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Done roaming: David Whitley

Tackling public transport in a foreign backwater can be an unnerving experience, especially if you rely on your smartphone for guidance

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As the bleak stomp along Verona’s finest snarling dual carriageway took a more frightening turn into an unlit underpass, a message from a friend arrived on my phone. ‘Top tip,’ it said. ‘As a rule of thumb, mid-sized Italian cities are pretty awful once you get outside the walls. I wouldn’t bother going outside the walls.’

I was well outside the walls, and the underpass looked like the sort of place a troll would call home. It was a relief to get past it for another heady dose of dual carriageway trekking.

My target was a brewpub, which some internet research had told me was newly opened. I wanted to go there, partly because professional pride makes me want to check out that sort of thing while researching city guides, and partly because I really fancied some decent beer after a few days in a heavily wine-slanted region.

The downside was that it involved a two-mile walk well out of my way. I could have worked out which bus I needed, but I’ve long-standing problems with never knowing when to get off foreign buses. Besides, Verona’s very pretty — so I was fairly sure it’d be an enjoyably scenic walk.

That wrong assumption was the first of many. As I finally got to the spot where Google Maps said it was, I looked around, only to find what looked suspiciously like the HQ for a neo-Nazi organisation. Finally, next to it, I saw a sign of life. Or rather, of death. The brewpub’s sign was split in half, the lights were out and a notice on the door thanked customers in a way that made it sound very much like Verona’s intrepid brewers had gone out of business. Another consultation with the omniscient, info-spurting device in my pocket furnished me with a detail I’d not spotted earlier: even if the venture had still been running, it closes on Monday nights.

This particular Monday night, therefore, would be the one where I took on Verona’s bus system. And technology would be my friend this time. I plotted a route back to the centre, using Google Maps’ public transport option. I found the right bus stop, the right bus, and ended up in the type of wine bar I’d always tried to avoid. The evening wasn’t the voyage of discovery I’d hoped for, but neither was it an embarrassing failure.

Emboldened, I decided to get the bus back to my hotel, and reached again for the all-knowing phone. The number 11, magically, appeared to go from pretty much where I was standing to right outside my hotel. There was only one more potential pitfall — was I standing on the right side of the road? I was. Once on board, it headed, as expected, towards the station, allowing me to bury my head in a book for 10 minutes until my hotel came into view. When I looked up, however, said hotel was nowhere to be seen. That is, unless it had undergone a remarkable transformation during the day from anodyne, slightly-out-of-centre four-star into a grim, grey bus depot.

The driver switched off the engine, and turned round, clearly surprised to learn he still had a passenger on board. The competition to look most bewildered was well and truly on.

“I think I’m in the wrong place,” I said.

“I think you’re in the wrong place,” he blurted at the same time.

“But this is the number 11. It stops on Via Luigi Galvani, right?”

I can confirm that this is true. The number 11 does stop on Via Luigi Galvani. But, apparently, only during the day. At night, it goes to the bay outside the train station, then does a swift turn and heads back to the bus depot on the opposite side of the city from Via Luigi Galvani.

Seeing me on the panicked verge of tears, the driver took pity, and beckoned me to follow him. We walked past another grotty underpass and another hideous dual carriageway, arriving at a lonely-looking bus stop in what could be legally part of Albania for all I knew. The kindly driver told me which bus to catch, which bus to change to and where. Sometimes, it’s better to get your information from people rather than phones.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)