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In a new book, Tim Parks says that to get under the skin of Italy, you must board a train. Whether an ultra fast service to Palermo or a time-warp dawdler to Milan, all national life is there.
Here are a few complications that may occur if you take the 18.36 Regionale Veloce on a Sunday evening from Verona (Porta Vescovo) to Milan (Centrale). Your underlying problem is that this is a small station where the fast through trains from Venice to Milan don’t stop.
You could get a local to Verona Porta Nuova, the main station on the other side of town and then a fast Frecciabianca; but if some delay – hardly unusual – prevents you from making your connection, you’ll be left holding a ticket that is valid only for that one reserved-seats-only train. Not good.
Or you could go to Verona and wait for another regionale. However, the westbound Milan departures seem timed to depart just seconds before your train arrives from the east. You’ll be caught waiting nearly an hour.
Given this situation, you feel rather grateful that there are still four slower trains a day from Venice right through to Milan, stopping in Verona Porta Vescovo. Regionale Veloce, means fast regional, but is actually a slow train. Let’s say, the faster of the slower trains. On which you can’t reserve a seat even if you want to.
It costs €11.55 (£10) to go 150km in just under two hours. A giveaway by British standards. The Italians still have the concept of social pricing, even if their rail system is monstrously in debt. The Frecciabianca costs €23 (£19.50). This could be why the regionale, when it arrives, is so grotesquely packed.
Verona PV is a sleepy place staffed and managed only by recorded messages that warn you not to walk to your platform across the rails, which many still do, not to board the train without a ticket, when the ticket machines are not functioning, and to spread out along the platform to avoid crowding, when there are only three of you.
The long, lavishly graffitied, green-and-grey train clanks in and at once Japanese and American tourists start spilling out of the doors. They have seen the Verona Porta Vescovo sign and imagine this is the Verona station. Wrong.
Verona Porta Nuova is actually six minutes away, by train, but a huge hassle by foot and bus. All the Italians know these foreigners are making a mistake but no one says anything. This has been going on for decades. Italy is a country for initiates.
The train is packed with students and workers who spend the week in Milan but go home at the weekends. To Vicenza, Padua, Venice, even Trieste. People here prefer never to lose touch with a core group of friends back home – home being the absolute centre of the world, even if it offers no work.
And of course their mothers have excellent laundry facilities. The cheap prices make this constant back and forth possible. Knowing the train will be packed, I’ve paid €6 (£5) extra for a first-class ticket. But first class is packed, too. It’s going to be two hours’ standing.
Then, as the train approaches the lake town of Peschiera, a miracle. Suddenly, everyone wants to get off. The door at the front end of the carriage must be broken because they’re all heading my way, pushing past in quite a hurry. Are they planning an evening dip in Lake Garda? I’m so envious! Then at the back of the crowd I see the green jacket and peaked cap of the ticket inspector. These folk aren’t getting off at all; they don’t have first-class tickets. So a moment later I’m settling into a comfortable seat.
A young woman opposite me is frowning over photocopies. A student. The ticket inspector, who seems oblivious of the stampede his arrival has caused, asks for our tickets.
“This is a second-class ticket, signorina. And you are in a first-class carriage.” The girl looks around with an air of vague surprise. “Is it?”
She isn’t really trying to fool him. The naive gesture is sketched; it’s just enough to allow the inspector to act as if she hadn’t understood. In short, an excuse for him not to fine her. “Well, signorina, you’ll have to move,” he says.
The girl half stands while the inspector walks on down the now pleasantly free carriage. The few remaining passengers are handing him regular first-class tickets with affably self-righteous smiles. The girl fusses with her bags, then suddenly sits down again and slumps low in the seat, so that her blonde head is beneath the top of the back rest. She closes her eyes as if this could make her invisible.
“He’s gone,” I tell her after another minute. She opens one eye, smiles, opens the other, laughs, and goes back to her photocopies.
I ask her what she’s going to do when he comes back. Theoretically, he could get nasty. “I don’t think so,” she says. “They’re not serious about first class on these trains, are they?”
I raise an eyebrow. The girl elaborates a sophisticated theory. “On the Eurostar they would fine her at once if she was in first class without a proper ticket. But since these slower, long-distance trains are so much cheaper, Trenitalia doesn’t want them to be comfortable for anyone. They want people with money to use the expensive trains. So they don’t bother policing the first class.” As she speaks, the carriage is filling again with the same folk who fled a few minutes before. They take their seats, where these haven’t already been taken by those who had first-class tickets but were standing. Everybody is very relaxed. At Brescia people get on who perhaps have first-class tickets but can’t sit down.
“They’re conflicted,” the girl says. “They have to run a few cheap trains to keep up the myth of social pricing. But they make it a nightmare to travel this way to get us on the fast trains.” I ask: “So why offer first class at all?”
“They have the carriages. Someone is always stupid enough to pay, even when they don’t get a service.” “Grazie!” “Prego,” she laughs.
In Milano Centrale a new system of painfully slow tapis roulants zigzags you back and forth two floors to ground level past the polished windows of a new in-station shopping centre, adding five minutes to your journey in the hope you’ll buy something and thus recover some of the money they’re losing by keeping tickets cheap. Mostly naked women are advertising more or less everything. Female charms to make ends meet.
The following week, in the refreshments carriage on a super-fast Frecciarossa, I find a barman mixing the foam for each cappuccino in a tiny paper cup. “There are no more jugs,” he complains. They won’t give him a jug? “Run out of money.”
Yet this wonderful high-speed network, as fast as any in Europe, cost €150bn (£130bn) to build, money that will never be recovered through fares or in-station shopping. The fascinating thing is how determined the barman is to get that cappuccino foam just right, even if he has to mix it in the paper cup, at 250km/h.
Travelling down from Rome to Palermo, a woman observes that somewhere south of Naples they stopped bothering to make announcements or check our tickets. “And when you get to Sicily they’ll disappear altogether,” she says. “They’ve abandoned us in the south.”
“They were never there in the first place,” the man beside her exclaims. He seems pleased to be scandalised.
After 30 years in Italy, I realise how much I know about the country has been learnt on the trains. It was on the trains that one became aware of the huge influx of African immigrants in the Nineties. On the trains you have a chance to soak up all the different accents and dialects; overhear the interminable phone calls back to mamma and papà; witness the curious way Italians do and don’t apply rules that seem to have been made as intricate as possible precisely to offer opportunities for heated debate.
A group of passengers rises up and rebels against an inspector trying to fine a pretty woman for using an fast-train ticket in a cheap regionale. “This while the whole governing class are stealing!” someone shouts.
Trains, anywhere, are a measure of how a society is balancing the claims of individual and collective, meeting the needs of the needy and satisfying the whims of the rich. From Bolzano in the German-speaking Alps to Modica on the southern Sicilian coast, if you understood a fraction of what is going on on the rails, got even the vaguest sense of how all the different people you’re seeing fit together, you’d know more about what makes Italy tick than all the diplomats in Rome put together.
- Tim Parks’s book, ‘Italian Ways, On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo’ (Harvill Secker, £16.99), was published last Thursday. The book is is on offer from Telegraph Books for £9.99 + £1.10 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk .
Did you know?
The train arrived in Italy in 1839 with four and a half miles of line from Naples to Portici.
Tim Parks’s Favourite Italian Rail Journeys
The Milan-Rome Italo
Sometimes the train really is as interesting as the journey. When the Italians built their 900km of high-speed rails from Turin through Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples down to Salerno, they used a new way of delivering electricity that prevented traditional trains from using the line. To exploit the resulting capacity they had to open to the private sector. Try Milan-Rome non-stop in three hours on the wonderful Italo. With locomotion in every wheel section, it’s solid as a rock at 300km. The familiar landscape of plain and Apennines, campanili and cascine, slides by in a sort of startled silence.
The South Coast Line
One great way to spend a few summer days is riding the single-track line around the south coast of Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia. Two-carriage diesels from decades ago chug along with barely adequate air conditioning. Norman Douglas and George Gissing made this trip a century before you. The dusty coast lies numbed under the pressure of the sun, the small bathing stations are dreamy and easy, the much-maligned towns of Crotone and Taranto infinitely more interesting than you could imagine with wonderful museums of ancient artefacts that remind you this area was once called Magna Graecia, Greater Greece.
The Ferrovie Sud-Est
For train buffs and lovers of Italian anomalies, Ferrovie Sud-Est is a must. Somehow these 500km of meandering tracks in Italy’s narrow heel escaped nationalisation in 1905 and remain separate from the main network, though publicly owned. Trains dating back to the Forties wander unhurried through vines and cactuses. Passengers are obliged to change trains regularly to go even short distances. Stations are cute and EU funded, staff are friendly and honest in admitting they don’t know when you’ll arrive. Holiday travel only, but don’t miss the Castle of Otranto, Gallipoli, or Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of the land.
The one-country InterRail pass covers rail travel in Italy and is available from £163 for travel on any three days in a month (£280 for eight days in a month). However, most fast or express trains require pass holders to pay a €10 (£8.60) reservation supplement for each journey. Given the low cost of buying one-off fares, especially if you book in advance, however, it is likely to be much cheaper to book each journey separately. The main exception to this might be if you wanted to take a lot of journeys on slower trains on each day of the validity of your pass.
For a full analysis, see the Italy section of seat61.com . For rail passes and tickets from the UK to Italy, see raileurope.co.uk . For information on Italian trains and to book tickets in advance, see trenitalia.com or italiarail.com .
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