A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about railways

Pompeii and circumstance

rain

When I was in Year 3 of primary school my class studied Pompeii. I was spellbound by the descriptions of the Mount Vesuvius volcano raining fire and ash on a city, burying the entire town and its unfortunate inhabitants beneath tens of metres of cinders, only to be unearthed perfectly preserved eighteen centuries later.

Learning about Pompeii at school awoke within me a lifelong fascination with volcanoes. I guess I have always been interested in things that I can’t see in Australia and Australia, occupying the most geologically stable continent on earth in the middle of a tectonic plate, doesn’t have active volcanoes.

I was determined to visit Pompeii one day. Thirty-three years later, I made it. Better late than never.

First, I had to get there. Pompeii is two hundred and forty kilometres southeast of Rome. In Australia, with its poor roads and slow, infrequent trains, this distance would most likely be outside day-tripping radius. Thankfully Italy is much better endowed with transport infrastructure.

Thus on the morning of Tuesday 12 November 2019 I emerged from the Empire Suites in the grim, damp dawn twilight, took the Line A metro to Roma Termini railway station and grabbed coffee and a pastry for breakfast at a station café near the platform entrance. Italian coffee culture is unusual from an Australian perspective. The coffee is excellent – Australians have learned well from their Italian maestros – but typically a customer will buy a coffee from the café, stand at the counter, wolf the coffee down in one gulp then go on their merry way. Judging by what I saw in Rome, coffee doesn’t seem to be quite the social thing as it is in Australia where the lingering mid-morning “coffee run” with colleagues and chatting up the cute barista have been elevated to a treasured ritual.

I showed my €36.50 Trenitalia ticket on my phone to the Trenitalia employee who let me through the gate and waited a short while for the sleek, long, red Frecciarossa high-speed train to arrive from Florence. Frecciarossa is Italian for “Red Arrow” and is the fastest of the three types of high-speed train operated by the government-owned Trenitalia.

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

After enduring another very Italian scrum of people trying to get on forcing their way against people trying to get off (God damn it, Italy!), I settled into my very comfortable window seat in a Standard class carriage and the train departed on time at 07:55. After a few kilometres of negotiating its way through the congested tracks around Roma Termini the Frecciarossa then found itself on the dedicated high-speed line southeast towards Naples.

The train rocketed across the fertile plains of Lazio and Campania at three hundred kilometres an hour, farms and villages little more than a blur. I experienced quite a bit of cognitive dissonance – how on earth does a nation as disorganised, corrupt and fractious as Italy manage to have such awesome railways? I asked my Italian colleague when I returned home, he told me that the Italian railways are secretly run by the Germans. I don’t think he was lying. It is the only explanation that could make any possible sense.

After about an hour the train entered Naples’ suburbs. My heart sank. I wasn’t in the First World any more. This was Dhaka or Lagos or Caracas or Manila. The dreary landscape was studded with grotty high-rise apartment buildings of the most appalling decrepitude. Every conceivable surface that could possibly be reached by human hands, and even many surfaces that couldn’t, was covered in the most vile graffiti. Some of the graffiti was in places that made me think the only way the vandals could get there was by helicopter. The slummy houses looked as if they were ready to collapse. The filthy narrow streets were congested with the most disorderly traffic. I thanked my lucky stars that my stay in Naples would only be brief.

The train arrived at Napoli Centrale station on time after its 220-kilometre journey from Rome that took only seventy minutes. I navigated through the buzzing station concourse trying to find the Circumvesuviana platforms, but of course all the signage was contradictory with a sign telling me to go one way right next to another sign telling me to go the other way. (God damn it, Italy!)

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

I found the Circumvesuviana platforms confusingly called Napoli Garibaldi station even though it is part of the Napoli Centrale station complex. I bought my magnetic-stripe ticket to Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station and walked down the stairs to the platforms. I had entered the very portal of hell itself. The station had all the charm of an underground car park, smelled like a public toilet and the trains, each and every one of them, were entirely covered in graffiti. A nasty old man who objected to me photographing the trains gave me the finger. Charming.

My Circumvesuviana train arrived after a twenty-minute wait and I boarded the noisy, rattly old thing. Circumvesuviana is a system of suburban rail lines serving the Naples metropolitan area running on a network of narrow-gauge tracks that are separate to the Trenitalia railway network; most lines run at thirty-minute intervals. As the name suggests, the lines form a ring around Mount Vesuvius.

The crowded train with cramped, uncomfortable plastic seats slowly emptied as it stopped at every station through Naples’ southeastern suburbs on the plains at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Thankfully the train soon arrived at Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri and it was with considerable gratitude that I disembarked.

The entrance to the ruins of ancient Pompeii is right next to the station. I bought my entrance ticket, hired an audio guide and entered through the Porta Marina, the old city gate on the road to the old harbour which was nearby.

The next six hours saw me stumbling around one of the most magnificent places I have ever visited, my jaw scraping the two-thousand-year-old cobblestones as it dropped in amazement. I found myself involuntarily squealing with delight as I found yet another pristine mosaic or crisp mural or antique snack bar counter that looked like it was installed yesterday.

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Pompeii is laid out like many Ancient Roman cities. There is a broad main street running roughly east-west, another prominent street running roughly north-south, and the two intersect at the Forum, a major square that was the commercial and governmental heart of the town. Running off the two main streets is a dense grid of narrower streets meeting at crisp right angles; the regularity of Pompeii’s grid meant I never got lost.

On the Forum with its pillared Basilica and temple to Jupiter is an open-sided shed with a display of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists. Among these finds are plaster casts. The bodies of humans and animals were buried by the ash and rock. The volcanic debris solidified around the corpses. The bodies slowly decomposed leaving a void in the compressed cinders in the shape of the body. Archaeologists pour plaster into these cavities as they find them and carefully chip away the volcanic matter to reveal a perfect impression of the dead person or animal. The most famous of these casts is the “Mule Driver”, crouched in agony, his hands feebly covering his face. Even more haunting is the cast of a child rigidly lying flat on its side with their arms clutched around their chest. There is also a dog lying on its back, its wide collar plainly visible, its four legs contorted as if trying to push the falling cinders away.

Just north of the old town outside the city walls is the Villa of Mysteries. This sprawling residence belonging to a patrician family has more courtyards, gardens, mosaics, saucy murals and servants’ quarters than I could care to count. It is much better preserved than most of the houses in town – the roof seems to have been spared collapse – and seems just as inhabitable now as it was back then.

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

I ambled around the streets in awe for far longer than I had anticipated. At regular intervals on the main streets were zebra crossings. Yes, the Roman Empire had zebra crossings. Ancient Roman kerbs were quite high – I would guess at least thirty centimetres if not higher – which made crossing the street quite dangerous. Never mind – the municipal authorities two thousand years ago installed stones shaped like zebra crossings, the tops of the stones flush with the height of the kerb; the gaps between the stones allowed carts to pass through the crossing unhindered. Genius.

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

There were houses for the rich with their mosaics and gardens and fountains, houses for the poor with their narrow frontages and small closet-like bedrooms. There was a brothel, its interior walls above the doors to the working rooms daubed with murals showing all the different positions customers could point at and order from the girls, rather like a McDonald’s menu. There were the thermopolia, snack bars with counters facing the street where hot food was served from pots recessed in the tiled counters. I could just imagine it – lentil stew, olives in red wine sauce, barley soup – drool! The Pompeii park authorities could do no better job than to bring these thermopolia back into service; the “restaurant” at Pompeii is expensive and disgusting. You would think I would learn by now to bring my own food when visiting tourist sites like this.

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

There was a bakery with its millstones and kneading benches and ovens, there were the public baths with its changing rooms and elaborate water heating systems, there was the macellum meat market with its stallholder booths facing onto the quadrangle. There was the amphitheatre where gladiators fought and Pink Floyd once performed, there was the theatre where Pompeiians were entertained, there was the palestra where athletes trained and competed, there were temples to this ancient god or that, there was a vineyard where a heirloom variety of grape is grown to make wine using the same methods as two millennia ago.

There is also so much yet to be discovered – only about two-thirds of the town has been excavated. The rest is still buried and will most likely remain so. Park authorities are fighting a never-ending battle against decay. The bits of Pompeii that have been unearthed are now exposed to the elements and are falling apart; many sites are closed to the public due to conservation works.

My plan for the day was to spend a couple of hours at Pompeii then somehow find my way to the top of Mount Vesuvius by bus or taxi, walk around the crater, then return to Naples in time for the train back to Rome. However, Pompeii was so interesting, so stimulating, so indescribably enthralling that I couldn’t leave. On every cobbled alley there was some sight that contrived to keep me lingering in Pompeii just a little bit longer.

The park closed around sunset at five o’clock. I left Pompeii grateful that I had been given the opportunity to see one of the greatest historic sites in the world, a snapshot of life as it was in a provincial town of one of the planet’s greatest empires of all time twenty centuries ago. My memories of Pompeii will be a source of delight the rest of my life.

I went back to Naples on yet another crummy, slightly nauseating Circumvesuviana train. I got to Napoli Centrale station at about six o’clock with ninety minutes to spare until my train back to Rome. I didn’t really feel like hanging around a railway station for ninety minutes so I got out my Lonely Planet, turned to the page with a map of the Naples city centre and started walking across the giant, windswept Piazza Garibaldi into the old town.

The route I chose was a rough triangle through the neighbourhood west of the station as far as the cathedral and back. I was slightly nervous – I had read too many horror stories about Naples, the thieves on Vespas who cut backpacks away from tourists with machetes at high speed, the giant piles of uncollected garbage, the rough quarters ruled by the Camorra organised crime families with an iron fist. I needn’t have worried too much.

Yes, I found myself in some of the filthiest, most disgusting neighbourhoods I have ever seen in the developed world. The grimy narrow streets were almost impassable due to the logjam of cars and motorbikes and scooters and delivery vans, the merchants whose wares encroached metres out the front of their shops, the disorderly crowds and the rancid bulging bags of rubbish.

But the diamonds I found in the Neapolitan rough! Laundry hung on lines strung between windows across the streets – just like in every movie I’ve ever seen set in Italy. It’s not just a stereotype! Six-year-old boys were kicking a football in the street completely unsupervised, their talents leaving me in no doubt that they will win the World Cup for the Azzurri in 2042. How many places are there in the Western world where kids can still kick ball in the street without anxious parents watching their every move? You can’t throw a brick without hitting a pizzeria in this city which is the birthplace of pizza. Everything you have heard about Neapolitan pizza being the greatest is true – and only two euros the slice, a rather large slice too. Carts sold freshly baked pastries of the most delectable sweetness for one euro each. A raven-haired lass of about twenty years and the most stunning beauty pulled up beside me on her Vespa. She shouted into the shop next to where I was walking. “Angela! Angela! Zia Angela!” Her black-smocked aunt came rushing out of the shop and they embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

Naples is dismal, decaying, disorderly. But what life! What zest! The streets are abuzz with community, with family, with belonging, with passion. Who can truly say they have been alive if they have not yet been to Naples?

Naples at night

Naples at night

I wished that I had allotted myself more time to explore Naples – it seemed far more lively and authentically Italian than Rome and the energy of the place was nothing short of contagious. Unfortunately, time was fleeing and I needed to go and catch my train.

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

My Frecciarossa trip back to Roma Termini was just as efficient and uneventful as my morning southbound journey. Soon after getting off the train I had to go to the toilet. It was that dreaded time once again – I had to go to battle with that most repulsive of species, Bitchius maxmius, the common lesser spotted European toilet attendant.

I found the poorly-signed public toilet in some remote corner of the gargantuan station. Bitchius maximus was not at her little counter with the coin tray; she was just a couple of metres inside the entrance talking to some other customer. By this time I was rather desperate. “Buona sera? Hello? Umm … spiacente? Ho bisogno to go to the toilet … like, now? As in, right now? Hello? Ciao? Can you hear me?”

Bitchius maximus didn’t even respond. I waited as long as I could and called louder but she didn’t even blink. I needed to go. Desperate times call for desperate measures – I decided to go into the toilet and pay after I did my business. So I walked into the male toilet cubicle and locked the door.

World War III broke out. Bitchius maximus suddenly deigned to notice my presence. Fancy that! There was banging and kicking against the door and shouting and all sorts of cursing in rapid-fire Italian. I had no idea that such a small, demented old woman was capable of such furious strength.

I don’t understand European toilets. Every single one of them is staffed full-time by some hideous crone to whom you pay good money for the right to use yet every single one of them is disgraceful. The seat was missing. There was no soap. The hand dryer didn’t work. The toilet hadn’t been cleaned since Mussolini was Italy’s leader. I don’t know about you but if my full-time job were to oversee a public toilet the place would be so clean you’d be able to eat dinner off the floor. It’s not like the duties would be that complicated – collect cash from customers, clean and tidy up when things are quiet. Hardly the most taxing of jobs.

I took my sweet time just to make Bitchius maximus even more riled up then I finally emerged and with a smile on my face placed a one-euro coin in her stupid little tray. “I did try to get your attention, you stupid old cow, but you ignored me! I was going to pay, you mad f#$%ing bitch, no need to get your knickers in a knot. Go to hell, you miserable old w#$%e!” I shouted at her in English. I walked away and the lunatic was still shouting at me. I’m being honest – nothing makes me more proud to be Australian than our toilets. They are free, they are usually clean, they don’t have some psychopathic hag hanging around them making your life a misery. Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!

The Mule Driver

The Mule Driver


Vineyard at Pompeii

Vineyard at Pompeii

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Theatre at Pompeii

Theatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Street in Pompeii

Street in Pompeii

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Posted by urbanreverie 05:16 Archived in Italy Tagged trains italy naples pompeii archaeology railways toilets ancient_rome Comments (0)

Upon this rock I will build my church

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

I awoke at midday on 11 November 2019, my first full day in Rome. I am not ashamed of this fact. I needed the sleep. It was also raining rather heavily outside. And Rome kind of sucks and the city could wait. Yes, Rome has an impressive list of must-see sights that ought to be on every traveller’s bucket list. But that doesn’t change the fact that Rome still kind of sucks. I needed to recharge in the cosy, elegantly minimalist confines of my room so that I could summon the strength to face whatever crap the city could throw at me.

I eventually shuffled out of the Empire Suites, had breakfast – lunch, really – at a nearby organic eatery that had the most confusing system of ordering one’s food that I have ever seen, and walked the short distance to Vatican City. Even in the driving rain, St Peter’s Square is a wonder to behold. It is massive and makes you feel like an insignificant ant, yet the circular colonnades that almost completely enclose the square give it an intimate air. The obelisk in the centre of the square serves as an anchor, a point of reference that helps to make the lonely individual standing out in the open square feel not quite so lost.

Standing watch over the square is St Peter’s Basilica, the mother church of the entire Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful religious institution the world has ever known. There was a lengthy queue winding around the square in the shelter of the colonnades with thorough security screening before you could enter the church.

And what a church! There is no other building anywhere on Earth that is so expertly designed to inculcate in the visitor a stunned, unavoidable reverence for a Supreme Being. I was so awestruck that I had to restrain myself from begging one of the many priests to baptise me into the Christian church right then and there.

In my daily life in Australia, my attitude to religion oscillates between “apathetic indifference” and “trenchant hostility”. When I think of religion, I typically think of people like Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Reverend Fred Nile, Lyle Shelton, Cardinal George Pell, Margaret Court and other hypocritical, self-serving, sanctimonious Bible-bashers who pervert the words of Jesus Christ – the great man who they claim to worship – and try to impose their twisted, deformed beliefs on the rest of society to justify bashing the poor and unemployed, discriminating against LGBT people, oppressing women, and exalting the wealthy and privileged. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see religion sent to the bottom of the sea. It’s fairly safe to say that religion and I are not close friends.

When I travel, something weird happens. I become not only interested in religion but appreciative of it. I love visiting churches, temples, mosques, and learning about the history of the religions in the countries I visit and what those religions believe. I even occasionally pray in some of the places of worship I see. That’s not like me at all. The last time I prayed while not travelling was on the day Donald Trump was elected – sometimes prayer is all we have.

St Peter’s Basilica was no different. I ambled around the immense space of this chief church of Catholicism for a long time – I lost track of time, it was several hours, I believe. There are so many chapels off to the side, so many paintings, so many grottoes, so many murals, so many tombs of dead Popes, so many altars, so many gilded ceilings, so many inscriptions.

Taking pride of place in the Basilica is the Baldachin, a structure over the Papal altar and the tomb of St Peter that looks a bit like one of those old four-poster beds. This bronze shelter is so elaborately carved with impressive fluted spirals billowing up each of the four posts that it would make a famous tourist attraction in its own right.

Closer towards the entrance to the Basilica is a chapel containing one of the world’s most famous statues, Michelangelo’s Pietà. This harrowing depiction of a mournful Mary embracing the corpse of her son Jesus is pure perfection in brilliant white marble. Even the stigma on Jesus’s right hand looked so realistic that I half-expected it to start bleeding.

While I was looking at all the magnificent art and trying to decipher the many Latin inscriptions a procession entered the Basilica and slowly went up the aisle. There was a priest carrying a large crucifix at the head of the parade but most of the people behind him were laity. I am guessing they were from the Latin America. The look of devotion and of ecstasy beaming from their faces as they chanted a Spanish hymn while their hands were clasped in front of their chests made me wonder if my irreligious life and upbringing isn’t missing something.

I left St Peter’s Basilica shortly after sunset and had a late lunch – or possibly an early dinner – at a nearby restaurant. It was yet another tourist rip-off joint serving microwaved pasta and stale fruit cake with an exorbitant service charge that didn’t appear on the menu added to my final bill. I wish there was an easy way of telling apart these places from the genuine Italian trattorie.

I caught the metro to the Spanish Steps. I don’t get it. They are just steps! Yes, they’re somewhat more ornate than most steps, and they have appeared in a lot of movies – but they are just steps! I climbed the steps anyway and promptly climbed back down them. I can get exactly the same experience just by climbing up and down the steps in my apartment building. The nearby Column of the Immaculate Conception, a pillar topped with a copper statue of the Mary the Queen of Heaven crowned with a ring of stars dedicated in 1854, was far more interesting.

Also far more interesting was another sight not far away, the Trevi Fountain. Now this is something worth seeing. What a wonderful fantasy in stone and water with billowing carvings of rocks, of vines, of horses, of angels. The surging throngs of tourists couldn’t detract from the magic of the Trevi Fountain.

As I walked away from the fountain up a side street, one of the teeming hordes of scam artists, pickpockets and beggars accosted me. He was at least six foot six tall and intimidating as hell itself. He stepped into my path.

“Hey, man! Your shoes! They’re black! Black, just like Africa. Where are you from?”

At the best of times I don’t like strangers on the street trying to strike up conversation with me. Perhaps it’s my British ancestry that makes me so reserved. But considering Italy’s reputation for rampant petty criminality, I was on high alert. I guessed that he was trying to draw attention to my shoes so that he could pick my pockets while my gaze was directed down at the ground. “No thanks, I’m not interested,” I said firmly.

“Why? Why don’t you want to talk to me?” I tried to sidestep around him but he kept blocking me no matter which direction I tried to go.

This pushed my buttons. “FUCK OFF!” I shouted as loud as I could with a decidedly un-British lack of reserve. The street was crowded with tourists and I hoped that drawing attention to him might stop him from proceeding with his nefarious intentions.

It worked. He was visibly shocked. Perhaps not many tourists have given him the expletive-laden ear-bashing he so rightfully deserved. As I walked away there was mock outrage. “What? Fuck you too, man! What did I ever to do you?” he shouted at me with the most unctuous air of fake offence.

God damn it, Italy. A First World country would have at least a half-competent law enforcement system that would effectively deal with these thieves and liars and scammers. Perhaps Italy is not a First World country.

I get the feeling that Italy, along with other similar countries on Europe’s dysfunctional Mediterranean fringe, trades upon its past greatness. Look how great Rome was two thousand years ago! Look how great Florence was five hundred years ago! This is all well and fine. Perhaps it would be finer if Italy tried being great now.

I tried catching a metro to Termini station to explore a bit more of Rome’s public transport system, but the metro station was closed for repairs. Apparently it had been for many months. I found a bus stop with a large crowd of other people waiting in the rain. I waited forever and ever. I looked at the list of bus routes on the bus stop sign, there were at least half a dozen going to Termini. I waited. I kept waiting. After about fifteen minutes a bus finally appeared. It was so full that hardly any of the people at the stop could get on. Stuff this for a joke.

I ended up walking to the next metro station in the heavy rain. I’m glad I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have come across the circular Piazza della Repubblica with its centrepiece fountain and gently arcing colonnades surrounding the roundabout.

From there I caught a jam-packed Line A train to San Giovanni and changed to an even more crowded train on the new Line C that serves the south-eastern suburbs. I got off the driverless train at Mirti in the suburb of Centocelle. I emerged from the underground station into a pleasant working-to-middle-class neighbourhood of peach-painted apartment buildings and buzzing squares. The rain had cleared, families and friends were ambling through the neighbourhood in large groups chatting loudly and amicably – the famous passeggiata, the evening stroll that is such an integral part of Italian urban life.

I stopped at a gelateria and bought the yummiest gelato ever, two massive scoops and a cone for only two euros. It would cost me about three times as much in Sydney. People on the street greeted me with a smile. I stopped at a real estate agent and looked at the window. One-bedroom apartments in Centocelle were selling for €120,000; two-bedders for €180,000 – about one-third of the price of apartments in my part of Sydney. I found a cosy little tavern and had an entirely creditable beer and pizza, not microwaved trash, for a very cheap price and served by friendly staff. I couldn’t believe I was still in the same city as the scoundrel who assaulted me the night before with his baby’s stroller, the restaurateur who charged me a small fortune for microwaved fettucine carbonara or the pickpocket who wouldn’t get out of my way. Perhaps the bad things I was thinking of Italy were unfounded to an extent.

It was getting quite late and it was time to get back to my hotel. There was another railway line nearby – the Giardinetti Line. Rome has three railway lines called “local railways”, they are isolated lines that connect outer suburbs to various points on the metro network. The Giardinetti Line feeds into Termini station from the south-eastern suburbs and is operated by ancient little yellow and white trains – more like trams, actually – on narrow 950-millimetre gauge track. My train back to Termini was noisy, draughty, a little bit sketchy but great fun. Who needs transport museums when you have Rome’s decrepit public transport system?

St Peter's Square

St Peter's Square

Nave of St Peter's Basilica

Nave of St Peter's Basilica

The Chair of St Peter

The Chair of St Peter

Dome of St Peter's Basilica

Dome of St Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo's Pietà

St Peter's Baldachin

St Peter's Baldachin

Tomb of Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica

Tomb of Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

Column of the Immaculate Conception

Column of the Immaculate Conception

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica

Gelato in Centocelle

Gelato in Centocelle

Giardinetti Line train at Centocelle station

Giardinetti Line train at Centocelle station

On board the Giardinetti Line train

On board the Giardinetti Line train

Posted by urbanreverie 09:10 Archived in Italy Tagged churches architecture fountains public_transport rome vatican_city railways 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 slow way to Slovenia

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

I am lucky that I can be a bit of a perfectionist and that I pride myself on my diligence. I like to check things amd then check things again. So the day before I left Hungary I went to the MÁV Hungarian State Railways website and checked the connection times for my trains to Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia.

My original plan was to catch the 09:34 local train from Keszthely north to the village of Ukk which is located on the main railway line from Budapest to Slovenia. I was to arrive at Ukk at about 10:30 and catch the daily international express train from Budapest to Ljubljana, the "Citadella", at 11:24, to arrive in Ljubljana at about half past four. Quite a simple trip involving only one change of train and a wait of less than an hour.

I wanted to check the timetables on the MÁV website just in case, and I am bloody lucky I did. The MÁV website told me that I would need to leave Keszthely at six o'clock in the morning to take a train to Ukk, then two trackwork buses, a train and another train to get to Ljubljana. The line to Slovenia was closed between Devecser and Zalaegerszeg and the "Citadella" would start at Zalaegerszeg. The trackwork bus that replaced the "Citadella" was running express from Devecser to Zalaegerszeg and would not stop at Ukk to pick me up.

For bloody hell's sake.

I had bought my ticket to Ljubljana at Déli station in Budapest on Saturday and the rude ignorant cow at the international booking office who sold me my ticket didn't tell me anything about trackwork. Nor was there any indication on my ticket that there was trackwork. My ticket just said "11:24 UKK 16:39 LJUBLJANA". If I had not checked the timetable search function on the MÁV website there is no way I would have known.

I was looking forward to a six o'clock start and shuffling from train to bus to train to bus and back to a train about as much as I would look forward to an Australian Tax Office audit combined with root canal dental surgery. Thankfully I managed to find an alternative on the MÁV website: instead of leaving at 06:13, I could take a lengthy detour via a circuitous southern route via Nagykanizsa leaving Keszthely at 07:34. It would mean having to take five separate trains, some with tight connections, but I would avoid the horrors of having to deal with trackwork buses entirely. After the fiasco last Thursday when a simple one hundred kilometre trip to Gyöngyös blew out from two hours to over four hours because MÁV has no idea how to run trackwork buses or publish accurate timetables, I did not want to risk it.

So I left my apartment in Keszthely in the gloomy dawn at seven o'clock, walked ten minutes down to the station, eagerly looking forward to my five-train extravaganza. Would it work out? Would I have to give up halfway through and try to find a bus to Ljubljana instead? Would I make all the tight connections? I was sort of rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of being able to pull it off.

The first obstacle: the ticket machine at Keszthely station. MÁV ticket machines do have an English option. However, there is one small problem: the Union Jack in the bottom right corner is too far for the touchscreen cursor to reach on the vast majority of machines I have used! It is an abject failure of industrial design.

My Hungarian is not good enough to navigate complex touchscreen menus despite completing the Hungarian course on Duolingo. So I went to the ticket counter and asked in Hungarian for a one-way ticket to Zalaegerszeg via Nagykanizsa.

"No, not possible," she said in Hungarian and turned away.

"No. I need to get to Zalaegerszeg to go to Ljubljana," I said in terrible, stilted Hungarian. I got out my international ticket and pointed to "UKK 11:24". "See here? Ukk - closed! No trains! Only buses! Between Devecser and Zalaeherszeg - closed! No trains! I go to Zalaegerszeg!"

"No," the bitch who looked like an aged version of Miss Piggy said as she folded her arms and turned away again.

I lost it and started shouting at the swine-faced crone in English. It's hard to be angry in a language you don't know well. "Listen! I have bought a ticket to Ljubljana and I need to get to Ljubljana and you will bloody well sell me a ticket so I can get to Ljubljana! I know you can because those stupid ticket machines over there let you specify a 'via' station! It's not hard, so just bloody sell me a ticket via Nagykanizsa!"

At this moment, a beautiful young Hungarian lady and her boyfriend came over and offered to help, she spoke English. When someone offers you help in Hungary - take it and cherish it!

I explained politely to the young woman my dilemma. I showed her my ticket for the "Citadella", I said I couldn't catch the train to Slovenia from Ukk because the line was closed and I would have to go via Nagykanizsa to catch the train to Slovenia from Zalaegerszeg instead. The lass politely and softly explained all this to the ticket bitch.

The bitch snapped and started arguing with the helpful young woman. The young woman patiently put my case to the bitch but the mad cow only got angrier. Eventually the nasty filthy pig relented and with a sigh that was stronger than Cyclone Tracy she punched in some numbers on a keypad and the machine on the counter spat out my ticket.

I paid for my ticket and grabbed it from the counter. "Thank you. And I hope you die of a particularly painful form of cancer that slowly but relentlessly melts your internal organs while you can do nothing but scream in agony every single day until you finally die a lonely, miserable death unloved and unmourned by anybody several years later." Well, I didn't say that. But I wished it anyway.

I thanked the young woman profusely for her help - may she thrive and prosper and go onto greater things. I found on my travels in Hungary that the younger generation was somewhat more open and friendly aund helpful than the older generation. People like this lass give me hope that perhaps one day Hungary might become a thriving liberal Western democracy, citizens of a country that is comfortably part of Europe and which people might feel welcome in when they go there to visit or study or retire or work.

Dealing with the cow at the ticket counter took up too much time for me to grab breakfast from the station café, they only sold burgers and doner kebabs and the like that take time to prepare, so I just grabbed a coffee. I boarded by first train for the day, the 07:34 Budapest express. This was only a short little train that was going to be merged at Balatonszentgyörgy with other carriages from Nagykanizsa to form a single train to Budapest.

At 07:45 I alighted on time at Balatonszentgryörgy at the southwestern corner of Lake Balaton. There was a sixteen minute wait for my next train, the 08:01 to Nagykanizsa. Balatonszentgryörgy was a cute station with hedges and hanging flower pots but it was light on amenities.

At 08:01 Train No. 2 of today's adventure arrived. I boarded the nearly empty train for the forty-minute ride to Nagykanizsa across an appealing dawn landscape of scattered grain fields, scratchy thickets and misty, reedy marshes. I spotted several herds of deer bouncing along in the dewy morning light.

I got to Nagykanizsa three minutes early at 08:38. Train No. 3 wasn't until 09:10. Nagykanizsa is a large important station with a full range of amenities, including a station pub. I went into the pub. It was doing a roaring trade at 08:45, mostly seedy older local men getting drunk, every single eye in the joint watching me. I was tempted to buy a beer or seven after having to deal with that horrible subhuman swamp creature at the Keszthely ticket office, but managed to restrain myself. I settled for a breakfast of a salami, cheese and celery roll with a bottle of Coke Zero.

The half-hour wait seemed to fly because soon enough the 09:10 appeared. This was a cross-country train that traveleld through western Hungary in a long northerly arc from Pécs to Szombathely. I rode on this train from Nagykanizsa to Zalaszentiván. The train was very nice and modern with comfortable seating, two classes and air conditioning. The train was nice but the line wasn't. This relatively minor single-track cross-country line was very neglected, the train crawled through the landscape on the sub-standard track. This part of Hungary was the poorest I have seen - barren threadbare fields, ramshackle villages, crumbling concrete railway stations, crooked power poles and potholed roads.

The train approached a junction just outside Zalaszentiván and came to a complete stop. I got very nervous - at six minutes, my connection at Zalaszentiván was by far the tightest of my five-train extravaganza. I needn't have worried, after a few minutes the train moved again and it arrived at Zalaszentiván on time at 09:58.

I looked at Train No. 4 and laughed. It was a bus on rails! It was a tiny little diesel railcar, painted red and yellow, its engine was already switched on and the sound of the engine idling was just like a bus. Even the interior looked like a bus. As the bus... I mean, the train left Zalaszentiván at 10:04, it even sounded like a bus accelerating. I wish I had looked in the driver's cab, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a steering wheel, gear stick, and accelerator, brake and clutch pedals.

Nine minutes later I arrived at Zalaegerszeg at 10:13. The "Citadella" wasn't due to leave until 12:12. Two hours is a lot of time to kill, so I decided to go last-minute souvenir shopping. There was a Coop supermarket across the road from the station and a Magyar Posta post office a couple of buildings down from the station.

My mother loves wine, so I went into the Coop and bought a bottle of Tokaji wine - the famous sweet dessert white wine from northeastern Hungary. I then went to the post office. I didn't think it was possible to find a more depressing post office than the one in Vámosgyörk. It is possible. The Zalaegerszeg post office was dimly lit, the walls were painted in a dark green colour that brought to mind diarrhoea, the counters were battered and scratched, the air was stuffy and so lacking in oxygen I was surprised the employees were still alive.

I waited my turn and then explained to the post office lady that I wanted to send the bottle of wine in my hand to Australia. The woman and her colleague sitting at the next window both snapped at me with an aggression that was both unnecessary and unjustifiable. No! It is not possible! You must provide your own box!

"Do you sell boxes here?" I asked in Hungarian.

"No! You must bring your own box!"

"Where do I buy a box?" I asked.

They both shrugged their shoulders dismissively. "I don't know."

Jesus H. Christ on a Paddle Pop stick! Even Sri Lankan post offices sell packing material. I thought the whole point of post offices was to enable people to send crap to other people. Obviously not in Hungary. I swear that Hungary is a country where every customer service employee graduated from the Gulag Archipelago School of Customer Service. I would have thought that thirty years of capitalism would have taught these people about the importance of being nice to customers.

There was little to do but go back to the railway station. The only other people in the large, airy waiting hall were three Gypsy men, two young men and one a little bit older than me. Soon enough the older one comes up to me and speaks to me in Hungarian. He said that his daughter died.

"Bocsánat," I said. (Sorry.)

Then he asked for money.

"Nem. Nem adok pénzet," I said. (No. I don't give money.)

I moved away to another seat and he followed me. He asked me again. I said no again. And again. And again. Eventually he gave up.

I got out my Lonely Planet for Slovenia to read up on Ljubljana and learn a few Slovene phrases from the tiny phrasebook at the back. Every time I looked up from my book, the three Gypsies were staring at me. This was creepy. I tried ignoring them while being aware of their movements. Eventually one of the young ones sits right next to me and tries to strike up a conversation. I said I didn't speak Hungarian. He asked for money anyway. I refused. I moved away. The third Gypsy then sits down next to me way too close.

This was getting beyond a joke. I looked around for a CCTV camera, I didn't see any. I weighed up whether it would be safer waiting in the station hall or going outside. At least in the waiting hall there was the ticket lady sitting at the counter. But she was spending her entire time reading trashy women's magazines. She looked about as dedicated to her job and the safety and well-being of passengers as every single other MÁV employee I have met: that is to say, not in the slightest. The Gypsies could rob me of every possession and slit my throat and she still wouldn't look up from her magazine.

I decided to escape. I put my backpack back on and went out onto the platform. I made sure I wasn't being followed and then went through a side exit down the platform onto the street. I decided to go into the Coop supermarket to buy some food and drinks. The "Citadella" has no buffet car and so I decided to buy food to take on board for lunch. As I was about to cross the road I heard footsteps behind me. One of the Gypsies was following me. Damn.

I stopped and made as if I was adjusting the straps on my backpack to let him pass. He passed and then went into the supermarket. I decided to go in too. It was OK, he just went in to buy some alcohol and left quickly. I took my sweet time selecting my purchases and then bought them about fifteen minutes before the train was due to leave.

I went back into the station using a different side entrance avoiding the ticket hall and was greeted by a magnificent sight: the "Citadella"! The train wasn't that magnificent, just an ancient electric locomotive and three carriages, two Slovenske železnice cars at the front and a MÁV car at the rear, but I was about to escape this hole called Zalaegerszeg!

I hurriedly boarded the train and settled in. The carriages were clean and relatively modern with air conditioning. They were also nearly empty. The only other passengers in my car were two parents and a toddler of Indian origin, and an elderly American couple. The Yanks looked thoroughly frazzled. I struck up a conversation with them. They were complaining about what they had to go through just to get this train to Ljubljana. They turned up to Déli station in Budapest on time only to find that the "Citadella" wasn't there. They tried asking for help from MÁV employees with no success, then other passengers directed them onto a whole series of local trains to get to Devecser, where they were bundled onto a bus, dropped off halfway where they had to take another bus but they didn't know which bus to take because nobody would tell them, and by pure luck made it to Zalaegerszeg just in time.

I am trying to figure out which is the more hopeless and incompetent railway - MÁV or the Sri Lankan Railways. I think MÁV are far worse. At least the Sri Lankan Railways have the excuse of being in an underdeveloped country recovering from a three-decade civil war. Hungary is a European Union member with a stable, generally effective government, an advanced economy based on heavy manufacturing and a medium-high GDP per capita of US $16,000 a year.

MÁV actually stands for "Must ÁVoid". MÁV is a disgrace to Hungary, pure and simple.

At 12:12 the mighty "Citadella" glided out of the station. Good bye, Zalaegerszeg, and good riddance! I understand that some members of oppressed or persecuted minorities may engage in antisocial behaviour due to the discrimination and the alienation they experience. That doesn't mean that I have to like that behaviour, or refrain from breathing a huge sigh of relief as I escape that behaviour.

Zalaegerszeg is not far from the Slovenian border. Soon the scenery became gradually more Slovenian and alpine: more and more conifers, fewer and fewer deciduous trees. It wasn't long until we reached the border and the train had a lengthy stop at the border station at Hodoš while the Hungarian crew and locomotive were swapped for Slovenian ones.

While stopped at Hodoš two Slovenian policemen boarded the train to check passports. They saw me and didn't even give me a second look, I wasn't asked for my passport at all, while they went through the family of Indian origin with a fine tooth comb.

After about fifteen minutes the train took off again. Soon, a Slovenske železnice conductor came to check my ticket. She was fat and jolly and smiling, she greeted me with a beaming grin, she taught me a couple of Slovene words, she farewelled me and wished me a pleasant stay and she bloody well meant it. After a week in a country where it is a capital offence to wear any facial expression other than a permanent scowl, this was just too marvellous.

Those expecting magnificent alpine scenery immediately upon entering Slovenia will be disappointed. This far eastern region, Prekmurje, is the only part of Slovenia that is flat. After about an hour the vast plains became wide valleys between distant mountains. The wide valleys became narrow valleys and soon enough the train slowed to a crawl as it negotiated twisting mountain lines.

After the major town of Celje the train crossed into the Sava drainage basin. The line followed a major tributary of the Sava, the Savinja, a rushing narrow river in a steep green gorge. At the town of Zidani Most there was a gorgeous old stone arch bridge across the Savinja straight out of an Asterix comic book and the line then followed the mighty Sava upstream to Ljubljana. This beautiful river with torrential rapids and whirling eddies was lined with precipitous slopes covered in pine trees and fiery autumn colours studded with limestone outcrops. It was one of the most beautiful railway lines I have ever travelled on.

As the "Citadella" approached the end of its journey the valley opened up into the plains of Ljubljana, the train went through the industrial eastern suburbs and I arrived at Ljubljana station on time at about half past four. Ljubljana is a stupid station: the building where you buy tickets, go to the toilet, buy food, et cetera is at the far western end of the station, but the foot tunnel from which you access the platforms is at the eastern end. It's the most illogical station layout I have seen. I had to go to the station building to exchange Hungarian forints for euros.

Eva, one of the members of the family who own the Dežnik guesthouse where I had booked my stay in Ljubljana, had asked me to call her when I arrived in Ljubljana to give her notice so she could meet me at the property to give me my key. I looked everywhere for a public payphone and eventually found one at the bus station outside the railway station. I went to put some euro coins into the slot, but there was no coin slot, only a card slot. I went to put my credit card in the slot but it wouldn't fit.

Next to the payphones was a little kiosk selling tobacco, lottery tickets and the like. I asked the lady there how to use the public telephones. She said I needed to buy a special card. I asked if she sold them. "No! Telekom," she said as she pointed down the street behind her.

I walked down the street and tried looking for a Telekom office but I couldn't see one; in any case, it was now five o'clock and most likely would be shut. I tried a different approach. I went into the bus station and sat down and got my mobile phone out. It still had my Magyar Telekom SIM card from Hungary. I know I had used up all my data, but perhaps I still had call time left. I turned off airplane mode on my iPhone, and within a minute I got an SMS from Magyar Telekom in Hungarian which said something like I didn't have roaming activated on my prepaid SIM and I would need to go to a Magyar Telekom office to activate roaming.

I was about to tear my hair out. I removed the Hungarian SIM card from my phone and looked for my Australian SIM card. I turned my backpack upside down looking for it. I eventually found it in the little cardboard pouch the Hungarian SIM card came in.

I put my Australian SIM card from Optus in my phone and turned roaming on. I received the roaming confirmation text message from Optus. I dialled Eva's number and got a recorded message in Slovenian playing on a loop; I guessed it was a "this number is not available" message. I tried texting the number and got a "message failed to send" error.

"For f@#&'s sake!" I shouted, to the distress of everyone around me. How on earth was I meant to contact Eva so I could get my key?

I opened my Booking.com app and found another phone number on my reservation and tried calling that. Someone answered, it was Eva's brother. He promised me that he wold contact Eva for me.

I walked to the guesthouse, it was fifteen mimutes away from the station. When I got there Eva was waiting. She had made an innocent mistake when giving me her number for me to call! Eva was extremely apologetic and sympathetic. What an amazing change from Hungary!

Eva showed me up to my room and showed me how to use everything, and then I started exploring. As far as capitals go, Ljubljana is not very large; about three hundred thousand people. It has a compact city centre centred on a narrow, gently arcing river, the Ljubljanica, with a castle on top of a hill overlooking the centre. The city centre is almost completely pedestrianised; cars are prohibited from most streets and the cobbled roads are reserved for pedestrians, cyclists and the odd skater.

There are promenades along both sides of the river with lots of outdoor dining, cute little bridges cross the river at frequent intervals, the most interesting being the Triple Bridge - three stone bridges next to each other that fan out across the river in a triangle. There are a series of squares with more cobbled streets radiating out from them; the most prominent square being Prešeren Square on the north side of the Triple Bridge.

I grabbed dinner and a craft beer at a fancy burger joint. The burger, chips and beer came to twenty euros - about what I would pay in Sydney, if not a little more. I had gotten used to bargain basement Hungarian prices! Economically speaking, I was back in the West.

I soon came across that dry, sarcastic, deadpan Slovenian sense of humour that I would soon come to love. I had ordered my dinner from the waiter in English. Except for flicking through the tiny phrasebook at the back of my Lonely Planet, I had not studied Slovene. The waiter remarked "You must feel like you're still at home, huh? Being able to order in English in our country, right?"

"I'm sorry, but they don't teach Slovene in Australian high schools," I rejoindered.

"Well, you should have learned by now. It's not that hard."

"I arrived in Slovenia at half past four this afternoon."

"Tut, tut. Excuses, excuses."

From what little I saw of Ljubljana and Slovenia today, I knew I was going to like it. How much more was I going to like it when I really started to explore it from tomorrow?

Train No. 1

Train No. 1

Train No. 2

Train No. 2

Train No. 3

Train No. 3

Prešeren Square

Prešeren Square

Train No. 4

Train No. 4

Train No. 5 - the “Citadella” to Ljubljana

Train No. 5 - the “Citadella” to Ljubljana

The long way to Zalaegerszeg

The long way to Zalaegerszeg

Slovenian scenery near Celje

Slovenian scenery near Celje

Bridge at Zidani Most

Bridge at Zidani Most

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Ljubljanica River and the Triple Bridge

Ljubljanica River and the Triple Bridge

Ljubljana Castle from the Triple Bridge

Ljubljana Castle from the Triple Bridge

Posted by urbanreverie 13:37 Archived in Slovenia Tagged hungary slovenia ljubljana railways customer_service citadella Comments (0)

The King of Hungary

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

There was a movie I once saw when I was about thirteen, I forget its name and I have not seen it since. The premise of this movie is that aliens have invaded Earth but because the aliens have adopted a human form, nobody can tell. These aliens are indistinguishable from humans except for a strange, stilted manner. But there is this one man who is given a pair of sunglasses which enables him to clearly see who is an alien - the sunglasses reveal their true form as grotesque reptiles - and who isn't.

I feel like I have been given this pair of sunglasses and that I see that everybody around me is an alien. Hungarians would have to be the strangest, oddest, most alien people I have ever known. They are not grotesque reptiles, anything but, but they are decidedly eccentric.

I find it hard to put my finger on just how exactly Hungarians are so strange. They are certainly a very harsh, distant people with a coarseness of manner that verges on brutality. It is rare to see a Hungarian smile or laugh or cry or indeed have any facial expression other than an indifferent frown. When they walk down the street in the opposite direction to me, there is never that mutual I'll-move-over-a-bit-and-you-move-over-a-bit-too compromise that is general in Australia or indeed most countries. Hungarians will just keep walking dead straight at a breathless pace as if I am invisible, either bumping into me spilling my coffee everywhere or forcing me to jump onto the street. Conversations, whether in Hungarian or English, are very awkward and formal, perhaps even robotic. When Hungarians are polite (which isn't often) it feels like they're just following a textbook or computer script. When Hungarians are helpful (which isn't often) it is only because they feel they have to be and they let it be known in no uncertain terms that they would rather not help you.

Hungarians are, in general, an attractive people; I see far more people who I consider good looking in just one hour in Budapest than I do in a whole day in Sydney. There is no defining physical characteristic that Hungarians share, save for an indescribable yet vaguely unsettling intensity in their eyes and faces. Some Hungarians are as dark as Turks, but just as many are as fair as Swedes. Green eyes are somewhat common, but so are blue, brown and hazel eyes. Complexions are often preternaturally smooth; it's not uncommon to see a fifty-year-old woman in Budapest with the skin of a twenty-year-old.

Also unnaturally smooth are autumn leaves, which I learned today and which you will learn to if you keep reading this entry.

The day started very early. Long-time followers of my travel blogs would know that one of my weird hobbies when I travel is climbing the highest points of the countries I visit, as long as those peaks are within my fitness level and reasonably handy to transport of some description. The highest point of the Republic of Hungary, Kékestető, is 1,014 metres above sea level - three metres below the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba to the west of Sydney.

I had researched my trip to Kékestető the MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) website. It advised me to catch a train from Budapest Keleti station at 07:15, then get off at Pécel in Budapest's outer eastern suburbs at 07:45, where I was to change to a trackwork bus to Hatvan at 07:52. The main line between Budapest and Hungary's northeastern cities such as Miskolc and Eger has been closed for months between Pécel and Hatvan due to the total reconstruction of that section of track. At Hatvan I was to change to another train at 08:54, and I would then change at Vámosgyörk for a short branch line shuttle to Gyöngyös at the base of Kékestető at 09:08, arriving at Gyöngyös at 09:23 to catch a bus up to the summit and enjoy a full day's bushwalking among the fiery autumn colours.

I got up nice and early, caught the trolley bus from my street to the extraordinarily beautiful Keleti station at 06:45, had plenty of time to buy my ticket and grab some pastries and a coffee for breakfast at a station café. I settled into my seat, ate my breakfast, had my ticket stamped by the conductor, everything was sweet.

After half an hour of gliding through the eastern suburbs, all passengers were dumped onto a narrow ground-level temporary platform at Pécel. It was about a three hundred metre walk to the trackwork bus stop. I had a seven-minute connection time and my progress was impeded by heavy rail construction vehicles constantly entering and exiting the rail corridor, doing U-turns and stopping for no reason.

It was hard to find my stop. There were two stops, one for the all-stops trackwork buses that only went as far as Aszód and the other for express buses to Hatvan that I needed, but the guidance signs only pointed to the all-stations stop so I walked right past my stop. I finally found my stop. It was 07:50. There was no bus in sight. I looked at the timetable on the bus stop pole. It had already departed at 07:45. The MÁV website was full of crap.

I hope that Hungarians don't understand English swear words because I think I shouted quite a few. It was a wait of another hour for the 08:45 bus. There was absolutely nothing on the station street, just a few houses andstreams of commuters and schoolchildren heading for the buses and the trains. There was a bus shelter nearby, one of the older style ones with stupid metal plates on both ends that prevent you from seeing approaching buses, and decided to sit down in there until 08:45 became nearer.

At about 08:20 I heard an engine sound of a bus grinding past. I leapt out of my seat to see that an express bus was leaving. I think I shouted even more swear words.

At 08:45 another express bus finally appeared. A whole lot of passengers boarded. Then the bus got stuck in traffic. The bus followed the clpsed railway line quite closely and we were constantly stuck in long queues behind slow-moving rail consruction equipment. Then we hit rush hour in Gödöllő which was choked with school traffic.

After an excruciating wait we finally hit the M3 motorway where we had a clear run to Hatvan. I boarded the 09:54 train from which I disembarked at Vámosgyörk at 10:06. I walked over to the timetable sticky-taped to the station window. The next train to Gyöngyös was at 11:08.

F#@$.

Vámosgyörk is a tiny village. Its sole feature of note is that its station is the junction where the short branch to the much larger town of Gyöngyös meets the main line to Miskolc. It is a dusty, god-forsaken village of crooked power poles and dusty streets and barking dogs and cracked plaster and bored unemployed people sitting in the streets gossiping while rocking babies in their prams back and forth.

The only businesses open were the Magyar Posta post office and a pub. I have run out of mobile data on my Magyar Telekom SIM card. Mobile phone recharges are ridiculously easy to buy in Australia - every newsagent, every petrol station, every suoermarket, every convenience store and every post office will sell mobile recharges in the form of a little printed docket with a code on it; you call your telco's recharge number, punch in the code, and voilà! Your phone now has extra minutes and gigabytes!

Would to God that it were so easy in Hungary. I decided to try my luck at the post office opposite the station. I have written before that post offices are the most reliable window into the soul of a country. Hungary must be an extremely melancholy country because I have never seen such a depressing post office before. The interior was all baby poo green and scratched plywood panelling and pure despairing agony. I could feel my will to live being drained very quickly while waiting in the Vámosgyörk post office. I noticed while I was waiting in the queue that they sold lotto tickets. That makes perfect sense. If I lived here I would be tempted to buy one so I could win big and move to another country where I didn't have to endure waiting in such an abysmal post office ever again.

I finally reached the head of the queue and I explained in my very best Hungarian that I needed more data on my Telekom SIM card. The post office lady sighed, said they didn't sell mobile recharges, then another employee corrected her, then they had a short argument, and then the woman sighed again as if to say "I don't want to help you but I guess I have to", and she brought out an enormous operstional manual in a lever-arch folder which she paged through furiously trying to find how to sell mobile data.

Eventually she gave up. She sighed again and said in German that she was calling Magyar Telekom. She didn't speak a word of English, my German is far better than my Hungarian, so we did business in German. In a country where it is not an official language, and a language that is not the mother tongue of either of us.

After a long wait the Telekom agent put her through to another agent who could speak English, and the post office lady gave the phone to me. The Telekom agent told me that to top up my mobile phone credit, I would need to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone and purcase data throigh the app. She said she would send me a link to download the app via SMS. I thanked her, the conversation ended, I gave the phone back to the postal worker and left the post office, and I received the SMS. I clicked on the download link, except it didn't work - because I have no data!

Bugger it. I still had half an hour until my train to Gyöngyös. So I went to the pub. The pub was far busier than any pub has the right to be at half past ten in the morning on a weekday. I was tempted to buy a beer myself after the morning from hell, but I practiced uncharacteristic self-control and bought a Coke instesd. I couldn't wait to leave. Every single eye in that joint was burning laser beams into my skull.

Finally it was time to take the short train ride to Gyöngyös across the flat grainy plains, Kékestető and the Mátra mountain range looming ever nearer. After fifteen minutes I jumped off the train - Hungarian railway platforms are so low tnat this is often the best choice - at Gyöngyös. What wqs supoosed to be a simple two-hour trip turned into a four-hoir fiasco. Take a bow, MÁV. It really does take a very unique brand of incompetence to make a one hundred kilometre journey over four hours long just because you don't know how to provide correct information on your website.

Gyöngyös really is a marvellous, prosperous little town of antique shops and tree-lined streets and expensive toy stores and bric-a-brac places and lots of luxury cars on the streets. Gyöngyös is Hungary's Bowral, the kind of place where I imagine successful cardiologists and law professors retire to after reaching the very pinnacle of their professions in Budapest at the end of a long and fulfilling career.

I bought a topographic hiking map of the Mátra ranges at a camping goods shop and splashed out on an expensive lasagna at a fancy restaurant on the oh-so-genteel main square. I deserved it after what I had been through that morning. Also, the restaurant had wifi. I finally was able to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone. I opened the app, fudged my way through impenetrable Hungarian, a language that is more difficult than hacking through a bamboo forest with a blunt machete, and finally managed to get to a page where I could buy another five hundred megabytes of data for three thousand forints. I entered in my credit card details and then - donk-donk! International cards are not accepted! Please try again!

The genteel town square of Gyöngyös wasn't quite so genteel after I let fly with a few more choice swear words.

I decided to forget about buying more data and just use wifi whenever I can find it. Honestly, it should not be that difficult to buy mobile data. Doesn't Magyar Telekom want my business? Didn't communism fall in 1989?

I went into the nearby tourist information centre for more information about Kékestető, which buses to catch, activities to do on the summit, etc. I was the only customer and the employee was so kind-hearted and softly-spoken and empathetic and soothing that my heart melted. When you meet someone in Hungary who is mild and coueteous and agreeable it becomes a most treasured memory, like a beaming ruby sparkling on top of a compost heap. The tourist information lady gave me all the information I needed, made sympathetic cluck-clucks after I told her about the fiasco with the trains, pointed out things about Kékestető my prior research hadn't revealed, and I had to restrain myself from asking for her hand in marriage right then and there.

I walked a couple of blocks to the bus station and waited a short while for a bus up to the summit, it didn't take long to get up there. It was only a few minutes walk from the summit bus stop to the hughest point of Hungary, a small boulder on a plinth painted in the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag and the words "KÉKESTETŐ 1014m". I stood next to the plinth and proclaimed "Én Magyarország királya vagyok!" -- I am the king of Hungary!

Next to the plinth was a makeshift memorial of small remembrance sttones, sculptures, photographs, candles and keepsakes. This is a memorial to various dead motorcyclists - and only motorcyclists. Why only motorcyclists and why here on Kékestető, I do not know.

Near to the summit is a television transmission tower. A small fee admits you into the lift up to the two observation decks, one enclosed and the other in the open air. The Mátra mountains are a small range running east to west with expansive plains to the north and south. Though the air was very hazy, there was still a great view. The mountain itself was covered in autumn trees, a riot of colour.

It was time to start walking. My original plan was to get to the summit by mid-morning and spend the whole day bushwalking, making my way down the mountain back to Gyöngyös, but the troubles with the trains meant I had to truncate that walk. I decided on a much shorter nine kilometre walk only part of the way down the mountain.

It was beautiful. I am an Australian. Our trees are all evergreen. Autumn forests are only something I have ever seen in movies and in children's books. How great it was to walk through scenes of red, brown, yellow, green. How awesome it was to feel the soft leaves crunch under my feet, to pick up a whole hesp of leaves and throw them into the soft cool breeze, to kick the leaves as I skipped along.

It's all innocent fun - on flat ground. I had no idea just how dangerous it is to walk on thick autumn leaves going downhill. And considering that I started at the highest point of Hungary - it was all downhill.

Some parts of the trail I chose were so dangerous that the safest way I could descend was to sit on the ground and slide down the hill, my sensitive male bits hitting every single hidden rock on the way. In other places I found the best way was to make myself fall from tree to tree like a ball in a pinball machine, each tree breaking my fall. At other times I crouched down so I could keep a firm hold on a pallen log as I skilled down the lesfy slope.

I slowed down to an average speed of 1.5 kilometres an hour. There was no way I was going to finish nine kilometres by sunset. So I deciddd to truncate my walk halfway at a little place called Mátraháza at the 4.7 kilometre mark.

I started to gain confidence with walking on leaves - or I thought I did. There was one downhill stretch that I thought I would be able to negotiate while staying upright. Unfortunately I was wrong. I slipped and the bone in my left buttock landed straight onto a very jagged rock hidden under the leaves. I am writing this four days later and it still hurts when I get up out of a chair.

I was sorely temlted to call 112 and get the ambulance service to rescue me with a helicopter. But I oersevered. Im weird like that. When I want to do something, I get it done. I was going to make it back to Mátraháza and Budapest and unbearable pain in my left buttocks be damned.

I took it slowly. Soon the terrain became much flatter and I could walk normally again. I soon rejoined Highway 24 and from there it was a short walk to Mátraháza following the very helpful colour-coded markers painted on the trees every twenty metres. (Why can't Australian national parks have this? Bushwalking in Europe is so much easier.)

Mátraháza is little more than a forest guesthouse and a bus stop on the highway. There was a small crowd of visitors and bushwalkers waiting for the next direct bus back to Budapest. I asked a few people if they had any painkillers, I explained what happened, but I was ignored by most people or I just got a very brusque "no" as they turned away and then ignored me. One old man though heard me and he offered two painkillers and told me to take one now and the other the next morning. Yet more Hungarian kindness! It doesn't happen too often. He was still very blunt and very distant, but his kindness in offering me the tablets was worth more than gold to me.

I didn't know there were frequent direct buses from Kékestető all the way to Budapest. If I had known it wouldn't have made too much difference. I like trains too much. But it was a relief that I didn't have to put myself through the trains and trackwork buses again.

After about one hour forty, I got back to Budapest, and on the street I'm staying on, I found a fancy restaurant, Magdalena Merlo. Even though I was very sore and wearing filthy hiking clothes I wasn't turned away. I had one of the greatest meals I have ever eaten - paprikás (a chicken thigh cooked in creamy paprika sauce) with ewe's cheese dumplings, Gundel palacsinta (crepe-like pancakes stuffed with chopped walnuts and raisins and drenched in flambéed red wine chocolate sauce), and for a drink, a very large glass of Egri Bikavér (also known in English as Bull's Blood from Eger). I rarely drink wine, I don't like it, but Bikavér - it is truly the nectar of the gods! The meal was expensive, about 6,800 forints, but after all I had been through that day, I had been such a good boy and I deserved it!

Topping it off was a three-piece orchestra (violin, cello and xylophone) playing sentimental Hungarian favourites. They took requests. A West Ham supporter from England at the next table asked for "I'll Be Blowing Bubbles" which the band didn't know. I requested "Szomorú Vasárnap" -- Gloomy Sunday. This song was famous in the 1930s and 1940s. It was banned by the BBC for supposedly setting off a string of suicides because the song was so melancholy. This tear-jerking song about lovers being reunited in death, for some reason, has lomg greatly appealed to me. There are plenty of different adsptations on YouTube, feel free to check them out, but none were as good as at Magdalena Merlo. I was moved to tears and at the end the entire restaurant applauded and shouted "bravo!"

What a fantastic way for one of the most challenging days in all of my travels to end. Things can only look up from here.

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Village of Vámosgyörk

Village of Vámosgyörk

The King of Hungary

The King of Hungary

Kékestető TV tower

Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Posted by urbanreverie 16:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged mountains budapest hiking buses railways mobile bushwalking kékestető Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 13) Page [1] 2 3 » Next