Sunday, 9 October 2011

Mamma mia!

WARNING: Today's post has been written in several instalments - non sequitors obligatory.

Part One
Early morning train journey, whipping through the misty – or is it murky – French countryside. I am on holiday! Already surrounded by words and phrases I half catch but don't understand, the rhythm of the sounds strangely familiar yet completely unknown. I read my Italian phrase book in the hopes that I might start to tune in. It probably isn't help that this is a) a train guard, b) who is French, c) speaking Italian. I have no chance!

Looking outside again, I'm amazed at how quickly the city has given way to countryside. Rolling hills and (fairly) lush green views. Not at all like Spain last summer, where ochre and brown were the colours of the season. I'm sure as I move into and down through Italy it will change, but for now it is a familiar view.

There is no WiFi on the train. I can't believe it. Something we're more advanced in than the Europeans!! It means I have to compose this post offline and upload later. But what it also means is that I won't be hooked to my virtual world, missing the wonders of the real world around me. An article I read yesterday warned of the dangers of social network addiction – the constant need to 'check your status' and report your every move. While I don't think I'm necessarily too guilty of the latter, I fear I am a complete victim to the former. Holidays away from my mobile phone network are definitely good for me, even if I do feel like I'm going 'cold turkey' for the first couple of days. It is no coincidence that I checked all hotels for in room WiFi before booking.

But for now, I have 7 hours on this train ahead of me. Hopefully a beautiful journey through the Alps to marvel at and nothing to distract me except my books, my music and my crochet. How strange to be taking life at a slower pace whilst simultaneously hurtling through the countryside at high speed in a TGV. 

Part Two
The journey took me through some fabulous countryside - very picturesque but not particularly photogenic, so no photos I'm afraid. I'm not entirely sure of the route but I think it went diagonally across France entering Italy around the Milky Way ski resort area - not passing through Switzerland as I've been telling everyone for weeks - oops. I do know we went through Aix Les Bains, Chambery and Bardonecchia, past some very impressive limestone crags, some already snow dusted mountains and along the edge of a couple of vertiginous valleys. 

During the 11 hours of travelling today, I had time to think about whether or not the length of the journey is worth it for the experience. On the minus side, it does take a long time and it costs far more than the budget airlines. But on the plus side, it's way more interesting, you get to see some beautiful scenery, and you have time to acclimatise without being thrust all unprepared into your destination. Plus there's the beauty of doing the border control while you're travelling. None of this waiting in line palaver. Passport control comes right to your seat - luxury! 

You also get to see stupendous stations like the one at Milan (pictured above). As Douglas Adams said, It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, "as pretty as an airport." The same most definitely cannot be said of the railway station. Such was the arrogance of the early railway pioneers that there are many fine examples of overblown grandeur gracing the world's transport hubs, none more so than in Italy!

Having said that about the fantastic scenery, I must confess that much of the journey from Milan to Rome today seemed to be underground.  Now I understand why the European high speed rail services work - they simply built new lines for them, and blasted them underneath cities and through hills. It doesn't make for the most exciting rail journeys, but they sure are quick! 

But when we emerged, blinking into the sunshine (yes, sunshine. It does still exist!) the views were so jaw droppingly stunning that I forgave the modern day rail engineers instantly. We had entered a world of sun drenched hills with grape and olive lined terraces, sandy dust roads and lollipop trees. All Gladiator - the film that is, not the TV series that had steroid fueled muscle men - and sad to say, women - hit each other with giant cotton buds in the name of entertainment.

And then we arrived in Rome...

Part Three
And hot and sticky it was too. Well, hotter and stickier than I'm used to at any rate - which is anything above freezing this year, to be honest. As a result, the first washing of the holiday was required to 'freshen up' my travelling clothes. Clearly my Scandinavian roots don't do well in the Mediterranean climate.

But what of Rome? The hotel is a little more monastic than I was expecting (I wonder if there's a Trade Descriptions Act in Italy?) but perfectly comfortable and adequate for my purposes. I don't really intend to spend much time lounging about in it anyway. My fevered guide book marking on the journey here has identified more than enough to fill my two and a half days stay. 

My walk to the hotel was a great introduction to the city - traffic everywhere, people promenading and preening, shops displaying their designer wares. And the buildings, oh the buildings are amazing. I can't wait for the morning when I can go explore!

But my real Rome experience, the one that makes me laugh out loud, happened over dinner. Having eaten pretty much on the hoof for the last 36 hours, I decided to go out for dinner even though I'd just arrived and was pretty tired. And in so doing, I discovered that the cliche about Italian waiters really is true - having been in the eternal city for less than 2 hours, I have already been flirted with, smuggled extra drinks and free desserts and invited out on a date tomorrow night!! 

I'd be flattered but I know it's all just part of the game in a tourist city. But, on balance, I think I came out ahead on the deal - extra food, a cheaper than expected bill and a free breakfast to have in my room in the morning. Not bad really!

Ciao bella - tune in tomorrow to see if I decide to take up the offer of seeing Rome's nightlife...!

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