Time travel in Toscana (2012)

Peering hard at my files of memories, I can dimly see myself as a teenager changing trains at Pisa Centrale one evening in September 1975. I had arrived in style, having found an almost empty first class compartment in an express from Genoa via La Spezia towards Rome. I’m not sure why and how I got away with my travel upgrade, but I do recollect the sun going down into the Mediterranean and a conversation with an American tourist about the joys of rail travel in Europe. I was venturing further across “my continent” than on previous shorter trips to France and was consumed by curiosity…

Then, after waiting for a while with my rucksack and a bottle of water, an old “stopping everywhere” train pulled up to take me to Florence. What struck me most about this final stage of my journey – which had begun high in the French Alps in the early morning – was that there were wooden seats in the aging carriages and the windows were open. It was a far cry from the streamlined, air conditioned luxury of the trans-European express. The train rattled and bumped along the Arno river valley with the exotic late summer smells of Tuscany blowing in from the darkness. It was probably around midnight when I arrived at Santa Maria Novella (SMN) station and hit the streets in search of a cheap hostel.

I have always been a bit scared of traveling in this strange boot on the foot of Europe. But I have taken many important steps in this country; not least the decision to move to Denmark and start “a new life”, which was the conclusion of a trip with Lene to the Lipari Islands off the north coast of Sicily in 1982. I guess that my fears are rooted in a limited knowledge of the language and nervousness about the unpredictability of cityscapes and landscapes, where beauty and brutality seem to be mixed up in every image.

Beauty is often frightening; it may fade or be overwhelmed by ugliness, as the warm pleasures of the central squares and narrow streets of Tuscan towns and villages give way to endless sprawling suburbs full of advertising banners, potholed roads and bleak concrete buildings. I suppose that the Roman empire was a powerful combination of beauty – in structures and stories stolen from the Greeks – and brutality. The vicious violence of the fascists and the mafia operating under the serene gaze of the catholic establishment also make me uneasy. I distinctly remember hearing the news of the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980 – a brutal attack by right-wing fanatics seeking to destabilise the country – long before the “war on terror” made us immune to the daily listing of casualties in obscure corners of our turbulent globe.[1]

In the distance a bell is ringing. The Tuscan hills are timeless patchworks of olive groves, vineyards, cypress trees and tiny settlements connected by winding pathways. They look like paintings! I am happy to be staying at the end of a track leading to an old farmhouse, where the view across the blinking city lights in the Arno valley is shared by fireflies at night. It’s a perfect setting for writing notes and dredging memories.

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Once I traveled south of Naples to visit towns and villages destroyed by an earthquake. I remember being impressed and horrified by the scale of the disaster: there were hundreds of collapsed buildings and giant cracks had opened across most of the roads. Many of the funds gathered for the reconstruction efforts were diverted into the pockets of criminals. The south has always seemed to be “a world apart.”[2]

Thirty years have passed since Lene and I were photographed on the steps of the Santa Croce church in Florence, with our youthful smiles and tans, facing a bright future together! Since then we’ve traveled with our kids in Campania: along the Amalfi Coast and around the remote Cilento region. I particularly remember a sweaty day roaming the ruins of Pompeii; a spectacular monument to beauty transformed by brutal destruction. Now we’re back in the city of architects, painters, sculptors and designers, noting that nothing much has changed in the old central piazzas since 1982, except the density of the tour crowds!

I left Firenze SMN station in 1975 on a night train bound for Calais. It was packed and I found myself squeezed on top of my rucksack in a corridor outside a compartment occupied by a large and noisy group of young lefties. They were going to a rally or protest meeting or some similar event in Milan and were warming up. The air was thick with songs, dope smoke and the odor of vino rosso. I was a bit intimidated by their exuberance, but keen to “participate.” As far as I can remember, after the group got off the train I slept on a luggage rack until the grey morning wake up call for a ferry across the English Channel.

For getting to and from the Tuscan hillside farmhouse we’ve hired a Fiat Punto. But our day trip to Florence is by train; I’m determined to savour the atmosphere of the SMN station again. When we arrive, there’s warm sunshine and we squeeze through the crowds on the platform leading – just as my memory has recorded – to the big square in front of Santa Maria Novella church. It is strange how a place can seem so familiar even though it has been far away from everyday life for thirty years. I gaze at the list of treni en partenza, noting the destinations half-remembered from past journeys: Bologna, Milano, Napoli, Roma

On the last day of our Toscana getaway we drive to Pisa, park the Fiat and eat lunch at a trattoria in the student’s quarter. Then we stroll through the old city to emerge – suddenly – at the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the leaning tower is a shock of white marble tilting oddly beside the enormous bulk of the Cathedral. We join the hordes of photographers and admire the efforts of the engineers who have found out how to stop the tower from falling down. With luck and no earthquakes, it will hold for another thousand years!

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[1] There’s an excellent story dealing with Americans in Italy and the bombing of Bologna station, called ”The Fall of a Sparrow” by Robert Hellenga (Penguin, 1998). My old friend Matthew Carr in his study of “How Terrorism Transformed the Modern World” includes a description of the madness that engulfed the country during the anni di piombi (the years of lead) in the 1970s and early 1980s when the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) and the neo-fascists brought havoc to many cities, killing many innocent citizens. Thirty years later we have entered the era of drones: “state terror” attacks authorized (weekly) by an American president who said he wanted change, but then decided to continue Uncle Sam’s old practice of execution without trial, killing by remote control.

[2] David Gilmour, “In Pursuit of Italy” (Penguin, 2011), manages to summarise the history of “a land, its regions and their peoples” in a couple of hundred pages, noting how the unity of the country since the 19th Century Risorgimento (revolution) is built on shaky foundations. Thus, “making Italians” isn’t easy, given the vast differences between Sicily – almost in North Africa – and the industrial north. Not to mention the ex-Republic of Venice, which, according to Gilmour, having survived for 1100 years might have regained independence after Bonaparte’s conquest (in 1797) to become, like the Hague in the Netherlands, “the capital of a successful small country inside the European Union.”

 

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