The author Tim Parks has now added another volume to his informal sociological accounts of Italian life from an English perspective in a book called Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo, which I read with much pleasure.
This has prompted me to consider the Italian railway network as a whole which, although often seriously deficient as far as many commuters are concerned, is wonderfully laid out for those passengers (“passengers” please – not “customers”!!) without important deadlines to meet and who just want to travel to different parts of the peninsula cheaply and comfortably.
One can use the railways in Italy in a way which would be impossible in the UK. Although several rami secci (dead branches) has been cut (most notably the railway from Rimini to Urbino) the ghastly hand of a Doctor Beeching has not touched Italy’s railway system (largely because it was state-planned and not privately entrepreneured). This means that (for example) one does not have those terrible situations in the UK where, to get from Oxford to Cambridge (let alone Milton Keynes) one must travel to a London terminus and take the tube to get across to another terminus. There is no central hub such as one gets there since in Italy medium-to-large-sized urban centres are evenly spread throughout and there is true connectivity between all the places one likes to visit.
I am informed that rail fares in the UK have risen to disastrous levels and that it can cost more to travel to Birmingham from London that fly from thence to Pisa! For reference, it cost us Euros twenty-five to travel the two hundred kilometres from Bagni di Lucca to Genoa; the ticket was obtained from an automatic vending machine and we had reserved places as well on a fast-train. (Freccia Bianca).
Moreover, you can find alternative routes between two places. For example, to go to Bologna you can either take the old original Apennine Porretana railway or the newest high-speed one. To get to Genoa from Bagni di Lucca you can either head for Pisa and take the coast railway or continue on the Garfagnana line to Aulla and thence take the line from Parma through Sarzana.
And Genoa was where we headed yesterday. This city, beloved of Dickens, who found it a most captivating place as he writes in his Pictures from Italy: “the harbour, and the neighbouring sea, affords one of the most fascinating and delightful prospects in the world.” Dickens describes the houses near the landing wharfs as being very high, and of an infinite variety of deformed shapes, and with something hanging out of a great many windows, and wafting its frowsy fragrance on the breeze. Up steps, down steps, anywhere, everywhere: there are irregular houses, receding, starting forward, tumbling down, leaning against their neighbours, crippling themselves or their friends by some means or other, until one, more irregular than the rest, chokes up the way, and you can’t see any further. Not much seems to have changed since then, as our walk from the Railway station down the Via Du Pre demonstrates:
I have had the privilege of living and working in Genoa. In 1995, as part of a teacher exchange, I taught at a school in Sturla and, with the help of an arts teacher got to know this wonderful city intimately. I also must have caught the Italian bug big-time as well since my thoughts turned to living and working in Italy permanently, an ambition finally achieved in 2005.
But this time I was returning to Genoa to re-visit the aquarium which was quite new back then. The aquarium, built in 1992 as part of the five hundredth anniversary celebrations of Columbus’ “discovery” of America and designed by London shard-renowned Genoese architect Renzo Piano, was a major part of a project to regenerate the old harbour area which had miserably declined after the port had moved (as is so often the case in European cities, witness London) to a different part more capable of accommodating modern container vessels.
I am not particularly drawn to aquaria, finding them just a step removed from zoos, but my regard for Genoa’s version increased when it was part of a team which recently discovered severe exploitation of dolphins at a Rimini Acqua-park. The stressed-out dolphins were removed and are being rehabilitated here. The aquarium emphasised that dolphins are not for show and can be as much themselves as one could be if forced into a large tank for the rest of one’s life. Anyway the four seemed quite happy, especially at feeding time, (But then don’t all dolphins have that perpetual Tony-Blairish smile on their faces?)
The aquarium has lots of other things going for it including a fascinating manatee tank, penguins, jellyfish, lots of lusciously coloured tropical fish, the obligatory flat-fish tank and even a selection of reptiliana.
Some warnings, however; it is quite expensive, especially if you bring a whole family with you. Don’t leave your bags and coats in the cloakroom, you will be charged two euros for each item and you can’t stuff coats into your bags. Photography is a problem – no flash is allowed, quite rightly, and the lighting can be dim. Wear comfortable shoes as there’s a lot of walking to do (quite apart from the walking around Genoa). In fact, go to Genoa either to visit the old town or the aquarium and the naval museum nearby (which we didn’t manage this time.). And go during the week outside the summer hols, then – as we did – you can have whole fish-tank gazing to yourselves without much human obstruction.