Traveling presents the traveller with the inevitable problem of how to get from A to B. Once it was easy: carriage which became train or ship. One’s own transport, unless of a certain class, was not an option and traveling through the air to traverse long distances was unimaginable. We are, in this day and age, sorely spoiled for choice.
Sitting staring at the advice board on a chaotic Italian major train station in state of mild panic often had me wondering why I had limited my choices to train and bus while traveling through Italy. Would it not be easier, at least in terms of anxiety management, just to catch the airport bus and plane? – provided, of course, one catches the right bus that will deposit you at the right airport. I am yet to work out why I had believed that man selling tickets to the airport that the bus would take me to the right airport. I arrived at Malpensa, Milan’s international airport, and couldn’t find the Ryanair embarkation counter. I think I thought that Bergamo was somehow linked and that there was some bus interconnection between the two. I did arrive at Bergamo Airport in time, at vast expense, and found the much maligned Ryanair rather benign, but perhaps that was my relief that I had arrived in plenty of time. Now I just needed to raid my bank account to fill the hole in my wallet left after this costly mistake. The taxi driver, who had responded to my exhortations to get me to Bergamo quickly and to whip the horse(power) clearly thought me barking mad if not completely stupid, a view shared I too shared.
Airports in my opinion are barren places filled with shops you would prefer not to shop in but out of boredom you are drawn to. Airports are noisy and lack personality. They are no place for conversations with strangers who good-humouredly will share opinions, frustration and help.
It is out of frustrations and anxieties on trains and their platforms that memories are formed: the kindness of strangers, the shared stories, the sheer adventure of travel. I think I will never forget the Russian woman, a naturalised Italian, on Linea 1 and then Linea 2 in Naples when we were caught in a Dantesqe hell traveling interminably (it seemed) between Museo and the aptly named Dante when trying to get to Garibaldi Central, frustratingly only 5 – 10 minutes away on the Metro. She shared her philosophy that despite lack of information and the poor management of the metro, everything works out and you get to your destination. It didn’t feel like it as we took the advice to disembark and catch the next train which always ended at either Dante or Museo. It was she who dragged me through the poorly lit and musky labyrinthine tunnels to Linea 2 and once we arrived at Garibaldi, pointed me to the platform where I caught a glimpse of my retreating train to Siena. I knew that by the time we arrived at Garibaldi that I would not catch the train: I was almost two minutes late and, in general one must know that the trains (and buses) leave on time. This is one of the beneficial legacies of Mussolini.
Perhaps car hire would have been an option. If what I wanted was to drive through the landscape rather than fly over it, then car (or motor bike) would have been a reasonable choice. It would certainly have allowed me to explore towns and villages that were not easily accessible by public transport. But my navigational skills are dubious. My intuitive sense of direction is not to be relied on unless I wish to go in the opposite direction. My internal compass is magnetised to another pole.
And then there is the problem of spatial awareness. I have always been proud of what I thought was my own well-developed spatial judgement, but it comes nowhere near that of an Italian driver in a medieval city. I have a vivid recollection of a bus driver reversing down a wall-enclosed lane with millimetres to spare on either side. At no point did he falter and the bus emerged unscathed. And this was at night!
Of course, a Vespa would have also resolved the problem and I was tempted. In Naples I flirted with the idea of going into a shopfront offering Vespa-driving lessons. But ultimately I think I am a coward. It is not for no reason that I choose to drive a car with a long bonnet in the mistaken belief that it puts me at a further distance from the next accident. Totally exposed with no buffer in any direction required, in the end, greater courage than I was able to muster.
I had limited my choice to rail and bus and did not regret the decision. From a window I could appreciate the rich diversity of the Italian landscape.
When I told people that I had taken a train from Rome to Taormina in Sicily, they were astonished. It is a trip of over 10 hours. Surely a plane would have been better? But if I had flown from Rome I doubt that I would have fallen in love with Napes. While I might not have been aware of the loss, I am now aware that the loss would have been great. It is rather like the chance meeting with the yet unknown lover: you both have to be in the same place at the same time in order to become acquainted. If you had not met, you would not have known about that particular beating heart or sweet kiss.
The train trip from Rome to Massina in Sicily is 10 hours. This is why I stopped in Naples, just three hours from Rome. By taking an early train I could be in settled in my accommodation by midday and have lunch in one of the street trattorias. I spent the afternoon getting lost on the way to Santa Chiara and its extraordinary majolica décor. In the evening I sat on my balcony and gazed into the gardens of the houses across the road while eating a simple meal of bread, cheese, marinated and fresh vegetables. I then climbed up the steep road to listen to a concert in Castel Sant’Elmo that overlooks the Bay of Naples. I had fallen in love and Naples was only intended to be a stop of expediency just the day before.
The train from Naples to Massina winds its way backwards and forwards from mountains to sea to San Giovani, the last train station on the mainland. I had been wondering how one crossed to Sicily: submarine tunnel? bridge? The last thing I had thought of was ferry.
Because passengers are required to disembark at San Giovani and make their way to the passenger section of the ferry, it is important to have a rough idea about where your carriage is on the ferry. Notice which steps you take to the deck and be mindful of the signs. Carriages and galley stairs tend to look the same. After several hours on the train it was a relief to stand on the deck and breathe the fresh sea air and watch the approaching Sicilian coastline.
The alternative slow route between Sicily and Naples is the passenger ferry. It is basic and comfortable with restaurants and other amenities. Even though your ticket indicates a shared room despite having booked a private room, you will have the room to yourself with bathroom. The ferry from Palermo to Naples takes 10 hours. I took the overnight ferry bidding another extraordinary city farewell at sunset and arriving as Naples slowly emerged from sleep and began dressing herself in ochres and shades of red, gradually revealing her beauty against the lightening sky changing from golden pink to blue, while the sea lapped at her feet. To the side, that uneasy companion, Vesuvius, slumbered while quietly breathing out puffs of almost imperceptible smoke.
If you want to drag yourself away from the scale of the buildings that tower and spread around you and house awe inspiring mosaics, gold leaf and sculptures in Palermo catch the coast hugging train to Celafù. Take a swimming costume in case you wish to lie on the beach after wandering the town.
Roger II commissioned the cathedral which was completed in 1267. Legend has it that it was built in gratitude to God for sparing his life when his ship was sunk and he was washed ashore. The reality is that he built the cathedral in order to impress and convert the mostly Islamic population of Celafù. It overlooks the town and houses beautiful mosaics and gold-leaf ornamentation. The modern stained glass windows complement the original artwork perfectly.
Back on the mainland I continued to enjoy the company of others on trains and buses, having learnt to sit tight and not to panic. Sometimes this is not easy particularly when standing around at a usually poorly demarcated bus stop with other people who may or may not be catching the same bus as you, with no sign of a bus. Suddenly, with minutes to spare, the bus rolls in, luggage is stored and off you set through another stretch of Italian landscape.
When two elderly Australian women clambered on the bus and panicked because they had little information about their route from Siena to Assisi, and, in particular, the transfer to another bus in Perugia, all passengers rallied around them and those who could interpreted and clarified instructions from the bus driver in order to allay their fears. By the time we arrived in Perugia we were a close knit little community.
How else but on a train would I have met the beautiful Moroccan woman I fell into conversation with somewhere between Assisi and Ravenna. She spoke longingly of her home in Marrakech and her sad appreciation of Italy where her husband worked. Months later, as I wandered the streets of Marrakech, I thought of Fatima and gave them her love.