A Travellerspoint blog

A slice of Pisa

rain
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

It seems unavoidable that roughly three weeks into any of my overseas journeys I am always overcome by a certain fatigue. It’s not ordinary sleepiness, it’s not depression, it’s not physical exhaustion. It’s just a kind of psychological fatigue, this state of jaded apathy, this idea that I’ve seen far too much already and nothing I could possibly see today could be anything better than all the amazing things I’ve seen already so why bother getting out of bed? It’s just so much nicer to stay under the doona and fart around on Facebook and Twitter on my iPhone instead.

It was early afternoon on Friday 8 November 2019 when I summoned the grit to get out of bed, shower and dress. I walked in the drizzle the short distance to Firenze Santa Maria Novella station along tight little streets lined with market stalls, most of which appeared to be selling genuine knock-off brand-name handbags. Handbags. So many handbags. How many handbags does the world need? The stench of vinyl was confronting, as were the tactics of the stallholders who kept stepping into my path, shoving handbags right under my nostrils and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Do I even look like the kind of person who would want to buy a handbag? For crying out loud. Just leave me alone, you dickheads.

I entered the vast, dull brown brick box of Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, bought my ticket under the not terribly watchful eyes of bored Italian Army soldiers carrying machine guns who looked like they would much rather be anywhere else, and boarded the Regionale Veloce (“Fast Regional”) train to Pisa Centrale, a long train of white, green and blue carriages with electric locomotives at each end. My carriage was empty when I boarded, but right before departure the carriage filled up with a large group of young male friends holding an extraordinarily animated conversation who wouldn’t quieten down. For Christ’s sake. I wish Italians came with some sort of remote control with volume buttons and a mute button on it so I could shut them up.

Of course, such a remote control doesn’t exist so I moved to another carriage which was slightly quieter. I toyed with the idea of using the earplugs I keep in reserve for long-haul flights. The train headed west down the valley of the Arno river through utterly uninteresting industrial towns and after about an hour it arrived at Pisa Centrale station.

There is only one real reason why most people come to Pisa, that reason naturally being the Leaning Tower, and I was no exception. The Leaning Tower was built in 1372 as the campanile (bell tower) of the adjacent Duomo (cathedral). The vast majority of European cathedrals are constructed in the very heart of the old town but for some reason Pisa’s cathedral was built well outside the city walls. Even now it is on the edge of town several kilometres northwest of the railway station.

I bought a bus ticket from a vending machine outside the railway station and caught a local bus to the Campo dei Miracoli, the “Field of Miracles”. Campo dei Miracoli is a large grassed enclosure containing the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistry and other associated buildings.

I got off the bus and had to brave yet more sleazy market stallholders to enter the enclosure. I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa at the other end of the Campo dei Miracoli with thousands of tourists milling around it. At first, I was underwhelmed. I had seen so many photographs of the Leaning Tower in my life, had seen it so often on TV and in movies, that it seemed too commonplace to be remarkable. It is only when I got close that I realised how special the tower is. It is leaning! It has been leaning for six hundred years! How has it leaned all these years without collapsing? Even if it weren’t leaning it would be a most remarkable specimen of campanile architecture and still worth seeing.

I bought a ticket to a tour of the tower. Tickets are limited and you have to buy a ticket for a certain time block to prevent the narrow stairwell being too crowded. A guide took us into the ground floor of the centre of the tower. The tower is hollow; you can look straight up to the sky. The interior of the tower is also very plain, there is none of the elaborate ornamentation you see on the exterior. On the middle of the ground floor is a pillar with a surveyor’s level affixed to the top; surveyors use this to measure any movement in the tower.

After the guide told us the history of the tower and rattled off a list of facts and figures, we were allowed to walk up the spiral staircase between the hollow centre and the external galleries. This was fun – because the tower is inclined, the staircase is much steeper on one side than the other.

There is an excellent view over the Campo dei Miracoli from the uppermost gallery of the Leaning Tower and the surrounding countryside. Pisa is a university city on the lower reaches of the Arno a few kilometres inland from where it flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The landscape is flat and marshy with mountains to the east. On top of the Leaning Tower is the ancient flag of the mediaeval Republic of Pisa, a red banner adorned with a white cross with bulb-like protuberances extending from the end of each cross.

The sun was setting as I descended the Leaning Tower. I entered the Duomo next door. The Duomo, a Romanesque cathedral built in 1092, was nearly empty except for a tiny number of other tourists I could count on both hands. This is a travesty. The Duomo of Pisa, if it isn’t the most magnificent cathedral I have visited, is right up there. The gilded ceilings! The amazing mosaic of Jesus Christ on his throne in the apse above the altar! The frescoes! The elaborate chapels off to the sides! The nine century-old mummified corpse of Saint Rainerius! The most skilfully sculpted pulpit you will ever see! The Duomo was far more inspiring than its mere bell tower just outside yet it was empty. Thousands of tourists were all gawking at the Leaning Tower and taking perspective-based photos of themselves holding the tower up with their fingers, and right in front of their noses is one of the world’s greatest religious buildings that they don’t want to enter? Philistines!

It was getting fairly late. After visiting one of the dozens of shonky market stallholders to buy a stainless steel model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my tower collection that sits on top of my stereo at home, I went for a nice easy walk into the centre of Pisa a couple of kilometres away. There were no tourists. A constant procession of tourist coaches come in their hundreds every day to the Campo dei Miracoli for tourists to take a few silly photos of the Leaning Tower who then promptly get back onto the coach and bugger off. They don’t know what they’re missing. Pisa is a university city with an awesome vibe, of young people enjoying themselves sensibly, of bars and bookshops and cafés and restaurants with affordable food. How European university cities make me wish I were young again!

I found a pizzeria where I ordered an Aperol Spritz and a pizza called “quattro stagioni” – four seasons. One quarter of the pizza had ham, another quarter had olives, the next quarter had artichokes, and the last quarter had mushrooms, each quarter representing a different season. Yum.

I walked a short way along the wide, muddy Arno, each bank lined with an illuminated promenade. I crossed the river and waited for my train back to Florence. The Regionale Veloce arrived on time at 21:32, a double-deck electric train with comfortable seats that was nearly empty. The train sped through the rain back to Firenze Santa Maria Novella where I arrived an hour later. The jaded apathy had faded. Perhaps a slice of Pisa is all I needed to get over my travel fatigue.

Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station

Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station

Train from Florence to Pisa

Train from Florence to Pisa

Campo dei Miracoli

Campo dei Miracoli

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa Duomo and the Leaning Tower

Pisa Duomo and the Leaning Tower

Looking up the middle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the bottom

Looking up the middle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the bottom

View over the Campo dei Miracoli from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

View over the Campo dei Miracoli from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

View east from the Leaning Tower over Pisa's suburbs

View east from the Leaning Tower over Pisa's suburbs

Front facade of the Pisa Duomo

Front facade of the Pisa Duomo

Nave of the Pisa Duomo

Nave of the Pisa Duomo

Apse of Pisa Duomo

Apse of Pisa Duomo

Pulpit in Pisa Duomo

Pulpit in Pisa Duomo

Mummified remains of Saint Rainerius in Pisa Duomo

Mummified remains of Saint Rainerius in Pisa Duomo

Campo dei Miracoli at night

Campo dei Miracoli at night

Leaning Tower of Pisa at night

Leaning Tower of Pisa at night

Street in central Pisa on a Friday evening

Street in central Pisa on a Friday evening

"Quattro stagioni" pizza in Pisa

"Quattro stagioni" pizza in Pisa

The Arno river in Pisa at night

The Arno river in Pisa at night

Train from Pisa to Florence

Train from Pisa to Florence

A model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my collection

A model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my collection

Posted by urbanreverie 06:56 Archived in Italy Tagged architecture cathedrals italy pisa towers Comments (0)

Alea iacta est

semi-overcast
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

San Marino is a fantastic little country but there wasn’t much to detain me for more than two nights. I had to keep exploring the world, so I had a buffet breakfast at the Hotel Joli, checked out, and walked up to the bus interchange to wait for the 10:30 bus back to Rimini on the brilliantly sunny morning of Thursday 7 November 2019.

San Marino’s sole public transport link to the rest of the world is a single bus route that runs between the City of San Marino and Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast ten times a day. I boarded the comfortable modern bus – this time the driver put my five-euro note in the cash tray and gave me a ticket, what refreshing honesty – and the bus almost rolled downhill along the hairpin bends like a pinball in a waterslide all the way to Rimini. It entered the city (not much traffic this time), went past the Augustus Arch which was once the main gate to the city on the road from Rome and is still used by pedestrians two millennia later, and then to the nearby railway station where I disembarked.

Rimini is a mid-sized city on Italy’s eastern Adriatic seaboard and is best known for its immense length of beach lined with resort hotels; Italy’s Gold Coast. However, unlike the Gold Coast, Rimini actually has history and culture. Rimini has a historically significant old town. I had some two hours until my train so I went for a stroll.

First, I walked along the waterfront of Rimini’s ancient port to the Tiberius Bridge, a gleaming white span of stone arches. I walked across it. This is more amazing than it sounds. The Tiberius Bridge is two thousand years old, dating from the time when, well, Tiberius was Emperor of Rome. It is still in use and not just by Australian backpackers. Cars, trucks, Vespas, cyclists and pedestrians all use this two-millennia structure to get between Rimini’s city centre and its northern neighbourhoods. I smiled as I crossed it. In the Sydney suburb of Parramatta there is a sandstone arch bridge from the 1830s built by convicts, the Lennox Bridge is seen as a historic treasure and especially ancient. Ha. I learned about the Roman Empire at school, but learning about antiquity in history lessons is only in the abstract. When I walked on a structure built by a glorious long-dead empire that I have only ever known from textbooks – what a magnificent sentiment that experience aroused.

I headed back across the river to the historic centre following ancient city walls and then into the Piazza Cavour, Rimini’s main square, with its fifteenth-century church and Arabesque town hall. A short walk away through narrow, cosy shopping thoroughfares is the Malatesta Temple. This fifteenth-century church was built by Sigismondo Malatesta, a local nobleman, in honour of his mistress. God damn it, Italy!

I went back to the station. There was a left luggage office in there. When I arrived in Rimini I had intended to store my backpack there, but it was closed with a sign on the door that said in Italian “Back in 5 minutes”. I had waited five minutes and there was no sign of the attendant so I explored Rimini with my backpack on. When I returned to the station the office was still closed and there was an American couple standing in front of it waiting for it to open. They had been waiting twenty minutes. I told them of my experiences and advised them not to bother. God damn it, Italy!

After a yummy lasagne for lunch at the station restaurant, my first of two trains of the day arrived, the all-stations Regionale 6464 scheduled to depart at 13:15. It was a very nice train, an Alstom Pop, a brand-new sleek and shiny three-car electric train with USB chargers and comfortable high-back seats. I was impressed. Except for the annoying habit of only showing the next train on the platform displays several minutes before the train is due and not showing arrivals and departures in different colours on the displays in the booking hall, I have no complaints about Italian trains so far. They are reasonably frequent, comfortable, and (by European standards, not Australian standards) rather cheap. My fare to Florence was €13.95, hardly extortionate for a 163 kilometre journey.

The Alstom Pop took off from Rimini on the ruler-straight dead flat main line that runs along the very southernmost edge of the Po Valley plain where it meets the Apennine mountains. It stopped at every town, the service was well used and in parts it was standing room only. At one point I crossed the Rubicon. Yes, I did. A short distance north of Rimini the train crossed the Rubicon, a small muddy stream. It was hard to believe that such a puny river is of such historical importance. I said “alea iacta est” as the train went over the river – blink and you’ll miss it – even though I was crossing in the opposite direction to Julius Caesar who illegally led his army the other way back into the territory of the Roman Republic.

About forty-five minutes later I got off at the town of Faenza where I had only a few minutes to change to a small three-car diesel train along the minor branch line from Faenza to Florence. This mountainous line crosses the Apennines, following a vineyard-lined valley through tunnels and viaducts and the kind of ramshackle villages you see in television advertisements for pasta sauce. The terrain got steeper with forested mountains cleft by rushing rivers and scattered farms. After passing through a long tunnel the line descended the other side of the Apennines and into the grimy suburbs of Florence, a landscape of neglected apartment buildings and desolate railway stations where every surface was covered in graffiti.

At about four o’clock the train terminated at Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, Florence’s main railway terminus. I took a photo of my train. I guess you could call it Florence and the Machine.

Santa Maria Novella station is not what I was expecting from Florence. The station was built in the Fascist era and is a bland, utilitarian, modernist brick warehouse. Surely Italy’s greatest jewel of the Renaissance deserves a railway station more in keeping with the city’s aesthetic ethos?

It was about a fifteen minute walk to my room in my Airbnb host’s apartment. After climbing four stories – very high stories – a lovely young woman, Tina, welcomed me into her apartment. I do have ethical qualms about Airbnb, I do not think it is fair that tourists push locals out of their city’s rental market. But this is a spare bedroom in an apartment owned by Tina, a setup I am OK with.

Tina showed me around her gorgeously decorated apartment. Tina is a fashion designer of Serbian origin who moved to Florence to pursue her career. She showed me how to use her Bialetti Moka Pot – believe me, it takes practice. I couldn’t manage to brew anything except burnt charcoal toxic sludge or weak light-brown piss. I think I will stick with my trusty coffee plunger (what Australians call French presses) at home.

After dumping my luggage I kept exploring because there was something that was about to close soon. Only a few blocks away was the Galleria dell’Accademia. There is a statue in there you may have heard of. For some reason, I got free admission – I don’t know why, perhaps because it was close to closing time, but the front desk waved me through. I stepped in and then I saw it. Michelangelo’s David.

There is a psychiatric disorder called Stendhal’s Syndrome. It is caused by people seeing an immensely beautiful work of art and then descending into hysteric delirium so severe that staff have to call the police who haul the unfortunate sufferer off to the nearest lunatic asylum for a lengthy stay, presumably involving a frontal lobotomy, electro-convulsive therapy and a hundred different pills. I almost fell victim to Stendhal’s Syndrome. That is how beautiful David is.

How do I describe it? It’s like all the photographs you’ve seen, only better. The detail, man, the detail! The bulging veins on David’s wrist. The subtle definition of all the muscles. The determination in his face. The tinea on his left foot. No human being could possibly have made a sculpture so perfect; David must have been divinely inspired. There is no alternative rational explanation.

Though the Galleria dell’Accademia is smaller and not as well known as the Uffizi, it still has plenty of other artworks, some of them quite notable – The Rape of the Sabines, mediaeval triptychs, Renaissance portraits of Florentine nobles. They just can’t compare to Michelangelo’s David so I don’t really remember them.

I went on an evening ramble through Florence’s astounding historic old town. The centrepiece is the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. This is an unusual church – from afar it has a whimsical look, almost like it is a dollhouse constructed of coloured cardboard. When you look at the walls up close, you see that it is made of the most exquisite marble in multiple colours – white, green, pink. The pride in work of the artisans who built this thing was extraordinary.

Tina had given me plenty of restaurant recommendations all neatly written in a notebook left on the desk in my room. I chose a pasta restaurant. Pasta restaurants aren’t uncommon in Italy, but this one was special – the pasta was fresh. By “fresh”, I mean “the pasta does not even exist when you order it and a grinning Nonna makes it right there in front of your eyes”. Back home I buy expensive Italian pasta from the deli section of a greengrocer’s shop near my place, but now that I have eaten freshly made pasta, nothing I can buy in Australia could possibly compare. I’ve been spoilt.

My post-prandial perambulations led me through the Piazza della Repubblica, a large nineteenth-century square where a merry-go-round, ice cream stand and con artists were doing a roaring trade, and along the buzzing streets of Florence. I love European cities at night. So much life, so much spirit, so many things to do and see and eat and drink and buy, without any of the violence and bad attitude you see in Australian cities on weekend nights. Why does Australia have to be so … so … so bogan?

Mount Titano from the highway leaving San Marino

Mount Titano from the highway leaving San Marino

Augustus Arch in Rimini

Augustus Arch in Rimini

Tiberius Bridge

Tiberius Bridge

Malatesta Temple

Malatesta Temple

My train from Rimini to Faenza

My train from Rimini to Faenza

Train from Faenza to Florence

Train from Faenza to Florence

Vineyards near Brisighella

Vineyards near Brisighella

Apennines scenery between Faenza and Florence

Apennines scenery between Faenza and Florence

A very grotty railway station in Florence's suburbs

A very grotty railway station in Florence's suburbs

"David"

"David"

The other side of "David" you never see on postcards

The other side of "David" you never see on postcards

David's tinea

David's tinea

Duomo of Florence

Duomo of Florence

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica

Posted by urbanreverie 02:02 Archived in Italy Tagged art trains architecture italy florence railways san_marino rimini apennines roman_empire Comments (0)

The King of San Marino

all seasons in one day
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When I awoke in my room in San Marino’s Hotel Joli on Wednesday 6 November 2019, I got up, stretched my arms, walked across to the window and drew the heavy maroon curtains. My jaw dropped. Before me was a beautiful vista of crinkled lime-green hills, deep valleys covered in vineyards, limestone crags and terracotta-tiled houses tumbling over one another in terraced villages. I hadn’t seen any of this when I arrived in San Marino the evening before; the sun had set well before my train had arrived at Rimini twenty-two kilometres away. I smiled and knew instantly that today was going to be a special day.

With a spring in my step after a horrid day before, I emerged from the hotel and grabbed breakfast at a nearby café. My stay there was a little longer than anticipated because yet another rainstorm came barrelling through. The weather in San Marino can be vicious; the city is on top of the highest mountain for miles around seven hundred metres above sea level. There is nothing to stop the winds or the stormfronts coming from any direction.

After the rain eased the weather was relatively fine the rest of the day. I climbed a steep street into the old town and stopped at the City of San Marino’s main square, the Piazza della Libertà, a long quadrangle perched on the edge of a precipice with great views of the surrounding countryside. In the centre of the piazza is the Statue of Liberty. A nice enough sculpture, but I think New York need not lose any sleep.

At the north end of the square is a small narrow castle-like building, the Palazzo Publico, home to San Marino’s parliament. I walked in, checked in at the front desk, and then was pretty much given free rein to wander around. How many national parliaments will let you do this in these anxious days? I went into the chamber of the parliament which has the coolest name of any legislature of any country – the Grand and General Council. It was small and intimate with a fantastic mural of angels and knights and the founder of the Republic, Saint Marinus, looking over proceedings from above the chairs of the two speakers. There are two speakers who are also the two joint heads of state and government. They also have the coolest job title of any leaders of any nation – the Captains-Regent.

Next on my itinerary was the Basilica of San Marino. This church built in 1839 isn’t particularly historic by European standards, but it was pleasant nonetheless. Behind its neoclassical portico is a church with a long white colonnaded nave with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Behind the altarpiece is an alabaster statue of Saint Marinus carrying a scroll inscribed upon which is a single word: “LIBERTAS”.

San Marino has an interesting history. Tradition holds that the state was founded by Saint Marinus in 301 AD. Saint Marinus was a stonemason who led a small Christian community in the coastal city of Rimini. In those pre-Constantine days, Christians were subject to great persecution by the Roman Empire. Having had enough of this oppression – I can imagine helmeted centurions with pointy pikes pricking poor Saint Marinus and his acolytes during midnight raids – he and his followers moved to the top of a nearby mountain, Mount Titano, where they started a hermetic monastic community far away from harassment.

San Marino has been jealous of its independence ever since. Countless internecine wars between mediaeval Italian city-states, revolutionary waves sweeping the Continent, the fanatics of the Risorgimento led by Garibaldi who were determined to unite the entire Italian peninsula by hook or by crook, Mussolini’s fascist nationalism, Hitler and World War II – San Marino has not only survived them all in one piece, but has thrived. It has one of the world’s highest standards of living with reliable and efficient public services. I find that it helps when you think of San Marino as a miniature version of Italy where things actually work.

After visiting the Basilica I caught the Funivia, an aerial cable car that links the old town of the City of San Marino on top of Mount Titano with the suburb Borgo Maggiore further down the mountain. The old town is a popular tourist destination for Italians in the summer but there is not much parking, so the Funivia cable car connects a car park downhill to the old town above. In autumn, San Marino was dead and I was one of the few people to enjoy the spectacular views from the Funivia’s glassy cable cars going up and down the hill.

I then went on a nice little hike. The most famous features of San Marino are the Three Towers of Mount Titano. These towers are everywhere – on the coat of arms, on the national flag, on licence plates, on government buildings. These mediaeval fortifications are stretched along the long limestone ridge of Mount Titano; the first tower is at the northern end of the mountain, the second tower is on the nation’s highest point in the middle of the ridge, and the much smaller third tower is at the south end.

The first tower is the largest and most impressive with multiple shells of extensive battlements surrounding the tower at the core. This tower was once used as a prison and there is some very artistic nineteenth-century graffiti in the cells.

The second tower isn’t as large as the first tower, but it is the highest point of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Of course, it was hard to tell which was the highest natural point considering that a mediaeval fort had been built on top of it. Still, I reached the highest possible point open to the public, a stone landing at the bottom of the main tower – the tower itself was inaccessible to visitors. To celebrate the eighth highest point of a country that I have climbed, I pointed my fingers in the air and shouted “Io sono il Re di San Marino!” I am the King of San Marino.

In one of the buildings at the second tower was a museum of weapons. This isn’t really my thing but it was vaguely interesting to see all the pikes, halberds, breastplates, swords, muskets, carbines and the like. Outside there were some more great views over the hills and valleys in every direction. Rimini with its trashy coastal resort hotels and large marina were clearly visible as was the deep blue Adriatic Sea beyond it.

A forest path took me to the third tower. The vast majority of visitors only visit the first and second towers; I had this beautiful trail to myself. The third tower is only a small affair, there are no walls, just a relatively stumpy square column that looked a bit like a village church belltower. It is also a private residence and so not open to the public. One marvellous thing about the Three Towers – each tower is topped with a metal feather, just like on San Marino’s coat of arms.

The hiking track continued south, down to a car park at the studios of SMRTV, San Marino’s public broadcaster – yes, a country of thirty-three thousand people has its own television station – and back to the fortified old town. I ambled up and down its narrow streets nearly as steep as staircases. I was astounded to see a multitude of shops selling guns. I’m not talking about mere pistols or hunting rifles, but serious stuff – machine guns and the like. There are also plenty of kitschy museums whose sole raison d’être is to separate gullible tourists from their hard-earned cash, like a museum of torture and a museum of curiosities. I grabbed lunch at a weird little place that was a grocery store, a café, a wine store and a souvenir shop all in one. I had a piadina, a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region which surrounds San Marino; a piece of flatbread folded like a taco around a filling of prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket.

I visited the State Museum of San Marino, unexpectedly large for such a diminutive land. It wasn’t a bad museum and it gave a thorough overview of the country’s history, though the museum was a tad too heavy on artefacts retrieved from obscure long-gone monasteries – altarpieces and triptychs and the like, and more religious paintings of middling quality than I care to remember. I’m not complaining, I respect each country’s right to encourage the use of their national languages, but the fact that all interpretive text was only in Italian reduced my engagement with the exhibits.

My day in San Marino concluded with yet another magnificent meal at a fairly expensive restaurant, one of the few I could find that was open and didn’t require a reservation. Scalloped veal with potatoes, cauliflower and chestnut was the main course followed by a dessert of deconstructed torta della nonna, a variety of custard cake. I needed to dispose of a one hundred euro banknote. To my amazement, an ATM at Lake Bled had spat out a €100 note several days earlier. This made me nervous – large denominations are not easily accepted in Europe, most ATMs dispense no notes bigger than €20 and many shops have signs expressly prohibiting the use of anything bigger than €50. I needn’t have worried; the restaurant accepted the banknote without question and I got my change of about seventy euros back.

The dinner was a fitting end to one of the more enjoyable days of this trip. The streets of the City of San Marino were nearly empty, I seemed to be the only tourist at many of the sights I visited. This is a shame because people don’t know what they’re missing. San Marino is a perfectly preserved mediaeval hilltop fortress, a fairytale of castle walls and towers and forests and steep, narrow cobblestoned alleys, a terracotta jewel set amid an emerald sea of vineyards and valleys. The country deserves a lot more than just one desultory page in my Lonely Planet.

I will admit that the main reason why I came to San Marino was to tick another country off my list, but I left seriously impressed. Visiting this magical little republic was a holiday within a holiday, a welcome respite from the chaos and inefficiency that lurks just outside its mountainous borders.

View from my room at the Hotel Joli

View from my room at the Hotel Joli

Statue of Liberty and the Palazzo Publico

Statue of Liberty and the Palazzo Publico

Grand and General Council debating chamber

Grand and General Council debating chamber

Typical street in the City of San Marino

Typical street in the City of San Marino

Funivia cable car

Funivia cable car

Basilica of San Marino

Basilica of San Marino

The nave of the Basilica of San Marino

The nave of the Basilica of San Marino

First Tower of San Marino

First Tower of San Marino

Second Tower of San Marino, the country's highest point

Second Tower of San Marino, the country's highest point

View from the Second Tower to the Adriatic Sea

View from the Second Tower to the Adriatic Sea

Mediaeval weapons at the Second Tower

Mediaeval weapons at the Second Tower

Third Tower of San Marino

Third Tower of San Marino

San Marino city wall

San Marino city wall

Creepy-looking baby Jesus at the State Museum of San Marino

Creepy-looking baby Jesus at the State Museum of San Marino

He'll wake up with a headache in the morning

He'll wake up with a headache in the morning

Posted by urbanreverie 04:32 Archived in San Marino Tagged san_marino Comments (2)

Three countries in one day (again)

rain
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I have a Slovenian colleague. A couple of years ago he gave me a small travel guide – a miniature coffee table book, really – called This Is Slovenia, presumably published by the Slovenian national tourism authority or some similar body. This tiny book that could easily fit in a breast pocket was packed full of colourful photographs of Slovenian scenery, dishes, animals, costumes and buildings, accompanied by clumsy English text that was probably translated from Slovene by a Year 9 work experience student of no particular academic ability.

Until I flicked through This Is Slovenia, I had no special interest in the country. I knew about as much about Slovenia as someone who loves geography would be expected to. I knew that it used to be part of Yugoslavia. I remember that there was a war of independence when I was a kid, I recall watching Yugoslav tanks rolling down a motorway towards Slovenia on National Nine News one evening. I knew that Slovenia was the most economically advanced and socially progressive of the former Eastern Bloc countries. I knew that Slovenia is mountainous. I knew that a prominent politician from the Australian Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek, is of Slovenian heritage, as is the notable philosopher Slavoj Žižek. I knew that the capital city was Ljubljana. I knew that Slovenia became a member of the European Union a few years ago. I remember reading an article in National Geographic about how the Slovenian government built special bridges with forests on them over motorways so bears could move from forest to forest without getting run over. And seriously, that is all I knew.

Reading This Is Slovenia aroused a little more interest in the country, along with further conversations I had during my lunch breaks with my colleague about his home country. If it weren’t for my colleague, I would never have come to Slovenia. And that would have been a pity because I fell in love with Slovenia. I shall sing the country’s praises for the rest of my life to everyone I meet. Random people sitting next to me on the train, drunken fools in the local pub, stakeholders in meetings at work, everyone. I am serious.

I have been to countries that have jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. I have been to countries that have friendly, helpful, law-abiding, honest people. I have been to countries that have amazing food. But I have only been to two countries that have all three – Taiwan and Slovenia. Take a bow, Slovenia. You are a special country that shall forever stake a claim to a parcel in my heart.

It was with sadness and with trepidation that I left Slovenia on Tuesday 5 November 2019. Sadness because I didn’t want to leave and trepidation because I had heard too many horror stories about Italy from Slovenians and other travellers and to be perfectly honest, on that day I really didn’t want to go to Italy. If it wasn’t for having to fly home from Rome I would have stayed in Slovenia for the rest of my holiday.

But leave Slovenia I must. I got up early, I had a quick breakfast of leftover pastries from the bakery the day before, I showered, I finished my packing, I sent a message to Natalija and Jure that I was leaving, and walked across the road shortly before eight o’clock to catch a bus a short distance to the village of Podhom a few kilometres north of Lake Bled. At the bus stop I met a young Australian woman, my second Aussie of the trip. She was from Brisbane and was travelling around Europe with her Italian boyfriend. They were waiting for a bus to Ljubljana to go to the airport to fly to their next destination. Her boyfriend taught me a few words of Italian before they boarded their bus.

My bus arrived a few minutes after eight and I boarded. I was the only passenger. The bus terminated at Podhom a short walk from the railway station. Mind you, the word “station” might be a bit too generous. There was a station building, a solid two-storey building of rough-hewn stone but it was now used as the village café. The platform was a low-slung thing surfaced with gravel and ragged weeds. Grass was growing between the rusty rails and warped timber sleepers of the single railway track. If I didn’t know any better I’d have said that this was a railway that closed forty years ago.

I had about half an hour before my train to Nova Gorica along the famous Bohinj Railway. It was an overcast morning and it started to drizzle. I sought shelter in the station building café and ordered a coffee. The café was full of village men aged fifty to seventy smoking and sipping coffee and gossiping. As I entered they all fell silent and looked at me. They started talking again but every time I stole a glance at them I could see that they were looking at me with resentment and suspicion. Rural villages are the same everywhere in the world.

I lingered in the café although I felt far from welcome, it was starting to rain rather heavily outside. A few minutes before the train was due I went back out onto the unkempt gravelly platform. Soon enough a tiny little two-car diesel train appeared on time at 08:39. It was covered in graffiti except for the driver’s windows. It chugged into the station and squealed to a halt as the concertina doors like those on an old-fashioned bus folded open. The only other passengers to board at Podhom were a grandfather and his very young grandson. There was hardly anybody on board either.

It is not surprising that not many people use the Bohinj Railway. It goes from nowhere to nowhere via nowhere through the most inhospitable mountain terrain. Jesenice and Nova Gorica at each end of the line are hardly what you would call thriving metropolises. Its construction only makes sense when you realise that this railway line wasn’t built with passenger or freight revenue in mind. Rather, it is a “strategic railway”. The Bohinj Railway was built by the Austrian-Hungarian government in 1906 with the sole purpose of defence. The Habsburg regime was absolutely obsessed with maintaining access to Austria-Hungary’s ports on the Adriatic Sea. With good reason – these ports, outside the German-speaking heartland of modern Austria and populated by potentially rebellious and separatist Italians, Slovenes and Croats, were the sole way in which Austria-Hungary could conduct maritime trade and project naval power in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. The Bohinj Railway was built as an alternative route from Austria to the Adriatic ports. If the Ottoman Army or Croatian nationalists, for instance, swept northwards up the Balkan peninsula and captured the Budapest-Rijeka main line or the Vienna-Trieste main line, the Bohinj Railway could maintain access between Vienna and the Adriatic.

So it should not be surprising that the Bohinj Railway is distinguished by its lack of patronage. Still, it is a shame, because it is one of the most beautiful railways I have been on. Slovenske železnice have chosen to keep the line open as it forms the sole public transport link in a string of remote mountain villages on both sides of the Julian Alps. Services are infrequent, seven trains a day run south from Jesenice to Nova Gorica.

The very bored conductor collected my fare soon after leaving Podhom. He spent much of the journey yawning, tapping his feet, dawdling back and forth, checking his watch, and presumably longing to be allocated a busier line on the next roster.

The scenery was great – what I could see of it through the driving rain, at least. I found it very difficult to take photographs because of the raindrops on the train’s windows, so you will have to take my word for it when I say that the Bohinj Railway is one of the five most beautiful railway lines I have had the honour to travel along.

First, the train headed southwest skirting around to the west of Lake Bled and then went up the Bohinj valley which I had travelled through on Sunday, a verdant dale lined with soaring cliffs punctuated by cascades. Even the torrential rain couldn’t efface the valley’s beauty.

The train stopped at the valley’s main town, Bohinjska Bistrica, and then continued south through a tunnel under the southern flank of the Julian Alps. The train was crawling through the tunnel at walking pace, the diesel engine gurgling softly. I had no idea why the train was going so slowly until I looked out the window. The tunnel was flooded. I turned my mobile phone’s torch on and pointed it down through the raindrops clinging to the glass. The raging torrent flowing north back to Bohinjska Bistrica was almost as high as the train’s floor. I couldn’t believe it – the driver was authorised to proceed through this? Every few hundred metres or so there was a sluice in the wall of the tunnel with a veritable cascade of rainwater thundering into the tunnel, making the torrent even more swollen.

After suddenly finding religion and praying that there wasn’t a flash flood coming down the tunnel from further south, the train finally emerged from the portal and turned west down the valley of the Bača river. In places the Bača was so full that it seemed mere minutes from bursting its banks. All along the Bača and the larger river it flows into, the Soča, were tiny little mountain villages of ramshackle, neglected cottages. This is by far the poorest part of Slovenia I have seen. The Bača and Soča valleys are remote, mountainous and far from any major trade route with barely a square inch of land flat enough for agriculture. I have no idea how the people in these impoverished hamlets make a living.

South of the flooded railway tunnel, the Bohinj Railway has some interesting features. There are lengthy “avalanche galleries”, long arcaded stone shelters along mountainsides which prevent avalanches from blocking the railway potentially causing major accidents. There are more tunnels than I could care to count as the track curves in and out of the steep slopes lining the valley. A few kilometres north of the line’s southern terminus at Nova Gorica, there is a very high arched bridge where the railway crosses the canyon formed by the Soča river.

The train arrived at Nova Gorica about twenty minutes late at around half past ten. This is an unusual station – an international border runs through the forecourt. I stepped out of the train, walked out through the booking hall, opened the door, walked a few metres across a large circular monument in the pavement, and thus did I enter Country No. 26 I have been in, Italy.

I took a few nerdy photos and videos of me crossing back and forth over the border. This nondescript station square was once the boundary between the capitalist and socialist worlds. For five decades after World War II this plaza, Trg Evrope (Square of Europe), was bristling with fences and razor wire and armed guards. Now I danced on the border, one step in Slovenia, two step in Italy, Slovenia, Italy, Slovenia, Italy …

I come from a country which has no international land borders, so I could have gladly spent all day enjoying the pure novelty of being able to jump to and fro from one country to another. But I had to continue on. Slovenia has excellent rail connections to Austria, Hungary and Croatia, but this cannot be said for trains from Slovenia to Italy. There aren’t many. There is a limited service between Ljubljana and Trieste which, coming from Lake Bled, would have required a tortuous detour via the southwest of Slovenia. Coming from the northwest of Slovenia, the only realistic way to get to Italy is to catch a train to Nova Gorica, take a local bus from Trg Evrope to Gorizia Centrale railway station several kilometres inside Italy, and catch an Italian train from there. After boarding a local Italian bus at Trg Evrope – it was unusual that you couldn’t buy tickets on board, rather, each stop has a ticket vending machine – I arrived about ten minutes later at Gorizia Centrale station. My first impression of Italy was – shutters! So many shutters! Every single window has shutters.

I bought a ticket with my credit card at the ticket machine at Gorizia Centrale. I clicked on the Union Jack on the language selection screen. I was greeted with a cheerful recorded message. “Beware of peek-pockets. In case of need, ask only Trenitalia staff for more eenformation.” Welcome to Italy!

I had about ninety minutes to kill in Gorizia, the twin town of Nova Gorica. One of the first things I do when I arrive in a new country is to buy a local SIM card. I use a lot of mobile data in order to view maps, look up public transport timetables, search for accommodation and tickets to venues, and most importantly, post metric truckloads of photos and videos to social media. TIM (formerly Telecom Italia), Italy’s largest mobile phone network, had a shop a few blocks north of the station. So I walked up there in the rain to buy a TIM SIM. I had already found the one I wanted online – there was a prepaid SIM card called TIM Tourist that seemed good value for money.

I went into the shop, waited for one of the two staff members to become available – they were arguing volubly with some customer whose increasing indignance was met with increasing aggression on the staff members’ part – and when the argument finally ended, I asked for a TIM Tourist SIM card in my very basic Duolingo Italian.

The TIM employee sat me down at a service desk, asked for my passport, photocopied it, then photocopied it again, then photocopied it even more. I was bamboozled with paperwork, huge sheets of paper with densely typeset microscopic font in impenetrable Italian. I was terrified that they were trying to sign me up for a contract.

“No, I don’t want a contract! I don’t want a plan. I only want a prepaid tourist SIM.”

“Ees no plan. Ees prepaid!”

“So why do I need to sign all these contracts?”

“Dees contract, issa for licence for foreigner to own SEEM card. Dees contract, issa for permission to use telephone in Eetaly.”

“Well, OK, I guess.”

Then they asked for ID that showed my address. They photographed my New South Wales driver’s licence a dozen times. I had a closer look at the things I was being asked to sign, not that I could make sense of the dense Italian legalese. I noticed that the price was different to that of the TIM Tourist SIM pack advertised on their website. The contract I was reading said it was nineteen euros.

“No, ees not TIM Tourist. Dees SEEM card I sell you ees cheaper. Only nineteen euro. More data. More meenutes.”

“But I said I want the TIM Tourist SIM, not some other SIM."

“No, dees SIM ees better for you.”

“All right, whatever you say.”

The two staff members were photocopying the photocopies of my ID, typing furiously into their computer terminals, calling some remote bureaucracy to set up my account.

“Listen! I have bought many SIM cards in many countries, it is not supposed to be this hard.”

“No! Dees is special SEEM, just for you. Best SEEM for you.”

“Listen. Can I just have the TIM Tourist SIM card, please?”

“No. Ees not available here.”

“But you didn’t say that before. You just said that this SIM card is a better deal.”

“No speaka da English good.”

I smelled a rat. I was also looking at the clock – I only had about twenty minutes until my train. I had hoped to buy a SIM card and then grab lunch somewhere. I was starting to get a tad hungry eating only a few leftover pastries at seven o’clock. I was debating with myself whether to just cancel my purchase and leave – but I was desperate to get a SIM card, it would be my only chance today.

Finally – finally! – it was time to pay. The amount appeared on the PIN pad. Thirty-nine euros.

“Listen! The contract said it was only nineteen euros. You told me it was only nineteen euros. Why am I now being charged thirty-nine euros?”

“Issa nineteen for the SEEM, and issa twenty for the SEEM.”

“Sorry?”

“I said, issa nineteen for the SEEM, and issa twenty for the SEEM.”

“That makes absolutely no sense!” Still, I needed a SIM card, time was flying away, so I inserted my credit card and entered my PIN. Transaction declined.

I tried again. Transaction declined. I tried with my two other bank cards. All times, transaction declined. It turns out that the EFTPOS line was down. And a lucky stroke it was that the EFTPOS line was down. Two days later when I arrived in Florence, I told my Airbnb host about what happened at the TIM shop in Gorizia. She told her boyfriend who works as a technician for a telephone company. He told me that it was obvious to him that they were trying to sign me up for a twenty-four-month contract, prepaid SIM cards do not require that much paperwork. If the EFTPOS lines had worked, nineteen euros a month plus an initial twenty euro SIM card purchase fee would have been billed to my credit card every month for two years. He said it’s common knowledge in Italy that mobile phone companies are notorious for this fraudulent behaviour and that I was right to be suspicious. May the employees at the Gorizia TIM shop forever be subject to the righteous scorn and anger they so richly deserve. Absolute bottom-feeding pond scum.

I had to leave the TIM shop in any case, though the employees kept imploring me to stay to wait for the EFTPOS line to be restored. I just pointed at my watch and shouted “Train! Train!” They were angry at me for leaving, but I had a train to catch. There was a café a bit down the street towards the station, I went in there to buy a quick lunch from the sandwich display, a tramezzino – tuna and tapenade between two half-slices of white bread with the crusts removed. I ordered the tramezzino to go, the girl took the tramezzino, and promptly disappeared back into the kitchen with it. “Oi! Train! Train soon! Scusi? Train! Train dieci minuti! Need food now!” But she ignored me.

Finally she reappeared with my sandwich which I wolfed down in about twenty seconds – a snack rather than a lunch. I then ran to the station. I had a few minutes to spare and so went to buy a packet of chips from the station vending machine. Which, of course, promptly swallowed my money and dropped my purchase into the collection chute below – but the chute wouldn’t open.

I lost it. I kicked and banged the vending machine like a toddler having a tantrum. “Does anything in this blasted country ever f#$%ing work!” I shouted. Thankfully the owner of an adjacent news kiosk had a key to the vending machine and graciously opened the vending machine and gave me my purchase. But my goodness, how I hated Italy already.

I looked up at the next train display in the booking hall. The train to Venice was leaving in a few minutes on platform 1. I walked onto platform 1 but the displays on the platform were saying the next train was to Trieste while the displays on platform 2 were showing Venice. How does that work? I went back into the station hall – the display definitely said platform 1. So which platform did I have to take?

I took a risk and went to platform 2. I went right along the platform asking waiting passengers if they spoke English, and of course none of them did. So I just ended up shouting at random people “Venezia? Venezia?”

“Si, si, Venezia,” they reassured me. It turns out that I was looking at the wrong display in the booking hall. One display was for arrivals, the other for departures. Showing both departures and arrivals common in Europe, but in most European countries arrivals are shown in white and departures are shown in yellow. There were no such colours to distinguish them in Italian railway stations. Lesson learned!

The Regionale train arrived on time at about twenty to one, an extremely long train of white, green and blue carriages hauled by green electric locomotives at each end. I settled into my seat and looked at the scenery. Gorizia is where the Slovenian Alps meet the vast pancake-flat plains of northern Italy and soon the train was rocketing through the scratchy, yellowish countryside of Friuli Venezia Giulia with scrubby little villages, ochre farmhouses, threadbare poplars along country lanes and enormous wide gravelly rivers consisting of dozens of rapid channels of gurgling grey water braided through the gravel banks like a girl’s pigtails. Off to the right, the Alps loomed ominously on the northern horizon.

The train entered Venice’s suburbs and soon enough at a quarter to three I disembarked at Venezia Mestre station, an important interchange station on Venice’s suburban mainland. I had originally intended to visit Venice for two nights, but I decided to ditch Venice and instead spend a couple of extra nights in Slovenia.

I had about twenty minutes until my next train. I entered the enormous station building, a dizzying mess of rushing passengers and retail outlets. I spied a large shop that sold sandwiches and pizza slices and salads and the like. I went up to the counter and ordered a sandwich.

“No, you can’t order here. You have to order at the cash register over there.” The serving girl pointed to an unattended counter across the hall with no employee at the till and a massive queue stretching a mile.

“But you have a cash register right there in front of you,” I said as I pointed at the machine right before her eyes.

“Sorry. But you can’t order food here. You have to order over there.”

The minutes were ticking away and I was still starving. It was now shortly before three o’clock. Eating only leftover half-eaten pastries for breakfast at seven o’clock, and half a sandwich and a tiny bag of chips at half past twelve would leave anybody famished by mid-afternoon. I was running around Venezia Mestre station – no mean feat with fourteen kilograms on my back – desperately trying to find a food outlet that looked like it would serve something quick, that was actually attended by staff and didn’t have a lengthy queue. Finally I found a place that sold bagels and the like. I ordered a bagel with cream cheese and bresaola (air-cured beef) from the display on top of the counter. The guy behind the counter took the bagel and then put it into a toaster oven.

“No, no, no! Non tostato!”

“Si, si, devere tostato,” or something like it that translated to “yes, yes, it must be toasted”, the bagel guy replied. So I waited and waited and waited for my bagel to be toasted. When it was finally finished, the man took the bagel tenderly out of the toaster oven, delicately removed the top half of the bagel, and oh-so-gently sprinkled olive oil on the fillings, and carefully dusted some herbs and then ever so lovingly tapped some sesame seeds from a bottle. I am sure this would have been a lovely touch at a sit-down restaurant, but for f$%*ing Christ’s sake, you are just a f$%*ing sandwich shop in a busy railway station where everyone is in a hurry and just wants food to go as quickly as possible and there are only eight minutes until my next train God damn you so just give me my f$%*ing bagel or else you frigging moron!

I couldn’t snatch my bagel from the guy quick enough – I hope he felt the fear of God as I gave him the stink eye while doing so – then I glanced at the next train display in the main station hall and ran down the subway to platform 8. I got to the platform and the displays on the platform were blank. Surely that couldn’t be right? So I ran back down the subway to the station hall and checked the main display. Yes, I had the right platform. Yes, I was definitely looking at the departures screen, not the arrivals screen. So why were the displays on platform 8 blank? Because the Italian railways only show the next train on the platform displays several minutes before the train is due! Genius stuff.

My train arrived on time at 15:07, the Frecciabianca high-speed train. The Frecciabianca is the slowest of Trenitalia’s three classes of high-speed trains, typically running on ordinary tracks and reaching a maximum speed of two hundred kilometres an hour. I boarded the sleek, long white train and it took me forever to take my seat because Italians, God bless their cotton socks, would have to be the most unruly, disorganised people I have ever encountered. The aisle along the carriage was a jumble of suitcases owned by people arguing noisily with each other over who should move out of whose way and neither yielding to the other. God, how I wished that this train was going the other way back to Slovenia.

The Frecciabianca headed southwest through Padua, Rovigo, Ferrara, across more scratchy, vaguely unkempt yellow fields, past villages that all looked exactly the same – the same bland blocky churches, the same two-storey ochre houses with the same curved roof tiles, the same rows of poplar trees on the residential streets. The only interesting sight was of the Euganean Hills, a series of abrupt jagged peaks emerging from the dreary flatlands that reminded me a lot of the Glass House Mountains in Queensland. Around sunset the train reached Bologna, a bustling city of even more bright red terracotta roof tiles.

I stayed on the train for a short while after Bologna and disembarked at the coastal resort city of Rimini at 17:41. By now the sun had disappeared. It had also begun to rain heavily. I lugged my backpack out of the station and entered traffic hell. The street outside Rimini station was a jumble of cars, taxis and buses with drivers blaring their horns. I have no idea why anybody would use their horn. I mean, I always thought that horns were used to let other motorists know that you are there. Blind Freddie could see that you are there, along with a million other vehicles, each one unable to move because the cars were positioned across the lanes at every conceivable angle. It was geometrically impossible for any car to move, like a collapsed heap of Jenga blocks.

The bus to San Marino left from a stop opposite the station, not that it was easy to find; I had to hunt for the stop by checking the timetables at each individual stop. It was only about twenty minutes waiting in the rain for the bus, the shelter was too full. My Macpac rain jacket came in rather handy.

The bus to San Marino arrived on time at 18:10, a miracle considering the traffic. The fare was five euros paid to the driver. The driver took my five-euro note and put it in his pocket without giving me a ticket. Ah, that famous Italian corruption! How lovely.

The bus departed and got promptly stuck in all the traffic. It went for block after block. After an eternity we finally got out of Rimini’s city centre and onto the main road heading southwest into the hills towards San Marino. Eventually we passed under an ornamental footbridge festooned with a message. “BENVENUTI NELL’ANTICA TERRA DELLA LIBERTÀ”. Welcome to the Ancient Land of Liberty. And so I entered Country No. 27 I have been in, the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, and the second time that I have visited three countries in one day.

The road kept going up and up, through an unattractive urban ribbon of casinos, private investment banks, insurance offices, duty-free shops and all the other paraphernalia you find in microstates. The bus swerved around hairpin bends, roundabouts, switchbacks and blind corners. It was exciting in the same way that aircraft turbulence is exciting.

Due to the traffic in Rimini the bus arrived at the terminus in the City of San Marino quite late, it was approaching eight o’clock. I had looked up my hotel on Google Maps when I still had mobile data in Slovenia, I clearly recalled that the Hotel Joli was immediately north of the bus interchange, so I walked north and got lost in some neighbourhood. It was completely silent except for the wind howling through the steep narrow streets. The City of San Marino – city is probably too generous a word for a town of four thousand people – is located on the crest of a ridge seven hundred metres above sea level. It is exposed from all directions and the winds are brutal, as was the rain. The rain was horizontal. My rain jacket was no use, I got soaked trying to find my hotel.

There was nobody who could help me, the streets were dead. A car passed on the streets only occasionally. Not a shop or restaurant was to be seen. I know that San Marino is a very small country but I still would have thought that there would be some life in a national capital. I had no mobile data, my prepaid Slovenian SIM card didn’t work in Italy, so I couldn’t check Google Maps. My Lonely Planet’s guide to Italy devoted one whole page to San Marino with no map included. I was seriously lost, hungry , freezing and sopping wet.

I kept heading north to no avail, it was just a rabbit warren of residential streets that ended at the terminus of the ridge. I walked back to the bus station. I looked for a map, there was nothing. I desperately looked for a public telephone so I could call the hotel for directions, I saw none. All the while I was getting more and more saturated, the wind chilling me to the bone.

Finally I saw a person. He was walking his dog – in this weather! He couldn’t speak English so I asked him where the Hotel Joli was in Italian, and he answered in Italian clear enough for me to understand. The hotel was about one kilometre to the south, next to the roundabout.

I had to restrain myself from prostrating on the ground before him in adulation as I worshipped the very ground he walked on. He saved my life! I walked along the street south from the bus station and he wasn’t lying, the Hotel Joli soon appeared, its maroon and white illuminated sign beckoning me into its dry, warm, generous bosom.

So what happened? Well, there are two bus stations in the San Marino city centre. One is for tourist coaches, the other is for public buses. The bus interchange beside the hotel is for tourist coaches. All this could have been avoided if the dishonest scoundrels at the TIM shop in Gorizia had sold me a prepaid TIM Tourist SIM like I had bloody well asked, but no. I hope they burn in hell.

I checked into my hotel, dried myself off, and had a late dinner at a nearby restaurant that was still open, Agli Antichi Orti. The food was good - a hearty main course of tagliatelle with a tomato-based ragù, a hearty second course of grilled vegetables, a hearty bowl of crusty bread and a hearty carafe of rich red wine. The service from the elderly proprietor was excellent. It was just what I needed after what was a very long and rather difficult day.

Podhom station

Podhom station


Bohinj Valley in the rain

Bohinj Valley in the rain


Soča river from the Bohinj Railway

Soča river from the Bohinj Railway


Solkan Bridge over the Soča river near Nova Gorica

Solkan Bridge over the Soča river near Nova Gorica


Bohinj Railway train at Nova Gorica

Bohinj Railway train at Nova Gorica


Nova Gorica railway station and the border

Nova Gorica railway station and the border


The Italy-Slovenia border at Nova Gorica railway station

The Italy-Slovenia border at Nova Gorica railway station


Border monument on the Italy-Slovenia border

Border monument on the Italy-Slovenia border


The Alps from the plains of Friuli Venezia Giulia

The Alps from the plains of Friuli Venezia Giulia


Piave river in northern Italy

Piave river in northern Italy


Euganean Hills

Euganean Hills


Welcome to Italy

Welcome to Italy


Welcome To The Ancient Land Of Liberty

Welcome To The Ancient Land Of Liberty


Dinner in San Marino

Dinner in San Marino


Grilled vegetables in San Marino

Grilled vegetables in San Marino

Posted by urbanreverie 05:33 Archived in San Marino Tagged mountains trains italy slovenia san_marino Comments (0)

Boy gorge

semi-overcast 12 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

When I met my Airbnb hosts Natalija and Jure on my first morning at Lake Bled, they strongly encouraged me to visit Vintgar Gorge, a ravine several kilometres north of Bled town. They did warn me, however, that there was no public transport there, the shuttle bus to the gorge only runs in summer, and that I would have to seek alternative means of getting there.

I had a lazy Monday morning, I had some leftover snacks I had taken with me on yesterday’s hike at Lake Bohinj for breakfast, and I spent a couple of tedious hours at a laundromat just up the hill. Being the first weekday after a four-day long weekend, the town was suddenly D-E-A-D dead dead dead. I could have lain down in the middle of one of the main streets for hours and not get hit by a car.

I had lunch at a bakery-café opposite the bus interchange near my apartment. While I was having my coffee and pastries for lunch, I saw something I had never seen before – sunshine in Slovenia. Sun, glorious sun! I revelled in it, I turned my chair slightly at my outdoor table so my face could get the full force of that weird yellow object in the sky I hadn’t seen for a week since I was in Hungary.

In Australia I avoid the sun like the plague. Being of mostly British heritage, I have extremely fair skin and I burn to a crisp after a few minutes in the harsh Australian sun, even with sunscreen. I schedule my outdoor activities to late afternoons or after dark or days forecast to be cloudy in order to avoid the dreadful excoriating Australian sunlight. I hate being out in the sun and I simply don’t understand what goes on in the brains of Australians who love spending their days at the beach or playing sports or doing other activities that require being scorched by that blinding fireball in the sky. But in Europe, things are different. The European sun is gentle and golden and reassuring and wholesome. The European sun is simply nice. After a week of being denied the innocent joy of having my skin tickled by those life-giving rays, sipping my coffee in the sun was just too marvellous.

There was a small tour agency inside the bus interchange that advertised tours to Vintgar Gorge, I think for about ten euros they would drive you in a van out there and back and entrance was included in the price. I went inside and asked if I could go that afternoon. The tour agency owner sighed and said, yes, he would take me. He made it clear through his body language and tone of voice that he rather wouldn’t. I guess that having only one person in the van wasn’t very economic.

He told me to meet him at the tour office at three, when he picked me up in a van from the bus interchange and drove me north to Vintgar Gorge. The van travelled through gloriously green countryside in the sunshine. Slovenia looks even more bewitching when the sun is out. The Karavanke mountain range to the north, a forbiddingly solid range of mountains topped with snow, loomed in front of the windscreen. The top of the Karavanke range is the Austrian border.

After about ten minutes I arrived at the Vintgar Gorge car park. The driver said he would meet me back there at five o’clock. I showed my ticket to the park ranger at the entrance and entered the canyon.

Vintgar Gorge is a mile-long ravine carved from the rock by the Radovna river through a ridge that separates Lake Bled from the Sava valley around Jesenice. There is a path the entire way, much of it on a timber boardwalk suspended over the rushing river swollen by the heavy rain of the past week. The opaque river was the colour of turquoise, rushing down the gorge like liquified gems. The water bounced form rock to rock, over logs, through whirlpools, down flumes and into caverns along the side of the gorge. Above the river were limestone cliffs and trees at the seasonal pinnacle of riotous autumn colours.

About three-quarters of the way down the gorge was a beautiful bridge, a high stone arch span so far above I had to crane my neck to look at it. I opened Google Maps on my phone. It was a railway bridge on the famous Bohinj Railway. I opened up the Slovenske železnice website and looked up the timetable. A train was coming in eight minutes! Should I wait around to take a video of a train going over the bridge high above the rushing rapids? Well, duh! So I did.

At the downstream end of Vintgar Gorge, the gorge ends in a waterfall, Slap Šum, where the Radovna river falls down to the plains of the Sava valley. It wasn’t a very high waterfall but it was loud and powerful and very pretty. If Margaret & David At The Movies reviewed waterfalls rather than films, they would have given Slap Šum four and a half out of five stars.

It’s such a pity that I had to meet the driver back at the car park at a fixed time because I could have spent forever in Vintgar Gorge. It was just what I needed with my cold, an easy stroll in the pure mountain air along a stupendous white-water canyon on a brilliant autumn afternoon. So I walked back up the gorge along the boardwalks and rocky paths.

The driver met me back at the car park, drove me back to Bled town as the sun began to set, and I farewelled Bled with another stroll around the east end of the lake. I had one more kremšnita, this time at an open-air restaurant on a terrace looking over the lake opposite the castle. This restaurant claims to have invented the kremšnita back in the 1950s. It was very nice, but I still maintain and I don’t care what Slovenes think – the kremšnita is nothing but an Australian vanilla slice with a layer of whipped cream between the custard layer and the top crust.

After doing some packing and another hearty dinner at a traditional Slovenian restaurant – farmer’s sausage, stewed apples, baked millet porridge – I went back to the gostilna near my apartment. This pub is awesome, and not only because the walls are completely covered with licence plates from all around the world, including several from my home state of New South Wales. I had a stimulating farewell conversation with the bartender, the geography nerd whose company and conversation I had thoroughly enjoyed a few nights earlier. I did a very stupid thing – I forgot to ask if we could add each other to social media. I only dimly remember his name. So if anybody meets a friendly, talkative and somewhat awkward bartender with a slight lisp and a tremendous memory for geographic facts at a pub near the Lake Bled bus interchange, tell him that the fat bearded Aussie guy with glasses who used to live in Bathurst and told him all about Australian licence plates says hello and that I want to send him a jar of Vegemite because I found it difficult to explain what it tastes like.

Sun, glorious sun!

Sun, glorious sun!

Karavanke mountains and countryside north of Bled

Karavanke mountains and countryside north of Bled

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Bohinj Railway bridge over Vintgar Gorge

Bohinj Railway bridge over Vintgar Gorge

Karawanks from the top of Slap Šum waterfall

Karawanks from the top of Slap Šum waterfall

Slap Šum waterfall

Slap Šum waterfall

Kremšnita and Bled Castle

Kremšnita and Bled Castle

Farmer’s sausage, baked millet porridge and stewed apples

Farmer’s sausage, baked millet porridge and stewed apples

Posted by urbanreverie 06:58 Archived in Slovenia Tagged waterfalls cuisine slovenia gorges Comments (0)

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