6. Italy

Arrival in Genoa borrowed a lot of elements from arrival in Marseille, 400km down-coast: the lateness of the hour, a failing sky, a protracted process of self-orientation in a large and slightly ghostly train station, and, finally, a nervy stomp, Airbnb-wards, through certain half-deserted streets. For the first time, though, my pre-booking judgement was called into question as it transpired that my ‘Very Nice Central Room’ was a fifty minute walk from the train station - ordinarily no hardship, but laden with bags and night-time anxieties, I opted to take a bus, necessitating the rather quaint ritual of going to, specifically, a ‘tobacconist’ and buying a ticket (a bigletto) and, when on the bus, punching this in an analogue machine. 

First (or really second) impressions (for what they’re worth) of the city and its people were also redolent of Marseille. The at least twenty year-old, internally-graffitied bus was near-enough full of passengers, many apparently from other countries. A few looked poor and/or tired. But there was jollity. Some young alt-trendies got one with their small dogs and a few people went mad with glee and started stroking and asking about the dogs. Out of the window, shadowy facades of barely-seeable tenement buildings yielded to flashes of immense architectural largesse. Grand palazzi rose above high-end commercial outlets. Then came a plaza, a small park, high-rise commercial buildings, The ‘President’s Hotel’, another major train station. 

It was all pleasingly discombobulating but I was distracted by the requirement to look out for my stop, there being no system of announcement on the charmingly battle-worn vehicle. Foolishly, I failed to save a zoomed-in-enough screenshot from Google Maps (I don’t have a smart phone – have I mentioned that already? If not I won’t go into my reasons now but will admit that this trip is pushing to the limit my resistance to getting one) so knew only that I should get off after about 21 minutes and the stop was called ‘Terralba Torti’.

By way of navigation, I tried peering out of the bus door each time we stopped, but the signage was too dim and distant, and in the end I just trusted a hunch and jumped off at a fairly arbitrary juncture and then, upon looking up to see ‘Terralba Torti’, printed nice and small above the bus stop, gave thanks to whoever the Patron Saint of Luddites Travelling Abroad is.

As in Marseille, I ‘checked in’ or ‘received the welcome’ (or whatever the correct nomenclature is for turning up at your Airbnb and nodding along politely as your host shows you how a shower works and how a hob works and how a washing machine works and how a wifi-router works and how a key works and then finally says ‘welcome home’) and then went to a neighbourhood bar just in time for last orders. But, whereas in Marseille a post-beer stroll had led to scenes of mass gregariousness, in Genoa it led only to quiet streets and subdued traffic and homebound pedestrians, all set to the weird soundtrack of a Beatles cover-band playing a concert in some sort of stately home perched inaccessibly up a hill behind the apartment.

Inside, this place was every bit the bourgeois interior: all mid-century modern furniture,, bright but not lurid colours, and tasteful but unchallenging art (you get more bourgeois bang for your buck in the smaller cities). I did feel ‘Welcome Home’, I must admit, and slept incredibly fell, despite being being bit to ribands by mosquitoes. My host, Matteo, had warned me not to sleep with the balcony door open – that will teach me to be so flippant about the all-important Welcome. 

***

[Another one of my trademark, utterly inexplicable shifts to the historical present tense now…]

I’m still chugging along on my six euro per diem budget, so the next day heralds no grand touristic designs. After a slow morning basking in the apartment’s cheerful luxury, I wander out and arrive quickly upon a Real Genuine Italian Fruit and Veg Market! Absolutely gutted I forgot to take a photo here, for it would have made for an absolutely belliiiiisima cover photo!

I buy a banana and a nectarine, costing one whole euro, a bit more expensive than I’ve liked.

Then I shlep along the same busy and boring roads the bus had taken me down the previous evening. At a major junction some Romany women were offering windscreen washes to the idling drivers. Of all the world’s tough jobs, this one always seems particularly thankless

I’m aiming for the Via Garibaldi, according to Matteo, the most tourist-worthy part of town, as this is where Genova’s powerful families built palazzi in the 16th century. Sans smartphone, I quickly get lost and although this feels like a semi-deliberate,‘anti-tourist’ tactic, it does almost become a regrettable state of affairs, owing to the fact that Genova is, much like Edinburgh, built on many levels, meaning that covering a distance that is technically about 50 metres can take 20 minutes. 

After a great deal of climbing and descending and re-climbing and stopping to nod and quietly whistle at unusual buildings and sudden sweeping views and worry that I have heart arrhythmia (despite medical tests having proved that I do not), I arrive at Parco Villa Gruber, an apparently abandoned mansion house, where I enjoy a tremendous downhill view of a long and sloping garden, framing the mid-distance seascape.

Next comes the deliciously manicured wildness of the Villeta di Negro, where I encounter a grand, widely encompassing view of the city, and a woman painting said, and men sleeping in the shade, and, I think, a couple fucking on a bench. 

From here it’s really just a 20 minute downslope stumble, following the trajectory of the old funicolare, before I eventually arrive at Via Garibaldi. This is indeed a street of Palazzi, which despite my growing (but admittedly often quite laboured) enthusiasm for celebrated architectural content, I find a bit boring. The historico-touristic premise of every single one seems to be: once upon a time a very rich family built a lovely house! And once you’ve encountered that six or seven times in quick succession it begins to grate somewhat. 

The issue really is that I’m getting hungry. So I stumble off into a maze of small alleyways (caruggi), with medieval and baroque elements, reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Mark Twain, after his own wanderings here, described this part of Genoa thus:

‘… crooked as a corkscrew. You go down these gloomy cracks [and look up to] behold the sky as a mere ribbon of light’.

Here, cheek by jowl with café owners and restaurateurs and artisanal shopkeepers, are women sitting in doorways and murmuring ‘ciao bella’ to passersby.

I find a café in a small but lively piazza with a ‘refugees welcome’ graffito and decide to blow the depleted budget (and my depleted dietary ethics) on a goat’s cheese panini and a coffee for six euros. I have to say this is truly the best panini and coffee lunch I’ve ever had. 

Eventually I rowse myself from a post-prandial stupor and shamble towards the docks, an important part of Genoa’s history (though just imagine a port city where that isn’t the case; ‘yes, we do have a massive port but we never really use it’).

A strange ennui is setting in, whence, against my will, I’m beginning to feel a bit bored of everything. Suddenly, it’s a real strain to find the surroundings interesting. I’ve seen too much incredible art and architecture and unusual spectacles and my mental observations are now hardly more sophisticated than e.g: ‘people like to spend a lot of time in cafes here’ and ‘there are bidets’.

I stand dehydrating on the hot quay-side, blinking at things. The sea seems miles away, obscured by densely packed sections of pleasure boats in the marina. There is a gigantic facsimile of a old pirate-ship, some sort of children’s attraction. I read an information board about the history of the port. It was an important part of the city’s growth. It now has a large crane. That’s about all I remember.

I stumble defeated into a bookshop and find a short publication of Mark Twain’s previously quoted reflections about Genoa, an extract from his book ‘Innocents Abroad’.

He contemplates the city with a similar weariness to my own, as he remarks on his irksome tour guide and the inordinate number of churches he’s been inside in Europe, though of course he does it all with more eloquence and underlying respect for the city than I’m managing to muster. He also reckons Genoa’s women to be ‘the most beautiful in Europe’, estimating, in a weird move, ‘about two thirds of them’ to meet his personal aesthetic criteria. 

Before wandering ‘home’, I contrive to visit some of the sights Twain mentions, such as the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where I’m struck by the incongruity of the confession box, standing as it does in the middle of what I consider to be, it now dawns on me, a tourist attraction. In Toledo, the old places of worship now serve almost entirely antique purposes, whereas here (and elsewhere in Italy, I’ll find) the tourists mill about amongst actual worshippers. On the wall next to the confessional, a sign schedules when confession is held and which priest will be hearing it. I wonder if sinners try to schedule their weeks around avoiding the more admonishing priests, as a modern heathen might in order to avoid an especially nasty gym class instructor.

Walking idly towards an altarpiece, I realise I’m standing directly in front of some people vigorously praying – kneeling and leaning forward, palms together, fingering the rosary. Like, I’m standing right between them and the crucifix, presumably obstructing the divine traffic. What am I even doing in here? Not learning anything, just wandering about in a big church because I reckon somehow it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I never even make a donation to these places, just wander about pointlessly then leave.

And yet, reflecting on it now, one week on - and on the churches and cathedrals seen before and since - something does get to you as you stare up at the stained glass or the gilded dome ceiling. The very fact you’re having such a self-questioning moment in such a setting is telling somehow. And often when I step out of these buildings I do feel calmer, as if some nameless flux has ended. They certainly know what buttons to press, God’s architects, I’ll give them that much.

As I walk back to the Airbnb, I see the Romany women again, still at the junction, still being repeatedly dismissed by the idling drivers. They’ve been there all day presumably, in the heat and fumes. 

***

The next morning I’m tired and angry because I’ve got to catch a train at like 8am from the Piazza station, the one at the other side of town, and it’s a headache because before I can get on the bus I need to buy the ticket but, of course, there’s nowhere going to be open in this quiet neighbourhood so early in the morning, of so I fear, until I step out and the streets are full of people and all the tobacconists are open and it’s almost some Oliver Twist scene of bodacious signoras wandering about with baskets of bigletti singing ‘who will buy a single bus ticket?’. And, in fact, the bus stop proves easy to find, and the bus comes straight away and it’s packed but somehow that doesn’t bother me and, when I struggle to reach the ticket-punching machine, a woman punches the ticket for me and I stand there smiling amongst the commuters, watching the middle aged women in dresses nonchalantly steer mopeds through the traffic, thinking that Twain was maybe right, the silly old chauvinist.

But it’s panic again when I realise I’ve gotten off at the wrong stop and, if the map on the street is to be trusted, the station is too far away for me to get there on time, which is terrible news because if I miss the train (the first of three connections) then I can’t, in my current state, afford to buy a new ticket and I’ll be stuck in a Genoa with no accommodation and no cash. But it turns out the scale of the map was confusing and the station is right around the corner and I make the train and, although I do mess up the second connection and get on the wrong train, I get back to La Spezia in time to make the Pisa train (the correct one) and before I know it I’m out amongst the Apuan Alps, in a carriage with a woman who has a chicken in a sack.

The hourly bus from Barga station is about 20 minutes late, but I’m not bothered by this point and I just wait happily alongside an old woman who keeps checking her watch but never frowns, and eventually the bus comes and it’s a minibus, full of people, whose driver doesn’t let me pay and takes me up the hill to my hostel (booked through Airbnb) which is a century-old villa, like something out of The Godfather Part II, run by a Scottish family and the view from my room is the best view I’ve ever had from my room, looking out over the hills, somewhere up in which, in a village called Sommocolonia, my great, great grandfather, Domenico Dario Rinaldi was born.    

I walk to Sommocolonia the next morning. It’s a two hour climb up a winding road with no footpath, up and down which cars come fast, beeping their horns as they approach the bends to give you just enough time to jump towards the vertiginous roadside as they pass. I don’t know much about my Italian ancestor, except that he was born in 1861, went to America in 1882 and married in 1886, in London, where he died in 1912. I certainly haven’t inherited his presumed complexion, or his ability to withstand heat and altitude and I sweat my way around his native village, deserted except for a family eating lunch in a garden.  

‘Ciao’ they all shout as I pass by the gate.

‘Ah what a fantastic traditional Italian family’ I think. And, then, when I’m a few yards away, I hear one shout ‘pass the ketchup, Andrew!’ in an extremely Scottish accent.

The village is spread across two minor peaks with most of its deliciously bucolic houses on the farther peak, along a path, away from the abode of the Scottish clan. I climb a centuries-old stairway, and proceed tentatively through the quite ghostly village, being careful to stay on the barely demarcated footway, and not wander into someone’s garden lest an angry Scot should appear and throttle me. 

I sit on a low stone wall and contemplate how strange it is that one day long ago, only a few metres away, up in this remote and sleepy Tuscan hill settlement, my great, great, great grandmother and great, great grandfather fucked each other. 

I reach a crumbling, but apparently still operational church. Certainly it’s bell still clangs away in the cuboid belfry once an hour, but there’s no sign of any human campanological presence. Here I’m hoping to discover a graveyard and (therein, perhaps, a baroque Rinaldi family tomb), but there isn’t one. There are, though, several war memorials knocking about, and engraved on one I find two Rinaldis: Alfredo (civili), and Venanzio (milita).

Mildly excited by discovery of possible, very distant relatives, I text my uncle and then find yet more war memorials. The place is one big hilltop shrine to the Ultima Guerra. On cue, my uncle replies to say these are probably the casualties of the ‘Battle of Garfagnana’,  Christmas 1944 - a key engagement of the German assault on the ‘Gothic Line’ - which he reckons could make a good film, as it has, he says, ‘everything: ordinary people, suspense, action, hand-to-hand combat, racism [the hosteller later explains that American troops stationed here would have included the first black people the villagers had ever met], short-term defeat, but ultimate victory’.

 It certainly gives me plenty to ponder as I let gravity speed me down and along ‘Via Buffalo’, a narrow overgrown footpath, leading to a rocky trail. A determined young woman in sportswear climbs uphill as I descend. ‘Mi scusi! This way Barga?’ I inquire, over-emphatically’.

‘Aye, yer going the right way! Just follow the signs’ comes her Caledonian reply.

Later, the hosteller tells me that Spike Lee already made a film about the battle and the locals were pissed off with the disruption, so I abandon the idea.

***

At characteristically short notice, my pal MB decided to come and join me here in Barga and drive us both down to Florence the next day. The original plan was for him to meet me in Sommocolonia at lunchtime but he texted to say he’s ‘messed up his time zones’ and eventually turned up at the hostel late in the afternoon in a drop-top Fiat Spider. He didn’t, he insisted, request it specially at the car hire. His arrival brought with it my reunion with the world of cash, and my now customary evening routine of sipping one or perhaps two small beers before dinner was jettisoned in favour of our being six pints deep before the sun had even had the idea to set.

To prevent complete catastrophe, I called a ceasefire at about 6pm, whereupon we returned to the hostel to kick a flat football around on a dusty pitch for a bit, before grabbing a couple of showers and heading out for dinner. We ate pizzas, which were alright, and then climbed to the top of Barga, where a churchyard provided vantage over the undulating landscape. 

I can’t do descriptive justice to the splendour of the sunset here, only urge you to go and see it yourself one day.

Halfway back down the hill, crowds were gathering in a small piazza where, every night that week, the local football team were running a bar and nightly live musical entertainment. MB and I settled at the side of the grassy stage, where we enjoyed a reasonable view of the band, a Green Day tribute act called ‘In Need of Green’. The performance went down very well with the locals, who were in excellent voice, and it reminded just how many of those old Green Day songs I know and love (two).

***

Next morning, we’re in the Spider, and, after negotiating some treacherous mountain bends, and a quick detour to Pisa to see the tower (which was fine), on the autostrade, roof down, speeding onwards, like Virgil and Dante flying from the undergloom of hell, the disturbed air banging off the windscreen.

It was fortunate that my debit card-wielding pal picked this moment to join me, because my own new card - long-expected to be waiting for me in Florence - had, it now transpired, still not turned up. It was doubly fortunate, in fact, because at this time of the year, ‘doing’ any of the classic Florentine tourist stuff – the Uffizi, the Accademia (which houses Michaelangelo’s David) etc – entails a period of queuing too great for my patience threshold and complexion to withstand. So, instead, we relied on more accessible distraction: Friday night beers on the steps of the Giardino delle Rose, affording, it was agreed, the best visuals of any Friday night session in living memory; a visit to an outdoor swimming pool where we did actually have to queue quite a long time to jump off a diving board; and a walk around the botanical gardens, which were serene, even though most of the plants were dead.

On the Saturday night, old MB arranged a Tinder date, purely he insisted, ‘ because it’s a great way to get some first-hand local knowledge’. The fact that his date was a dutch woman, staying in Florence for only one night en route to a wedding in rural Tuscany, went unremarked upon. I went along (for a bit of) the date too, and we all had a lovely conversation over some hard liquor.

The next day was one of those where you can just about hold it together if you keep the shutters closed and turn the fan onto ‘turbo boost’ and stay in bed until the afternoon and get up eventually and have a cup of tea and then go back to bed for a bit and then get up again and reheat the previous evening’s pasta and then go back to bed for a bit and eventually stumble out into the hot evening and look at some statues for a bit and eat an ice cream and do you best to clean yourself up after with a couple of napkins.

And with all this done, and your faculties more or less restored, you can attend mass at Il Duomo, and, if you’re able to suppress every screaming moral objection that erupts at the mere countenancing of this deeply rotten and hypocritical institutional ritual of sin-forbidding, you might, through the healing power of catastrophic boredom and strange Latinate cadences, manage to shake-off some of the psychological symptoms of your hangover.

After one rather lavish final dinner (including a reckless late night espresso), and the totting up of the eye-watering expenditure owed to MB (including a cash transfer designed to last until Athens), we part ways, he bound for the airport, where he discovers his flight cancelled, necessitating an overnight stay in a hotel in Bologna, which, he consoles himself, will at least yield the opportunity to have a really good spag bol, but the hotel is uninspiring and miles out of town and there’s no bolognese on the menu. I don’t know what he ate instead, perhaps he’ll blog about it himself.

As for me, with all my thoughts now fixed on Greece, (to be reached by sea via Bari) a seven hour train journey south becomes an 11 hour train journey south, due to ‘a fire on the track’.

As alluded to in the previous post, I am treated compassionately by an Italian woman of about 65, the only other passenger in my six-person carriage, who does her best to translate the announcements and insists, using only gestures and facial expressions, that I keep her remaining half packet of biscuits. She also suggests I go to the station bar, as we’ve been informed that the train will not move for some time. I do so only to buy a bottle of water (yet another Bad Thing to Do in this Day and Age but I can’t remember even being so thirsty) because I’m scared the train will suddenly depart with my big bag on it and leave me sitting on the platform with only a few euros and half a Peroni to my name.

Instead I just mooch around on the platform and slip back into playing voyeur as the other passengers react to the delay with remarkable stoicism. Once again, it’d be gratuitous to extrapolate heavily from this little scene and conclude that the Italians are a Remarkably Accepting People or something equally platitudinous but, as the sun falls steadily away behind the buildings in the un-famous town of Termoli, they definitely do, without visible exception, remain cheerful. More than cheerful in fact, gregarious. What in England would surely go down as a week-ruining, fury-inducing feat of cosmic injustice for all involved, here becomes an opportunity to make friends. And apparent strangers go wandering about, in and out of each other’s carriages, and down onto the platform to share cigarettes. 

They talk animatedly but not, seemingly, angrily about the situation at hand. Of course, for all I know they might have been spitting blue murder but the tone and manner of the discourse doesn’t imply as much.

When I return to my compartment, my Good Samaritan and I have been joined by a woman of about 25, who eventually acknowledges me in Italian. The older woman explains that I am from England and the young woman laughs and tells me in English that she assumed I was north Italian, because I am ‘reserved’. She says she used to live in Ireland and would love to practice her English, if I don’t mind, which of course I do not. We have a good conversation, during which I learn the meaning and semiotic importance of several Italian  hand gestures. 

The woman, Alìda, asks me if I’ve learned many Italian words during my stay and I’m like, ‘yes, of course I have’, thinking myself a instinctive linguist, albeit a lazy one. And she’s like ‘which ones?’ and I go to start reeling off a list but, beyond the obvious social phrases, find none come to me easily. I’d seen a ‘Beware of the Dog’ sign in Tuscany, which I seem to remember containing the word ‘carnie’ or something so I try saying that but she explains that ‘dog’ is actually ‘cane’. I have a go at saying what I think is the word for ‘exit’, (again from having seen it on signs everywhere), but I also get this completely wrong. In the end I just resort to ‘panini’ and some other food words. 

Alìda doesn’t judge me too harshly for my idiocy and asks whether I’ve spoken to many Italian people during my trip. After a moment’s reflection, I realise I haven’t. Between all the travelling about and hanging out with MB, I haven’t had a real conversation with any Italians. There were the Scots in Barga and we had a few good chats in Florence, but only with other tourists. I thought I’d left this problem behind in Paris – where, at least, it troubled me that I was failing to speak to any french people -  but, it’s now clear, I’ve managed to blithely pass almost 1000 kilometres through Italy without having any sort of meaningful interaction with any of its people. Now, thanks to Alìda and the other woman (who’s name I shamefully failed to learn) I more than make amends (my usual political hobby horses are kept in the stable by Alìda’s insistence that she’s not interested in politics, despite having just complained about the state of Italy’s train network, north-south divide, and lack of job opportunities for young people), until the train finally does get moving and they both alight at Foggia.


***

Bari, encountered at 1am on a Wednesday morning, feels comfortingly reminiscent of certain provincial British cities, owing to certain elements: a large, bright, echo-riddled train station, spilling light onto a sprawling concourse, which blends vaguely with the roaring road beyond; a McDonald’s and a luxury hotel greeting those who emerge here; a rigid grid of streets, lined with mid-range clothes shops and pharmacies and cafes, empty save for a few service workers and late night strollers and taxis; and a smartness to the city centre which contrasts the industrial visions of the train’s approach. I could be in Leeds, if it weren’t for the heat and the smell of the sea and the absence of visible drunks.

The night is devoted to sleep and the next morning to admin, but there is a time for a lunchtime wander before the ferry leaves. North of the generic metropolitan grid, in old town Barivecalia, Bari distinguishes itself with its basilica and cathedral and theatre, and, crucially, its two harbours, split by the headland. In the more easterly of these, I catch the vestiges of the morning’s fish market, and watch the mongers hose down the concrete stalls. At the end of the market strip, there’s a compact but intriguing bar, and behind this, in a small yard open at two sides, about 30 men crowd together in a slightly bizarre formation, tightly packed in a circle as if they’re watching something at close-quarters. But as I get closer it appears they’re not, they’re just standing like this and laughing and shouting.  

On the way to the port, a newsstand relays La Republicca’s headline:

‘ARRIVANO IMMIGRANTI AL PORTO DI BARI. LA CITTÀ SI MOBILITA PER ACCOGLIERL’
(Immigrants arrive into the port of Bari. The city gets ready to welcome them’.

And, a few hours later, with this echoing in my mind, I (all too easily) board the sumptuously-appointed, high-speed ferry to Patras. Soon enough, I’m up on deck watching Italy disappear, stewing in remembrance of the childhood holidays and school trips and lads weekends of my youth, and dreaming of Greece.