Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The best way to see Italy is by train

Text by Tim Parks has lived in Italy since 1981. The most recent of his four books about his adopted home is Italian ways. On and off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (US$13.50; Harvil Secken). Executive summary by darmansjah, picture adapted in google.

Train travel in Italy is never simply time lost waiting to reach your destination: in figuring out the ticketing system, getting your head round the PA announcements, dealing with the conductors, and watching the landscape unfold outside while your fellow passengers inside gesticulate their way through some Latin melodrama, you’re going to learn a huge amount about Italy even before you set foot in the cobbled piazzas, or pick up the menu in the first trattoria.

A whole range of train experiences can be had: the slow regionali crawlingfro mone campanile (belltower) to the next, the high-speed Fecce racing at 220mph from Turin, through Milan, Bologna, Rome and Naples all the way down to Salerno, and the pompous old Intercities, with their ochre-curtained compartments anddusty upholstery making the epic coastal runs down the Adriatic to lecce and the Tyrrhenian to Reggio Calabria. It’s best to try both first-and second class, if only to see how often, in first on a regionale, half the passengers will disappear when the ticket collector comes around and then drift back when he’s safely gone. It’s reassuring that by UK standards the prices are always going to seem low, even when you take the Italo, the new private train that rushes you non-stop from Milan to Rome in just two hours 45 minutes.

Italy was unified, one pundit claimed in the 1860s, con eserciti e ferrovie – with armies and railways – an although no-one but the carabinieri travel armed these days, trains are still a great way to get a grip on the whole peninsula and hazards of Italian driving and the dull disorientation of planes and airports.

Different rolling stock and standards of cleanliness will give you a good idea of the development gap between north and south. In the prosperous north, the frequent fast, reservations-only trains are crowding out the slower regionali. The government obliges the railways to offer ‘social prices’ for commuters, so some trains have  to be dirt cheap, but there are fewer and fewer of them, and they are ever more crowded. In compensation, on the fast trains you can show your internet-purchased ticket to the conductor on your mobile without wasting any time at ticket windows or machines.

In the far south there are no fast trains and the conductor has never seen a ticket on a mobile. That said, by far may favourite journey in Italy is the long ride round the southern Calabrian coast from Reggio to Crotone, then along the Gulf of Taranto, the instep of Italy’s boot, to Puglia. Noisy ,two-carriage diesels with primitive air-conditioning trundle you along an endless string of tiny stations – Torre Melissa, Ciro, Curcoli, Cariati, Mandatoriccio Campana, Calopezzati, Mirto Crosia, Old men are drinking wine under sunshades on the platform; there’s the haunting sound of a bell ringing to announce the arrival of the train; cactuses growing wild beside the line; the sea to right, a solid dazzle of blue, and the thirsty southern hills to the left; rocks and fig trees; villas, villages and squat ancient towers. The eight-hour journey has a dreamy, meditative feel that helps you understand how the very idea of punctuality might seem mad to someone who grew up in these parts.

From the south, there’s only one smart way back. The night train from Lecce, a 13-hour ride. If you’re with your partner, splash out and get a two-bed compartment all to yourselves. The rhythm of the rails and the soft swaying of the carriage as it races along the moonlight beaches of the Adriatic are a guaranteed aphrodisiac. Under the vast vaulted spaces of Milan’s magnificent station, at 7am, a strong cappuccino is waiting to usher your back into the world of important appointments and serious timetables.

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