227In this blogposting…
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Thirteenth Day
Go on, give it a whirl….
….will take place at 1100 tomorrow, Thursday 14 October at Saltwell Towers in Saltwell Park, Gateshead.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all - naturally.
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: THIRTEENTH DAY
FLORENCE TO MILAN AND GENEVA
WEDNESDAY 31 MARCH
I spent five nights based in Florence - more than in any other stopover on my Grand Tour. Its nearest ‘competitors’ were Munich (three nights) and Verona (two). And as I sullenly packed my bags on this final morning, I had no doubt that the decision to do so, made all those weeks ago when I was planning my holiday, had been the right one.
Florence had ‘got to me’, as it gets to everyone. I know they say that about a lot of places; I’ve said it myself half a dozen times. But, in Florence’s case, it’s true - probably because it’s not just a matter of opinion. Resistance is useless. Unless you’re prepared to fall deeply and mysteriously in love, don’t spend more than five minutes or so there.
After my five nights with Florence (as it were), I was besotted.
Which meant that packing up my grip (as I can’t help but call it) was a melancholy affair indeed. The souvenir bus and tram tickets (yes, indeed), the street maps, the menus, the guide books. My heart sank a little with each handful, with each item.
Actually, an unplanned-for side-effect of my Tour had been the effect all this souvenir-collecting had had on my luggage, which got heavier by the day. In trying to find room for my Florentine keepsakes somewhere under the socks and shorts, I discovered the dregs of a hoard of ‘anti-souvenirs’; trinkets I’d bought with me from home to give to the people I met along the way on my journey.
Steffa and Gyorg in Brussels got a Durham Cathedral mug between them. Frank and Thea in Munich each received a City of Newcastle bookmark. I know that sounds parsimonious, but at least I tried. And anyway, it’s the thought that counts. For all we know, the mug and bookmarks are now treasured heirlooms to be passed down through the generations while stories of their unlikely origins are embroidered beyond recognition.
On the other hand, they could by now be buried under several thousand tons of landfill. I guess we’ll never know.
As I discovered during my desultory packing, I still had a few left. So my final act, before I closed the door on my lovely, airy Room with A View that morning, was to leave them neatly laid out on the bedroom table for Massimo and Stefano to find after I’d left. Two Sanctuary Knocker coasters, a Radio Newcastle keyring and a sepia picture-postcard of Grey’s Monument.
Perhaps taking ‘anti-souvenirs’ wasn’t such a good idea after all. They looked distinctly out of their depth on the 17th-century antique bedroom table.
Breakfast with my big, huggable bears was almost ineffably sad. They are both such lovely and loving men and had treated me like an honoured guest in their home. They’d cooked for me, booked concert seats for me and had invited me to dinner with their friends.
And now I was about to leave them - and their city - without knowing when, or even if, I was ever going back. Try though I might, I couldn’t prevent the surge of finality that was building up in me. I knew that my Grand Tour still had three whole days to run. I still had momentous train journeys ahead of me. I still had wonderful scenery to pass through and celebrated cities to stay in.
As I sipped my coffee, though, it still felt as if my Tour might as well be over. Until Stefano came up with his Bright Idea.
Why, he wondered aloud, should I not walk to the station, instead of taking the bus? Why not say Goodbye to Florence ‘in person’, so to speak.
It was a masterstroke. I’d been conscious, in Florence as in Verona, that I hadn’t done the city justice. After all, I’d spent so much time away from it. It would almost be uplifting to make my way to the station by wandering its lanes and bidding a personal farewell to its monuments and buildings.
With an almost indecent haste, I grabbed my grip, hugged the lads Goodbye and Thankyou and made my way out onto the street.
As I pulled the front door shut behind me, they were already shouting down to me from my bedroom window. They’d found my gifts. Grazie Grazie. Come back soon! You have friends in Florence now!
I felt a mixture of extreme embarrassment that they’d found my trinkets far too soon - and a kind of weary sadness as I realised that my Grand Tour involved as many waves of farewell as it did smiles of greeting. I hadn’t accounted for that.
But Florence wasn’t quite finished with me yet. It had one more ace to play. It’s that kind of city.
I decided that my route to the station should take me through Piazza della Signoria, the large and strikingly beautiful square which is home to David and several other monumental sculptures. I wanted to feel the square’s atmosphere in the early morning, before the tidal swell of my fellow-tourists obliterated it.
As I walked round the piazza, I could hear a violin playing. At first, I couldn’t tell where the soft, mellifluous morning sound was coming from. I didn’t know what the music was, either. But it comforted and reassured me. Yes, it was saying, don’t worry. Don’t concern yourself unduly. You’ll be back!
It was a busker playing in the arcade of the Uffizi Gallery. When I found him, I sat on the steps directly opposite him and listened. It was too early for the mass of tourists. This was the time of day when Florentines were hurrying to work; everyone had something to do and went about their business.
So I listened to the busker alone. As he played, he smiled across at me. When he finished, I told him how much he had lifted my spirits on this, my final hour or so in his city. He asked me if there was anything I’d like him to play.
Oh yes, I said. Bach’s Praeludium, please. Alex had played it for me in Munich (was that really only a week ago?) but Bach wrote it as a piece of virtuoso violin-playing. That’s what I wanted to hear. Nothing else would do, in the whole canon of music.
But it’s a complex and difficult piece to play. Would my busker know it? And if he did, would he agree to play it?
He invited me to resume my seat on the step. He picked up his violin case and busking cap and came over to me. He sat down on the step next to me, put violin to chin - and played.
It was faultless. The angels of Florence were holding his hands as he played. His eyes were closed as the tumult of Bach’s music filled the air.
I cried like a baby. I could think of nothing but that Florence, and all my adventures there, were already memories. Pisa, Chiavari, Siena. All those Leaning Towers; my would-be Italian tutor; the perfumery and the pottery; my big, friendly bears (who I wanted to turn round and go straight back to).
He finished playing and, refusing to accept any money at all, packed away his violin and quietly disappeared into the growing crowd.
I made the train with precisely 90 seconds to spare, not that I cared. As it pulled slowly northward out of the station, I realised that all I had left in Florence - a city which had given me so much - was two coasters, a keyring and a postcard.
I think there may be a slight imbalance there, which I’ll put right the next time I go. Or perhaps the time after that.
The train had gone less than about 5 miles when I was cruelly distracted from my melancholy reverie in a quite unexpected way.
Picture it. I’d settled comfortably down in my seat, gazing at the world picking up speed outside when I - and my fellow-dreamers - were disturbed by something of a brouhaha.
The source of the commotion was quickly identified as a little, black-clad Italian widow in the carriage vestibule. In front of her - and almost obscuring her from view completely - was the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen. It was truly the size of a small bungalow; it barely fitted between the door jambs.
It was a big suitcase. And she was a very small old lady. She stood behind the suitcase (which was much taller then she was) and tried to kick it through the door and down the aisle but it wouldn’t move.
Then she leaned against it, first frontways then with her back. It didn’t move an inch.
I blanched at some of the language she was using - and I don’t speak Italian.
The genial-looking man sitting opposite me got up and offered to help her. She refused his offer - to put it mildly. She then started to climb over the suitcase, using the adjacent luggage racks as a kind of ladder.
Another man begged her to stop; the train was in motion and she could have fallen. But she persisted, clambering over the top of the suitcase and plopping down in the carriage aisle.
Everyone watched and wondered what she would do next.
She grabbed its handles and, with a visibly draining effort, succeeded in pulling the monster about a foot. I felt like applauding.
The effort was taking its toll, though. She was perspiring profusely, her hair was messed up and her coat had come undone and was hanging, half on, half off.
On continental trains, it is sensibly against the rules to stow luggage anywhere other than in the plentiful luggage racks provided. Unfortunately, it seemed that none of the racks was quite big enough - or accessible enough - for the Big Grey Valise.
She had flopped exhaustedly down on a seat by the time the train’s guard appeared. Voices were raised. Angry gesticulations followed - oaths and imprecations of the obviously foulest kind filled the air.
Even the audience joined in.
After a while though, the hue and cry subsided. The woman smiled suspiciously smugly and the guard stormed off, muttering something that needed no translation. Everyone settled down to their coffee and pastries.
I found out how the story ended from an English-speaking man whom I met in the cafe-coach.
Apparently, the guard had told her she would have to leave the train at the next stop, which was Milan. He asked her where she had intended travelling to. ‘Milan’, she said.
Milan is where my journey to Geneva involved a change of trains. I had only about an hour or so to spare to get the merest hint of what the city was like. It made quite an impression, even though I only managed a confused view of it from the station portals.
And what a station! It was by far the grandest and most monumental station I saw on my Tour - and that includes Gare de Lyon and St Pancras. In fact it’s so grandiose and over-sculptured that it’s almost ludicrous. Mussolini’s architects definitely overegged this particular pudding.
Three vast, soaring, vaulted concourses - three - bridge the gap between train and street. You have to ascend or descend majestic, palatial, opera-house style staircases to get from one to the other. Statues - and mottoes engraved in 4-foot high gold lettering - adorn every available space on the walls and ceilings.
Mussolini obviously wanted to lend it the grandeur of Michelangelo or Brunelesschi - to make it a Renaissance railway station. It’s breathtaking and - of course - completely fake. And it’s fake in a way that St Pancras is not. There, the unashamedly Gothic facade merely emphasises the engineering behind it. In Milan, the station’s architecture conceals it altogether.
A brief glimpse of Milan’s skyscrapers and bustling traffic was all that I had time for. I had my Geneva train to catch.
And once again, Italy threw an unexpected - and in this case, unwanted - morsel my way.
My train departed from platform 9. But between me and it stood over a hundred bawling, angry protesters. Many of them carried banners but naturally I didn’t understand what they said. And, to be honest, I didn’t much care. All I could do was wonder how I was going to run the gauntlet of the crowd.
Perhaps, I thought, they were protesting against the running of trains to Geneva; in which case, I could be perceived as a blackleg. I could be booed, manhandled and jostled as I fought my way onto platform 9.
I looked helplessly around. The carabinieri were keeping a safe distance away and the train was due to leave; everyone else was obviously safe on board.
There was nothing for it. I gritted the few teeth I have left, clenched the handle of my grip tightly, looked skywards to pray for the intercession of St Cuthbert and walked straight ahead, as if to say ‘Let me through - I’m a British citizen, dammit!’
Because I’m here to tell the tale, you’ll have gathered that nothing untoward transpired. Just the opposite, in fact. As I reached the front row of protesters, one of them realised I needed to catch the train that was about to leave. He took my hold-all, gestured me to follow him and saw me safely onto the first carriage.
I tried to ask him what the protest was about but he spoke no English. For his sake, though, I hope the protest achieved its objectives.
Looking helpless, stupid and British can obviously achieve miracles with Johnny Foreigner. And it’s a look that comes suspiciously easily to me…
The journey through north-west Italy is truly lovely. The line skirts the edge of Lake Maggiore, which is as big as small country, and dotted with islands. It’s a real. old-fashioned chocolate-box of a lake, delimited at its northern edge by soaring snow-capped mountains.
Once again, I was deep in Alpine scenery of the sort I hadn’t seen since I arrived in Verona over a week ago. It was good to be back.
The train clings to hillsides and passes through a myriad small villages before it reaches the border at Domodossola.
I silently said Goodbye to Italy. It had been the ultimate objective of my Grand Tour; a country I’d been ashamed never to have visited. And, oddly, my shame felt even deeper now. This average-sized European country which had, over the course of several millennia, made such an enviable impact on worldwide human culture, knowledge, civilisation and artistic development, had only merited eight days of my time and effort to understand it.
I hadn’t even scratched the surface. I knew then, as I know now, that I would have to go back. I must and I will.
Switzerland makes an inauspicious start, all things considered. On this particular railway line, all thoughts of dreaming Germanic spires, mighty Alpine fastnesses, chocolate, cuckoo-clocks and gnomes disappear straight into a tunnel, which holds you, bored and anxious, for almost 10 minutes.
I don’t want to be unkind about Switzerland. Any country whose citizens manage to function with four official languages and to communicate across mountains that deter golden eagles deserves a vote of support.
But somehow….me and Switzerland just didn’t see eye to eye. The scenery was interesting rather than the heart-stoppingly awesome I’d been expecting.
The farms seemed somehow ‘untidy’, the roads unkempt, the power-lines intrusive. I know that there’s another Switzerland somewhere, with scenic railways, picturesque Heidi villages and perfect William Tell panoramas. Snow-capped peaks, alpenhorns and yodelling.
But I haven’t been there.
Instead, my train took me round the eastern edge of Lake Geneva, through Lausanne and Montreux and eventually, to the city of Geneva itself.
Geneva, I am mortified to say, is the one and only place on my Grand Tour that I wish I hadn’t bothered with. And it’s not that easy to pinpoint why, although I make a stab at it in the Prologue.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate my reactions to the city, and its reaction to me, is via a trifling and unsatisfactory anecdote….
All told, my journey from Florence had taken over six hours. I stumbled off the train and almost fell into my hotel, which was right next door.
It was about 5 o’clock when I hit the streets. Robinson was on the prowl. Exploring another city new to me; on the lookout for bars, cafes and restaurants.
After 30 minutes, I gave up. There were plenty of people around. Lots of cars and buses and trams and traffic lights.
But...there didn’t seem to be anywhere at all for anyone to go. Everyone was in transit, it seemed, between elegant offices and equally elegant houses, but with no distractions in between. And it was only 5 o'clock in the afternoon.
I found a small cakeshop that was still open; there was a dealer in antique carpets on one side (closed) and a photocopier-paper supplier on the other (also closed).
The cakeshop had one small, conical cake left on the display shelf. In desperation, I asked the assistant if she spoke English. She did.
I bought the cake, which turned out to be an almond confection of a very high order.
I asked her if she could point me in the direction of the area where I might find some cafes or bars.
She looked at me as if I were a talking turnip.
I explained that I was a visitor to her fine city and would like something to eat.
She intensified her concrete look.
‘But it’s been raining’ she said, as if that explained everything.
‘Yes I know’, I replied, knowingly.
‘So everyone’s gone home’ she said.
Which just about explains everything.
Later that evening, I called my brother to tell him how utterly bored I was.
Then I went back to the hotel and watched two episodes of EastEnders on BBC World.
Not all those who wander are lost……
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