Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 28, Tuscan Trains
I have always loved trains. Some of my earliest memories recall being utterly enthralled by them. Perhaps this fascination was fueled by the sight, sound and smell of the monstrous looking steam engines that still dominated the railway lines and stations of my early youth. Perhaps my keen interest in trains would have dissipated and eroded over the years had I not, at the tender age of eight, embarked on a rail journey that took me virtually the length of England from my home town of Preston, north of Manchester, to Winchester (navigating London’s Underground from Euston to Paddington station en route). And perhaps the added fact that I undertook this fantastic journey unaccompanied allowed the pure magic of the experience to distill into a love for locomotives, of tracks and stations that bordered upon obsession.
For a variety of reasons trains will always conjure excitement, travel and adventure despite the times when I have found myself climbing aboard a railway carriage merely to commute from one place to another – the railways have never lost the air of excitement and anticipation that comes from riding them. As a teenager my world was turned on its head thanks to the astounding wonder of the month-long Euro-rail passes that carved open the continent and spilled such treasures as Rome, Venice, Paris and a score of exotic places that were previously mere names upon a map.
So it is with a little sadness that tomorrow’s train ride will take me back to Florence, my starting point on this three month Tuscan Adventure, from where I will fly back to my home in Woody Creek, Colorado, to resume my life in a land where, aside from the North Eastern seaboard, plus a few exceptional cities that prove the rule, the passenger train as a viable means of transport is all but extinct.
Of course, three months is a long time to be away from my family and I am so very much looking forward to reuniting with Kris and Joseph that I can hardly wait for Wednesday to roll around, but as with all transitions I will also be sad to no longer have the option to ride the rails and rove the land at will.
I don’t aim to blog about Tuscany on my return to the United States. I set out to blog about this trip in real time and do not want to find myself reminiscing from five thousand miles distant. But while there is much in the way of photographs, mental notes and observations that will never see the light of day there are a couple of blogs left in me before I move on with my life and turn my attentions back to sculpture – this post then can be seen in the light of a reminiscence, of a time already gone… when I could hop on a train, pull the window down and feel the air rushing by as my carriage cuts a neat swath through the Tuscan landscape.
Here then are a sampling of photographs taken over the past three months of my time riding the rails of Tuscany:
It doesn’t matter how many times I pull into a major European railway station I always feel a tinge of excitement. As major European cities go Florence doesn’t register in the big league, but over the past three months I have had cause to ride the train into San Maria Novella several times and on each occasion I enjoyed the experience immensely.
But its not just the major cities that ignite such a reaction, the above photos were taken of my familiar and regular commute for Borgo a Mozzano to Lucca. In fact, the experience of riding these little rural trains probably eclipsed that of their larger intercity counterparts in that the effect was a much more down-to-earth pragmatic affair, with windows that dropped half the length of the glass pane allowing for the full ‘wind-in-the-face experience’ as captured by the black and white pictures above.
The scene above says it all for me – from the train driver’s hand casually catching the breeze as he rolls along his familiar route, to the railway guard / ticket inspector taking time out to chat to the grandparents minding the beloved grandchild; these few photos seem to capture the essence of a just what a rural railway is supposed to be about- connecting people geographically and socially.
It turned out the little family was just there to watch the train, and pass a few moments of the day…. and perhaps encourage a new railway enthusiast in the process.
There is a strange sort of dilapidation about the Italian rail network that seems to inconsistently effect the various lines and stations throughout Tuscany. For instance; the old station houses have suffered dramatically different fates with no apparent rhyme nor reason. Often stations just one stop apart will present utterly contrasting pictures – one will be crumbling into oblivion, while the next will be serving coffee and dispensing local tourist information. Its quite perplexing. Back in the seventies, when I was riding these tracks, or track like them, on my ‘Interail’ ticket I remember these buildings at their pristine best, with uniformed staff and not a blade of grass to be seen. I dread to think of what the old station masters would think if they could see them today. It just seems such a waste.
Dilapidation is everywhere I’m afraid to say, with knee high weeds often carpeting the tracks, and ticket machines are more likely than not indisposed to dispense tickets.
But while the trials and tribulations of late or nonexistent trains may prove taxing at times, when things are going good, as they often are, then the travel experience just doesn’t get better than a Regional Italian Train in my opinion.
Take people watching for instance. If there is a more interesting and absorbing place to watch humanity go about its business then I don’t know where that might be. For in a country like Italy just about every creed, color and ethnicity will climb on and off those trains during the course of the day.
At one moment the platforms are empty, then a train arrives and suddenly the whole world it seems is milling around on those narrow strips of elevated land.
And if it all gets too much the larger stations even boast a cafe where the most delicious nutritious and outright indulgent snacks can be consumed for what amounts to the loose change in your pocket. Two Euros and ten cents will buy you a stellar cappuccino (if its before noon – don’t disgrace yourself by ordering one once afternoon has arrived) or espresso, and a fresh backed pastry of the highest order.
And finally, if all this doesn’t convince you to ride the rails in Europe on your next visit then consider the fact that the stations themselves are almost universally positioned slap bang in the middle of town. And unlike some countries I could name they seldom seem to create the sort of scary underworld aura that drives normal, ordinary folk to avoid them. Quite the contrary – the streets and neighborhoods surrounding most railway stations I have encountered seem to positively buzz with life brought about by such proximity to so many people from all walks of life coming and going about their business. It actually seems to make the area thrive.
So that’s it – my little homily on the joy of trains… Italian style. It was a little hurriedly put together but I hope it stirred a notion to ride the rails yourself someday, if you haven’t already. Trains are an a amazing gift of the Victorian age that would be so cost prohibitive to build these days that I doubt if the idea would ever even get off the ground. But since they are already built they are cheap, cheerful and full of charm.
It does seem a shame that so many countries, including the United States, have turned their backs on their rail networks in favor of freeways. Of course, its always difficult to predict these things but my understanding is that car sharing is going to be the next big thing, and if this is the case then it would make railway travel even more viable. For soon, it seems, once you have arrived at your destination it will be easy as pie to continue on with a ‘car share car’, making the old argument against trains – that once you reach your destination city you are at the expense and mercy of car rental companies and taxis… totally redundant.
Its just a thought…
Till next time – when I will almost certainly be blogging from the good ol’ USA this is me, Martin, wishing you, whoever you are, happy travels.