going to be quite a long wordy post haha. it’s mainly all my anecdotes (and a chance for me to whine about how annoying it is haha) which shaped my understanding of the italian food culture. but if you’re coming here, i believe it will be useful to know!
1. Meal times
In our first 3 days in Italy, poor sam spent everyday starving because we couldn’t find food. irony #1 here is that even if you have money, you can’t buy food if it’s not the right time. italians (or maybe Europeans in general) eat dinner REALLY LATE. and note that in italy, the further south you go, the later dinner starts. for milan it starts around 8pm. lunch probably is somewhere between 12pm-3pm, but in between lunch & dinner, it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to find a restaurant that will serve you a decent meal when you’re hungry.
Being typical singaporeans who eat at every time of the day, we were STUNNED to find that at 6pm, no food places were open (usually you can find pizzerias open in the city centre, but we were in the residential area so no food at all) and we were starving!!!! but in italy, too bad. suck it up xP
2. Apperitivo
A  saving-grace is their concept of apperitivo! (: probably one of the things i loved most about italy. this is a really cool version of happy hour (and this usually starts around 6/7pm so you can get your food fix here if you’re hungry) where you buy a drink (can anything from €5 to more than €10 if you’re in some really posh bar, though i’ve never tried those before) and you will have access to a buffet line of food where you can stuff yourself silly haha. of course it’s not like a proper buffet (because it’s so cheap). typically it’s bar snacks, like sandwiches, chips, hams and things like that. but if you know where to go, you can get places which serve pastas and more substantial food. sometimes even dessert!
3. Courses
italian dining has MANY courses. and it’s simply mind-boggling for foreigners to comprehend this sometimes. i was doing a project about Slow Food, and i was reading about this whole multi-course thing that is part of italy’s culture of enjoying food. pretty interesting, if they actually practice it nowadays, but as you’ll see in my next point, they seem to have almost completely lost it -.- 
these are the courses of a full italian meal: antipasto (appetizer), primi piatto (first course – pasta/rice), secondo (second course – meat/fish), contorni (side dish – vegetables), dolci (dessert). throw in a couple of drinks at the beginning (apperitivo) and end (digestivo) at the end of the meal, and you get a grand total of 7 courses!! *.* so complicated. 
what i really don’t like about italian food is how they have to separate every.single.part.of.the.meal.into.a.different.course. like the meat, veg and carbs are all in separate portions! which makes is ridiculously expensive, and way too filling. on the other hand, simply eating, let’s say a pasta, on its own just seems like a terribly unbalanced meal. and i really dislike how their veggies are in such a small portion and are often cold -.- gosh…how i missed my caifan 2veg+1meat when i was there!!!! 

4. Service
good service in italy is interpreted as FAST service. this was something i didn’t know at the beginning and i was getting really annoyed with the service staff who seemed to always be chasing us away – attempting to clear our plates even before we’d finished eating, presenting us with the bill once everything was cleared. it was really getting on my nerves! so much for Slow Food yeah? -.- 
after that i realised that it was simply because that was what they were conditioned to do. not that i liked it any better, but i guess the understanding just made it easier to swallow. i suppose it’s really important to manage your expectations when it comes to visiting a new place. there were definitely instances where we had outstanding service though (: even though most italian staff aren’t able and aren’t willing to speak english, it makes us appreciate it even more when we meet staff who are ever-so-willing to help.
5. Wine/Drinks
another thing that really irked me (not just in italy…france was like this too) was how in restaurants you’re always expected to get a drink with your food. i just feel that they’re so stick-in-the-mud sometimes and there is no freedom at all! >:( i think it’s just an absolute waste of money to have to pay for bottle of water, just because it’s presented to you in a pretty bottle, when i have perfectly drinkable water in a bottle in my bag -.- it’s not like their water there is cheap. it’s sometimes even more expensive than buying a beer, but so, i don’t like beer and i wouldn’t order it. sometimes they even expect customers to order wine. and yes, of course i would LOVE to, if i had the money, but unfortunately i carry a bag of gold with me tyvm. us poor students on a shoestring budget often have to suffer under the dirty looks of the service staff when we dine out. which is why i’d much rather cook.
6. What Italian food is about – regional & simple
kk enough complaining already :P haha i just didn’t have a fantastic experience with italian food. but one thing i really appreciated was the freshness of their ingredients! :)) because italian food focuses heavily on regional cooking, each part of italy is special for a different way of cooking pasta, and the second courses are very much dependent on what is available in the region for harvesting. for example, seafood in rome is awesome! while you should definitely try the steak in florence ^^ things like that. you can check out this website to find out what are the must-eats in the region you’re going to, and enjoy your dining experience in italy! ^^ 

Il Giusto

finally! last of the restaurants to go in Castellanza. who knew there were so many?! haha. Il Giusto is actually nearer to legnano, rather than Castellanza itself. we had to walk pretty far! but it was worth it ^^ definitely one of the better places for food here! it was hilarious how the place looked completely deserted when we reached there though -.- we were early. by italian standards that is. reached around 7pm and the place looked closed, even though the opening hours stated that it was early? we were devastated D: we had walked for 20mins for nothing??!! stood there for 5min and decided to randomly ring a bell that we saw. and it worked!!!!! haha. the chef personally came to the door to open it for us lol. and we had the pleasure of being the only customers for the most part of our meal (Y).
we started with the bread, which simply blew me away with how delicious it was!!! so many varieties! as you can see in the photo. and each of them were absolutely amazing. especially the sesame one! soooo goooood.
i ordered the salmon (€10) which was a really simple, yet tasty dish (: the salmon felt so healthy, and it came with sundried tomatoes, spinach and almonds which complemented it perfectly and lent flavour to it. 
sam ordered the tuna pasta (€10) that was not bad! but just a little strange because of the taste of the olives. 
we really didn’t have any fate with dessert that week though! :( all those i wanted were always not available. sigh. then again it was probably a good thing, because i think i gained at least 1kg just by eating out that week -.- haha.
Il Giusto
Via Locatelli, 2

Locanda Settembrini

this restaurant was probably one of the first places in Castellanza we dined out at. thanks to the recommendation of our friends ^^ and i daresay it’s the place with the best pasta in castellanza! (: we were getting quite disappointed with the dining-out options we had, but realised that it really wasn’t too bad in our little town after all! Locanda Settembrini definitely impressed with its flair in doing pastas and i regret not going back for more.
we heard sterling reviews of the pappardelle al salmone (€9) way before coming here, and it didn’t disappoint! although i was rather apprehensive upon hearing that it was cream-tomato based (my fear of carbonara just wouldn’t go away haha), i needn’t have worried. this was divine! though creamy, the flavour of the tomato sauce more than countered it, and produced a delightful sauce that made us want to lick the plate clean.
because i was worried about the creaminess, i opted for the spaghetti alta marea (€10) instead, which was a pesto-based pasta with prawns and squid. loved how fragrant this dish was!
and sam’s dish has got to be the star of this restaurant!!!! the flaming aluminium-foil swan earned him “oohs!” and “ahhs!” when it was placed in front of him. haha the boy basked in the limelight for a few minutes ;) and the amazing presentation of the penne all’astice (€20) was simply a prelude to actual show! the lobster pasta was so robustly flavoured that a multitude of tastes exploded in my mouth when i took a bite of it. absolutely wonderful, and completely worth its relatively hefty price tag. 
Locanda Settembrini
Via Do Testori 30/A