Trains, though sharing with planes the consent to incarceration with strangers, enjoy a completely different vibe. Conversations start, flow and finish, with an understanding that suspension can come at any time. Maybe we were just lucky, but both Paris – Rome and Rome – Paris passed through happy chatting and fitful, though sufficient, sleep. I wasn’t overjoyed to share a compartment with an Italian family who filled it with half a dozen suitcases, but Jesper, Amandine and I were travelling light, so everything was stowed. Mme A was a student at the Sorbonne – very bright and very beautiful and in grave danger of giving the otherwise somewhat diffident French a good name.
Rome was very Italian, despite even more tourists than I recall. Little has changed since first I went a quarter-century ago, with a handful of exceptions. Of course, the main one is the cost of everything. Who is paying for all this kept popping into my mind, almost immediately followed by its answer – the Germans. Though I remain committed to the EU project and and (I think you have to be if so) committed to the Euro, one can’t help thinking that a devaluation of a “Southern Euro” by about 33% would line things up and probably help weaker economies export. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for crossing borders and seeing prices change with the countries as they should I suppose. But Kentucky’s dollar is the same as Manhattan’s, and that experiment has largely succeeded.
Though there are plenty of Italian bars and restaurants, fast food is more common than it was and multinational brands too. Rome still feels more “Italian” than much of the North of the country, but it’s slightly diluted these days. The food is still very good and the views on any street corner still reek of history, art and Italy’s unique showiness that pervades life. There’s a dressiness too about the people – young and old – and film star looks in every queue for every bus. And the ice cream is still the best.
We waited for a lot of buses – something I never mind doing abroad, as one gets a feel for a city and the people and a sightseeing tour for free too. I’d recommend catching a bus some time towards sunset since, as so often the case anywhere, the slanting sun shows off the city to best advantage.
We waited longest for a bus on the Appian Way, having visited one of Rome’s many catacombs, it’s networks of subterranean burial grounds. Some chambers were decorated with frescoes from the second century AD, an astonishingly early representation of biblical stories in a style that would have appealed to Picasso. An excellent guide made the trip worth the €8, though it’s not for the claustrophobic!
Travelling is what one makes of it and never more so than when travelling through Europe by train. A certain robustness is required to deal with the delays, the proximity of others in couchette cabins and the last minute changes (Milan at 5.30am I could have done without). But you get space for bags, relaxed security and the chance to move about and chat – should you so desire. My first week of long-distance train travelling in 20 years also reminded me of why Mrs Thatcher never travelled by train. Trains go from inner city to inner city – with all that connotes good and bad when you arrive. They’re collective too – a mini-society that helps each other, mediated not by contract, but by a mutual regard for each others’ needs. And trains are reliant on a state built and maintained infrastructure that delivers far more often than not, and appears impervious to private sector models.
Do I recommend it? Well, yes and no. If you’re up to it, six days holiday can be squeezed from three nights in a hotel (with sleeper trains doing their share of meeting accommodation needs) and the costs of tickets offset by the city centre to city centre travelling. But Europe, at 90p for a Euro, is pricey, especially when a dollar can be bought for 70p or less. That said, the great cities of Europe tell us much about who we are, why we think the way we do and about the world as it was laid out by adventurers from the old imperial powers. If Hong Kong felt like visiting the future and the USA like visiting the present, Rome and Paris feel like visiting the past, but not in any negative sense. If the view can be mixed as much as magnificent in these great relics of imperialism, at least we know that we are standing on the shoulders of giants – of art, of administration and of single-minded brutality.