Ancona to Padova – 17 September 2013
A trip by train from Ancona to Padova, sitting next to two Americans and pondering matters social, political, touristical and geographic.
We sit on the station-platform seats at Ancona Station, waiting for the 12:27 train that has come all the way from Lecce, where it left at ten past seven this morning. The train is bound for Venice where it is due to arrive at nine minutes past four. The train is a Freccia Bianca – a White Arrow – it says along the side.
In many ways we are in no great hurry for the train to arrive, as Ancona station is a theatre far superior to many you are misguided enough to pay to sit in. There are men in orange jackets picking up litter from the tracks, which raises some questions in our minds: a) Who is that gets a job picking litter from the tracks? b) Do they do this every day for the rest of their lives? and c) Who is it that chucks so much rubbish onto the track? Bottles, cans, wrappers, sheets of newspaper, the litter-picker fills a transparent plastic sack within minutes and still there is plenty more to pick.
Before we tire of watching the litter pickers a train comes in, and the train manager has asked for the railway police to come, as there are people on board who are unwilling to pay their fare. The train manager is angry, and another passenger is angry and comes to the door to join in, taking the opportunity to light a cigarette, the station is supposed to be non-smoking but the police say nothing to him, the senior policeman appears to be explaining that he is sorry but there is little that the police can do about the fare-dodgers, though two policemen get onto the train and escort two dark-skinned youths, not Italian by origin, possibly North African, from it and lead them to their office at the end of the platform. The youths have an air about them that suggests this is a regular procedure. The train manager and senior policeman are still arguing, with the train manager getting redder in the face and neck by the minute. At length the train manager decides that the train had better leave – by now about ten minutes late – the passenger who had chosen to get involved throws his cigarette onto the tracks, though he had smoked no more than a quarter of it, and the station settles back to normal again, until the curtains open on the next scene.
Our train comes in five minutes early.
We Find Our Seats
Italian long-distance trains are all booked seating – or rather they are until all the seats are booked, after which you can buy a ticket and take your chance or stand. We have seats booked in the end carriage, carozza 9. These turn out to be two window seats in a set of four with a table, with an American couple in the two aisle seats, or that is where they were obliged to move to after we arrived. The man said they might go and find some more space to spread out in, but he does not know, though soon finds out, that Italian trains get quite busy.
Hearing the American English, we introduce ourselves to our travel companions, asking them where they got on and where they are heading. Donna and Mike got on at Pescara, having spent some time with British and American friends in a house in the Abruzzo. They are heading to, where else? Venice. There are a number of Americans on the train. Americans visit Venice. Trains to Venice have Americans on.
Our travelling companions for the next three and a quarter hours come from northern Colorado, middle of the USA. We never found out what they did there. Real estate? Lawyer? For the man. And housewife or office work for the woman? My guess would be something like that. And they never asked us anything about us, nothing at all.
A Travel Guide
I take it upon myself to point out some things to the American couple, in particular to Donna, as Mike says he’s a bit deaf, about our journey as we roll along, for I guess, quite rightly, that they have little idea about the land they are passing through, while we have travelled this route, by train and by road, dozens of times. No one asked me to do this commentary, and at first Donna and Mike looked a bit taken aback, but they decided they would humour me and that was OK, for by persisting I told them things they would not otherwise have known, or cared to know, and since the guidebooks and travel websites focus on a small number of places such as Venice, their unawareness is perhaps not surprising, the guidebooks giving the impression as they do that outside such places as Venice there is little of worth to see. I will be, for one randomly-selected couple at least, an antidote to the facile guidebooks, whether my audience likes it or not.
Ancona to Pesaro
The first thing I tell the Americans, as the train pulls away from the station, is how much they have missed by not having chosen to stop in Ancona. Ancona is one of our favourite cities in the entire world. It is not pretty-pretty, as it was pretty-much destroyed in the Second World War, but that destruction has led to some ancient remains being uncovered, that are still being excavated, and it is a very varied city, with markets, a tree-lined promenade, a beach, and for an Italian city lots of parkland. And as a valuable bonus, you can sit for hours watching the ferries to Greece, Croatia and Albania loading and unloading, plus the occasional highlight of a cruise ship.
Donna and Mike seemed rather puzzled by anyone wanting to watch ferries load, as you probably would be if you had never done it.
The railway line through Ancona northwards from the station runs right alongside the sea, and today there is a menacing dark sky and the sea is extremely choppy, rougher than I would have expected, given the weather overall and I wondered whether there may have been some undersea earth movements such as have been happening almost daily in the Adriatic off Ancona recently. Quite likely there had, though I did not say anything about this as I was not sure that’s what it was.
The train travels past the big gas terminal at Falconara, looking a bit idle and derelict in parts, there have been layoffs of workers there, but I did not have time to go into the ins and outs of that before the sprawling holiday-flat developments at Marzocca, Senigallia, Marotta and Fano. I explain that building regulations in Italy are a bit haphazard at best, and this whole coast is covered by houses and blocks of flats, still sprouting in places, that are occupied for just two months in the summer, when the Italians decamp to the seaside. By September, as it is now, the activities are winding down, the beach concessions closing up, and everything being put away for the winter. Today is windy and quite cool, and the beaches were almost deserted, with just the occasional forlorn-looking beach trader and the occasional, probably German, Dutch or British, hardy bather in evidence. ‘And then on the first of October’, I said, ‘Irrespective of the weather conditions at the time, the Italians all put on their overcoats, and stay that way until the first of May next year’.
As the train pulled into Pesaro – which I had to explain was pronounced Pay-Sah-Row, with no stress on any of the syllables, for in Italian there is none unless there is an accent over the vowel – Donna tried to get her mouth round that but struggled – a young man stood up and put a cigarette in his mouth. He then slowly collected his bags together and got off the train.
‘You thought he was going to light up a cigarette, didn’t you?’, I asked Donna.
‘Yes I did!’
‘No, he would be unlikely to do that. He was just getting it ready in his mouth so that he could light up without interruption, the instant he got off the train. The station may be designated as non-smoking but no one in Italy takes any notice of that. But they don’t smoke on the train as a rule, for that might offend someone.’
Although neither Donna nor Mike asked us anything about our life in general, Donna was interested to know what we were doing in Italy at that particular time. I explained that we had been staying in an apartment by the sea about half way between Pescara and Ancona, followed by a few days in the mountains, but that we know this part of Italy quite well as we own a house here. At the moment though someone else is staying in it so we cannot go there.
Donna wanted to know the name of the village where our house is, and a little about it. I explained that it is called Santa Vittoria in Matenano, it is on the top of a hill about thirty miles inland from the Adriatic coast south of Ancona, and that the name Matenano derives from Monte Nano, it was founded by the Farfense monks who were fleeing persecution further west and were impressed by this spot when they discovered that a spring nearby was dispensing milk rather than water. They had thus gone at least half way to finding the land of milk and honey and decided to settle here, and so built a monastery on the nearby hilltop of Monte Nano.
I also explained that as we are told locally, a people who can believe anything that Silvio Belusconi tells them will believe anything. The spring from which milk is supposed to have flowed has since dried up so nothing can be proved either way. The monks have long gone and most of their church has disappeared down the hill in a landslide many years ago, but there is still a convent there and the layout of the town still reflects the gardens that the monks laid out to help sustain themselves.
I got the distinct impression that Donna had only scant or no idea of who Silvio Berlusconi is, but she liked the milk and honey story.
Pesaro to Rimini
‘Pesaro is where you might get off if you were going to visit Urbino. Have you heard of Urbino? It’s an ancient university city, closely linked with Piero della Francesca who lived and worked there for a number of years. Some of his most well-known paintings are in the museum there. Piero della Francesca?’
‘No, I haven’t heard of him. I think my husband probably will have.’ Mike by this time was taking a nap. He had slipped a disc before leaving the States and was finding travel uncomfortable.
‘There are some very picturesque hill towns all the way down this coast, but you don’t see many of them from the train. However there is one that you can see, and I will point it out to you as it comes into view.’
And as it came into view, I showed them Gradara, though this looks somewhat less dramatic from the train than it does from the motorway, you see it from the right-hand side of the train first, then as the train rounds a curve you see it from the left. Trees have grown up around so it is not quite so spectacular as it might be, were the trees less obscuring of the ramparts.
I explained that during the Second World War this area saw heavy fighting as it was a line that was held by the allies to keep the German army occupied and divided while invasions were planned in northern France. Buildings in large parts of the countryside around were flattened, hence the dearth of old ones in this area, though the fortified walls of Gradara managed for the most part to stand up. There is a sizeable cemetery at the foot of the hill below Gradara, containing rows and rows of war graves.
‘We don’t know how lucky we are’, mused Donna. How right she is.
On looking out of the window during this stretch of the journey Donna said she thought it looked like we were in a jungle, and she is right, the hillsides that come down to the railway track are overgrown and untended. I had never thought of it like that.
Cattolica, Riccione, Miramare. I asked Donna whether they had seen evidence of the immigrant traders on the beaches in Italy. They had not, for they had not been to any beaches, and neither had they seen any in the towns for they had not really been to any towns, having spent most of their time so far at their friends’s house in a mountain village. They will soon come across them in Venice.
I told Donna that this stretch of beach, between Cattolica and Rimini, has a high density of visitors and so is especially lucrative for the traders, so much so that there have been running battles between the different ethnic groups recently over rights to a pitch, though in reality there are no rights.
Donna thought the beach traders must be a bit like you see in Mexico and asked me what they sell. ‘Oh, just about everything. Not food, almost everything else. Fake designer handbags, clothes, jewellery, sunglasses, CDs, books, kites, umbrellas . . .’ This seemed like it was a bit broader than she had witnessed in Mexico. She was especially intrigued by the fake designer gear. I think she might have read about that but was a bit excited to hear it was so easy to come by. And as for the fights that have resulted in peoples’ beach towels being kicked and trodden on . . . I fear I may have put her off going near an Italian beach, sadly, as it is only in this particular stretch and even then just a few occasions, that it has happened.
First Visit to Europe
This was Donna and Mike’s first visit to Europe. They had flown into Rome airport, been collected by their friends and driven to the house in the Abruzzo hills where they stayed for about a week, then driven to Pescara to catch this train, making it with just minutes to spare, they were still gasping at the memory of that.
Donna showed me some photos on her iPad. Deer in the garden, where they come to scrump the apples, and some men husking maize stalks for the making of polenta.
‘But the people in the village, they don’t do much, they spend most of their time just hanging around’, Donna remarked.
‘Ah, you need to remember that you and we come from a country where everyone works as an expectation. This is Italy, it’s different. Now there are some who say that all this phrenetic grasping for material success that we take as the norm is not always a good thing, that we have something to learn from the people in the south of Europe, who have time to enjoy life for its own sake, though I worry a little that this smacks of peasant voyeurism, of glorifying a life that those who extol it would not actually want to do themselves, or wouldn’t want the poverty that accompanies it at least.’
‘Yes’, said Donna, ‘The people do look like peasants, and they certainly seem to be poor.’
I tried a bit of explanation as to why it is that Italy is struggling economically, but it is a big subject, and interesting distractions were taking place around us.
Rimini – Russians
The train enters Rimini. ‘There are lots of Russians in Rimini. And the old town is very attractive. You should visit Rimini, you may find it more interesting than Venice.’
‘I’m not exactly sure why. We’ve certainly seen many more Russian-registered cars this year than ever before, expensive ones, nothing clapped-out and sputtering. And when a flight for Moscow is leaving from Ancona you see these guys queuing at the departure gate, their girlfriend on their arm dressed in all the expensive and fashionable gear and wearing the highest heels physically viable, and these girls look like they are about twelve years old. Probably are not much more than that.’
‘Quite a spectacle.’
‘Yes, though an uncomfortable one to witness.’ But I think Donna found the prospect that she might have had the opportunity to witness it a somewhat appealing one.
Rimini – The Train
‘I should think he would be crying. Did you see that?’. A man had got on the train. An Englishman, tall, ungainly, dressed in khaki shorts with pimply pink bare legs. As he energetically and purposefully lifted his bags onto the racks at the end of the carriage he bashed a little boy in the face with one of them, causing the boy to hold his face and and cry. The Englishman either did not notice, or did see what he had done but took no account of it.
The little boy was with his mother, but she did not intervene, she did not say to the man, ‘You great oafish overgrown Boy Scout, aren’t you going to apologise?’ She did not say anything at all.
The boy and his mother looked like they were of Roma origin, and gypsies do not count, they are kicked and smacked in the gob with a suitcase all the time. It is possible that the Englishman was aware of this. And so, having held everyone up while he got his suitcases firmly on the racks, he marched his blond-haired blotchy legs down the carriage to find his seat, followed by the boy, still holding his face and crying, and the boy’s mother, looking meek and downtrodden.
‘Did you see that?’, I asked Donna, who was facing the same way in the train as I was. But it seemed she hadn’t. And to my shame I did not call the Englishman over and punch him on the nose. He was much bigger than me.
Rimini to Bologna
The train left Rimini at a quarter past one. Lunchtime. Hilary and I had decided that after Rimini we would unwrap and eat our lunch, a slice of focaccia that we had bought in the bar at Ancona station, it contained a slice of prosciutto crudo, a slice of cheese and a slice of fried aubergine. Very good. For we are British and therefore we eat our lunch on the train.
Mike and Donna had been fussing ever since we joined them on the train that owing to the shortage of time at Pescara they had not had any time to buy some water. I told them I was fairly sure there would be a shop on the train, or there may be a trolley that comes round. I did not know, but either may be so. Or neither, for this is Italy.
At Rimini there was a change of onboard staff and as the ticket checker walked through the train I called to him and asked if there was a buffet on the train.
‘Si. Tre in testa’, he replied. Tre in testa, I reported to Mike and Donna, which either means that there is a buffet car in carriage three, or that there is one three carriages ahead, in either case it’s that way, not least since we are in the end carriage, so that way is the way I can guarantee it will be. For some reason I had it in mind that we were in carriage 2, not 9, so I suggested that the buffet may even be in the next carriage, which was misleading of me. I think it is because on the previous train ride we had taken, we had been in carriage 2. Mike went off to find some water, having now had it confirmed that he most likely would find some. He returned clutching about six bottles of mixed still and sparkling. ‘Would you like one?’, he offered. ‘Thank you very much, but we already have some, to go with our lunch.’
‘I’m sorry if you are feeling a little hungry’, I said to Donna, ‘As the train now turns inland and travels through a fruit-growing area, on both sides of the train you will see apples, pears, plums and vines growing, for this is a fertile plain all the way to Bologna.’
‘Oh, we’re not hungry’, said Donna, ‘Just in desperate need of some water.’ I found it odd that Mike had not gone to look for a shop on the train earlier, he was not prepared to do that until assured there was one. Strange.
And in addition to the fruits that I had mentioned: kiwis. I pointed out some kiwi bushes and said that while the Italians grow a lot of kiwis, they do not eat them much, most kiwis grown here go for export. Donna knew of kiwi fruit and liked eating them but had never seen one growing, she assumed they all came from Australia, she said. Unfortunately you can’t see the fruits growing as you look from the train window because they grow beneath the canopy of leaves, so Donna and Mike had to take my word for it that there were lots of brown succulent fruit growing there.
As the train rolled through Faenza we pointed out to Donna and Mike that this area is famous for ceramics. Lots of ceramics produced in Faenza.
‘Oooh’, said Donna, ‘Ceramics’.
‘Yes, look, we’re passing a factory now, look, lots and lots of ceramics, I hope they can sell them all, seem rather a lot stacked up, but then this is Italy.’ Heh, heh, heh. Donna did not know until that point that ceramics, in this context, means predominantly floor and wall tiles.
‘Ah, we’re now coming into Bologna. It doesn’t look much from the train, but is an interesting, beautiful and ancient city, where round every corner you see something else very old and individual. And you walk for the most part under portici so it is never too hot, and you don’t get wet if it rains. If you want my advice I would get off here. Much more interesting and pleasant city than Venice, for my money.’
‘He thinks we should get off here instead of going to Venice’, said Donna to Mike. Mike laughed.
Bologna to Padova
‘We are now in the province of Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, the next part of the journey is over a flat plain, rather dull for most of the journey, but characterised by pencil-thin church spires that stand up above the villages – very typical of the area.’
And of course, when you say that, none come into view. It was not until we got to the Veneto, at Monselice, that we saw a real pencil spire. ‘Wow, look at that!’, exclaimed Donna. With what genuine conviction I’m not too sure.
And on the way across this featureless plain the train stopped at Ferrara.
‘A pity you do not have time to explore Ferrara, it’s a lovely town. I would much rather go there than Venice.’
‘What’s so special about it?’
‘It has a big fort in the centre of the town, surrounded by a moat, and narrow streets so that many people travel around by bicycle, and a big dominant and elaborate cathedral with shops under the ancient wooden portici along its side. If I were you I would get off here and visit Ferrara instead of Venice. Much more interesting, for my money.’
‘He thinks we should get off here instead of going to Venice’, said Donna to Mike. Mike laughed.
‘Ancona, Rimini, Bologna, Ferrara. Sounds like you think Italy has a lot of very attractive towns!‘
‘We do’, both Hilary and I concurred, ‘Well, not Ancona, Ancona needs to grow on you, but all the others are gems that in any other country would be promoted as a tourist must-see. We were in Ferrara earlier this year and the newsagent was complaining that the tourists are not coming, or are coming in ever decreasing numbers. “That’s because the because the guidebooks and websites are so narrow-focused”, we told her, “Foreigners want to visit Venice, Florence and Siena – and the Italians no longer have any money. The foreigners do not know what they’re missing”, and the newsagent thought, with a sigh, that we probably had a point.’
After the train leaves Ferrara it crosses the River Po, on a none-too impressive metal girder bridge. We told Donna and Mike we were crossing the Po.
‘The Po, the mighty River Po. The longest river in Italy.’ It was clear that Mike and Donna had never heard of it. They looked at each other with a look that said, is this guy making all this up?
Having crossed the Po the next site of note comes up is on the left, the Euganean Hills. ‘The Euganean Hills’, I said to Donna, for Mike had gone off to the on-train toilet – for surely not even he would call it a rest room, unless he was taking the opportunity of a rest from us – ‘Have you heard of Petrarch, or Petrarca?’
‘Well that is maybe just as well, as we don’t know too much about him either, other than that he was a fourteenth century poet who is closely associated with these hills, he lived and died there. The people locally are very proud of the fact. He lived an even longer time ago than Piero della Francesca, by about a hundred years.’
‘Oh. Who did you say his name was?’
‘No, can’t say I’ve ever heard the name. My husband may have heard of him.’ Donna was definitely beginning to suspect that what I said was all a tall story.
We Say Goodbye to Donna and Mike
The train pulled into Padova Station on time, to our surprise as it had been running ten-to-fifteen minutes late from Ferrara and had waited a long time at Rovigo to let the Freccia Argento, the faster train two levels up, whizz past. Our train must have a lot of redundancy in the timetable on this stretch, to cope with delays on its nine-hour ride from Lecce and get it into Venezia more-or-less on time.
Mike and Donna were a bit concerned about knowing when to get off the train, as the public address system was impossible to hear in carriage 9.
‘Don’t worry, it’s the final station. The train cannot go any further without falling into the sea. And everyone will be getting off there, especially all the Americans.’ For there were two other Americans in the seats across the aisle, and quite probably a number more besides.
In some ways we felt a bit concerned for Mike and Donna, for they had no idea what to expect in Venice. They did not know that it is an island on which there are no cars and they did not know that to get around you travel by water bus, that news seemed in particular to surprise them, or maybe make them doubt even more what we were saying. They had heard that a ride on a gondola was likely to be disappointingly expensive, but that was about it.
And above all they had no idea just how crowded Venice was going to be with tourists, and with the attendant hassle of people trying to sell things to, or steal things from, tourists.
After Venice their schedule was to visit Florence, and then Rome.
We hope that our little travelogue might have given them some indication that, for a future trip, there are much nicer places to visit in Italy.
As we prepared to leave the train I wished Mike well and hoped that he would find himself more agile again soon.
‘Thank you’, said Mike, ‘I appreciate that’.
At Padova we were changing onto a regional train to take us to San Bonifacio – which we told Donna and Mike was the real centre of the Italian universe, though it isn’t really. A nice town, but not that special. But we said it was because we were going there.
Padova has a big university and the station was busy with young people going to or coming back from somewhere. And smoking. And snogging. So much smoking and snogging – though not both by the same person at the same time, which might have been more fun to watch. We felt sure that both activities would be considerably less in the railway station of a university town in Britain, or Germany, or the USA. Another typical Italian characteristic, that makes Italy such a different country. Though this characteristic was one we had to note and share solely among ourselves.