Getting There: Palermo traffic raises appreciation of Baltimore

Foreign travel teaches transportation lessons

September 19, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

It was nice to get back last week to the polite, quiet, gentle flow of traffic in Baltimore.

Yes, that statement would seem to indicate I've taken leave of my senses, but please consider where I had just returned from: Palermo, the capital of Sicily — the island off the toe of the Italian "boot."

Now Palermo is a lovely city — vibrant, ancient and brimming with life — but to walk its streets is to gain an understanding of how it must feel to be a deer in central Pennsylvania on the first day of hunting season. It's a lot like a version of New York in which every motorist is a cabdriver. The central rule of driving there appears to be: Never use your brakes when you can blare your horn. And while the cars are at least predictable, the motorcycles and scooters appear to come out of nowhere as they whip through the congested streets.

So when my wife and I stepped off our Amtrak train at Penn Station and waited for the Charm City Connector bus, we were struck by how placid the streets seemed. Nary a horn was heard as we made our way through downtown after more than two weeks of travel through Portugal and Sicily — a sojourn during which neither of us drove a motor vehicle.

Instead we traveled by public transit in many forms — train, subway, hydrofoil, buses large and small, elevador (a means of traveling from lofty to low-lying neighborhoods of Lisbon) and funivia (a kind of ski lift that takes one from cliffside Taormina, Sicily, to beachfront Mazzaro). We didn't ride horses, though we passed a few shops in Palermo where their meat was for sale.

This trip was emphatically not about work, but a writer on transportation matters could hardly help but make a few observations.

First, there are few ways a society can make itself more welcoming to foreign visitors (and their money) than to provide efficient, understandable and widely available public transportation. Even though it is perhaps the poorest section of Italy, Sicily passed that test during the almost two weeks we spent there. Even when we were staying at a caper farm at the most isolated village on a remote island north of Sicily, we could catch a bus every hour in the piazza in front of the church.

And much to our surprise, the buses ran on schedule — a concept we might want to import to Maryland.

It would be wrong to hold up Sicily as some kind of paragon of transportation efficiency, however. The intercity trains were painfully slow, and the long-distance lines (fortunately those taken by others) were subject to hours-long delays. We felt right at home.

Sicily, like other destinations in the Mediterranean basin, does have areas in which it compares poorly with the United States. In many public places, toilet seats are nonexistent and paper scarce. But in Catania, Sicily's second-largest city, we encountered a delightful exception — sanitary facilities of impeccable cleanliness — at a busy train station.

The catch, if you call it one, was that one had to pay half a euro (roughly 70 cents) to enter those pristine precincts. An attendant was on hand who made it his occupation to keep the rooms spotless and as fragrant as that type of place can be.

Perhaps, I mused while conducting my inspection, pay toilets get a bad rap. As one who has ventured into the squalid restrooms of Penn Station, I couldn't help but envy the travelers of Sicily. Perhaps, when Baltimore's train station next undergoes renovation, thought should be given to instituting a modest charge in order to employ an attendant. That could pose a hardship to the indigent who gravitate to transportation hubs for their relief, but few fare-paying travelers would begrudge a few quarters to ensure a hygienic hiatus.

For Americans who do venture abroad, it pays to do some advance research. For instance, it would have been nice to know that intercity buses in Sicily don't provide toilets — as is standard in such paragons of civilization as Uruguay — before ordering that second beer at the Big Bus Bar in Palermo. The guidebooks tend to gloss over such sensitive topics, so asking an experienced traveler or posting an inquiry on a travel site such as the Lonely Planet's Thorntree could get you to the information you need.

Where schedules are concerned, much information can be gathered over the Internet before your departure. For instance, a Google search put in my hands the timetable for the bus system on the island of Salina long before we departed Philadelphia International Airport for Lisbon.

That USAirways flight, by the way, is a gem for those who prefer to break up their world travel into relatively short hops. Lisbon is not only one of the European capitals closest to the U.S. East Coast, it is a delightful destination in its own right. Once there, public transit will take you just about anywhere you'd want to go.

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