To Bologna and back (eventually)
Have you ever been to Bologna? No, neither had we but our daughter had paid a visit there last year and loved it, so we thought we’d give it a go. Our budget was limited but by booking a modest hotel and flights on-line, well in advance, the outlay was relatively small. Our stay over, in the taxi on the way from our hotel to the airport, we congratulated ourselves after having had a great time in the city. The hotel was great. The weather was great. The predicted rain and high humidity never materialised; on the contrary, much of the time it was sunny but cool; sometimes, especially in the evening, a chilly wind blew up that nudged us toward pulling on an extra layer but couldn’t deter us from exploring the city on foot. Our spirits might have taken a knock at the airport had the taxi driver, whom we’d given a generous tip, not caught us up, honked his horn to attract our attention then leaned over to hand my wife, Lesley, her favourite scarf, which she’d left behind on the back seat. It was Sunday; when the automatic doors opened ushering us inside we weren’t surprised to find the airport building quiet.
Earlier, waltzing out of the hotel toward the waiting car we overheard an elderly woman, who we mentally dismissed as an old fuddy-duddy, ask the receptionist whether she’d mind calling the airport to make sure her flight would be leaving on time. The last we’d heard of the Icelandic volcano’s continuing eruptions and ominous, wandering ash cloud was that it was causing problems on the Iberian Peninsula’s western seaboard. The week before’s general election and its aftermath was all the news we’d bothered to keep up with.
Save for a few that were heading for more southerly destinations, the word CANCELLED appeared against every flight on the airport monitors. Evidently, the ash cloud had drifted in our direction; all northern Italian airspace was closed until 1400 hours. We managed to find a Ryan Air desk manned by two bored-looking, uniformed staff, who informed us that we would be eligible for a refund of the full cost of the flight. One of them handed us a hastily printed A4 handout filled on both sides with bullet-pointed text explaining the company’s, and our own, position. ‘Oh,’ said the other, helpfully, ‘you might like to know that Ryan Air has cancelled all fights until Tuesday.’ We needed to get back to London and besides, Bologna is really only worth a three-day visit; staying two extra nights in a hotel would mean laying out a lot of extra cash, which wasn’t on our agenda.
The following morning, stumbling out of the couchette, in which we’d spent the last ten hours on our way to Paris from Nice, it was hard to imagine what we’d been through in the preceding 24. We had first enquired at all the car hire desks whether it was possible to take a car to Paris and to leave it at a depot there. It wasn’t. One of those we spoke to told us he was organising a mini bus to drive up to twelve stranded Brits to Calais, privately, and asked us if we’d like to be included. ‘No,’ we told him; the price was scandalous and besides, he looked a bit shifty.
Like a lot of English tourists, our Italian is more or less limited to what various types of food and a few wines are called. We had taken another taxi to the main railway station, where the woman on the ticket counter spoke no English. ‘Parigi?’ we asked, hopefully. ‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Milano’ and ‘internazionale’ were about the only words we understood from the deluge of them that issued from her animated lips through a whole universe of facial expression. Resorting to international language: ‘Okay’ we told her.
Milano Centrale, Milan’s colossal railway station, opened in 1931; it has no definite architectural style, but is a blend of among others, Belle Epoque and Art Deco, and (having been incomplete when Mussolini came to power) has additional fascist embellishments. It is 200 metres wide, is a soaring 72 metres high and has 24 platforms. Every day about 320,000 passengers pass through it, using 600 trains. ‘Inferno’ is Italian for ‘hell’; jumping into the burning mouth of a live volcano might have been less intimidating. The place was heaving: the signage inconsistent, confusing. It took us about 20 minutes just to locate a loo. By now it was 2pm. There had been no buffet or restaurant on the train. We had eaten nothing since breakfast at 8am. Despite its opulent grandeur, the only source of food at Milan’s main station appeared to be the Italian version of a MacDonald’s, serving fast-food pizza. Scorning it, we wheeled our suitcases out of the station and found ourselves in an almost silent, urban desert, the only signs of life: the sparse remnants of a Philipino congregation who’d attended a Catholic service at a nearby church. Gritting our teeth, we went back inside and ate pizza.
Trains to Munich, which we reckoned must be far enough north to be safe from the ash cloud, were all full. Assured that we could pick up a connecting train to Nice, we bought tickets to Ventimiglia, on Italy’s Mediterranean coast close to the French border. The journey under ominous skies, across vast areas of dull countryside, punctuated here and there by stops at grimy, industrial towns, took an age. Standing up, getting our things together, thinking we had reached our destination, we discovered that the train was only coming into Genoa, which meant two more hours to go. Under sullen skies and passing through countless tunnels, past deserted, sad-umbrella’d, narrow beaches the train creaked and swayed on its relentless odyssey. Even the sea looked bored. There was a stop at Savona then San Remo, which we visited briefly on a family holiday in the area ten years ago: others at Imperia and Bordighera, none of which we’d been particularly enamoured by. Finally reaching Ventimiglia, we dashed through the light drizzle to board the Nice train that was just about to leave. It turned out to be mostly filled with French commuters, who have jobs in Italy but live in France. Miraculously, the sky cleared and the sun came out as the train, hugging the steep cliffs, rounded the headland where the Alps fall into the Mediterranean. Bathed in evening sunlight, orange, ochre, countless pale green-shuttered Menton, one of our favourite towns on the Mediterranean coast, welcomed us back but just as quickly, waved adieu, to be quickly replaced by other-worldly, skyscrapered Monte Carlo and a gaggle of smart yachts and gigantic cruise-liners moored beyond the port, still brushed with the dying sun’s golden light.
When we inspected them: our tickets to Paris that we bought in Milan and came in three parts, had Nice Riquier marked on them as the station where we should alight in Nice. However, the Nice-Paris portion of the journey was to start from Nice Ville. Approaching Nice the train slowed a little and came to a sudden halt at Nice Riquier station, where we were the only ones to jump up and leap off. Before we had time to question our decision, the train left. Something was wrong. Things didn’t look very promising. It was so obviously not a main station. The station buildings looked rather run-down. No one was about. The ticket office was closed. We were confused. We were intimidated when two black teenagers in full rapper gear appeared. Facing me, shrugging her shoulders and raising her eyebrows, as if to say we had no other choice, Lesley, who is braver than me, turned and walked over to them and asked if they knew where we could get a taxi. They smiled shyly, taking off their dark glasses then took on worried looks when Lesley showed them our tickets and went on to explain that we needed to catch the 9 pm train to Paris. They didn’t know about taxis but told us – by this time I had wandered over – there was a tram stop a couple of hundred away. But then one of them pulled out a train time-table and advised us to stay put; the next train to Nice Ville was due in 20 minutes and the journey only took six, which would give us more than enough time to catch the mainline train north.
Starving: from Gare d’Austerlitz, Lesley and I walked across the Seine to the Marais, where we allowed ourselves the luxury of a well-deserved, phenomenal breakfast at her favourite Paris brasserie, Camille. We had been shocked to find – being in France! – that aside from a vending machine from which sweets, crisps and soft drinks could be had, there was no other source of sustenance on the sleeper. Malteasers and barbeque-flavoured crisps are not the ideal supper but, before retiring, I dug around in a suitcase and pulled out a beautifully gift-wrapped bottle of mirtillo (blueberry) grappa to wash them down with. Paris, early on a beautiful, milkily-lit weekday morning in mid-May, although we wished we could linger, wasn’t the end of the story. Before us, there remained the Eurostar to St Pancras; the tube to Liverpool Street; the train journey to Stansted, where we’d left our car and finally, the half-hour drive home.
In case you were wondering…
In Bologna, everyone was out on the streets, including the happy father and his two rather glum-looking children in my picture, to watch the Bologna stage of the Mille Miglia, in which 1927-1957 vintage cars race one another along 1000 miles of Italian roads. The 2010 winners, driving a 1939 BMW 328 Mille Miglia Coupé, were Giuliano Cané and Lucia Galliani, making this their tenth Mille Miglia victory.
Has anyone has had similar travel experiences? Please post a comment