Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Day 1 - Washington-Milan-Florence

Rather than a smooth, flowing moving picture, today’s account of our adventure is a choppy, jerky series of still images, garnered from snatches of consciousness and punctuated by periods of deep, if unrestful sleep. It is a travel day, from Washington, DC to Florence, by way of Philadelphia, Frankfurt and Milan,
but despite nearly 36 hours of planes, trains and automobiles (not to mention Pullmans), we have arrived at our favorite destination in the world – Florence.

Not much noteworthy to report on the flight over, other than the inevitable hassle that occurs when one flies on a codeshare operated flight, which has, unfortunately, become more common as the struggling airlines seek ways to increase their revenues. We have booked our tickets through US Air, having snagged a ridiculously low business class fare, but the routing takes us across most of western Europe, which is tolerable given the width and pitch of the seats, with two of the flights operated by US Air and one by its codeshare partner, Lufthansa. While US Air is happy to collect the ticket revenue for the Lufthansa-operated segment (Frankfurt to Milan), they act utterly powerless to help out with such mundane details as getting us seats together on the Lufthansa flight. They seem to be asking for the ugly American to rear his ugly head.

No worries, however. The flights go smoothly, other than an incredibly loud and possibly drunk woman sitting across the aisle from us on the Philadelphia-Frankfurt segment, who keeps her seatmate, aislemates, cabinmates and, probably, flightmates, all up to date on all the details in her miserable, unnoteworthy life. Thank goodness for the amenity kit provided by the airline, with its earplugs and eyeshades. With one earplug inserted (on the conversation side of my head) and noise-cancelling headphones blaring Louis Prima tunes, I am just about able to drown out her droll dithering.

We are excited that our multi-hour layover in Frankfurt will be eased by a visit to the Sheraton airport hotel, compliments of US Air. After toting our carryon bags for a mile or two we arrive in the lobby and the front desk attendant begins to arrange a day room for us, where we can shower, get an internet connection and check in on the fate of our beloved Red Sox.

Disappointment greets us, however, when she returns to tell us that there are no rooms available. We trudge back to our gate and after another mile or so, aided by dozens of fifty foot segments of moving sidewalk, we enter the Lufthansa business class lounge where half the German population seems to have called seatbacks, taking nearly every chair, couch or stool. After a protracted search we do find a couple of seats and also discover that the lounge also has a shower facility, which I sign up for.

I truly believe that a bed and/or a shower during a long flight is (as Donkey might say) one of the most refreshingest things in the world. Many years ago, while traveling to Italy with my parents we punctuated our layover in Zurich with a 4 hour nap in a day room operated by the airport, a particularly pleasant transatlantic crossing that conjures itself up on occasion. Today, as the hot water relaxes the tired muscles that had crabbed themselves into tight, twisty knots at the sound of hours of Ms. Platitude’s transoceanic blathering, a sense of wellbeing re-emerges, even though we are only about half way to our destination. I highly recommend a hot shower for the tired traveler.

We arrive in Milan’s Malpensa airport in the late morning, nearly a day after we had begun our travel. It has been several years since we have flown in here, opting for Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport (Fiumicino) for our recent transits. Despite all the hype about Malpensa construction and upgrade, it (or at least the terminal at which we arrived) remains a tired, rundown, unappealing welcome to the country. Well, we Americans have JFK, so we’ll call it a draw.

Outside the terminal two busses, or Pullmans as the Italians like to call them, wait to whisk passengers to destinations in downtown Milan, including the Stazione Centrale, or central train station. A high speed train will also take you from the airport to central Milan, but for some reason it pulls into the Cadorno Station, which requires a taxi or other form of transportation if you are taking a train to Florence or Rome. Just under an hour later, and €6 lighter we arrive at the Stazione Centrale, Milan’s main train station.

It has been several years since we have travelled through this station and as we approach the monumental doorway we recall how rundown the station was on our last trip, scaffolding everywhere as they attempted to modernize the grim interior. As we enter we can see the enormous progress they have made in the intervening years – scaffolding has been removed and replaced with large wooden barriers that block off much of the floor space. It is still dreary and dreadful, but now the cavernous interior space has been so chopped up as to make it crowded as well.

We buy our tickets from the automated ticket machines which are incredibly simple to use, find our track and climb aboard the train, which is originating from this station. We have twenty minutes to run spare, so I run back to the station and buy some sandwiches, arriving back at the train a few seconds before the doors shut and it heads south. Disaster narrowly averted.
Mussolini may be long departed, but he left behind a fantastic train system. The fast trains between the major cities are first rate, clean, fast and on time, and our train is no exception.

After loading our luggage into the racks above our seats we drift off to sleep, waking every ten minutes or so. After an hour and half we reach Bologna, the culinary capital of Emilia-Romagna if not of all of Italy (or perhaps the world!), a place to which we will briefly return in a week or so. After departing the city we begin the final hour of our journey, crossing some of the most fantastic (in the fantastic sense of the word) scenery imaginable. I’m not sure I know how to define a crag, but looking out the window the word craggy jumps to mind (and that is not from my reflection in the window). Hills jut up into sharp peaks faced with sheer rock, peaks plunge into steep valleys and here and there bare trees dot the crags (Johnny, don’t forget to dot your crags). Some hills or mountains are ripped in two, gigantic faults splitting them apart. I have taken this train route a number of times and will never tire of it. It conjures up the image of the Mona Lisa, sitting for her portrait among the craggy hills of this part of the world.

At last we arrive in Florence, a mere twenty one hours after having taken off from Washington, D.C. we are somewhat tired, despite the naps and the shower, but we’re back in Florence, the birthplace not only of the renaissance, but of our love of Italy. It is about 5:00 in the afternoon and we have much to do, literally miles to walk, before we sleep – an appointment with our jewelry producer, renewal of our memberships to the unique and quirky dinner and social club, the Teatro del Sale, tasting a few glasses of wine at our favorite new wine bar, Coquinarius (Via delle Oche, 15r, Florence, tel., closed Sunday night and open every other day from 9am until, as their business card says “late night”) and, of course, dinner. But today was about travel so we will end our story here. Perhaps tomorrow we will divulge some details about what took place this night, but then again we certainly will be regaling you with stories of our bicycle trip from Florence to the hilltown of Fiesole. Tune in tomorrow and if nothing is posted, please have the authorities begin searching for our bodies.

A presto,
Bill and Suzy

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