After a journey on Mr Branson’s smelly Pendolino to London we split up – Carolyn to visit her ailing father in Kent and me to visit Anna and Adela in London. A couple of afternoons spent playing witches, making biscuits and a little card box with Adela, and then all too soon we had to leave for our overnight stay at the Youth Hostel on Euston Rd – right opposite St Pancras Station for a 6.30 check-in for the Eurostar. In a very warm Paris by 10.00, and we had a few hours before our connection. So lunch on goats cheese salad and fruit tarts at an Alsatian restaurant opposite the splendid Gare de Lyon with its airy Hall 2 from which after sitting in the sun by the platform we join the TGV for Zurich.
Arriving via Basle, Switzerland is surprisingly industrialised – an interesting case study there of how a small country has retained its industrial base, its own currency, a distinct culture and prosperity.
At the grand Bahnhof (station) there is a food market where we buy some very smelly (is this a theme?) Italian cheese (later responsible for clearing a space in the crowd at Rome’s Trevi fountain while we picnic) and, after carefully considering every option, a small loaf for tomorrow’s picnic. We check in to our hotel opposite the station and go out for a wander. I joke that we must eat fondue, and we actually end up doing so, with a small bottle of a nice local wine, slightly sweet, that seems to get more like a desert wine as we eat. Then for a walk along the river and back. We can’t get into the church with the Chagall window, but admire the building from the outside. A strong cycle culture here with everyone on European utility machines and a few mountain bikes.
Lots of trams and a trolleybus line with an interesting crossover of the two and one cable systems: I suppose hydro-electric power incentivises the use of these forms of transport – I remember learning at school that the railways have long been electrified (it’s a severely underplayed strength that Manchester’s, trams also run off hydro-power, which doesn’t explain their serious unreliability – the best replacement bus service in Europe as a local wag put it). Another early start with brioche and croissants at the station before catching the train over the Gothard for Milan. Swiss chalets just like in the books, and even some cows with bells.
The train goes up the mountain in part via a spiral. Not so dramatic as Flam in Norway, but still quite an engineering feat. Unfortunately as we approached the Gothard tunnel the sky darkened and the rain came down so the view was not great. We arrived at the monumental Milano Centrale station on time with a couple of hours to spare, having gone through Italian speaking Swiss cantons – a reminder of the wonderful diversity of the European subcontinent).
Then onto the Italian high speed service the rather cornily named Frecciarossa (the ‘Red Arrow’ – sounds better in Italian). A very modern and comfortable train, half empty: the advertising screen gave a readout of the speed – we reached 300 k.p.h. which felt ‘exciting’. That speed is 187.5 m.p.h. – the over-specified prestige project, the British HS2 aims to waste fuel by going at 225mph – that’s some 40 m.p.h. more, a totally unnecessary distraction from upgrading the British network. So at this more reasonable high speed we arrive in Rome in 2hrs 50m.
Then we dig out the instructions from the B&B host for the bus. For some reason the information kiosk for Rome’s public transport doesn’t sell bus tickets, so I get them from the tobacconist back in the station. Then we can’t find the bus. I ask a bus crew in my minimal Italian (which on reflection I realise was poor Portuguese! – these Latin languages are getting mixed up) and we locate the 70 bus. It all works out OK after a few minutes of concern that we might be going in the wrong direction. We arrive at our accommodation – a very nice flat, with antique furnishings, quite central.
Off we go to explore – we walk up to St Peter’s – one of Rome’s unremarked optical illusions because the church is so bloody big that it looks much closer than it really is. We go up the wrong side to get in and give up thinking we’ll try again another day. then back onto a bus – this time it is going the wrong way, but we simply turn round and come back, having dinner in the Centro [hi]Storico.
Anyway I’m not going to write a tourist account of our stay in Rome. We ended up rather liking it. Highlights were the (noted) optical illusion at the Ignatious Loyola church – the dome painted on the ceiling, Ostia Antica – the most remarkable ancient Roman port city on near the mouth of the Tiber. Mosaic at Ostia Antica
The Pantheon – a 2000 year old temple taken over by the Jesus people, hence its state of preservation – a rather remarkable space, no doubt due to the formulae of its proportions, and the experience of coming upon ancient architecture at various points while wandering around.
We were due to continue by train to Sicily but came home due to family illness and a death, another story that needs to be told about health services here.
Attempts to minimise carbon emissions failed then, as we came back at short notice on 2 SAS flights via Copenhagen – saw the bridge to Sweden from the air.
To continue the railway story, after a stay in Kent, I decided to visit my sister near Bedford. I went on HS1 from Ebbbsfleet – yet another British train where the arrival of passengers with luggage seems to be a complete surprise and the Midland mainline, pulled by (smelly) diesel.
The death of my father in law brought back memories of my mother’s last months and I visited the grave. None of us believe or believed in any afterlife, but at least she is in a beautiful setting with a memorial to her and our Dad.
My stay with my sister included a country walk along the disused, but perfectly sound former railway from Northampton to Bedford, another bit of Beeching vandalism from the 1960s. It would be better to spend money on re-opening many of these inter-regional lines on the prestige project of HS2, although some kind of inter-regional investment in rail is needed to facilitate the big shift from private motoring to collective public transport.