For the past ten years or so, our holidays have consisted entirely of weekend breaks, four nights maximum, in some British or European city. As a result, this month-long trip to Italy has taken a bit of getting used to. The first week was very strange, as it consisted of four short city breaks jammed together. A day-long journey by train, via Paris, took us to Turin, a day there, then on to Parma for two days, Bologna for three days, and Venice for two days. Now we are in Rome, where we will spend two weeks before heading back to Turin for another two days before returning home. We still have a couple of days to play with between Rome and Turin and will decide where to spend them nearer the time
I’m wring this at the end of our first week in Rome; the tempo has slowed, and there is a chance to reflect on the trip so far. Before we started, I had envisaged dutifully writing up notes each day in order to produce a scintillating account of our travels. Instead, I find that I have a small notebook full of semi-legible scrawls, many of them written late at night in a dimly lit bar while watching some football match or other. I also have a pile of crumpled restaurant and bar receipts, museum tickets, and visiting cards. More usefully, I have a couple of hundred photos, some of which are actually in focus. I will have to settle for a piecemeal account, written when we are not out and about in Rome.
What follows is a brief summary of our first couple of days, which now seems a very long time ago.
We travelled to Paris Montparnasse on Saturday morning, took the metro across town to Gare de Lyon, and headed south on the 12.46 Turin train. The journey takes five and a half hours, and the time passes very pleasantly. By the time we passed through Mâcon, acres of flattish arable land had changed into snow-topped pine-clad mountains. Sitting near us were an English family, mum, dad, and teenage daughter. They had various Italian guidebooks but seemed more interested in discussing a forthcoming trip to the Latitude Festival in July. As I understand it, this is a slightly upmarket version of Glastonbury. My own festival-going days are now long past. I have fond recollections of seeing The Who, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight in 1971, but these are accompanied by memories of ‘sanitary facilities’ that consisted of lines of flimsy cubicles balanced precariously above a trench. The family on the train were discussing hiring one of the lockers available on the site, to store their various phone and computer cables, so I suspect things have moved on a bit since then.
Via Cernia, Turin
I think Turin is underrated as a visitor destination. Frankly, I hope it remains so and that people continue to head further south to Florence, Siena, and Rome. This is our second visit, and it won’t be our last. There are beautiful porticoed streets, grand piazzas to stroll through, and more than enough bars and restaurants to sustain you while doing so. A favourite place is the Galleria Subalpina, a shopping mall according to Google Maps, but one that is beautifully laid out and full of antiquarian book shops and cafes/chocolatiers.
On Saturday evening, the first few signs that one is in Italy. Having a hotel that is not a building in its own right but the third floor of a large block that also contains lawyers and various businesses. Often having to order and pay for drinks and snacks at the bar before sitting down. An espresso that is just a smudge in the bottom of the cup. The menu structure: aperitivi, antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, insalata, formaggi e frutta, dolce, caffè, digestivo. As with exam questions, you are advised not to attempt to do them all.
The philosopher Nietzsche lived here. I’m not particularly an admirer of his work, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him because of his magnificent moustache. On Sunday we visited Via Carlo Alberto, where he lodged, just around the corner from the Piazza Carignano. Here on 3 January 1889, Nietzsche saw a recalcitrant workhorse being whipped by its driver. He approached and, throwing his arms around the beast’s neck, whispered something in its ear that to this day remains a conundrum: ‘Mother, I am stupid.’ He immediately went back home, where he fell dumb and lost consciousness. He spent the next ten years of his life in various psychiatric clinics before dying in 1900. There is a plaque to him on a wall in Via Carlo Alberto. Sadly, there is no mention of the fate of the horse.
I stood there trying to reflect on the extraordinary events that had taken place on that fateful day. Unfortunately, a group of two hundred orange-shirted teenagers doing some sort of disco workout in the middle of the piazza made concentration difficult.
Nike not Nietzsche
From there we headed down Via Po and across the river. A short walk up a steep hill took us to the church of Santa Maria del Monte dei Cappuccini. From its terrace you get a stunning view of the whole city with the Alps in the background.
Lunch was back in the city centre: pizzas and half a litre of vino rosso in Da Peppino in Via Mercanti. A jolly place full of Italian families having their Sunday lunch outing, loud voices and expressive hand-waving everywhere.
Then a slow walk back to the hotel for a snooze before heading out for an evening stroll and a late supper in Ristorante Pollastrini in Corso Palestro. Only a few other customers. At one table, two young men were singing a sotto voce ‘Happy Birthday’ to an elderly woman; at another, two older men were watching the Italian version of Match of the Day on a mobile phone. We had bowls of pasta and more vino rosso. All seemed right with the world.