Here’s a ‘QI’-type factoid for you: Benito Mussolini never actually claimed that if his Fascist Party were given power he would ‘make the trains run on time’. He once asked if a train he needed to catch could arrive on time, and presumably the embroidered myth grew up because it sounded exactly like his particular combination of braggadocio and pettyfogging parochialism.
Still, it’s hard to talk about trains in Italy without the story cropping up, and that’s exactly what I’m here to do. Because the country, just at the moment, has gone high-speed-train mad. First it was the Trenitalia Frecce (‘arrow’) services, the fastest of which, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrows’) connect Turin and Salerno down the spine of the country. With speeds of up to 300 km/h they’ve brought a TGV-style pizzazz to getting around by rail. Then 2012 saw the first Italo services between Milan and Naples. These boast similar top speeds to the freccia, but have a whole lot more going on: they’re privately run, they’ve done away with paper tickets, they named the service in consultation with passengers on the website, there’s an onboard cinema and there’s a lot of leather in the carriages. Italy has pimped its ride. I caught the Italo from Milan to Rome to see what Europe’s next generation of railways might be like.
However, travel for its own sake is all very well, but let’s not forget the humble cities served by this marvel of twenty-first-century transport. Milan is famous for its cathedral, the lace-like duomo, and being one of the vociferous contenders for ‘fashion capital of the world’, but it also boasts some engineering marvels to get us in the mood for the journey to Rome. The canals (navigli) to the south of the city were in part designed by Leonardo da Vinci: they once crisscrossed the whole town, and while the survivors are confined to Milan’s bottom left-hand corner, they are emblematic of the way the renaissance city embraced cutting-edge technology to maintain its trade coffers and cultural profile. On a similar tip, though four centuries later, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (pictured, below), a kind of super-arcade on Parisian lines – if not scale – predated the Eiffel Tower by 20 years with its revolutionary use of massive ironworks, married here to delicate glassworks. It’s in the form of a cross – like a religious icon devoted to high-end retail – and the conjunction of its axes is marked with a superb glazed dome, and currently branches of jewellers Bernasconi, Louis Vuitton, Prada and McDonald’s.
The Galleria was clearly one of the inspirations for Mussolini’s greatest legacy to the city of Milan: the Centrale station. Although it was conceived before he came to power, it was Benito’s vision of a new, Roman-empire-invoking Italy that gave Centrale its architectural steer. It’s very very big. It’s very very marbly and it’s extremely silly: vast classical statues look coyly over their shoulders in the chilly hangar-like atrium. There are gigantic flights of stairs everywhere (the disabled presumably not looming large in the fascist worldview) and the recurring motif is of a squat grumpy eagle perched dizzyingly just below roof height. Although only certain rail services use Centrale, it’s worth a visit in its own right, though be wary of pickpockets: it’s surely some new low of tourist ignominy to get robbed at a station you’re not even travelling from.
Anyway, there’s no place for dippers, panhandlers or massive top-level corruption in the Italia of the new Italo: all is sleek, clean and dynamic. I’m waiting for it early one stuffy morning on a platform at Milan’s most downbeat station, Porto Garibaldi, next to a man who’s asleep on a piece of cardboard. He awakes briefly as the powerful dildo-like conveyance pulls into the station, then sinks back into sleep as it leaves, his dreams a casebook for students of psychoanalysis.
It’s immediately clear that the Italo has upped the stakes in cosseted rail travel. The Eurostar has been looking tatty for years, and the TGV I was on for seven hours the previous day was like a school coach in comparison.
Rather than classes, the Italo trains have three ‘ambiences’ (I know): ‘Smart’, ‘Prima’ and ‘Club’: ‘Club’ is the poshest, with the option of being cradled in a womblike ‘sitting room’, assuming your womb is the colour of a Caramac bar and embroidered with hares. The hare is the symbol of the Italo: fast and agile (not boxy). How fast and agile becomes apparent about ten minutes after leaving Garibaldi. Once clear of the city, the Italo hits its stride, and the handy digital speedometer above the inter-carriage doors climbs to 200 km/h, then 250, 270, 290 and stops at 300 km/h. There isn’t a rattle or a whine, hardly even a whisper of wind.
A steward appears silently at my elbow bearing the current curse of Italian hospitality: a blood orange juice drink that has the unwholesome appearance of primary school paint water and leaves a dusty residue. Otherwise there’s little to fault. Except… The outside world is falling past at a fearful rate. We’re running alongside an autostrada, but the Italian sporting gentlemen, generally no slouches when they’re behind the wheel, are passed like they’re nonna on her way to mass. The landscape is doing the same. You can fix your eyes on a distant hilltop castello, but anything nearer is an impressionistic blur.
My seven-hour train journey from Paris to Milan was, for the most part, quite boring: fields and the horizon and sky, with the occasional oddball vignette, or stop at a sleepy-looking station. Then we hit the Alps, and for a couple of hours the view was a compelling spectacle, even in the relatively unspectacular late summer. But the Italo is much more like air travel: you might as well forget the outside world, it’s pretty unvarying at these speeds.
Instead, it’s all about the onboard experience, hence the cinema car and the ever-attentive staff. I imagine it must be a bit of a boon if you’re travelling with kids: none of the hassle of airports and most of the speed of flying. Personally I quite like the enforced downtime of travelling by train: spending time with a book, a coffee and a subtly changing view. It’s one of the nearest things we have to a proper contemplation of time and the idea of journeying. The Italo is certainly quick, and it’s certainly groomed, but isn’t it just a bit soulless?
Back to reality. The benefits of the Italo’s perfectly mannered ambience become obvious when, less than three hours later, we arrive in Rome. Rome is sticky; in fact it’s like being waterboarded with warm apricot jam. At Tiburna station nuns fan themselves as suspicious-looking urchins decide which slow-moving new arrival they should pick off. The air shivers across baking tarmac and paving. I need a cool space: the Italo hasn’t prepared me for this, it’s kept me away from it. I want to get back on.
For all its romantic associations and watercolour paintbox softness, Rome can be a thoroughly pitiless city in the summer. The monuments are as thronged as ever, the waiters are out of sorts and all the useful shops selling food and water and beer and fags are shut for the holidays. Luckily it’s not all sunbaked stones and parboiled punters. If the Italo represents a forward-thinking quality amid all the history and tourist dollars, then the Eternal City is not necessarily resting on its laurels either. The Maxxi (via Guido Reni, 10) which opened in 2010 is the city’s Tate Modern, though Zaha Hadid’s confrontationally modern and unconventional contemporary art museum has been a lot more divisive than London’s equivalent.
Significantly, though, it’s well away from the classical and renaissance highlights of the centro storico. So if you want some headspace in the middle of town, you can find it in another recent monument – albeit a rethinking of an earlier rethinking of an ancient one. The Museo dell’Ara Pacis (Via Repetta) was built in 2006 to house a 1930s reconstruction of emperor Augustus’s altar of peace, commemorating the end of the Gallic wars. This was again a Mussolini initiative, the focal point of a severe new piazza surrounding Augustus’s mausoleum. The 1930s housing for the altar was deemed no longer for purpose, and pulled down in the early 2000s amid much grumbling. Richard Meier’s glassy replacement was then opened in 2006 amid a lot more grumbling, chiefly over its largeness, glassiness and that it hadn’t been there for hundreds of years (or at least 70-odd). They’ve pulled bits of it down, and there’s still lobbying to get rid of it. In fact, it’s a tremendously successful space, offering, appropriately, both sanctuary and stillness. The huge altar from 9 BC is more like a soft marble room: you feel shrouded by its antiquity rather than coldly impressed by it, and the light-filled space is cool and removed from the heat and tourist mania outside. The nearest comparison I can make is, oddly, to the new contemporary art museum in Milan, the Novecento (‘900’, ie 1900s): situated in the Piazza Duomo, it occupies the serene pavilions of the Arengario Palace, started under Fascism in 1936, and the antithesis of Milan Centrale’s bombast: a De Chirico dream arcade, in to reconfigure Europe’s troubled twentieth century.
What they’re going to do about Europe’s troubled twenty-first century remains to be seen. New Frecciarossa trains are promised for 2013, with top speeds of 400 km/h: where will it all end? And, more importantly, how quickly?
Primate Pizzeria, Via Alzaia Naviglio Grande 2 Okay, it’s a pizza joint. And it’s not in Naples, but this is arguably the best-value restaurant in the Naviglio district, and, for what it is, the best food too. Superb pizzas and calzones appear with amazing rapidity from the wood-fired ovens, as a mainly local crowd sink carafes of wine and chatter. The décor is spartan: paper tablecloths, vintage ads on the walls, but once you’re ensconced you’ll realise what your life has been missing up till now: a truly great pizzeria.
Buccone, Via Ripetta 19-20 Once the coachhouse to an aristocrat, then a tavern, then an off-licence (enoteca), then an on-licence, Buccone now figures as a full-blown restaurant at lunchtimes and on Friday and Saturday evenings. Tiny tables are squeezed among the shelves of bottles, and the atmosphere is homely and intimate. The cooking lives up to the surroundings: a short menu of pasta, soups and meat, all authoritatively executed. The wines, of course, are superb.
Uptown Palace, Via Santa Sofia 10 One third of a small chain of Milanese hotels, the recently opened Uptown Palace is business-oriented in style, but don’t let that put you off. Extremely high presentation standards, including pure linen bedding (perfect in the muggy summer), and a handy location halfway between the focal point of the Duomo and the bars, restaurants and hanging-out opportunities afforded by the Naviglio area all make this a great choice. Staff are friendly and helpful with none of the obliqueness sometimes encountered in Italian hotels. Highly recommended. Doubles from €155.
Hotel dei Borgognoni, Via del Bufalo Brilliantly situated five minutes from the Spanish Steps, the Borgognoni occupies a classic Roman townhouse, and has some upmarket touches such as private terraces with some of the rooms, a fine marble hallway and plenty of old-school style. On a less romantic and more practical note, it is on the same street as one of central Rome’s few supermarkets, great for affordable bottled water, picnic ingredients and the odd cheeky vino tinto. If you want to use the 110 bus tour, there is a stop nearby, meaning you can avoid the scrum at Termini Station. Not budget, but excellent value for what it offers. B&B doubles from €238
Services from Paris to Milan start at £22.50 one way, while fares on the new Italo service from Milan to Rome start at £40 one way in standard class. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070.