THE Current Mrs Feeney and I are back home in Swansea after five days in Italy with The Daughter Who Left.
We stayed in a small privately-owned hotel in Rome’s city centre, just around the corner from Roma Termini rail station. The Anxious Owner was a constant presence, always wearing the same suit, dusty moustache, and the look of somebody who knows his staff are doing something they oughtn’t to be but can’t work out what it is. We never saw him smile.
On Tuesday we did all the tourist things in Rome: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Colosseum; you know the drill. This involved a great deal of walking; slightly more than 20kilometres – I know because The Daughter, who was wearing her Fitbit bracelet thingy, informed me with something approaching awe in her voice.
Also, because TCMrsF complained of blisters.
We went to see Pompeii the next day. We caught the 9.25am high-speed express from Termini to Napoli Centrale. It only cost 45Euros for all three tickets, and only took one hour to cover the 160-plus miles between the two cities. Our tickets guaranteed our seats. I was deeply impressed, and wondered why British trains weren’t like this.
Then we needed to catch a commuter train from Naples along the coast to Pompeii. We went to the ticket office to buy tickets.
“Pompeii? The archaeological site?” said the charming young woman behind the desk.
“Different company. Downstairs.”
It was our first lesson in Italian bureaucracy. It wasn’t to be our last.
Our tickets reserved about a square foot of floor space, from which you could grasp an overhead rail in an attempt to stop yourself from falling into the person jammed next to you as the train juddered to a halt at every suburban station. This felt more like British rail travel.
Pompeii was far bigger than we had expected; impossible to do it justice in a few hours. I recall especially the Forum and the Basilica, with their fallen monumental statues, including one of Icarus (left). For some reason, young women seemed very keen to have their photos taken standing just below his waist. I can’t imagine why.
Back in Naples we went upstairs (different company) to buy tickets back to Rome on the 6pm express. “I have no tickets left,” said the charming man behind the desk. “I can get you on the 6.40.”
“Yes please. Three tickets please.”
“Yes, that’s what we paid this morning,” said TCMrsF, handing over a 50Euro note.
“Forty five Euros each.”
I know inflation in Italy is higher than in the UK. But, still.
Compensation of sorts while we are waiting for the train. There is a piano on the platform forecourt. A man sits down at the piano stool and begins playing. Other men, middle-aged, obviously locals, gather around and start singing what sound like popular drinking songs. I think how extraordinary that a piano has been provided, or at least tolerated, by the station authorities – and that it hasn’t been vandalised.
I turn around to see The Daughter sat on a bench with a small dog on her knees. The dog’s owner, a tiny man, stands next to her, grinning with delight.
At the end of a long day, back in our hotel room, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would be a good idea.
On Friday, we queue for two hours in the morning to get into St Peter’s. A guide explains that there is always a long wait because entry to the church is free. He says the queues are shorter in the late afternoon, from around four o’clock. That’s the time we leave after several hours looking at the extraordinary religious and artistic treasures on display. The queue is even longer than in the morning; stretching out of the square and out of sight down the side streets.
We pay a last visit to the Trevi Fountain, which looks less impressive on this cloudy day, and buy ice creams. Another bureaucratic experience; we decide what size and flavours we want at the display counter, pay at the cash desk at the other end of the parlour (the bored cashier finishes her text message before agreeing to notice us), take our receipt back to the display counter, and give it to the assistant who joyfully accepts it and gives us our ice creams.
And this is still less protracted than buying a takeaway sandwich at another shop; there, we made our choice, received a ticket, took it to the cash desk, paid and received another ticket, took that ticket back to the man who had received our original order, who read the cash desk ticket carefully before giving us the sandwiches we’d asked him for five minutes earlier.
As fast food goes, it’s pretty slow. But the sandwiches and the ice creams were all delicious.
A crowded evening Metro train back to Termini, where TCMrsF discovers her bag is open and her money purse has disappeared. We try to report the theft to two men in uniforms in the station. They are not policemen. We try two more men, in uniforms and impressive berets. But they’re not policemen either. Eventually we are directed to a police station hidden away at the furthermost corner of the station.
The Carabinieri officer (cautious eyes, long grey beard) who takes the details says: “You are safe in Rome. But your things are not.”
The Daughter wonders if we’d like to know how many kilometres we covered looking for a policeman. We decide that we don’t.
At the end of a long day, back in our hotel, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would not be a good idea.
Waiting for our flight home on Saturday. A young man lays down his travel bags and sits at a baby grand piano standing in the concourse for departure Gate E. He begins to play. Some classical, some Adele. Italy; surprising and full of contrasts. Old and new. The luxury and the Naples slums. Maimed beggars on streets of beautiful young men and women.
What a fabulous week.