We found ourselves at the Siena train station with six bags, a Eurail pass, a hotel reservation in Barcelona, one and a half days to get there, and no clue how to do it. We had glossed over that part of our preparations, since we didn't have very good infomation on Italian train schedules; we figured, "Well, there must be a train from Firenze to Barcelona." The helpful attendant at the train station disagreed. He offered the information that there was an overnight train from Milan to Barcelona, but, after a lot of tapping at the computer and gesticulating, he announced that it only ran three days a week, and today was not one of those days. So we would have to find another way. He gave us directions that amounted to "Go to the French border, and ask someone there." When asked how one should get to the French border, he spouted a list of stations with eight-syllable names I had never heard before, and lost interest in us.
We were completely stymied. It was eight fifty-seven, and there was a train leaving for Firenze at nine. Should we get on it? Firenze, although a big city, was definitely not one of the stations the decreasingly helpful attendant had mentioned. Should we take a later train going towards Pisa? For a brief yet interminable moment, we had absolutely no idea what to do. Therefore, we pursued all options simultaneously. We ran to one train, started to get on, changed our minds, dragged our bags down some stairs, up some stairs, started to get onto another train, asked a conductor where it was going (the reply: "Abradociadantimantiabillacamentabaccia"), changed our minds again, dragged our bags down some stairs, up some stairs, and got onto the train to Firenze just as it started pulling out of the station. We rode along for a while, until we reached a station where two lines crossed and I realized in a flash of clarity that we needed to go the other direction, so we jumped off and jumped onto another train that was just pulling out of the station going the other way. In this manner, we eventually reached Pisa.
In Pisa we had just enough time to figure out which train would take us to Genova, on the way to the French border. We hopped on that train and bounced back and forth between windows in hopes of seeing the famous tower. As we pulled out of the city, we got a glimpse of some scaffolding that looked oddly askew, far off in the middle of town, and figured that that must be it. Thus concluded the lamest sightseeing episode of my life. I took pictues of Annelie instead.
We were happy to be on a train going, well, towards Spain, anyway. We were less happy to be on a train without air-conditioning, despite the numerous signs imploring us not to open the window because of the air-conditioning. We decided to go with our senses and not the rules (this was Italy, after all, not, say, Germany) and opened the window. This led to a slight amelioration of our otherwise extraordinary discomfort in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. We had intended to "do some work on the train" (a virtual fiction, we have since learned, akin to "Oh, I'll get a lot of work done at the airport" and "I plan to use the summer to catch up on my course reading"), but all we could do was mop our brows and watch the Italian coastal scenery go by.
We were impressed by how mountainous the Italian coast was. There were layers and layers of dark-blue ridges leading up from the coast toward the piedmont, and eventually toward Switzerland.
At first, the mountains were far off to the east, occasionally dotted with hilltop towns and big fortified structures. Then the mountains slunk down to meet the sea, and we began to go through tunnels. Again and again, we dove without warning into pitch black, deliciously cool tunnels bored into craggy mountains separating tiny towns. We would be underground for up to a minute at a time, and then suddenly burst out into sunlight and the blue flash of the Mediterranean.
The first glimpse of the sea is always a thrill. We had been in Italy for nearly a week but had not seen the sea which gives it its boot shape. Then, suddenly, it was there. But we only saw it for moments at a time, as we darted between tunnels--a rather Zen experience at seventy miles per hour. This coast was fascinatingly dotted with little villages built right into the rock, wasting no space at all, in an attempt to live as close to the sea and in as much shade as possible. The steep cliffs, the buildings stuccoed onto their feet, and the colorful fishing boats produce a result that tourists understandably find transfixing.
As we moved north, the coast became more developed and more populated; we moved through larger and larger towns, a bit grittier but still charming with their pink walls, tiled roofs, and lines of palms.
One curious event on that long train ride was the one that never happened: No conductor ever came to check our tickets. In fact, since we had a compartment to ourselves, no one even spoke to us during the several hours we sat there dabbing our brows and accidentally taking pictures of telephone poles. For all Trenitalia knew, we could have been carrying kilos of cocaine, crates of hand grenades, a whole Rumanian family. Oddly, I felt slightly cheated, since I had a ticket. Of course, had I not had a ticket, I would have been thrilled. This is similar to another train-related phenomenon I have noticed: You are hurrying to catch a train, be it long-distance train, commuter rail, or subway. You run to the platform and see your train sitting there; it hasn't left yet. You think "Oh please don't leave yet, please don't leave yet, please don't leave yet!" You run to the train, get on, find a seat, and immediately start with "OK, come on, let's go, let's go, what are we waiting for?"
We arrived in Genova not knowing exactly what the next step was. Well, actually we knew that the next step was to have an espresso, but about everything after that we were slightly unclear. We needed to get to Ventimiglia, at the French border, and somehow get onto an overnight train, preferably one with soft horizontal surfaces other than overweight tourist stomachs. We waited in line at the information desk, behind two groups of Americans, and in front of two groups of Americans. All of them spoke English to the beleaguered old men at the desk, so I resolved to be the American Who Spoke Italian, Dammit. Sadly, resolution is not the same as preparation, so while I was able to carry out a lenghty interaction in Italian, I was unable to follow exactly all that was said. So I left with a clear sense of self-righteousness and a misty apprehension of what I should do.
We decided to jump on the next train to the French border and, well, ask someone there. So when a nice-looking Intercity train pulled in, we elbowed our way past the four hundred other Americans on the platform and climbed onto the first-class car, followed by the four hundred other Americans. It appeared that a great many people--probably with first-class Eurail tickets just like ours--had had the same idea, that of jumping on this train without a reservation. However, the local Trenitalia patrons--those crafty devils--had outsmarted us all by actually reserving seats on the train, with the result that there was nowhere for us gate-crashers to sit. We tugged, pushed, and crammed our way past dozens of seated and would-be-seated passengers (including two British women with overlarge bags, one of whom said to the other with a laugh, "Well, it doesn't so much matter if we kill a couple of them now and then, does it?") with our half-dozen bags, and finally gave up, settling into a heap in the little compartment between cars. We had no seats, but at least we had a window, and no one bothering us. Until, that is, people came into our little nether space and started smoking. Annelie killed a couple of them, and the rest fled.
After a couple of stops at the ritzier towns, the reserved seats started to empty out some, and we were able to get two seats in a spacious, Swiss-designed, first-class car with windows that wrapped up over part of the roof and must have been fantastic for seeing the Alps. We used them for seeing the rain falling on the Ligurian Riviera, with hot, gaseous rainclouds filtering the light over the silhouetted hills to the north, and patterns of light silver on dark silver stretching out to the horizon to the south. But we were just so happy to have seats, we would have been just as content riding through Yonkers.
By the time we arrived in Ventimiglia, we had a plan. When the train arrived, Annelie watched our bags while I ran to the ticket window to reserve two couchettes for us on an overnight train to Barcelona. I ran because I imagined the other 400 American tourists all trying to do the same thing. In fact, I was wrong: there were plenty of free beds on the train. Either we were being much smarter than the rest, or much dumber, or perhaps in reality not all tourists in Europe were converging on Barcelona, as they were in my imagination.
Furnished with reservations, we found we had enough time to go and eat in a proper restaurant. We found a nice quiet one and were seated next to a table of very loud young Americans. So, with no outward signal being given, we both instantly became Swedish. Now, my Swedish is not that good, but my accent is OK, so I can fool Americans easily enough, at least for a few minutes. And since these people were on their dessert already, I figured they would be gone soon. But, as the evening wore on and the effort of making conversation in convincing Swedish began to weigh heavily, I came to the realization that the other people were waiting for the same train as us. I felt like the adulterous lover hiding under the bed where the husband has decided to go to sleep. The other group didn't leave until we did, fortified by the pasta but exhausted (at least in my case--Annelie was having a grand old time) by the linguistic impersonations.
When we got to our train and found our sleeping compartment (with great relief, we found that the train was a French one, and the attendants spoke French, which seemed extraordinarly easy after Italian and Swedish--I wanted to spout Valéry poems, except I didn't know any), we learned that we would be sharing our compartment with--go ahead, guess--some Americans! For a brief and horrifying moment, I thought they might be the same ones I had taken great pains to convince that I was Swedish, but luckily, I was spared the need to speak Swedish all night, since it was just a nice young couple who went right to bed. I was relieved, since I was out of spoons.
After we had a nice chat with the conductor about the fact that our sheets were surprisingly damp (we got some less-surprisingly damp ones instead), we settled down for the night and slept remarkably well. In the morning, we were in Spain.