Jan. 18, 2016: Marseille to Pisa
Off at 7:00 this morning, after saying goodbye to our host, Simon. It’s about an hour later than when we rolled into town yesterday, but it still isn’t daylight yet. As we make our way through the narrow streets and alleys toward a (different) train station, we pass merchants opening up their little storefronts and setting goods on the sidewalk.
Most of these merchants seem to be Middle Eastern, and this sector of town has the feel of a bazaar. Perhaps some of the negative PR we’ve read about Marseille was prompted by anti-Muslim sentiment, as there’s been a big influx of Muslims into the city in recent years. In any case, it seems that what we’ve stumbled upon here is the real heart and soul of the city.
On to the station, where we begin a day full of trains – 4 of them altogether. That may not sound very exciting to some people, but we’re ready to rest our feet a bit, and we love train rides. I have many fond memories of railing across America on Amtrak. We even named our son Zephyr, after the particularly splendid rail line between San Francisco (actually Oakland) and Chicago that I have ridden so many times. (That used to be my way of getting around, since I was terrified of flying.) There’s no better way to get an overview of the country, any country, than through the windows of a train.
After two and a half hours, we have a train change in Nice. And although we don’t see much of it except the station and a couple of streets near it, Nice looks rather… well, nice. We hope to be able to spend a little time here next time we’re in the neighborhood.
The next train takes as on an hour-long jaunt across the border into Italy. First we whiz through the ritzy French seaside resort town of Cannes, and even from what little we can glimpse of it, it’s easy to get a sense of why it became home of the most celebrated film festival in the world. We also get a distant glimpse of the Alps, apparently an imposing presence throughout much of Europe. Oh, for an extra day and a pair of skis.
We also pass through the fabled resort town of Monte Carlo, where many fortunes have been won and lost at the casino. But we see very little of it except the tunnel our train threads, and which shields us from the distant whirring of roulette wheels and clattering dice.
Our next stop is Ventimiglia, where we have a 90-minute layover. It’s long enough to get out and stroll around, and it’s the first time I’ve ever set foot in Italy, which allegedly was the starting point of my ancestors. [Subsequent genealogical research and DNA mapping would cast serious doubts on this long-held assumption; it now seems more probable that the clan launched in France, Germany, Austria or The Netherlands.] And when it comes to first places to tread on Italian soil, Ventimiglia takes the prize in my book. It’s not very big and it’s certainly not a tourist trap (though it does have its attractions, including the ruins of an ancient theatre). But it seems to be the “real” Italy, an unpretentious and old-fashioned coastal village with men fishing, people working in their gardens, and lots of laundry hanging out to dry.
We drop in at the post office to make another attempt at mailing the gift we bought in Paris for our son, and we encounter a rather confusing system of taking a number. Each number is prefaced by one of 8 letters, each corresponding to a different station offering different types of service. There are also chairs for customers to sit while waiting, which is something we don’t recall seeing at any post office anywhere.
None of the other customers speak any English, but we somehow figure out which station to go to. Unfortunately, the postal workers behind the counter only know about a syllable of English between them, and our Italian isn’t up to snuff yet. It was Kimberly’s task to cram on Italian in the limited time we had, though I recall a few phrases from the days when I was taking voice lessons and studying opera – I actually even took a semester of Italian in college, though that’s been a couple of moons ago.
Somehow we manage to fumble our way through the process, purchasing a box that’s several sizes too big for the gift, which thumps around inside, but it’s the closest they had. The cost of the box plus the postage equals more than we paid for the gift itself, but hey, it’s not every day that we get to send our son a package from Europe. [He’ll finally receive it about 3 months later, after we’ve pretty much given up on it.]
Finally, it’s onto another train bound for our next stop, Genoa. We notice that the WC on this train is on the direct deposit system; hence the sign next to the toilet urging you not to use it at or near a station. If you’re especially curious or especially bored you can actually peer into the toilet and see the track zipping by below. Or so they say.
In Genoa we have a bit of a layover, but not enough to do much exploration beyond the immediate vicinity of the station. We do, however, go into a café inside the station and catch up on some wi-fi. I also catch up on some decaf coffee – real brewed decaf, not that Americano crap – and it’s outstanding. Even more amazing, it only costs 1.10 euro. Even more amazing still, the café is a franchise joint, somewhat like a cross between a Starbucks and a Panera, but with much more elaborate brewing apparatus than either. It looks like Italy is the place to come if you want good coffee.
We learn that our Airbnb host in Florence, where we’ll be in just a few days, has cancelled on us; so we have to scramble to line up another one. Given the short notice, we go for an Instant Book host. Normally, you submit a booking request and the host has 24 hours to either confirm or decline (we didn’t have any decline, and it’s probably not common). But a few of them offer the Instant Book option. We select one of these and nail it down. It’s a few dollars more than the 30 dollar limit we try to adhere to, but it sounds like a good place and good host; and it’s very conveniently located. We wonder how often these cancellations occur, and hope we’ve met our quota.
Then it’s the final leg, and a very pleasant one, of our long day’s trek to Pisa. After we board a train, we always have to show our Eurail pass and our tickets (if we’ve had to make reservations which is usually the case) to the conductor, as well as a schedule on which we fill out the departure, destination, time, and train number for each excursion. Kimberly normally enters this info, and has the documents ready to present, before the conductor comes around, but sometimes he catches us off guard, and she has to go through the awkward maneuver of retrieving the documents from the pouch which she keeps tucked into her pants.
The Eurail pass, by the way, entitles up to first class passage on most trips. Which means plenty of leg room, outlets for our devices, and usually some kind of table – either a large one in front of us or a small one on the side. Sometimes we get a complimentary beverage and in some cases even a snack.
We arrive at the station in Pisa shortly after dusk, having spent all of our daylight hours in transit. After waiting about 10 minutes, we’re greeted by Alessandro, our host for the next two nights. We get into his tiny car and he drives us rather ferociously through Pisa to his apartment.
Alessandro is a jovial young man who works as a research librarian. He says he’s tired of Pisa, having lived here for many years, but for various reasons he can’t move just yet. His car stereo is playing opera, about which he and I indulge in an animated conversation. The opera playing is Il Trovatore, which I’m quite familiar with, having performed in it a couple of times in a previous life. When a rousing soldiers’ chorus begins, I start singing along, and he joins me as we dash through the streets of Pisa. It doesn’t get much more Italian than this.
The apartment sits on a street named after Lord Byron, the British poet who spent a great deal of time in Italy. This time, we have a roomy room specifically designated for guests. It looks like a dormitory room, barren except for two single beds, a table with two chairs, and a radiator.
Alessandro has to go out tonight to attend – of all things – a theatrical rehearsal. He’s performing in an amateur group that makes extensive use of improv.
After he leaves, we have dinner and take our showers, discovering that there is a limited supply of hot water. The bathroom, by the way, features a bidet, supposedly commonplace in Europe, but the first we’ve seen. Since there is, once again, a washing machine but no clothes dryer, we wash out some underwear and socks by hand (no, not in the bidet) and hang them to dry by the radiator.
Settling in for the night, we find our room warm enough at first, but after we’ve gone to bed, it starts getting chilly. When Alessandro comes home, close to midnight, I ask him about the heat and he points out the control box in the hall. Once again, we’re in business. But in the middle of the night I get cold again, and go out into the hall to see that the heat is off. That’s when I realize that the controls are actually operated on a timer, and this time I give us plenty of time.
Tomorrow, a scenic side trip from Pisa.