Off to the North!

Thankfully, there was much better luck with trains today as they all seemed to exist and were on time.  I woke up very early, before the sun had even risen and repackaged my bags to prepare for the pilgrimage I would set out on the next day.  To Italy, I brought with me one large-ish roller suitcase, one duffel bag that’s small enough to fit in the overhead bin of an airplane, and one new, hiking back-pack that was not too full of clothes so that I could fit it could count as my “personal item” on the flight over here.  I wasn’t going to take all these things on a walking pilgrimage of Italy, so I had to consolidate the items I wanted into the hiker’s backpack.  I had to fit the stuff I needed for 18 days of travel into the relatively small bag while making sure it wasn’t too heavy to carry around on the trip.  I erred on the side of caution and packed what is probably too much, making the bag very heavy.  The heaviest components by far were the electronic ones.  My laptop, camera, chargers, and voltage converters are all bulky and dense.  In what is perhaps a unintended metaphor for living in the modern world, I found that these things were taking up too much space.  I didn’t leave them behind, however, because they are my primary means of communicating with home, documenting the trip, and figuring things out if something doesn’t go to plan.  Oh well, I guess that’s life in modernity.

I walked the short trip from my hotel to the train station in order to drop off the bags I wasn’t taking with me in the luggage storage area.  I went in the office and even though I had already examined the regulations online, I looked at the signs they had posted explaining the rules.  When I read the first of these, my heart sank. It said that bags could not be left for more than 5 days at a time.  I didn’t know what to do; there was nowhere else I could leave the bag and I didn’t know how I would work it out if I had to come back to Florence every five days.  In hope of finding a different answer, I read the second sign.  This one was a little different and gave me some hope.  It claimed that after 60 days, uncollected luggage would be examined by the police and given away to charity.  This made me think I had a chance, but I had to be sure they weren’t going to throw my bag out when I was on my trip.  The guy at the counter looked at me expectantly even though he had his cell phone to his ear.  I asked him if I could leave a bag for more than five days and he explained to me that five euros got you six hours of storage time.  “No,” I replied.  “Can I leave the bag here for more than five days?”  “Sure,” he said, “no problem.”  I still wasn’t quite convinced so I pressed him, saying, “Can I leave this for three weeks?”  He responded in the affirmative and I passed the bag under the desk to him.  I decided not to tell him about the conflicting signs for fear that he might actually start applying the rules to the baggage area and get rid of my bag while I was gone.  This sort of situation is something else I have found common in Italy.  The rules for things like this either apply or not depending on the mood of the person in charge.

After this, I went to buy the train tickets I would need for the day.  There was a long line of people waiting, mostly tourists who didn’t know what was going on.  As I stood there, with my over-full backpack on my shoulders, I started to regret not putting more things in the other bag.  Just standing there was difficult and I couldn’t imagine carrying this bag the 300 kilometers or whatever it was I would be walking over the next few weeks.  I decided that I’d walk around with the pack in Florence before leaving and if I couldn’t carry all the weight, I would go and add some more things to my stored luggage.

Turns out all I needed was some food.  After I got a new Sim card for my Euro-phone, I wandered back past the front of Santa Maria del Fiore—more commonly known as the Duomo—and saw a long line of Spanish tourists coming out of a pizza shop.  I knew that it would likely be pretty expensive pizza, being on the piazza in front of the Duomo, but it looked really good so I decided to get some anyway.  I was content with getting just plain cheese, but then men started walking up from the basement with large trays of freshly baked pies.  One of these looked so good that I just had to try it.  I am not really sure what this sort of pizza was, but it had a normal cheese base with these meatballs on it—probably some kind of pork.  The pizza did not disappoint.  It was served in a very large square, and then chopped up on the counter by the server with what looked like some type of archaeological trowel.  I took the pizza out of the shop and walked on toward the train station.  I wanted a bench to sit on and knew just where I could find one.  I ended up sitting in the square outside Santa Maria Novella, a large basilica which serves as the primary Dominican church in Florence.  The building is an interesting mix of styles, with an intricate gothic façade adorning the Romanesque sacristy.  Inside is a treasure-trove of artworks, including frescoes and carvings by early renaissance masters.  For today, however, I was content to sit outside in the car-less piazza and eat my pizza.

After enjoying my lunch, the view, and the relative cool surrounding my bench, I walked back to the train station that shares its name with the beautiful church and was startled by the difference between the two sights.  While the Santa Maria Novella church is beautiful, the train station is anything but.  It looks like a gigantic public high school with flat, angular features.  Going inside doesn’t make things much better.  The square marble columns and bronze-ish lettering remind me a lot of fascist architecture, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the station was a product of Mussolini’s Italy of the 1930’s.  Although the station still looks fascist, it doesn’t retain one of the features of that era—the trains don’t run on time like they did back in Mussolini’s day.

Today that wasn’t a problem, and I made the long voyage to Aosta in North-West Italy.  To get there, I had to change trains twice—once at Milan and again at a small town called Chivasso.  I fell asleep on the last train and when I woke up everything had changed.  My cabin was now filled with hikers and their backpacks.  There was a French couple across from me and an Italian mother-daughter team behind.  It was very different from the group of business men and young ladies returning from their shopping trips on the train from Milan.  Outside it was totally green, not the usual brown shades of Tuscany or Lazio.  The tall, trimmed conifers had been replaced by wider varieties and deciduous trees.  The train wove its way through steep mountain passes and over milky-turquoise, rocky streams heading down from the Alps.  Even the houses looked a bit different.  The terra-cotta roofs of central Italian villas had been replaced by slate and other darker stones.  It truly looked as if we were in Switzerland or Austria.

I arrived in Aosta as it was getting dark which is why there are no pictures of the beautiful landscape here.  Having found my hotel, I discovered that the room has no air-conditioning, only a radiator by the window.  There’s no need for anything else, as the weather here is pleasantly cool.  I imagine this is a bustling place during the skiing season, but at the moment, I seem to be the only person in the hotel.  Seeing what I will be walking through tomorrow and the next few days on the train made me excited for the start of the pilgrimage.  It will be hard work, but at least I’ll be doing it in a beautiful place.

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~ by pminnig on August 30, 2011.

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