Posted in Learning, Travel

Trains, bidets and Renoir

Trains. Go first class. Not that second class is bad, but go first class.

I travelled first class from Paris to Avignon. When I got to the station, and was starkly reminded of the soldiers with big guns who scarily patrol the stations (and decline to be photographed … no, I didn’t ask, but I saw a man ask and the soldier shook his head in a severe I’ve-got-a-very-dangerous-job-to-do kind of way), I noticed (well, I could hardly miss) hordes of people standing facing the same direction. I searched for the performers, thinking there was a spot of street performance happening, but couldn’t see anything, so searched some more for a reason for people to be standing in a crowd all looking at the same thing.

I followed their gaze and saw that they were looking at the departure board. I wondered why. Not long after, I found out. The voie (platform) the train leaves from is only posted about 10-15 minutes before the train leaves and so you have to watch the board and then scramble for your train (particularly if it’s at the end of the station, or if your carriage is at the other end of the platform).

So that’s one thing I learnt.  Oh, and by the way, ‘voie’ in Italian is binari. Just as I learnt that ‘exit’ in French is ‘sortie’ while in Italian it’s ‘uscita’. It’s a very handy thing to know when you’re on the train station wondering which way to go. When a shop is open in Italy it’s aperto, when it’s closed it’s chiuso (the same goes for biglietteria), and when you have to push the door open you ‘spingere’ it (or in France you poussez – which is good to know when you’re in a tiny cabinet lift and the inner doors open and there’s another door with “poussez” written on it) and if you have to pull the door you “tirare” it.

Anyway, Paris to Avignon. In France the platforms and the trains are the same height, so you don’t have to step up to get into the train. In Italy, il binari are very low and there are three steps to get up into the train. This is a little difficult with a suitcase, a backpack and a handbag. Not impossible of course, just takes a special knack. The conductor – oh yes, that’s one thing I haven’t made it to yet – they have conductors on trains – anyway, the conductor at Pavia station (smoking) helped a man with his (very small in comparison) bag. I heaved mine, being the independent woman that I am, by myself while the conductor and the man he helped looked on. Grazie, for nothing … I said in my head.

Back to the Paris to Avignon train. The compartment was a one way compartment – meaning that you couldn’t walk through it, and it was quiet and felt secluded. ‘The bar’ (of the snack variety) was next door and the toilet was close by. The seats are comfortable and recline in such a way that doesn’t have the person behind you with a seat two inches from their face the way airplane seats in recline do. There’s a footrest and a table that folds down and a little rubbish bin just for you. There’s also space to store your luggage easily. The seats are wide and the headrests are a good size for resting your head.  All in all a very comfy trip.

I was in second class from Ventimiglia to Pavia. The usual three big, narrow steps up to the train. Heave, push, got it. The train is like a Harry Potter train – it has an aisle down the right hand side and little compartments seating six on the left. Each little compartment has a door which you can shut off if you like. Three smaller seats face each other with enough space to play knee-sies with the person opposite. The chairs next to the window have little tables and there’s a little rubbish bin for the fairies who travel on the train. There are two sets of racks above – the bigger rack, for the bigger luggage, is the higher one (about six foot from the floor) and the smaller rack, for smaller luggage, is the closest one (about 1.5 metres from the floor). On the tips of my toes, using my head and my hands, I finally managed to get my big bag on to the big bag rack and then flung my backpack onto the other way. I’m an independent woman, travelling independently.

Unlike the pretty young thing with a tiny bag who got in at San Remo. Spray tanned to within an inch of her life, eyelashes weighed down with mascara, rings and bracelets and things that went jingle jangle when she moved … how long do you think it took the bloke next to me to help her with her bag? Oh about 0.42768 seconds! His girlfriend and I exchanged glances. Yup, we both agreed. He’s a chump.

So there we were. The Russian on my left, the pretty young Italian girl on my right, opposite her an older woman reading from what looked like a University reader and taking meticulous notes, a Moroccan or Algerian lad opposite me, and the Russian’s Japanese girlfriend. There was a ring-ring down the corridor and along comes a man with a cart selling food and drinks. No one bought anything. The Russian man read Russian things on his iPad and took photos of his Japanese girlfriend while she slept. The Italian girl read a love story in Italian and then watched a movie on her laptop. The older woman worked studiously, the Algerian/Moroccan boy listened to wailing kind of music in his headphones, but it was so loud we all listened as well, and the Japanese girl slept on and off. Lots of very long tunnels, and in between the periods of darkness were glimpses of the Mediterranean, beaches and some wonderful houses. Alassio caught my eye – I’d like to have a closer look some day. I travelled backwards until we reached Genova and then forwards from there to Pavia.

First class from Milan to Verona. A lady came around with a trolley and when faced with a blank expression gave me a refresher towelette, perhaps to help refresh my language skills. The drinks and food were free. First class is good!!

Bidets. I didn’t come across them in France but in each of the hotels I’ve stayed in in Italy there’s been a bidet in the bathroom. I have to say … I’ve become a bit of a fan. It’s quite simple really …there’s a plug (with a lever behind the tap so that you don’t have to put your hand in the water to pull it out) and a tap. I found that I didn’t need the plug – it was good just to have the water spraying. I can wriggle around to make sure it sprays all parts and I can control how hot/warm/cold the water is. It’s a good size and as the ones I’ve used so far have been opposite the toilet so I can sit on that while I wash them.

Yes, my feet you goose!  What do you think the bidet’s for?

Renoir. I was walking up corsa Cavour in Pavia yesterday afternoon when I saw a banner advertising a Renoir exhibition. I noted the details and kept walking. I came across the university and was slightly puzzled. It turned out I wasn’t walking up corso Cavour at all, but was in fact walking up corso Strada Nuova (which happens to run at 90 degrees to corso Cavour so you can understand my puzzlement). I went in. To the university that is. It’s nothing like the university of Tasmania. UTAS might be the third or fourth oldest university in Australia, but the University of Pavia was founded in 1361 and there is mention of an institute of higher learning in Pavia in 825! There was a position (a chair, no less) in Italian eloquence in the early 19th century – how’s that for a role! I’ve put up a photo of UP on the Travel Photos page.

So, Renoir. Nothing to do with UP, but it was there I saw the banner. The exhibition was on at the Castello Visconteo, not far from where I was staying. Or so I thought. But it was an interesting walk. The Castello is an ugly building at first sight – it looks like a big (big) barn, but then the more I looked at it the more I grew to like it. There’s another building I came across in my wanders yesterday afternoon and that’s the Duomo, which is a very similar style. I’m not sure if either building has been rebuilt but the castello was originally built in 1361 or thereabouts.

Renoir. On the bottom floor – in the scuderie (the stables) – was the Renoir exhibition. There are signs on the outer walls so that sitting or leaning on the mangers was not allowed. It really was the stables!! A group of children (about 5 or 6 years old) was visiting the exhibition and being given very detailed information about the paintings. I wondered if it explained the amount of time the adults took in front of each painting – they didn’t just glance at it and walk on, they examined each piece, discussing aspects with those around them. There seemed to be a real appreciation for the works, and they didn’t mind getting up close and looking in detail.

When I bought my ticket I was given a little container of coffee and the girl explained that there are coffee machines where I could make myself a cup  of coffee. Mum, they were like the machines at Helene’s last year. I didn’t make myself a coffee of course, but I thought it was a lovely gesture. I then went upstairs to the Museo Civici. It was amazing … no English interpretation so I couldn’t understand any of it, but the rooms were amazing – the frescos, the artefacts … amazing.

I’m now in Verona … and despite (my son) Daniel’s warning of gang violence (between the Montagues and Capulets) I feel pretty safe that there won’t be any biting of thumbs … not by me anyway.

As people in Australia are waking up, I’ll say buona notte. It’s a late one for me!!