Lecce to London: a distance of somewhere around 2,300 km. Most people would choose to go by plane, saving both time and money, but I decide to do it by train. It’s a mammoth journey, but a good one. Train travel is both more ecologically sound than flying, and a lot more picturesque. No waiting around in impersonal airport lounges, twiddling your thumbs for 3 hours – just turn up at the train station and go. Luggage weight limits? None (apart from the issue of having to carry the blinking things, but you’ll all be relieved to hear that my back’s just about recovered now and I no longer hobble about like a pensioner.) Beautiful scenery? This is the Italian Adriatic coast. It couldn’t really be much more gorgeous, as we swish at speed along the coastline, almost within touching distance of the sea. Yes, it’s safe to say that I’ve become a long-distance train travel convert.
The journey starts with a white-knuckle car ride from my town to Lecce. A friend has offered a lift, but she’s Italian and doesn’t believe in driving slowly. We arrive at the train station in record time and I unpeel myself from the passenger seat, into which I have been welded by the centrifugal force, waving her goodbye and promising a visit next year. Swallowing down a lump in my throat at the thought of leaving a place and people who have become very dear to me, I head for the cafe to while away the time until my train arrives.
Ordering a panino, I realise that all the other cafe patrons are either American or Canadian. Lecce is a major hub point for the area, and there are all sorts of people bustling about on their way to somewhere else. There’s a tableful of old Italian men next to me, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze. Their conversation is punctuated with loud shouts of laughter and I settle into my seat, feeling the sun hot on my face and letting the Italian words wash over me while tuning out the English. Suddenly, there is a hubbub as a particularly forceful breeze blows most of the plastic cafe tables halfway across the piazza. There are excited shouts from the Italians, as they race after them, grinning and gesticulating. I join them, but chivalry is apparently not dead: they won’t hear of me exerting myself by carrying a table. No, no! Sit down! We will do it! Curiosity, of course, gets the better of them, and one man starts up a conversation. Checking that I speak Italian (to which I can now say yes, un po – how things have changed since I arrived 8 months ago) he starts to chat to me. Why am I in Lecce? Am I going far? Do I like the Salento? Aren’t the beaches wonderful? So clean! Che belli! His friends, meanwhile, are agog with curiosity on the next table. He returns to report, leaving me to sunbathe a little longer.
It’s nearly time for my train, so I lug my bags across to the platform. If it was ever true that Mussolini made all the trains run on time, then things have changed in the last 60 or 70 years. There is a large crowd of us waiting on the platform, and the train’s running a good 10 minutes late. No matter. It’s a sunny day and I am about to spend nearly 18 hours on trains between here and Paris, so I make the most of the fresh air while I still can.
Finally, the train chugs lazily up to the platform. There are last-minute hugs and kisses as people wave goodbye to their friends and family, and then we are off. I make myself comfortable in the enormous first class seat which will be my home for the next 7 or so hours, and watch out of the window as we leave the south behind. Next stop, Bologna.