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All railroads lead to Rome

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My train to Rome was not due to leave Firenze Santa Maria Novella station until 12:17 on Saturday the tenth of November 2019 so I had plenty of time to squeeze in some more Florence sights before I left.

Or so I thought.

I was silly, I thought seeing things would be as simple as rocking up to the venue in question, waiting a short while in a queue, buying a ticket and going in. Hardy har har. Combine the dysfunctional organisational skills of Italians with the insane numbers of tourists that would put even the famous efficiency of the Swiss or the Japanese under unbearable strain and you have the recipe for hordes of disappointed visitors who should have been smarter and bought their tickets online.

First, I tried the Palazzo Vecchio, the fourteenth-century castle-like building that was the administrative centre of the Republic of Florence. Apart from the magnificent apartments of the Medici clan, the chapels and the banquet halls, the Palazzo also has a reputed art gallery. I eagerly joined the long queue. After several minutes I realised the queue was not moving. I thought that perhaps the Palazzo was not yet open, but I peered over the shoulders of people in front of me and the ticket counters were indeed open, it’s just that the staff were so slow and inefficient that the queue never moved.

I decided to give the Palazzo Vecchio the flick and head to a nearby church, the Orsanmichele Church. The front door of this significant fourteenth-century place of worship was open. Yay! So I went in, but couldn’t go any further than a couple of metres because the church was closed for renovations. Bugger. At least I got a few glimpses of the stained glass windows and the back of the splendidly Gothic tabernacle.

After having no luck getting into the Duomo the day before, I thought I might have a better shot today. But of course, it was Sunday! And the Duomo is a cathedral. Which means it is a church. Which means that people use that church for worship. The Duomo was closed to the public all day for what appeared to be a never-ending succession of Masses, as were the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella.

There was one sight I managed to experience before catching my train – the Mercato Centrale (Central Market). This is a two-storey affair, not especially historic (I am guessing it was built in the late nineteenth century) but attractive enough. The bottom floor is Florence’s wholesale produce market. Being a Sunday this section was closed but it was just the same grotty collection of forklifts, pallets, carboard boxes and the overpowering stench of rotten cabbage that you find in wholesale produce markets all over the world. Upstairs was open though, and what a great place it was! There were rows of fancy food shops – delicatessens, butchers, gelaterias, wine bars, cheese shops – underneath an impressive glass canopy.

The Mercato Centrale was a foodie’s paradise and I regretted that I had already eaten a distinctly crappy breakfast at yet another rip-off restaurant. I had enough space in my stomach for a cannolo though. Cannoli are reasonably common at cake shops in Australia, a doner kebab-like roll of pastry with a sweet cream filling, but the cannoli I have had back home cannot compare to the one I had at the Mercato Centrale. The dusting of crushed pistachios made what was already a superior cannolo simply divine.

Time was fleeing so I went back to Tina’s apartment, fetched my backpack from my room, exchanged heart-felt farewells with Tina, and hauled my pack the short distance to Firenze Santa Maria Novella station.

I didn’t have to wait too long until my train appeared. There are two companies that run high-speed rail services in Italy – the government-owned Trenitalia with its Frecce services, and the privately-owned Italo. My Italo train, a sleek, stylish thing the colour of Sangiovese wine, glided silently into the platform, came to a stop, and I waited while a scrum of people trying to get on were pushing against plenty of other people were trying to get off. God damn it, Italy!

I finally settled into my seat in the Prima ambience. Italo trains don’t have classes like normal trains, but ambiences. The marketing guff is that no ambience is better than one another, they are just different, and passengers get to choose which ambience suits them the best. It just so happens that some ambiences are more expensive and have more room than other ambiences – in descending price order, Club, Prima, Comfort and Smart. It’s a load of advertising industry bullshit if you ask me.

Despite the cringeworthy wankery of Italo’s “ambiences”, it was an awesome train. The service was great, the carriage was antiseptically clean, the seat was comfortable, the Wi-Fi, USB ports and power points were greatly appreciated. An attendant came around with a trolley and served a free and entirely creditable cup of espresso coffee with an apricot pastry as I watched the scruffy Tuscan countryside speed past at 250 kilometres per hour.

The Italo train arrived at Roma Termini on time at 13:50, only ninety-three minutes after leaving Florence. Roma Termini is not the most pleasant station I have ever seen, but it is enormous and rather dizzying. In terms of size, its bland glassy modernist architecture and the kinds of retail and fast food outlets that clog all the corridors, it reminds me more of an international airport than a railway station. It took me forever to find the Rome Metro platforms.

I finally found my Line A platforms – the signage in Roma Termini was nothing short of appalling – I bought a weekly Rome public transport ticket and I boarded my dirty, crowded metro train for my six-station trip to Ottaviano. I know it was very early in my stay in Rome but I disliked the city already. There was a harshness of manner among the people I encountered at Roma Termini and on the metro that I found a little disquieting. It seemed as if many people had a chip on their shoulder, a hardness in their eyes, like they were just waiting for the opportunity for someone to look at them the wrong way so they could punch them. The clashing scrums of people trying to get on and off the train at the same time at the various stations seemed like further evidence that Rome wasn’t going to be a nice city.

I basically had to fight my way off the train at Ottaviano. I emerged from the grim, dim, brown metro station onto the street above. This neighbourhood wasn’t too bad. Prati is an affluent suburb of neat late nineteenth-century apartment buildings on broad tree-lined avenues; this neighbourhood was built to house all the public servants who moved to Rome when it became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy after the Risorgimento. Prati seemed in a way more Parisian than Roman.

I found my hotel – a large apartment divided into about five hotel rooms, really – called the Empire Suites. The elderly owner greeted me like a long-lost friend. Perhaps I was wrong in my first impression of Rome.

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Ow-strah-lia,” he said.

This happens a lot in Italy. Every man and his dog has a close relative who lives in Ow-strah-lia. “Wow, that’s nice.”

“He-a leeve in Seedanee. Where in Ow-strah-lia you leeve?”

“I’m from Sydney too.”

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Manly. You-a know heem?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Sydney has over five million people, a population greater than even Rome’s, and that unfortunately I had yet to make acquaintance with each and every Sydneysider. “No, sorry, I don’t know him. Manly is very nice though. It’s expensive. It has a very nice beach. Lots of pine trees along the beach.”

He seemed pleased that his son had made enough of a success of himself to live in such an agreeable and wealthy suburb.

After checking in and dumping my backpack in my room I went for a walk. It was fairly late in the afternoon on a Sunday, I wouldn’t be able to explore any museum or major sight. I decided to indulge in my love of geography instead.

The Empire Suites was a fifteen-minute walk from the State of Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. There aren’t many countries where you can walk around the entire country in a leisurely ninety-minute stroll. I had yet to walk around any country. I was determined to change this.

I started at the north-eastern corner of Vatican City and walked clockwise around the country. The country is only forty-nine hectares, about twice the size of Australia’s largest shopping centre. The border is quite easy to follow, the vast majority of it consists of a very high brick wall enclosing the church property within – the Apostolic Palace, St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens, the Pope’s personal railway station and heliport.

Many people think the State of Vatican City is ancient, as old as the Roman Catholic Church itself. In reality it is a twentieth-century invention. For over a millennium the Pope was not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church but also the ruler of the Papal States which covered most of central Italy. When Garibaldi and his troops invaded the Papal States in 1870 and reunified Italy in the Risorgimento the Pope refused to recognise the new Italian kingdom. A succession of Popes for six decades refused to leave the church’s headquarters on the Vatican Hill – they described themselves as “prisoners of the Vatican”.

In 1929 the Pope and Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini came to an agreement, the Lateran Treaty. In return for the Pope recognising Italian sovereignty, the Catholic Church would have its own sovereign state, the State of Vatican City, which would likewise be recognised by Italy. This sovereign state, as miniscule as it is, would at least allow the Holy See to conduct diplomatic relations with other countries and provide a secular base from which to manage the entire Catholic Church worldwide, just as the old Papal States did. It is no coincidence that Vatican City has the same flag as the erstwhile Papal States.

After one and a half hours and four kilometres I completed my circumnavigation of Vatican City. Hooray! How many countries have you walked around the entire circumference? I’ve walked around a whole country and you haven’t. So nur nurny nur nur.

The sun was setting and I decided to explore some of Rome’s public transport system. It’s not very good. To be honest, most Australian cities have better public transport than Rome, which is a rather unusual thing to say about a European city. Only a small part of the Rome metropolitan area is covered by the three-line metro system, the trams are dirty and ancient and also only cover a very small part of the urban area, the buses are infrequent and difficult to navigate, signage is abysmal and transport services are often so crowded you can’t get on board.

I caught a route 19 tram from Piazza del Risorgimento to the Policlinico hospital on Rome’s eastern side. Route 19 travels in a long arc from just outside Vatican City in the west through Rome’s northern suburbs and then out to the east. The tram was battered, filthy, ugly, slow, rattly, draughty and uncomfortable.

After what seemed an eternity I alighted at the tram stop at Policlinico. The tram stop was a narrow platform squeezed between the tram tracks and the traffic lanes of a busy arterial road. A pedestrian crossing was at the far end of the tram platform. The tram I was on was occupying the track. In front of me was a wizened, hunched old woman – perhaps deaf, perhaps demented, perhaps both – standing in the centre of the platform. I kept asking politely if she could move so I could get past her. “Scusi? Spiacente? Umm ... hello? Buona sera? Could you move over a bit, please, so I can get past? Umm … ciao? Scusi? Hello? Can you hear me? Per favore? Hello?” No matter what I said, the old woman wouldn’t budge.

I soon felt a series of very sharp jabs in my calves. I turned around to see a young father pushing a stroller with his baby in it against my legs with his wife just behind him. “Scusi!” he snarled.

I snapped. Like most people, I don’t take too kindly to being physically assaulted. “What? Are you f#$%ing blind, you dumb c#$t? Can’t you f&*%ing see that there is this old bitch in front of us who won’t f@#%ing damn well move? For f*$!ing f*#&’s sake!” It’s very hard to be angry in a language you don’t know well so I reverted to English.

“No! No! No!” he shouted at me, assaulting me even harder with his baby’s stroller. He looked like he was about to smash my face in. Thankfully a small gap in the traffic suddenly appeared and I was able to jump off the platform onto the street and run across to the footpath.

Stuff Rome and stuff Italy.

I took the metro four stations on Line B from Policlinico to Colosseo. The Colosseum wasn’t open being well after sunset but it was pleasantly lit in a soft golden hue. I reflected upon the absurdity of how the Ancient Romans built a stadium and it is still standing two thousand years later while the government of my state of New South Wales is wasting $2.3 billion on knocking down two perfectly good stadiums built twenty and thirty years ago and building new ones to replace them. I would have to return in the daytime when it was open.

I then caught a bus back to Prati. Without an Italian SIM card (thanks a bloody lot, the Gorizia TIM shop), it was hard to find public transport information. The bus stop signs just showed a list of routes with no maps or timetables. After stumbling around the neighbourhood for ages I finally found the stop for the bus route I wanted. I then waited forever for the bus. In most European cities the buses, trams and trains are so frequent that you don’t need timetables, the vehicles just seem to magically appear as if your mere presence at the stop is enough to conjure it from thin air. Rome is not your typical European city. I was grateful when my bus finally appeared so I could grab dinner and retreat to my hotel room. I had the feeling that I would need to recuperate in order to strengthen myself for whatever Rome might throw at me over the next few days.

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

Posted by urbanreverie 08:18 Archived in Italy Tagged trains borders italy public_transport florence rome vatican_city Comments (0)

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