Italian trains: stunning vistas and the music mafia
Florence to Perugia (2hrs 10mins on the regional line)
When I’m in Italy there’s a train line I use regularly between Florence and Perugia. At one point the train runs alongside the northern shore of Lake Trasimeno, the fourth largest lake in Italy which is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid. You can get a ferry from the pretty towns around its shores to the inhabited island in the lake (Isola Maggiore) where there’s a 12th century church perched on a hill with superb views across the lake.
The train follows the lake for about ten minutes before sloping away towards Perugia going south and Arezzo going north; but whatever the weather it’s ten glorious minutes. In summer you see it in shimmering flashes between the umbrella pines before the landscape suddenly opens up into a beautiful body of silver-blue water blinding in its intensity; in winter it’s a great swatch of grey ruffled silk under restless clouds.
I’ve been doing this same trip for more than twelve years and this part of it never stops being special. Whatever I’m doing on the train, reading, dozing, daydreaming, I always sit up and take notice as we skim the edge of the lake. I’ve seen it in all its moods; choppy and puckered with raindrops; serene with sailboats under cloudless skies; mysteriously eerie under low-lying fog. It may not have the cachet of the northern Italian lakes with their dramatic mountainous backdrops, but in the soft undulation of the Umbrian hills it’s the closest thing to a seascape in this region of Italy which is the only one without its own coastline. In fact it’s here that many Italians gravitate when they want a sense of the sea and in summer its beaches and surrounding towns and villages come alive with tourists and visitors.
I did this run in March this year on my way to Perugia and at Arezzo a family of four Brits got on the train. They stowed their backpacks, settled into their seats and then each of them, mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, fell to greedily ogling their individual i-phones. They barely exchanged a word and they didn’t seem to notice the glittering wonder of the lake skimming by as they scanned, scrolled and scrutinized their screens. I wouldn’t have minded if they were locals but I felt affronted on behalf of the Italians by their goggle-eyed fascination with technology that made them ignore the stunning landscape flitting by them. I had to resist the urge not to stand up and yell ‘For God’s sake put those things down and look out of the window’ (see my post ‘Zombie watch with WH Auden’)
It’s usually on this same stretch of line where a young man gets on the train and wanders up and down the carriage playing the same few chords on an accordion. He will come and stand right over you as he plays and anyone who’s ever had an accordion played into their ear in the confines of a train carriage will tell you it’s no easy-listening experience. But if you make the mistake of looking at him or catching his eye, you’ll see a hard-bitten gleam that says; ‘that’s right, I’m gonna play until you pay’. He’s just one of the many train-hopping accordion mafia that work the regional trains up and down Italy, and you can bet that there are never any train personnel around to stop these musical hi-jackers. So what if he hasn’t got a ticket? So what if he makes the paying customers uncomfortable for a while? He’ll be off at the next stop to hold another set of passengers to ransom. The train conductors either tolerate or ignore them and it’s hard to imagine a similar scene on a British train.
But that’s train travel in Italy for you, where like everything else, you have to balance the extremely annoying alongside the extraordinarily beautiful.
Pictures: Isola Maggiore; one of three islands in Lake Trasimeno but the only one that is inhabited (pop.18)
View from village of Passignano sul Trasimeno on northern shore of Lake Trasimeno
View from town of Castiglione del Lago on western shore of Lake Trasimeno