Monday, August 25, 2008

Sidetracked in Italy

Several days ago, we crossed the Franco-Italian border near Bardonecchia, a small, picturesque Alpine town. The transition from the somewhat dumpy, industrial villages south of Chambery to this more stereotypical “mountain resort” was marked. For somewhere to appear more suave, more elegant than France, admittedly a relatively impoverished corner of France was impressive.

Imagine the confusion that stared me down as our train sped out of the Alps and past Turin. As the mountains became flowing plains, the quaint hilly towns became messy, sporadic smatterings of settlement spread over farmland. The dust settled as the train came to rest on the tracks outside Milano Centrale, the pronunciation of which I wouldn’t discover until the following day. My fears were affirmed. That “rustic” element emboldened in the holiday brochures was equally pronounced on the ground. If truth be told, that aforementioned layer of dust never quite settled over the streets of Milan.

My early impressions of the Lombardian capital originated chiefly from the city’s two soccer teams, Internazionale and AC Milan, both of which have long been amongst the elite of the footballing brethren. A city that has the ability to support two of the world’s most cultural, respected clubs must itself me pretty suave, stylish, or so I thought. Some areas of the station looked downright dilapidated, a slap in the face to graceful phalanx that housed the station proper. Likewise, the long, endless avenues stretching from Milano Centrale down towards the Duomo were filled mostly with 6-floor high, rectangular buildings. The connotation of style was lurking around. I just couldn’t find it, or least not until squirming past some Senegalese touts and onto to the piazza outside Duomo. A site to behold it was. The Duomo, Castello and surrounding area brought some style, austere though it was, to the otherwise drab financial capital, Milan. The dust clung to the facades but the Castello was particularly impressive. Indeed, it seems to be a case of perspective. In the scorching midday sun, many cities will seem tired and boring but life seemed to come to the streets at dusk. Not a natural tourist destination, this made sense. The people were out of the office and the dust invisible. Milan’s potential shone through.

The train ride the following morning was equally impressive. In complete contrast to most modern intercity trains, the aging carriage bound for Trieste brought back the sense of adventure from a slightly bygone era. Dust clung inside and out but the sense of nostalgia was mostly evoked by the compartmentalised layout. The route itself passed through many key cities such as Verona and Brescia after speeding past Lake Garda. Several hours later, we rolled over a long causeway, passing by a long stretch of water. I wasn’t sure where we were bound, but when we pulled to a stop, the sign read “Venezia,” so whilst one dose of confusion abated, another arrived. Why had we strayed from the path to Trieste? I guess it really was a stopping train. Anyhow, that’s another landmark city I’ve “been” to.

We were only 150 miles or so from our destination but the remainder of the journey felt an eternity. The train began to empty but as we passed through Monfalcone, several miles east of Trieste Airport, I began to find my niche in Italy. The startling coastline, the redbrick roofs, this was the Italy I thought of. No more dull Milanese urbanity, the vibrant port city of Trieste awaited. After 15 hours of rail-riding, our journey was coming to an end, or so I thought. The train station lay some 3km from our hotel, so we searched in exhausted desperation for the appropriate bus. Unfortunately a teenager lay keeled over in the first, but soon we found the line towards Via Dell’Istria. The only problem was that we couldn’t find the street sign. In the end, we passed around the city several times before a kind old lady showed us the way, not before some alarming exposure to Italian Goths, more hardcore but paradoxically upbeat in comparison to the British counterparts. Still, a sense of relief mingled with the cool air-conditioning of the hotel.

Later that night, we stumbled through a rain-swept street and into a local restaurant. The pizza was amazing, completely contrasting to the previous dinner. The gelato next door was equally impressive. Italian cuisine, particularly as grassroots level, deserves every ounce of its reputation. The meal brought with it a need to exercise so we attempted to get down to the dock, although that proved impossible. Still, the vibrance of Trieste was obvious. Our short jaunt through Italy was drawing to a close, but still I was confused. There didn’t seem to any rhyme or reason as to the dynamic of the cities I had visited or passed through over those 48 hours.

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