Monday, 28 October 2013

Giro d'Italia

This week I travelled ‘up north’ to visit some friends who study Italian with me at Bristol and are in Italy on their year abroad. Palermo being as far south as it is, most Palermitani fly to get to Rome and above. But I’m not a fan of domestic flights; I’ll avoid Ryanair in any way possible and I saw it as more of an ‘adventure’ to reach the North by train. And I’m so glad I did.

I was excited to travel on sleeper trains, which I hadn’t been on for years. Like buses: you wait for ages and then 3 arrive at once, I suppose... Only that analogy doesn’t quite work in Palermo, as you do wait ages but there's only 1 bus serving the entire route and it probably won’t bother stopping. Anyway, I slept well each time, I didn’t have anything stolen (I was warned by Italian friends that thieves often get on ‘in the Salerno area’) and I was vastly impressed with the 3 InterCity Notte trains I caught. I didn’t even need to leave my seat bed when we crossed the Messina Strait – the train got shunted onto a boat. There was a sink in the compartments and a ‘night kit’ which included a bottle of water, towel, soap, slippers, toothbrush and toothpaste. And rather than having to worry about setting an alarm, the conductor would wake us up half an hour before our stop, even bringing a coffee, brioche and La Repubblica with him (all free). This was second class! Amazing! Another huge plus of trains was that they took me right into the city centre, near where my friends who I stayed with lived, rather than airports miles outside each city. Rather than feeling worn out, like I do after any flight and the stress of making sure that I’ve checked in online, printed off the right part of my boarding pass to avoid being fined 50 quid and made sure I don’t have any liquids in my hand luggage, and longing for a bed, I felt refreshed and keen to walk around. And walk around is what I did plenty of in each place I visited: Naples, Genoa, Pavia and Bologna, none of which I’d ever been to before.
It's fair to say they still love Maradona in Naples

It was great, in each city, being with someone who’s lived there for the last month or two. It made it easier to find our way around (although, as Ollie will admit, this wasn’t necessarily the case in Genoa), meant we knew where to go for food – the pizza I had in Naples was probably the best I’ve ever had yet also possibly the cheapest – and also meant that I could ask whether observations about the cities that I made during my short stay there were representative.  For instance, I asked Maiwenn, who I visited in Naples: 'I haven't seen any rubbish lining the streets so far. Is it still a problem here?' And she said it isn’t really anymore, proving that images that you get into your head from watching the news some years ago aren’t always still accurate. Naples in general seems awesome. Being shown parts of it and hearing about the good time that Maiwenn's having makes me look forward to my semester there next spring.

After a day there, I caught my second sleeper train to Genoa, where I spent 2 days with Ollie. I tried the 3 things that anyone Genovese will insist will be better there than anywhere else – Pasta with Pesto, Focaccia and Farinata. Having been impressed with all three, I wouldn't argue. After being shown all of Genoa's landmarks, I went with Ollie to one of his Italian language classes. I wasn't sure when he suggested it, but the teacher encouraged me to come along, and the topics we were covered (after a bit of grammar) were Italian swear words and hand gestures, so it was fun. In the evening we went clubbing with Ollie's friends. When people would first ask ‘Vieni a casa mia?’ I was puzzled (we’d only just met). But it turned out Casa Mia (my house) was the name of the club. And it was good.
Owen shows off his roof terrace in Bologna

On Saturday we headed to Bologna, meeting Rowena, my housemate from last year (whose year abroad blog is well worth following), on the way for lunch in Pavia, so there were 6 of us from Bristol by the time we’d met our friends in Bologna. Bologna seems an ideal student city, but also interesting in itself with its social and political history. It’s also very colourful – certainly in comparison to Genoa, which was very grey not just in terms of the weather (I suppose I’ve been somewhat spoilt weather-wise in Sicily) but the architecture. Bologna was red not only in terms of its 50 years of Communist Party mayors but lots of its buildings.
Bikes and pedestrianisation?! I'd forgotten they existed
It seems very European, which I mean as a compliment to say that it runs efficiently and isn’t overflowing with traffic. It was lovely to be in such a big group from Bristol and compare experiences, finding that lots we’d been faced with wasn’t just unique to our Italian city. I left yesterday afternoon, even managing to fit in seeing an Italian friend in Rome, where I had to change trains. By this morning, I was back in Palermo, back enjoying a cost-effective Cappuccino and Cannolo Siciliano to start the day, and back at university in time for my 2pm Storia Contemporanea lecture.

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