Campobasso railway station. Half past five on a weekday morning. Bleary-eyed clerk in her sixties on Facebook. Unlit filter cigarette hanging from her lips. “Due biglietti per L’Aquilla per favore.” Facebook abandoned. Filter cigarette removed from lips. Facial expression of being utterly stunned by lack of understanding.
Mrs Henry and myself had travelled by train 160 kilometres in a north-easterly direction from Naples to Campobasso even though we had planned to do so from Salerno, south of Naples, to which latter city we had travelled on the so-called Circumvesuviana, which suggests this train did a leisurely lap around the notorious volcano. However, no dice in that respect plus we had been unable to identify the volcano from the train because nobody had bothered to put up a sign. We saw plenty of mountains that could’ve been the Vesuvius, but, as Mrs Henry admirably put it in a nutshell: “Which one is the bloody Vesuvius?” Anyway, Mrs Henry and myself did see the Vesuvius. There can be no doubt about that. Absolutely not. We were on a train that specifically and slowly went around the Vesuvius part of the way with many other mountains interposing themselves. All those mountains were all very plausible Vesuviuses and, in the bigger picture, what does it matter which one was the real one as long as we saw it?
If I could just digress for a moment to discuss some of the inexplicable muddle-ups in Italian tourism, Mrs Henry bets the same entity responsible for lack of signage at the Vesuvius is also in charge of restorations (Mrs Henry calls them “renovations”, or “bloody renos” when in full oratorical flight) at the Colosseum, which is nowhere near the Vesuvius, of course, but still. And to be fair, Mrs Henry’s got a point. The restored parts of the Colosseum’s façade do look as though they were done by someone who is normally involved in the construction of brick veneer residences in Sydney’s burgeoning north-west.
This of course comes on top of the unbearable traffic situation in Rome, which forced Mrs Henry and myself to play games of chicken with local motorists at zebra crossings. “Where are the bloody cops?!”, Mrs Henry exclaimed at one point. A thoroughly reasonable question. I pointed out that Rome police were detailed to provide security at the Vatican, as covered in a previous post, and simply did not have the resources.
Now Mrs Henry is quite chummy back home with the Pedestrian Council’s Mr Harold Scruby, who is on the board of the Mr Henry Institute, where he punches above his weight on pedestrian issues.
“Doesn’t Australia send an ambassador to the Vatican?”, she asked.
“Yes, a Special Envoy”, I replied, “Australia appoints a Special Envoy to the Holy See.”
“Get Harold”, Mrs Henry said in that clipped way of hers.
“What? Appoint Mr Scruby, Chair of the Pedestrian Council, scourge of parliamentary road safety committees and Roads Ministers throughout Australia, as Australia’s Special Envoy to the Holy See?”
An extraordinary suggestion, but one which, on reflection, makes excellent sense. Get Harold. Clean up traffic in Rome. Mrs Henry said she would also talk to Harold, before he took up this position, about that totally unacceptable Italian custom of hanging out laundered garments and bedlinen from apartment windows. “Harold should do something about that, too, while he’s at Holy See. Naples is a disgrace.”
To get back to our attempt to reach Campobasso by train from Salerno to travel north up the middle of Italy through the Apennines, the Trenitalia map clearly showed a rail connection between Salerno and Campobasso. However, when asked, a Salerno railway employee shook her head dismissively, rolling her eyes, mumbling darkly about “turisti”, and firmly shoved Mrs Henry and myself on the fast regional (not the “bloody Circumvesuviana” (Mrs Henry)) back to Naples, from whence we caught a satisfactorily slow and small service to Campobasso, enjoying first the foothills and thence some more significant inclines of whatever Apennines we passed along the way.
From Campobasso we would continue to L’Aquilla - the same Trenitalia map showing a rock-solid rail connection between the two cities. But again, no dice. Upon closer scrutiny, the first stretch of the journey, to Terni, was by “bus sostitutivo”, a replacement bus, and it was in full cognisance of this arrangement that we requested two tickets to L’Aquilla from the Facebook-bound clerk at the ticket office in Campobasso, who, as indicated at the start of this post, appeared utterly speechless in her incomprehension at this very request.
“L’Aquilla”, I repeated, “La-KWEE-le-ya.”
“No, no”, she replied - in Italian of course, because English-as-a-foreign-language and education on the dangers of smoking have this in common that they haven’t made it to Italy yet. In the end, she had the good sense to push a piece of paper and a pen under the ticket window towards me for me to write down our intended destination, which I did, at which her face cleared up.
“Ahhh!”, she exclaimed, “LA-kwee-la.” She instantly restored the unlit filter cigarette to its former position between her lips and got physical with her computer keyboard, producing two biglietti as requested before returning to Facebook, shaking her head at the ignorance of us, turisti inglesi.
The bus sostitutivo duly turned up at the appointed quarter-past and wound its way along numerous Apennine mountain passes, dazzling foliage, rock faces and what have you – won’t bore you with all that, dear reader – before we hit the end of the line and a bright and vast expanse of blue water appeared before us. This did not look like the Apennines. What body of water was this? Again, as in the case of the Vesuvius, a complete and utter absence of signage. I briefly entertained the view that this was one of Italy’s famous lakes, but these lakes were in the north! We asked what turned out to be an African refugee about the water.
“It’s the bitch”, he said, smiling a big, bright smile. “We go in summer.”
That wasn’t very helpful, but in retrospect it made sense. We thought we had been delivered to Terni (somewhere in the middle of Italy), but, on closer inspection, this turned out to be Termoli, of which neither myself nor Mrs Henry had ever heard. However, when we asked a fellow passenger on the train we were urged to get on, it turned out that we had crossed the entire country and were now travelling in close parallel to the Adriatic in the direction of Pescara. Despite it being a sunny day, the beaches were deserted, with abandoned beach chairs and black, folded-down parasols in neat formation as if Il Duce was still in charge. Incidentally, all our trains in Italy ran according to schedule. It was just that they didn’t leave from where we thought they would leave or go where we thought they would go. Otherwise, full marks. Top of the class.
Anyway, we arrived in Terni from Pescara where we had planned to catch another bus sostitutivo to Perrugia, which duly arrived as it had in Campobasso. The problem here was that the driver wouldn’t let us on, pointing out that we had Trenitalia tickets and that his bus was a Busitalia bus. Whatever possessed this man, we’ll never know. We did get on eventually, of course, and he seemed to ritually reject any intending passenger he didn’t like the look of, but all got on, anyway, staunch refusal to get off being the effective policy, as we had discovered. Nobody refuses any more staunchly than Mrs Henry.
All in all, we did end up seeing quite a bit of the Apennines from actual trains, mostly single car diesels covered in graffiti, windows included, but with enough space to enjoy the magnificent views of the rugged mountains making up the Apennine range.
It was also a train which delivered us to Venice, on time, where once again public transport in the form of little ferries, allowed us to inspect the rising damp capital of the world efficiently and cheaply. Line 1, leaving from jetty E in front of Santa Lucia railway station, plies the Grand Canal. Recommended.
(The Big House, novel - now available- https://amzn.to/2txLRz8 )