By Rosie Staal
HOLIDAY memories are made of this: standing on a crowded platform trying not to be felled by battalions of schoolchildren armed with out-of-control rucksacks or drenched by a rainstorm while waiting for a train already ten minutes late. They are also made of this: being moved almost to tears by the sight of a deserted, moonlit Campo dei Miracoli at Pisa, the leaning tower jauntily cocking a snook at all the architectural perfection around it.
That’s holidays for you, and that’s Italy for you.
The country embraces its visitors and thrills them with its treasures, but it must get on with its own life, thank you, so it can’t make concessions, like swapping incessant rain for just half a day of sunshine or equipping the loos in the Uffizi with door locks and toilet paper.
We took it all in our stride and loved it.
My husband and I know the Marche region well and we have visited Venice, Sicily and Rome. How could we tick off some of the other places on our list of Italian ‘must-sees’? Last November, we decided to tackle a swathe of the country by train, freeing us from the tyranny of the car and enabling us to see more of the countryside.
The planning started when we found a ‘free flights’ offer on the Ryanair website. Paying only for taxes meant that for £12.50 each we could fly to Bergamo, a logical starting point. We settled on six other destinations: Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Florence and Bologna. We booked all hotels in advance and tickets for a flight home 13 days later from Bologna, this time with Go, for £22 each.
To take even more pain out of the exercise, we opted to leave our car at Tisbury station and travel to Stansted via South West Trains, the London Underground and the Stansted Express. We really did mean it when we planned this as a train holiday.
Almost a year to the day after we had visited Rome, where we breakfasted on the hotel’s rooftop terrace and walked through sun-kissed pages of childhood history books, we landed in Bergamo in torrential rain. The downpour continued all through our visit to this historic gem at the foot of the Alps and, indeed, for the next three days.
To get to Milan, we took the train. The station was empty. Where was everyone? Suddenly, we found out, as what seemed like the country’s entire school-age population swarmed on to our platform, rucksacks swinging like deadly weapons.
A station announcer burbled incomprehensibly and our fellow travellers let out a chorus of derision, catching our eyes and raising their eyebrows. The train was 15 minutes in ritardo and so now we were all on the same side, allies against the rail system and veterans of the long wait.
The height of the step up to the train almost defied belief. We had travelled on Italian trains before but never with heavy suitcases. This time, the manoeuvre seemed impossible. We made it, albeit with some loss of dignity as we grunted and heaved, and, with muscles zinging, we sat down to recover our normal heart-rate and enjoy the journey.
This routine, with variations in the length of time waiting on rain-lashed platforms for delayed trains, was repeated throughout our trip. By the time we undertook the final leg, Florence to Bologna, we were lifting our cases with relative ease. That particular train was the tardiest of them all: one hour late – for a one-hour journey. Train travel in Italy is a pleasurable way to go if you aren’t in a rush.
Views of the passing landscape were sometimes obscured by dirty windows and on occasions we had to sit in corridors when compartments were overcrowded. Only Siena had a truly awful station, a smelly, grubby mess that we were glad to leave behind.
Milan, big and bustling, meant getting to grips with the metro system as well. We walked a great deal, enjoying the big-city atmosphere and its smart, sassy, shops. Even under umbrellas, the Milanese look elegant. Their cathedral was to be the first of a succession of sights on this trip to make our jaws drop.
Next stop was Genoa, which will forever have a place in our hearts as it was here that the rain stopped, the sun shone and the temperature rose – along with our spirits.
We had given ourselves just 24 hours to feel the pulse of this lively city but it was enough to convince us that a return visit deserves to be paid, especially to appreciate the changes being wrought in anticipation of its role as European City of Culture for 2004. We found an edge and a verve to Genoa that excited us and reminded us of Barcelona. It is not a place of great beauty, but the sum of its parts is significant.
The journey from Genoa to Pisa was our longest at an hour-and-a-half. In Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli, the stunning duomo and baptistry vie for attention until the eye lights upon the ridiculous campanile, the tower of a billion photographs, leaning over at an impossible angle as if to outsmart its sensible, upright neighbours.
We saw it all by day, in the company of the world and his wife, and we returned after dark to find ourselves quite alone. Under a dense, velvety sky, sprinkled with stars, the white marble buildings shimmered majestically – and still the wedding-cake tower stole the show.
The colours of Pisa – earthy and organic and of infinite variety, from muddy lemon to rich terracotta – were a contrast with the monotone limpid brown of Siena, where we arrived after changing trains at Empoli.
We knew we would like Siena but we could have had no idea quite how much. There was a great tranquillity about the place, a quiet, almost reverential calm pervading the narrow streets so that no-one raised their voices and even cars seemed to purr as they passed.
The great campo, scene of the legendary palio bareback horse races, made a huge impression on us by its sheer size and beauty. Here, too, we found a serenity that we will always associate with this wonderful city.
Two days in Siena were followed by three among the Renaissance treasures of rainy Florence. Enthusiastically, we ‘did’ the Uffizi, the Bargello and its fabulous sculptures, the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo, the rather disappointing Ponte Vecchio, a vast street market, a flea market and countless extraordinary churches.
With suitcases bulging we headed off for the final city, Bologna, and its much-vaunted 22 miles of colonnades. If Florence had brought heavy rain throughout our stay, Bologna seemed determined to compensate. It positively glowed – and so did we. Suffering from culture overload, we simply walked and walked.
Three days gave us a good flavour of this wonderful city, for good reason dubbed the food capital of Italy. The Piazza Maggiore was the setting for entertainments of all sorts, including a highly aromatic polenta festival where onlookers were rewarded with generous helpings. Friendly, welcoming Bologna provided a high point on which to end our holiday.
Our memory banks filled to overflowing and our affection for Italy and all things Italian strengthened tenfold, we flew back to Stansted and completed our journey home by rail to Tisbury.
• There are seven types of train in Italy, from local plodder to zippy espresso, and we took whatever was available. The fares ranged from €3.75 for the short Bergamo to Milan leg to €12.85 for Genoa to Pisa. Total travel costs in Italy came to €97.50 for the two of us – a bargain for our tailor-made holiday of discovery.
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