Florence. When I found out that I would have five, blissful, teaching-free days over Easter, the City of Flowers was my first thought. Second thought was, “oh god: the journey.” I love arriving in different destinations, but I hate travelling. For a start, there’s booking tickets. The internet ought to have made all this easier, but in my experience it just complicates everything. It’s so fast-moving that by the time you’ve looked up prices for all the different routes and means of transport, and decided on one, everything has changed and you have to start all over again. Despite this, I give it my best shot. First: the trains. Trenitalia’s website gives me all the details and tells me that there are seats available but then refuses to accept my card. Growling, I try the planes. Flights seem reasonable until I try to book, at which point they mysteriously double in price. In the end I do what I should have done right from the start and go to the lovely travel agent in town. If you, like me, are an expat in Italy, I can’t recommend this route enough. €8-10 is a small price to pay for somebody else to take the headache out of Italian red tape. I cheerfully hand over my card to the smiling woman in the travel agency, and leave 15 hassle-free minutes later, clutching six freshly-printed train tickets, one for each leg of the journey. Perfect.
The cheapest way to make the journey is by sleeper train. It’s a ten-hour journey, more or less, involving two changes of trains, one of which is at 5.40am. Ouch. The first hurdle, however, is for Alex and me to get to the station in Lecce. Easier said than done. Not only is there a lot of traffic, but it’s been taken over by the One-Way-System fairies. Add to this the facts that signage is patchy at best and you’re dealing with Italian drivers, and you have something that resembles the seventh circle of hell. Leaving the ring-road, we get lost in the suburbs for a while, driving around endless identical high-rise blocks of flats hoping to find a sign that will give us a clue of a vague direction to take. Finally, we get back on track and breathe a sigh of relief. But then, right in front of us, a car decides to change lanes without looking and cannons into another. Two front wings crumple and eight Italians spill out of their cars to shout and gesticulate for all they’re worth. Are we going to be thwarted in our journey before we’ve even got out of the Salento? Happily, no-one is hurt and there isn’t any major damage, so we zip around the side and leave them to it. We have a long-distance train to catch.
At the station there are plenty of Italians, also heading away for the Easter holiday. It makes fascinating watching. Not one of them arrives at the station alone; they are all accompanied by myriad family and friends, and even more suitcases. One man carries a large cardboard box tied up with string, complete with cunningly devised handle. The writing on the outside tells me that it contains a microwave, but I assume that’s no longer the case. *Surely* no-one takes a microwave on holiday with them. Do they …? Many more people clutch giant easter eggs, a good foot high and beautifully wrapped in coloured foil and ribbons. Everyone has at least one large wheeled suitcase. You can tell the foreigners in the station: they’re the tall, pale ones travelling light and alone, or at the most in pairs. I notice a pair of what look to be German travellers racing through the station, dreadlocks and loose clothing layers flying as they run through the underpass to their train. I don’t know whether it’s that all the Italians are uncharacteristically on time, or whether they just don’t mind if they miss their train, but none of them seem to be in any hurry. They are far more concerned with gossip and socialising as they lug their hundreds of bags onto the platform. I feel I should take a leaf out of their book, but am too busy twitching about missing our train. Alex takes pity on me about 15 minutes before departure and we head through the underpass. When we reach the platform, we cast about for a ticket stamper. Train tickets must be validated with the time and date at the station before you get on the train, or you face being fined. There are therefore bright yellow boxes situated at strategic points around every station, although half the time they don’t seem to work. This can lead to situations where you’ve tramped half a mile across the station to the furthest platform, only to have to run back to where you came from in order to validate the ticket. This is, in fact, exactly what happens to us now. Noticing my eyes widening in panic at the fact that we have a mere 10 minutes before the train leaves, Alex laughs at me, leaves me with his rucksack, and saunters back through the underpass to stamp the ticket. I chew my fingernails and check the clock. It’s all my great-grandmother’s fault. She, apparently, used to insist on being at the station two hours before the train departed. This paranoia has been passed down the family line and, although I’m not as bad as that, I do like to have a good half hour in hand.
Of course, Alex makes it back with plenty of time to spare, and we hop on board the rather swanky-looking train that will take us through stage one of the journey. It looks more like a tram than a train, with platform-level entry doors and wide, concertina-ed carriages which run straight through with no dividing doors. The seats are high-backed grey vinyl, with shiny chrome handles along the aisle seats, for those moments when the train buckets around a corner and sends you flying into a fellow passenger’s lap. The tables are covered in wood-effect veneer, and the whole train has a smell of newness to it. What does newness smell like? Well, rather like nappies, actually … It’s very different to the trains on my local branch line, which are tinpot little puff-puff things from an age long before automatic doors and hot and cold running wi-fi. We stretch out and relax, playing a couple of lazy games of noughts and crosses. The family across the aisle from us watch us with open curiousity as I ask Alex the meaning of various Italian words. The daughter is a vivacious, giggly little thing, coercing her bear of a father into playing one-potato-two-potato with her. He concedes with a paternal chuckle. He’s big for an Italian – well over 6′, and broad with it – and looks and sounds like Tony Soprano, so to see him giggling with his little girl is sweetly incongruous. The train glides on through the night, arriving at Bari bang on time, an hour and a half later.
The next part of the journey is the bit that promises to be a proper adventure. This train is much older and more dilapidated than the one we’ve just left. Inevitably, we are at the wrong end of the platform, and have to rush past 10 carriages to get to the one we’re booked into. Puffing slightly, we clamber up the steep steps and into the narrow corridor which runs alongside the sleeper cabins. We are booked into a six-berth ‘promiscuo’, or mixed-sex, cabin. In contrast with the name, I’m relieved to note that there’s not a hope of anything sordid happening in there. The bottom two berths are already occupied by a middle-aged couple, and one of the top ones by a large chap in his 40s. I have the other top berth, and Alex is in one of the middle ones. We squeeze our way into the cabin and release the provided bedding from its plastic wrapping. Making a bunk bed while perched on top of it, feet dangling over the edge and head stooped to avoid hitting the ceiling, is quite hard, I discover. I get the giggles at my ineptitude, which earns me a glare from the woman in the bottom bunk. Of course, this only serves to make me helpless with laughter. I fling the sheet into the corner and scramble down the ladder, out into the corridor, resolving to sort the bed out at whichever point I decide to climb into it. The corridor is crammed with people peering out of the windows. We should have been on the move by now, but the train is still resolutely stationary. I put my hands against the cool glass of the window, leaving a perfect pair of hot handprints: the train is allegedly air-conditioned, but in fact it seems to be super-heated. All around us there is excited chatter and laughter. The holiday weekend is well and truly upon us and everyone is looking forward to whatever plans they have made. For many Italians, this seems to be going to the beach and eating enormous amounts of food. Sounds like a good way to spend a long weekend to me. I look at Alex and he has a worried expression on his face. Ever so casually, he asks how long we have to change in Bologna. He’s been listening to the guard and apparently the train is running 28 minutes behind schedule. This is a bit of a problem: our change is 30 minutes. I seem to have been overtaken by Italian-ness, however, as I find myself shrugging and grinning. The journey from Bologna to Florence is only 40 minutes – if we miss the connection we just hop on the next train. It’ll be fine!
Finally the train is on the move. I watch the lights of Bari recede into the distance and grin with excitement. A father and daughter are watching the darkened landscape from the window next to me, and we exchange smiles. I’m not really tired yet but, realising that I’ll probably not get all that much sleep, I decide to brave the bunk again. This time, to make life more complicated, the overhead light has been turned off, so I’m fumbling around in the dark. Once again, giggles threaten to overcome me, but I manage to keep myself just about under control. The heat is stifling, and I regret my decision to wear a woollen dress. I sneak a peek around the cabin to see if anyone else is awake. Dare I risk taking the dress off? I’m wearing a long-sleeved top and tights underneath it, so it wouldn’t be too indecent, but this is Italy and they get scandalised by the funniest things. The guy on the other top berth is snoring like a grampus, so I’m safe from him. The woman on the bottom berth still has her side light on, but appears to have dozed off, so I decide to risk it. I pull the paper sheet over me, and whip the dress over my head. I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m sure it would have been great for weightloss to have kept it on, but it wasn’t at all conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep. As comfortable as a night on a swaying bunk, in a cabin shared with two loud snorers can be, that is. I glance down at Alex, who has his pillow jammed over his head in an attempt to block out the loud rattling noises coming from the men next to and above him. I’m not getting any sleep tonight, clearly. I settle for closing my eyes and relaxing, as a halfway measure.
At some point I must actually have dozed off, because I am rudely awakened at 5.30 by the guard throwing the cabin door open and switching on the light. “Bologna! Novantaquattro, novantacinque!” Relieved to have got a wake-up call, I try to negotiate re-donning my dress without flashing my knickers at the guy in the other top bunk, who is now very much awake. I’m not sure I entirely manage it, but I’m leaving now, so what the hell. Hoping to god that I’ve remembered to pick everything up, I fall down the ladder and out into the corridor. Dawn hasn’t yet broken, and it’s seriously cold outside the cabin. I shiver, but can’t keep the smile off my face. The train has caught up on the delays overnight, and we’re arriving dead on time in Bologna. Florence, here we come …
(to be continued …)