I wake up briefly, at about half past four in the morning, as the train groans to a stop and eases itself off again, like an old man cajoling himself up from a park bench. It’s due to stop at Dijon, pass through the Simplon tunnel and call at a few northern Italian towns before Firenze (Florence) and later Rome. I wonder vaguely where we are, and go back to sleep. At seven my alarm goes off, and judging from the houses I can see under the blind, we are definitely in Italy. The train is due into Firenze at 7.15 but we left Paris late when the attendant comes round at half past seven with our passports, he tells me that it will be another half hour before we arrive. Ten minutes later we pull into a station and I glance idly to see the name. Firenze Campo di Marte. Aargghh. Fortunately we have our bags packed and are able to stagger out before the train chugs on to Rome.
From the air alone we would know we were in Italy. It’s still cold, and there is frost on the tracks. We know this cold. For the final seven or eight months that we lived in Italy, we rented a farmhouse in the Mugello, the hills north of the city, and caught the train into this station for Christmas shopping and for G to play rugby. But there’s nothing much to see, other than the pitch, and we catch the next train for the seven minute journey into the central station, Santa Maria Novella. There I fail to find a fornaio to buy plain bread so we breakfast on the leftovers from our French picnic supper – Roquefort, tomatoes and those ubiquitous sandwiched biscuits with chocolate in the middle. To be strictly accurate I have the tomatoes and G had the biscuits, so it isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds. While G. digests the gastronomic feast, I go for a quick gallop around the city, armed with camera, thus:
When I come back, G. goes to catch his train for Pisa and I wait at the station to meet Timea, the export manager of the Italian publishers Giunti. I’ve dealt with Giunti since we first started our online Italian bookshop (now www.crystalbard.com ) and Timea has been especially helpful, efficient and friendly. It is the first time we’ve met and we recognize one another immediately. We go to a new Giunti bookshop in Firenze and browse around together – I can’t think of a much better way of getting to know someone, unless it’s indulging in coffee and apricot tart at a corner café, which is what we do next. After that we go out to the Villa Giunti, the firm’s headquarters north of Firenze, towards Fiesole. It’s probably the most beautiful house I’ve ever visited in Italy, with ancient wall-paintings, a light gallery where the art and children’s departments work and a perfect library with huge windows opening on to the olive-strewn hills. I’m mostly lost for words, in any language, but nod as I’m welcomed and shown around with delicate Italian courtesy.
Back in Firenze I buy a ticket for Lucca at one of the automatic machines. It not only gives me the option of buying a ticket within Italy or internationally, suggesting the destination when I type L, U… but tells me the times of the next few trains and asks which I would like to take. The journey, as all Italian train tickets tell you, is 78km long, I have no eligibility for reductions, and have not booked in advance. So the price would be … imagining a similar situation in the U.K…. five euro. The train leaves in half an hour, as I have just missed one by seconds, but is already at the platform and I can get straight on and settle into one of the clean and comfortable seats. Looking around I see that special litter bins are marked inside the carriage for recycling of paper and cans. It’s the sort of detail we imagine in the Netherlands or Germany, but are rightly ashamed to find the laid-back Italians doing these things so much better than we can. The journey is smooth, quiet and quick, and I am soon back in Lucca, where we lived for a year and a half, and to which I cannot stop myself returning.
I’ve booked into the Hotel Rex, this time, next to the station and with precious wireless internet. The Rough Guide is a bit sniffy about it, complaining of a lack of atmosphere, but the staff are all exactly what most of us hope for, friendly and helpful without being pushy, and the rooms spacious and imaginatively furnished.
Mine is a bit dark, being at the back of the hotel looking out on a narrow alley, but we can’t all be at the front, and it is well-lit and a generous size for a single booking. To my mild surprise the wireless internet, which is free, works first time as soon as I get a username and password from reception, and I’m able to catch up with M, who is valiantly holding the fort at home, including snuffly son and missing books.
Later I go out to walk around the broad walls that circle the city, planning to pick up some bread, olives and water to supplement the remaining Roquefort. Distracted by memories, I am confused by a new chldren’s playground and come down from the walls too early, walking around the road for the rest of the way. But if I hadn’t, I would have missed the typical Lucchese sight; a young man cycling, in the chaotic rush hour, along the busy ring road, baby (six months at the most) in a carrier in front of him, while his golden labrador trotted along, also on the road, at the end of a sturdy lead. There are so many ways of travelling about, given a little courage and imagination.