In September 2000, Kate and I enjoyed two weeks of travelling around a chunk of northern and central Italy by train. This is a record of what happened, along with some pictures.
Flying over the Alps was fantastic. Superb top-down views of glaciers and alpine valleys, the mountain peaks almost close enough to touch. As soon as we were over the mountains we began the descent into Venice. The airport is tiny and linked to the city by a water bus. The fare was about UKP5 and the journey took little over an hour, via three other islands first.
Venice is everything you'd expect. Narrow alleyways reminded us of pictures of Elizabethan London - buildings are a hodge-podge of styles, with the modern slapped on top of the ancient. Our hotel is just 10 minutes walk from San Marco, the main centre of tourist activity.
After a fairly basic breakfast of bread and tea (basic, I think, for £63 a night), we made sure we got an early start in the streets of Venice. We spent much of the morning exploring on foot, finding our way south-westwards towards the Accademia footbridge, then northwards via Santa Margherita to the railway station.
This walk was extremely enjoyable, allowing us to explore some of the more out-of-the-way parts of the city and see some beautiful views.
After lunch, we caught the no. 1 waterbus to the Lido - an island a couple of miles from Venice, which faces out to the ocean. Expecting a haven of sandy beaches, we foung it quite dull and featureless. Pausing only to buy some postcards and a delicious melon ice cream, we headed back to Venice.
This morning we set out early to do more exploring around the city. First stop was the belltower in Piazza San Marco, one of the tallest buildings in Venice and certainly the one with the best views.
The waterbus took us to Murano, traditionally the home of Venitian hand-blown glass. Despite being a bit of a backwater, its streets are lined with glassware shops and a steady stream of tourists arrive to look round them. I was more interested in the ancient church of Santa Maria e Donato, parts of which date back to Byzantine times. Sadly it was closed for the afternoon, so we sat in a cafe and went for a stroll. Kate bought a glass ring.
Just before catching the waterbus back to Venice, we found a glassblower making little unicorns. He was able to churn out three or four of them in the 10 minutes we were there - each of them beautiful to look at, unique, and to be sold later for many thousands of Lira.
We caught our train to Verona - just - and enjoyed the journey through the countryside.
In Verona, we got a fairly cheap room (L90,000) without an ensuite bathroom or breakfast. We were hot and sweaty and exhausted, but still managed to walk to a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet, which turned out to be an excellent choice. We gorged ourselves on pizza and pasta.
The cheap albergo would not let us leave our luggage there for the day, so we were forced to get a taxi to the railway station first thing, to drop off our luggage there.
The automated left-luggage lockers are a great idea, but like British automated train ticket mahines, are fussy about the banknotes they accept. You have to have a fresh banknote, without creases, and insert it into the machine in a particular way to get it accepted. That done, we headed back to Piazza Bra in the centre of town for a late breakfast.
Afterwards we explored the Roman Arena, the third largest of its kind left standing in the world, and still in use as an open-air opera and theatre venue. There wasn't much to see, but it was a nice chunk of explorable history.
Then we walked to Place d'Erbe, an old Roman Forum, and still the site of a lively market. Nearby is the house and balcony where, local legend has it, Juliet stood as Romeo called up to her. Tourists crowded into the small courtyard under the balcony, and it was astonishing to see all the graffiti on the walls - decades of love messages. The setting was decidedly unromantic, in my opinion.
Next stop were two ancient churches - St Anastasia and the Duomo - each with ornate interiors and impressive art works. My legs were starting to give way in the Duomo, so I sat listening to the piped choral music as Kate explored.
A quick lunch, and we caught a train to Parma, via Modena. The journey was about 2.5 hours. We were supposed to have a 15 minute break in Modena to change trains, but as the first train was so late we had only a minute to rush between platforms.
The views from the train were fantastic - distant mountains topped with dramatic cloud formations. Rural Italy is beautiful too, more rural than most of Britain's countryside. Farmland stretches for mile after unbroken mile, and the trains stop regularly at tiny stations in the middle of nowhere.
Arriving in Parma, we got a room in a three-star hotel near the station - expensive, but the only accommodation we could get at short notice. Another delicious evening meal followed (a huge rocket salad with parmesan cheese).
Parma is a lovely city, delightfully ancient and small and flat. It's full of cyclists. It reminded me of Cambridge.
Cheap accommodation is not that easy to find, so we had to splash out on a hotel rather than a pensione. The high price of accommodation is set off by the remarkably cheap train fares - even intercity trains are never more than a few pounds per person. Much, much cheaper than the UK.
Parma is simple to see - you can walk from one side to the other in about half an hour. For a small town, it has a lot of art - works by Parmigianini and Correggio dominated the main museum, housed in a Renaissance castle which suffered heavy damage during the war.
For something built during the Renaissance, it's a remarkable structure - vast, unadorned walls loom overhead, and the whole thing seems bulky and threatening, rather than artistic and there for show. It was built as a proper castle, for fighting people.
The art collection inside is limited but must be worth a fortune. There were also two huge Roman statues, originally discovered buried under modern Rome, and buried again in Parma during the war to protect them from Allied bombs.
Elsewhere, the Duomo (cathedral) was filled with breathtaking art on the walls and ceilings. Most impressive was Correggio's Assumption of the Virgin, painted on the inside of the building's huge dome, which shows the hapless Mary rising towards heaven, her dress carefully concealing her bum.
Parma was quiet and surprisingly free of tourists. Looking for a change from pasta and pizza, we had an excellent salad meal of rocket and parmesan.
Some other things we have noticed about Italy in general:
We left Parma on a rush-hour intercity train to Florence. It was packed, and we had to stand most of the way, but we had good views of the spectacular Tuscany mountains as we sped through them.
Arriving in Florence was something of a shock. It's by far the biggest city, and biggest railway station, we have seen yet on our travels here, and it was teeming with people when we arrived.
We are staying in Pensione Sole, just 10 minutes walk from the station and close to the heart of town. It's a bargain, at L120,000 per night for the pair of us; it's also spotlessly clean, and run by a very friendly lady called Anna. We're knackered, and we fall asleep very quickly.
We've been going non-stop since we arrived, so today we are chilling out. We've been to the railway station to get the times of trains to Pisa, Arezzo, Cortona and Assisi, some of our future destinations.
I've spent 20 minutes in a cybercafe (Florence has loads of cybercafes) checking my e-mail; and found a launderette (we desperately need to wash some underwear). We're spending seven nights in Florence, so we don't need to rush.
Some other things we have noticed:
Our first experience in the classical and beautiful city of Pisa is not a nice one. A group of young girls, none of them much older than 16, accost us as we walk down a back street from the station to the Leaning Tower.
They are holding pieces of cardboard and begging, and before we know it they have waved the cardboard under Kate's face and opened her handbag. I saw it coming - I was victim to the same trick years ago in Istanbul - but there's no time to shout out a warning.
Instead, really angry, I shout: 'Get off the bags!' and they back off. Kate and I walk off, fast, but they are following close behind and singing the same word over and over: 'Pelle, pelle,' which I suspect is the local lingo for 'Tourist wanker'. We pass a snack bar and go in to get away from them.
They didn't get anything out of Kate's bag, but the whole episode left us annoyed and shaken up.
Apart from that, our day trip to Pisa is wonderful. It's Sunday, so most things are shut, but all we really want to do is go and look at the Leaning Tower.
It really is impressive, as are the efforts to stop it from falling over. The whole thing is balanced by 1,000 tonnes of lead weights, supported by steel cables, and is being under-pinned with carefully placed boreholes. It must be costing a fortune.
I like the way the anchors for the steel cables - huge ugly things that would be more appropriate at the top of a mine shaft - are hidden carefully behind nearby buildings, so the disruption to the classical architecture is kept to a minimum.
The square containing the Tower, the duomo, and baptistry is described by Lonely Planet as one of the most beautiful in the world, and we have to agree. Although it is thronged with tourists, it's a captivating view and well worth the excursion.
The rest of Pisa is pretty, even though it is also a thriving university town, and there are some stunning views of the surrounding mountains, but as it's Sunday the mood is quiet and subdued, so we don't hang around long after seeing the sights.
We return to Florence in the afternoon and ascend some steps to the south of the city to see the view. After that we sit in a quiet bar, drinking beer and writing postcards, before a meal and home to bed.
Monday is not a good day to be a tourist in Florence, because everything, including restaurants, is closed.
Our day started well, up with the larks to go see the Chiesa de Santa Croce, a Renaissance church (the size of a cathedral, but out-done by Florence's duomo down the road). This was an interesting and enjoyable place, crammed with the tombs of the famous, including Galileo, Rossini, Marconi and nuclear power pioneer Fermi.
The interior is less ornate than many of the other churches we have seen, which was quite a welcome change.
It is said that when the writer Stendhal saw the interior of Santa Croce, he went weak at the knees through sheer awe at the beauty of the place. This affliction became know as Stendhalissimo, and is still said to affect a dozen people every year to this day.
While it certainly is a beautiful building, Kate and I were of the opinion that Stendal was a bit of a wuss.
Later we went to see the duomo too, which for me was a disappointment. Not the architectural wonder we had been expecting, although the fresco on the interior of the enormous dome - depicting the Devil apparently eating people - was worth seeing. You can climb up the top of the dome or the adjacent bell tower. I went up the tower since the queue was much shorter and you got views of the duomo once you reached the top.
Today we ate breakfast and lunch in real Italian style - quickly. Most people see continental culture as being very relaxed, but the Italian urban breakfast is anything but. You enter a snack bar, order your coffee, drink it down in a couple of gulps, pay a few Lira and go. Most people are in there for less than three minutes. Some might go so far as to have a small pastry as well, which they will eat standing at the bar.
For lunch we tried something similar. A tiny shop sells pizza by weight, so you point to the one you want and the girl behind the counter says 'This much? This much?' until you get a slice to your liking. Then she weighs it and you pay per 100 grammes. You can also get fizzy drinks, iced tea, and beer in places like this.
Again, the pace is frantic and the eating messy and noisy, but it's fun.
An early train gets us to the town of Arezzo shortly after 9am, and we have the town almost to ourselves, it seems.
Arezzo was an important Eutruscan town several centuries before the Roman Empire took charge, and has a number of beautiful old buildings.
By far the best was Pieve de Santa Maria, a 12th-century church in the centre of town. Columns in its frontage are Roman, and the rest of the building is strikingly different to all the other basilicas and churches we have seen so far.
We took a trip up the tower of the town hall, not a great building itself but offering nice views over the town.
We sat in a park behind the cathedral and admired the superb view over the Tuscany countryside - Arezzo sits on top of a hill and you can see the old Roman roads radiating away from it like spokes on a while.
Arezzo was nice, but nicer by far was our next stop, Cortona. This ancient Eutruscan town is perched half-way up a hillside, and you can see it as you approach on the train.
It's a 5km bus ride from the train station to the town itself, one that takes you round a series of hair-raising hairpin bends up the the town. You get off the bus, and the first thing you see is the incredible view.
A huge valley is laid out in front of you, dotted with farms and small towns. Across it slashes the straight line of the railway. In the distance is a vast lake (Lago Trasimeno) and a series of volcano-shaped mountains shrouded in mist. It's heart-stoppingly beautiful.
After exploring some of the town on foot, we sat on the terrace of a cafe overlooking the valley, sipping beer and watching the sun sink. As you'd expect, the sunset was a stunning festival of colours. It was one of the best moments so far on this trip, and very romantic.
We ate in a trattoria next to our hotel - good food, dreadful service - and drank slightly more wine than we should have done.
Cortona is a very wonderful place and we regretted only spending a single afternoon and evening there - we could have happily have spent a few days climbing around the hills, drinking, and watching gorgeous sunsets.
But we had to press on, so today we had to get a bus from Cortona to the nearby town of Terontola, to catch a train to Assisi.
We discover at this point that to board an Italian bus, you have to buy a ticket first in a shop near the bus stop. This might be a post office, tabacconist, bar, or whatever. We have so far not found out how you tell what shop sells bus tickets. Anyway, luckily the driver of our bus explained by letting us on, driving us 10 metres to the right shop, herding me in there to buy tickets, and waiting in the road (holding up all the traffic) while I did so. What a nice fella.
The journey to Assisi is wonderful, with the train skirting the edge of Lago Trasimeno on one side, and mountains on the other. We notice the changing geology as the soil turns from light brown, to sandy white, then to reddish dark brown.
Assisi, like Cortona, is a town on a slope, sitting halfway up a mountain. But is is considerably more famous. Although it is a beautiful little town with much to see, most of the tourists (including us) are only here to visit one thing - the Basilica of St Francis (Basilica di San Francesco).
The first thing you have to remember when you see it is that it was severely damaged by the earthquake in 1997. Since then, a huge amount of work has been put into repairing it, with impressive results. The interior is bright and colourful, unlike most basilicas we've seen, and the frescos round the walls tell the story of St Francis' life.
There are also beautiful geometric mosaic patterns everywhere, covering the vaulted ceilings, the steps round the alter, and the alter itself.
Architecturally, the building is even more impressive. It's really two cathedrals, one on top of the other, which makes it even more amazing that the whole lot didn't collapse completely during the earthquake.
Exploring Assisi, you realise what effect the quake had - every building is either newly restored (shiny new fixtures and fittings, glistening stonework) or in the process of being restored. Cranes litter the skyline. Every street has scaffolding and a skip in it. The air hums with the sound of builders having lunchbreaks.
Assisi is a holy town, so you start getting used to seeing loads of monks and nuns all over the place. Particularly fun is the extremely elderly nun making her way painstakingly towards the Basilica, walking stick in hand, lighweight portable chair slung over her back. On her feet - Nike Air trainers.
In the main square (Piazza del Comune) there is the Roman temple of Minerva, adopted centuries ago by the church and now a cheisa (church) itself. In the UK you only ever get to see Roman things in ruins or as excavated walls underneath fields. Here, a Roman building still stands and is used as it was intended - just to praise a different god, that's all.
Here's a top tip: if you want to see the art galleries in Florence, go in winter.
We made a special effort to get up early and get to the entrance of the Uffizi art gallery for 0830, the time it opens. There was already a lengthy queue, and it was another hour and a half before we were allowed in.
The wait was tedious and annoying - it was the first time we had been to an art gallery and been tired before we'd even got inside.
The gallery's contents are impressive, especially works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. But as time wore on we got a bit bored of the endless repetition of subject matter - there's only so many Madonnas with Child, Adoring Magi, and Crucifictions that you can put up with in one day.
For a world famous art gallery we thought the Uffizi could do with a bit more investment to benefit users - like descriptions of works in several languages, not just Italian, and some decent toilets would be nice. Having queued for so long to get in, the experience was a disappointment. It made us appreciate the National Gallery in London much more.
Finally we wanted to do one more art gallery, the Accademia, which houses Michelangelo's David. We arrived mid-afternoon to find another enormous queue, which we simply couldn't face, so we found a cafe and drank beer (me) and wine (Kate) for a couple of hours. Returning to the Accademia, we found no queue and went straight in.
There's no doubt David is an impressive sculpture; huge and expertly detailed. It's odd because you feel like you know it already, having seen pictures of it many times before. But seeing the real thing is still something special.
The gallery contains some other artworks but who are we kidding? Everyone goes to see David and it's worth the admission fee.
By now our feet and legs are in serious trouble. I can hardly walk more than 500 metres without getting excrutiating pains in my lower legs, forcing me to rest.
We are completely cultured out and would quite like a few days on a beach to recover.
After getting arted-out in Florence, we headed back to Venice to catch our flight home. We stayed two more nights in Venice itself, this time in another expensive hotel near the railway station. Now we felt like Venice old-timers, and spent most of our time doing not much except exploring back streets on foot (well, as much as our aching feet would allow).
Our favourite places were Venice, Parma and Cortona, but we loved just about everything in Italy and would very much like to return one day. Next time, we'd like to go further south and perhaps look round Rome, the Amalfi coast, and Pompeii.
(1st October 2000)