Italians and trains are not a good mix

So you try and do the right thing. Save the planet, they say. Stop taking planes everywhere. Relax on a train and arrive refreshed. Some of that is true as long as you don’t end up in Italy. Once the Italian service industry strikes, there’s no going back.

When I originally booked the tickets for our return from Venice to Paris, the Man in Seat 61 informed me that I seriously did not want a couchette which is a six berth cabin. As a child or grotty teenager, you don’t mind sharing with complete strangers but as adults…well you like to think you’ve earned a certain amount of privacy and dignity. So I tried to book a double berth for Friday. The train was booked out of two berths and only had couchettes.

We almost changed our minds about the trip at this stage (or if only…) but decided to try coming back a day early and spending it in Paris. I went back into the mire that is the Italian railway booking system and I found one! I squealed with delight. A double berth. Just us in (relative) comfort, chugging through the night to Paris Bercy (a station we’d not yet visited.

Passengers eagerly waiting to be disappointed

Imagine my horror when we climbed aboard the train to find we’d been allocated a six berth couchette, sharing with a French couple who also believed they had booked a double. All along the carriage, people were saying the same. There was a lot of confusion and no help from any staff. In fact the French couple asked a couple of guys in uniform if they were part of the train crew and they said no. We then saw them on the train as we headed for Milan. It’s quite frustrating being irate when there’s no-one around to berate.

At the end of each carriage there is a small cabin with a single bunk which is for sick people. It’s very basic but at least it’s private. I put Mirinda and the luggage in there and went in search of someone in authority. I figured maybe I could find out why the carriages were attached wrong or if I could upgrade to first class. The only person I found was a tiny woman covered in her bits and pieces of authority – a whistle, a stick with a flag on it, a bunch of keys and a hat – but she ignored me. Eventually I returned to Mirinda in the hospital wagon and we discussed our plans as the train pulled out of Venice station.

It was a sad way to end our stay in Venice. Being disappointed in the Smelly City had meant I was rather looking forward to the novelty of catching a sleeper train to Paris. And the smell was pretty bad today as it was the hottest so far. I can only imagine (and hope I never experience) the stench in the height of summer. The sight of hundreds of gondola riding tourists who have paid an absolute fortune to glide morosely down an open sewer would be a little bit more than I could bear. I’m really not sure why people would not only willingly subject themselves to it but also be pleased to pay ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege.

Don’t get me wrong, today was not all bad. We decided to attempt a visit to the Doge’s Palace and even managed to rise early enough to beat the crowds. I’m very glad we did. It’s an amazing place. And just shows how inhumane people can be while patting themselves on the back and keeping the rest of us firmly under the thumb. At least now that Venice is a crumbling, smelly wreck, we peasants can see the grandeur with which these awful people surrounded themselves.

Looking down into the courtyard of the Doge's Palace, Venice

There is some truly wonderful art in the Palace: Titian, Bellini, a humanist called Battista to name but three. But it nearly all celebrates the triumph of the aristocracy over everyone else. As people ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ through the rooms it’s like the propaganda still works. I don’t mean admiration for the artistic skills and beauty of the imagery; I mean the fact that some visitors think the people who had these painted were superior somehow because they were rich and locked themselves away from the real smell of the city.

Apart from the socialist rant, I did enjoy the palace. The crowds were just manageable and we wandered all over. The highlight was the biggest room I think I’ve ever been in (excluding entertainment spaces). Truly incredible. 50 metres long by 25 metres wide.

After a very pleasant visit with the Doge, we went out to St Mark’s Square, thinking we might take a coffee, listen to the duelling orchestras and watch the crowds grow steadily more compact. We sat down at a near empty café and our attention was immediately directed to the part of the menu that said we had to pay €5.90 on top of anything we wanted to consume for the honour of listening to the orchestra. It occurred to me later that I should have feigned deafness to see whether we could have avoided paying it. We left and went to one of the cafes without the orchestra.

This menu had nothing about the orchestra but did charge a ridiculous amount for a small cup of coffee – Mirinda thinks this was a surreptitious way of charging for an orchestra they didn’t have. We left St Mark’s Square and found a lovely little bar in town that charged proper money for a drink. It’s interesting that the cafes in St Mark’s Square are virtually all empty. You can hear the orchestras just by walking or standing around. There are some fools who pay but not many. If any one cafe dropped its prices to a realistic level, they would be packed. But this is Venice and everything must be expensive. Apparently.

We went back to the flat for a bit to relax after the palace tour and then went in search for lunch, which we had in the shade of a big church wall, watching tourists arrive or leave and locals walking their dogs. I ordered a pizza and they went and collected a takeaway one from a restaurant around the corner. It was fine just a bit typical.

Our lunch view, above the heads of the crowds

After lunch it was time for church of the day. And boy, did we pick a horrid place. I visit a lot of churches. I love the architecture, the art works, the symbolism…in fact I love everything except the religion stuff. This place however, was awful. Apart from charging people to enter (something you sort of get used to) the interior is a collection of over large celebrations of artists. There is little religion in the Basilica S Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari. In fact I’m thinking of dropping the pope a line about the awful place.

This was not a church but a museum. While you’re not allowed to take photographs, visitors were happily snapping away at everything including the candles that someone had lit for someone’s soul. This woman extraordinarily, moved a candle because it didn’t look right in the photograph she then had her partner take.

The Mary Chapel was a temporary home to a large group of tourists and their guide, all sitting in the front rows of what is supposed to be a place of sanctuary and prayer.

I’m not going to go on any more about this place because it just makes me angry how hypocritical these people are with their religion versus tourism philosophy. It’s a pity there’s no hell because I reckon there’s a few of these people who’d be going.

Disappointed and gradually getting more so, we went back to the flat to pack and catch a vaporetto to the station. I have to say, I’ve quite enjoyed the boat thing. It’s ridiculously expensive if you only want a single ticket but if you plan well enough, the 24 hour ticket is excellent value if you use a lot of them. It should be mandatory as it’s the only bargain in the place.

And so, back on the train at the beginning of its 13 hour journey to Paris…a guy in a uniform and spiky hair told us we’d have to move out of the sick cabin. I told him my wife was sick. he appeared not to want to argue the point and left. A shame as I was quite up for an argument. I figured he’d probably already had it with the other disgruntled hordes travelling with us.

We weighed up our options.

Option 1 – stay on the train
Option 2 – don’t stay on the train

It didn’t take long. We took Option 2. Besides we tried to get into the six berth cabin we were booked into but the French couple had barricaded the door against any intrusion. They weren’t sharing with anyone. Least of all us.

Mirinda took out her trusty iPhone and, her head in my lap as she lay on the bunk and I slouched against the window, booked us into a hotel in Milan. It was four star and very close to the station. We had decided to book a flight home in the morning from the hotel because we figured a four star hotel would definitely have wi-fi.

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