Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Italian Job

Rome - the Eternal City, one-time centre of the ancient world. Home to some of the greatest architectural treasures in the Western world, the Forum, the Collisseum, and a transport system that seems equally historic.

A friend got married beneath Tuskan skies at the weekend, giving The Wife and I occasion to travel to his Nuptuals via air, rail and in a twist of romance, cable car. In my capacity as self-appointed celebrant of the much-maligned pass-time that is commuting, it was of course that part of the journey involving the train that most excited me.

Arrival in Rome was a surreal experience, as our flight landed before its scheduled time, which is a tricky concept for a rail commuter to get his head around (“Early? There must be some mistake”). This raised the exciting possibility that we could make it to the main Termini station in time to get the earlier train to Orvieto, thus avoiding a two hour wait for the next one, and affording us the luxury of a couple of hours at our hotel before the wedding ,rather than the frantic half-hour turnaround time provided by our original itenerary. Alas, there were queues at the ticket office, and before we had reached the window we had had to watch our connection pulling slowly away from the platform – so near and yet so far.

When we eventually made our way on to the platform to pick up the next train, the principle thing that struck us was the distinctive aroma of urine. As the train rumbled into the platform and we angled our shoulders and elbows to fend off the party of American tourists who were trying to jump the queue, I wondered whether it was the heat, the sewers, cats, rats or possibly footballers who were behind this, idle speculation which was rapidly dismissed when the train doors opened and we were confronted with the challenge of getting into the carriage. “Mind the gap” does not do it justice. Not only was there a gaping gap between the train and the platform edge, but there were also steps into the carriage, and so steep that we thought we might need to borrow some mountaineering gear from that girl who has just climbed Everest to surmount them. There were handrails but how anyone with only two arms was meant to cling on to them at the same time as hauling their bags on to the train is anyone’s guess.

Having watched a couple of natives struggling on to the train, just to gain an appreciation of how it should be done, we embarked ourselves. I have to record that The Wife displayed extraordinary swan-like grace and balletic flair in smoothly surmounting the challenge, whilst I piled on behind her with all the finesse of an ugly duckling, swinging my case ahead of me and tumbling, if such a thing is possibler, up the steps after it. In another throwback to a bygone era of transport, the carriages were nit made up of the rows of seats common to English commuter routes, but divided into compartments, the like of which feature in the wartime railway stories occasionally featured on TV.

We found ourselves`sharing a compartment with an elderly American couple who were touring the Eurozone (well, Italy and Germany), but were only too happy to reminisce about their experiences in Britain, and to rant about Obama and his healthcare reforms. And I thought it was just Fox News! When at length the train rumbled into the Termini station and we bade our fellow travellers farewell, dismounting from the train proved easier, if more frightening, thanks to the immutable laws of gravity. A two-hour wait followed, during which we sampled the delights of the station’s catering offer, and feasted on pasta carbornara prepared right before our eyes (which makes the likes of The Upper Crust seem somewhat stale). We then boarded a train to Orvieto, on which the seating arrangements were disappointingly conventional, before completing our journey by cable car, and arriving in Orvieto from above.

Beats pulling in to Kings Cross on the slightly-delayed 7:50.

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