We are trying to decide whether to take the train from Rome to Assisi and then hire a car to visit the little hilltop towns, or is it wiser to take, say, a nine-day tour with a small group? Also, we are not sure if it is possible to get around these little towns in Umbria and Tuscany using trains and buses. We quite like using public transport as we don't need to worry about driving on the right side, parking and so on. What would you suggest? - Pegs
Italy's rail network is extensive and relatively cheap, with most services run by Trenitalia. The bus network is also good and often the only choice in mountainous areas such as Umbria. Conveniently, bus reservations are usually necessary only for high-season, long-haul trips.
Despite this, getting around Umbria and Tuscany on public transport requires some effort. Although services are regular between larger towns and cities such as Assisi, Perugia, Gubbio, Arezzo, Siena, Lucca and Florence, they thin out as they extend to small hilltop villages. As an example, the ancient town of Todi is serviced by an hourly bus service from Perugia, taking 90 minutes and costing around €6 ($9.44). It can be done - it will just require good planning. Lonely Planet's comprehensive Italy guidebook will help, of course.
The authors of this guide endorse your suggestion to rail or bus to a larger town, then hire a car to explore the countryside. They also, however, confirm that a car can prove a hindrance in the narrow streets of the hill towns, which can get congested. Another option is to embark on guided day-tours from key hubs (a wine tour by bicycle in Chianti, for example).
A package tour will certainly eliminate most of your travel hassles, as well as that of finding accommodation. It will probably be more expensive, of course, and provide less flexibility and the unknown variable of unfamiliar travelling companions. If you're handy with guidebooks and timetables, online bookings, and map-reading, touring on your own wits may be much more rewarding.
My partner and I (mid-20s) are heading off to Europe for our OE and will be based in Scotland for a few months before, hopefully, backpacking around Southern Europe for around four months. Can you suggest an itinerary from France to Turkey visiting other countries along the way, and what is the best mode of transport getting from place to place? - Ross Neal
The following itinerary is an abridged combination of two provided in our popular Western Europe guidebook.
A logical first stop is Paris, from where you could set off on a large loop passing the must-see cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and Zurich. From Nice on the French Riviera you could venture either to Corsica and Sardinia, or follow the Mediterranean Coast southwest to St Tropez and Marseilles before reaching Barcelona and then Valencia in Spain: both are jumping off places for the Balearic Islands. Head south to a cluster of highlights - Granada, Cordoba and Seville. You could also visit Malaga and Gibraltar around these parts before heading to the lively Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Head back east overland, or fly to save time.
Venice is a good crossroads for further adventures as you can head into Eastern Europe towards Turkey - through the likes of Croatia and Bulgaria - or south through Florence, Rome, and Naples (from which you could visit Pompeii), heading east to Brindisi for a ferry to Greece. After island-hopping from Athens, you could fly directly to Istanbul, or reach it overland by passing through Thessaloniki.
Trains will prove an excellent and reliable form of transport. Buses are often a bit cheaper, but are generally slower and much less comfortable. They are, however, often the only public transport options in more remote areas.
Train networks criss-cross all of Europe. Eurail passes cover most of Western Europe and can be economical on certain itineraries. However, it's often cheaper to buy individual tickets, as numerous discounts are available including advance-purchase reductions. The Man in Seat 61 is an excellent online research tool for rail travel.
Taking the occasional flight makes sense, particularly if it crosses ground you've already covered or areas you're not that interested in, allowing you to spend more time in your preferred destinations.