Regular services connect the mainland with Italy’s many islands, and ferries and hydrofoils also operate between towns on the lakes of Como, Garda, Maggiore and a number of smaller lakes. The most important domestic ferry routes include:
- Piombino to Elba;
- Civitavecchia, Genoa, Livorno (Leghorn) and Naples to Sardinia;
- Genoa, Naples, Reggio di Calabria and Villa San Giovanni to Sicily;
- Naples to the Lipari islands (Stromboli, etc.);
- Naples to the Pontine islands (Capri, Ischia, Procida).
There are also connections from Sicily to Sardinia and international car and passenger ferry services between Italy and various countries, including Albania, Croatia, Egypt, France (Corsica), Greece, Israel, Malta, Spain (the Balearics), Tunisia, Turkey and parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Ticket prices are usually reasonable but vary according to the time of year and are (naturally) most expensive during summer. Some services operate during the summer only and services are severely curtailed during the winter on most routes or may be suspended altogether.
Some journeys are very long. For example, the Genoa–Palermo boat takes 23 hours and Naples–Palermo departs at 8pm and arrives at 7am the next day, although there’s also a hydrofoil service taking just over five hours but operating only once per day, three days per week. On the other hand, boats leave from Villa San Giovanni for Messina (Sicily) every 15 minutes during peak hours; the trip takes half an hour and the service operates 24 hours per day.
Ships range from quite small, no-frills, no-services vessels on the shortest routes, to leviathans carrying 1,800 passengers and 500 vehicles, with restaurants, bars, shops, discos and cinemas on the longer routes. Long-haul ferries also provide sleeping facilities in the form of reclining seats ( poltrona), couchettes and deluxe cabins with showers and toilets.
Demand for these facilities is high at most times of year, so early booking is essential. You also need to book well in advance when travelling during peak holiday periods, particularly if you’re taking a car. Bear in mind when planning a trip that services are infrequent on the longer routes, some of which have only one departure on three or four days per week.
The major companies serving the main destinations are as follows:
- Adriatic Coast – the Adriatic Company serves Ancona, Bari, Brindisi, Trieste and Venice (plus a number of international destinations);
- Bay of Naples (Naples, Capri, Ischia and Procida) – Caremar, Alilauro and SNAV;
- Elba – Nav.Ar.Mar and Toremar;
- Lipari Islands (Vulcano, Lipari, Stromboli, etc.) – Siremar and SNAV;
- Sardinia – Tirrenia, Sardinia Ferries, I Grandi Traghetti and FS (Italian railways);
- Sicily – Tirrenia, I Grandi Traghetti, Aliscafi SNAV (Hydrofoil) and FS.???5
Information about times and fares is available on the internet at www.traghetti.com, which has a link to the sites of several ferry companies, most with an English version. For information about the three lake service operators, go to www.navigazioneleghi.it.
To give an idea of fares, the average prices (mid-season, medium-sized car, etc.) on the Naples-Palermo route are around €26 for a deck passenger and €57 for a car; the short Villa San Giovanni–Messina trip costs around €25 for a medium-size car and €5 for a foot passenger.
Italy has many lakes, some very large. Most (Como, Garda, Iseo and Maggiore) are in the north, on the border with Switzerland; others include Bracciano and Trasimeno. Ferries operate like a bus service on these lakes, carrying passengers (and often cars also) from one side to the other and, where applicable, calling at islands on the lakes.
The car ferry service is usually convenient, as some of the northern lakes are long and narrow, and driving around them or trying to make the journey by bus or train takes hours. Timetables are available from ferry companies and local tourist information offices. Companies serving the main lakes are shown below:
- Lake Como – mostly operated by Navigazione Lago Como, ferries link Como, Cernobbio, Bellagio, Menaggio, Varenna, Bellano and other towns.
- Lake Garda – Ferries operated by Navigazione Lago Garda connect Riva, Torbole, Gargnano, Gardoe, Sirmione, Desenzano, Bardolino and other towns. There are also several hydrofoil services and a car ferry from Maderno to Torri del Benaco.
- Lake Maggiore – Mostly operated by Navigazione Lago Maggiore, frequent services connect Brissago, Cannobio, Verbania, Baveno, Stresa, Arona, Locarno and several other towns. Tickets are available from company offices at landing stages and some information offices. There’s also a hydrofoil service between Arona, Stresa and Locarno, and a car ferry between Verbano Verbania, Intra and Laveno.??5
Venice is unique and, as such, merits a section to itself. Contrary to what some people think, it isn’t all canals and it’s possible to see most of the city’s major attractions on foot (and without getting wet). But that isn’t as enjoyable as using the local transport system. Venice can be reached by boat from Mestre on the mainland or, more simply, by rail or road across the long causeway. This takes you to Piazzale Roma, which is a good starting-point for tours. There’s an office there selling tickets for the local ferries, vaporetti (literally ‘little steamers’), Venice’s equivalent of buses. Vaporetti cover most of the city and are used by locals and tourists alike.
Tickets cost €6 for any journey and you can buy them singly or in a book ( blocchetto). There are also 12-hour (€13), 24-hour (€15), 36-hour (€20), 48-hour (€25) and 72-hour (€30) tickets. Tickets are stamped on the boat in the same way as on buses and trams. If you don’t have a ticket, e.g. because the ticket office was shut (after 9pm), you can pay on the boat – but if you don’t do this immediately on boarding you can be fined.
The main route is line 1, which runs the full length of the Grand Canal from Piazzale Roma to St. Mark’s Square, a journey of around 45 minutes. Check your route carefully. Look on the timetable (displayed at each stop) to ensure that a vaporetto is going in the direction you want, and look out for similar line numbers which cover slightly different routes (e.g. Lines 52 and 52/, which stop on opposite sides of the Giudecca Canal!). If you want to cross the Grand Canal and you aren’t near one of its three bridges, look out for the traghetti – little boats that take you across for a modest sum, usually only around a euro.
If you want to travel faster and in style, you can take a water taxi ( motoscafo), which are handsome, fast launches. However, bear in mind that they’re expensive and the fare system is arcane! You must agree the fare with the driver before starting a journey and be prepared to pay extra for luggage and late-night trips, as with city taxis.
Think of Venice and you naturally think of gondolas. They’re unique and romantic, and not too expensive for a group of people. Try early evening before dinner, as prices increase after 8pm. As with the motoscafo, agree a price before you start, and ask the gondolier to take you along some of the smaller, more intimate canals. Check the state of the tide, as low tide can mean some pretty awful smells. A 50-minute trip should cost around €85 for up to five people – but who wants to share a gondola ride with more than one person?
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.