Riding the slow train from Modena to Verona via Mantova
This is undoubtedly one of my favourite hotel breakfasts in the whole world.
It is 8:20am and I am sitting in the little dining room on the first floor of the Hotel Estense in Modena, Italy.
On this Friday morning in August I am the only hotel guest in the room. The breakfast lady is fussing away in the adjacent kitchen and the hotel maintenance man is standing in the doorway doing his best to distract her, but there are no other customers.
I have been coming here twice a year for the past twenty years and I always find it strange that I never seem to meet more than two or three people at breakfast. The hotel itself boasts sixty rooms and I often meet other guests in the corridors and on the stairs, just never at breakfast. Perhaps it is just because I get up too late?
The small breakfast room is brightly painted, kept spotlessly clean and has a window at one end which lets the sun in for a nice “good morning” feel. The breakfast buffet is laid out around the window in a kind of U-shaped arrangement.
I am not really a fan of the English or American cooked breakfast; I prefer to start the day slowly and save my appetite for later. It seems the Italians think exactly the same way.
The food selection, almost all cold items, is arranged very attractively and it is this, along with the quality of everything, that makes me look forward to eating here so much.
There is always a wide variety of items on display but there are only ever small quantities of each one. It feels as if it has all been done just for me, especially if, like today, there is nobody else around.
On one table there are four small baskets containing different types, shapes and sizes of bread. Next to them are small plates featuring five or six different sliced hams, sausages and salamis and three different cheeses.
On another table there are two trays; one tray has an assortment of what look like homemade croissants and pastries; the other has different biscuits; there are six types but only two or three examples of each one.
On a third table are four large cakes which also look homemade and have been cut into smaller pieces. Close by are several small plates of fresh fruit.
To drink, there is a wide assortment of fruit juices and there is a machine that allows you to make your own orange juice using real oranges. There are also various mineral waters and yoghurts. There is only ever one carton or bottle of each item but when anything runs low it is immediately replaced as if by magic.
Last but, given this is Italy, certainly not least, there is a coffee machine. It is definitely a high end model and it is capable of producing a selection of excellent hot drinks to accompany the morning meal.
The Hotel Estense hasn’t really changed in twenty years; the dark green carpet, the room furnishings and the old style keys (no plastic cards here) have all remained constant. The hotel doesn’t have a logo; it has a coat of arms. It is old fashioned and conservative but in a really good way.
This place is not without its faults though and there is usually some small issue to put up with. This time there is a tile loose on my bathroom floor, last time a chair in my room collapsed when I sat on it and the time before that there was a broken shower head holder.
Yet, I tend to forgive all these little faults because the place, and especially the breakfast, is marvellous. It has a friendly staff, comfortable beds and delicious food; what more could you want?
How I feel about the hotel is actually how I think about Italy itself; I tend to ignore any irritating faults because as a whole the country is quite, quite wonderful.
I first came here in the summer of 1984 during an Interrail holiday. I was fresh from the frustrations of Spain and the minor irritations of France and I immediately fell for the gentler charms of Italy. A lot of this was down to the food; it was cheap, delicious and plentiful. I filled up on pizzas, enjoyed delicious cakes, drank excellent coffee and developed an addiction to gelato.
I managed to cram in Venice, Rome, Florence, Pompeii and Pisa on that first trip and from the outset, as I marvelled at the beauty of the buildings and the friendliness of the people, I overlooked all the bad bits.
I never seemed to mind riding on constantly late trains or getting ripped off in shops whilst trying to pay with the unfathomable Lira. Like many before me, I just got caught up in the romance of the place.
I have holidayed in Italy with my wife several times since and over the years, as we have more money to spend and with the introduction of the Euro, the place has just got better and better for me. The punctuality of the trains seems to have improved a lot too.
I have also been lucky enough to have been involved in business with Italians for more than 30 years.
Back in the early 1990s I was working in Tokyo and part of my job required me to develop business links and plan a trade mission to Italy. For over a year I worked on the project alongside a girl from Naples. She was the first Italian I ever got to know well; she was an outstanding colleague and her love of her country and its culture was infectious.
In the spring of 1993, together with 30 Japanese businessmen, we visited Tuscany and Milan. On the first night of the trip we crept out of the hotel in Florence, leaving the Japanese to their jet lag, and enjoyed a fantastic evening with her brother and some friends who had all travelled up from the south to see her. We had a wonderful meal together and then ended up at Florence’s famous ice cream parlour – Vivolis. It was probably my first real introduction to the dolce vita.
For the last 20 years I have been visiting an Italian company based here in Modena and over that time my relationship with the CEO has developed into a warm friendship. Through this connection I have also been able to deepen my knowledge and appreciation of Italy. Over the years I have visited offices, factories and trade shows and met many interesting and wonderful people, gaining a special insight into the business culture.
My visits to Modena are always enjoyable. They begin with serious business discussions but they end with a relaxing night out in the city’s bars and restaurants. I feel quite privileged to be getting a local’s perspective of the place.
These evenings always start off with an aperitivo. I adore this Italian tradition where almost every drinking place in town competes to offer the best complimentary buffet of snacks to go with the first drinks of the evening. Typically we will start with a couple of Negronis and then move on.
We walk through the city to a restarant. Often it is a place where the owner is an old friend. I always love to watch how the food is ordered from the menu. I can’t understand much but it feels almost as if I am watching a theatre play as the choices for Antipasto, Primo and Secondo are debated and then the wine is carefully selected to match the food.
It goes without saying that almost everything we eat and drink is quite superb.
On the way home we will usually stop for a final drink. Often we go back to the place we started out or sometimes to a different place. The problems come if the last drink turns into two or even three. I will confess to arriving back at the Estense a little worse the wear on more than one occasion.
It is the morning after one of these evenings now. There is a slight hint of a hangover from a bit too much grappa last night but another coffee and some sparkling water should fix that.
I glance up to see that Italian politician Matteo Salvini is speaking on the little TV in the breakfast room. From the captions it looks as if it is a discussion on the “flat tax”, but as the sound is turned down and as I can’t understand Italian anyway, I can’t be sure.
I feel almost guilty to conclude that a lot of the things that may be wrong with this country such as the politics, the bureaucracy and the corruption may well hinder the native or the long term resident but they have little effect on my own enthusiasm for the place.
I have one last cup of coffee and then I decide it is time to leave.
It is just before 9am.
I check out of the Hotel Estense and walk along the Via Jacopo Berengario in the direction of the station.
It is about a ten minute walk. I have done it many times before. I have done it in all four seasons and in all weathers. It is sunny today and it is already getting up to what I would class as “a little bit too hot”.
Modena is the Italian city with which I am most familiar. It is not a tourist city of the first order but it is certainly worth a visit. If I have spare time I will walk around the centre and maybe pop into the little market to buy some food to take home.
The centre is compact, very pleasant to walk around and has a wonderful UNESCO listed cathedral with a (slightly) leaning tower. Modena is also famous as the home of Ferrari (There are two excellent museums) and of course it is known worldwide for its Balsamic vinegar.
At 9:15am I am already standing outside the station.
Modena Station was first opened in 1859 and although it sits on the traditional Milan to Bologna main line, it is now bypassed by the new high speed line which darts around the east of the city without stopping.
Apart from one service run by the Ferrovie Emilla Railway to Sassuolo, all the other trains here are run by Trenitalia: Italy’s venerable nationalised operator. The vast majority of them are heading, at various speeds, either south to Bologna or north to Parma and Milan.
I am heading home.
Normally I go via the airport at Bologna (40km) or sometimes, if flights are cheaper, I head up to Milan (180km). Today, for whatever reason, a ticket back to London from Verona (100km) has worked out around 25% of the cost of one from either Bologna or Milan, so I am heading there. I am going northeast on a slow train along the secondary line that links Modena directly with Verona.
There is a small catch though: the flight doesn’t depart until 11pm. So I have taken the whole day off and, in an effort to kill some time, I am going to visit the city of Mantova which lies just beyond the halfway point to Verona. I then plan to spend the early evening in Verona itself before finally catching the flight to Gatwick.
I buy a ticket to Mantova from one of the self service machines. It is ridiculously cheap: just a few Euros for the 70km journey. I actually find Trenitalia to be quite a reliable operator but even those who criticise it can’t really fault the value for money. If only the trains in the UK were this cheap!
As I walk towards the platform I remember to insert my ticket in one of the little validation machines. Validating the ticket is an important part of rail travel in Italy. The idea is that any ticket, even one freshly issued by a machine, is not valid for travel before it has been stamped with the date. I learned this rule the hard way; I once ignored the validation process and was then treated to the wrath of a train conductor in front of everyone else in the carriage.
I find my train on Platform 7.
I wander through the mostly empty carriages before finding a seat in one that has the air conditioning broken and the windows down. I do this on purpose. When the train sets off and picks up speed a lovely breeze comes through. As we pass through pear orchards outside Modena, the sun shines on my face, the curtain flaps around my head and it just feels great to be alive.
An African lad comes through the carriage and asks me in Italian about the train’s destination. When I reveal where I am from he switches to English and sits down opposite me. He is from Nigeria and he has been in the country for seven years.
There are lots of Africans in Italy these days and their presence is a little controversial. This guy is heading to Carpi to visit a friend and we chat for a while about his life and what he misses from home (the food) and about the Nigerian restaurants in Lewisham that he has visited on a recent trip to the UK.
This train is supposed to go all the way to Mantova but as they are repairing the viaduct over the River Po, it will be terminating short at Suzzara. We will be going on by bus.
I actually knew about all this in advance, which is just as well because when we arrive at the improvised terminus there are no announcements or signs.
The bus is waiting outside the station. The driver, with his sunglasses perched on his head, is the picture of relaxation itself and he smiles gently as we all step on board. When the boarding is completed I do a head count: There are just 14 of us, an average of 2 for each of the seven train carriages.
We set off and pass along a road that is, curiously, named after Vladimir Lenin and then continue through fields and industrial estates before we come to the River Po. As we cross the road bridge I can see workers toiling away on the adjacent railway viaduct; it looks as if they have quite a job on their hands.
Before long we pull up opposite Mantova Station.
It is getting quite hot now: it is actually touching the 30s. As I head towards the centre I am glad to be able to walk out of the sun along wonderful arcaded streets that are so typical of Italy. I find a café in a little square, get a table in the shade and order an Americano. It comes, as it probably always should do, as a cup of espresso and a jug of hot water. I sit there and Google a little tourist plan.
I learn that Mantova was home to one of the most famous courts (under the Gonzaga Family) in Renaissance Italy. It is now a UNESCO heritage site and has a unique setting surrounded by 3 artificial lakes created in the 12th century. Like Modena, it might not be in the premier league of Italian tourist spots but it is certainly worth a visit.
I set off and immediately pop into the magnificent Basilica of Sant’ Andrea; it has a façade from the 19th century but actually dates from the 15th Century. It is quite magnificent. Nearby is the even older 11th century Rotonda di San Lorenzo. It is on a smaller scale but equally impressive.
I quickly decide I really like this place; there are only a few tourists here, no tacky souvenir shops and the lakeside location is really quite beautiful too. I stumble around some of the back streets before emerging onto the Piazza Sordello and then I have a brief look at Mantova’s must see: Palazzo Ducale.
It is the largest residence in Italy after the Vatican and for over 400 years it housed the Gonzaga famila who ruled the area until the early 18th century. There is a museum but, although it is quite cheap and there is no queue for the tickets, I decide that I will leave going inside for another visit.
Instead, I go out to the lakefront and walk around the water’s edge. It is a bit hot but there is plenty of shade and I spend a pleasant hour walking along watching people fishing and relaxing.
Back in the centre I find a little trattoria and try the local pasta: tortelli di zucca alla Mantovana. It is tortelli with a pumpkin filling and it comes with a topping of sugar. In some ways it feels almost like a dessert but it goes well with a lovely fresh crisp salad and some cold mineral water.
After lunch I browse the cake shops. The thing here is the Torta Sbrisolona. It is a kind of an almond cake and it is everywhere. There are deals too; some shops are offering two for the price of one; others are offering a combination with a bottle of the local wine. I get one small cake to take home to try later.
I walk for about 20 minutes all the way to the other end of the city and arrive at the Palazzo Te, the summer residence of the Gonzaga family, and then I spend another pleasant half hour walking around the shaded gardens outside.
At the gate I meet a German who is cycling around Italy. He is getting a photograph of himself and the German flag on his bike taken at each monument he visits.
As I am leaving I notice a steam locomotive on display outside. I learn that 880 006 used to work on the lines from Mantova and was sold to the city by the State Railways and restored by an association of enthusiasts and by the city itself.
Tren Regionale 20786
I make my way back to the station and reach it just in time for the 15:29 departure for Verona. I get another ticket for a few Euros and board the train already standing in the platform. The journey is scheduled to take about 50 minutes.
The train is already reasonably full and I sit opposite a lady who is reading a book – “La Sorella Perduta”. It is by English author Dinah Jeffries and the cover suggests that it is “Numero 1 del Sunday Times”. I mention that I read the Sunday Times every week and I ask her whether the book is good or not. Her English is not so good and we struggle to make much conversation.
Not being able to speak the local language is one of the things that I find more and more frustrating wherever I travel in the world. Italians are certainly getting much better at English these days, but I miss the extra sense of involvement you can get meeting strangers and conversing in their native tongue.
We pull out on time and immediately the Trenitalia automatic announcer tells us the train number and the stopping points. It does it first in Italian and then in English. The English voice starts with a “Good Morning”, curiously mispronounces the Italian place names and then slowly recites the train number: Two, Zero, Seven, Eight, Six. It does all this twice!
As we head towards Verona the sky begins to get darker and darker. A thunderstorm had been mentioned on the weather forecast but I haven’t really taken much notice. Now it is pretty obvious the heavens are about to open.
The rain starts and it comes down ferociously.
We stop at Mozzecane and outside I can see that all the station lights have come on. The cars on the adjacent road all have their headlamps on too. This is a quite major downpour. We sit in the station for 10 minutes. There are no announcements. The rain keeps pouring down and it slowly starts to enter the train via the open doors and it floods the entrance. Eventually we move off and arrive 15 minutes late into Verona.
The rain is still falling and as I stand in a crowd of people at the station exit, It is obvious that no one is ready to venture outside. Inevitably there is a shortage of taxis and most people are not even risking the dash to the bus station opposite. Right on cue the African lads are here walking around trying to sell everyone umbrellas.
Casa di Giulietta
After 20 minutes the rain eventually stops. I seize my chance and walk off in the direction of the town centre. It is my second visit to Verona so I just follow the route I took five years ago; I negotiate the horrendous traffic gyratory system that almost isolates the station from the centre and then I continue up Corso Porta Nuova: a boring road that gives little hint of the beautiful city at the end of it.
I walk briskly and soon I am in the lovely Piazza Bra with the Arena di Verona in front of me. The Arena is one of the best preserved Roman Amphitheatres in the world. Last time I was here I went inside for a look and it was very impressive.
Now we are right in the middle of the famous opera festival and the Arena is closed off to anyone without a ticket for a performance. I take a walk around the perimeter and I am amazed by the amount of stage scenery that is being stored outside.
The festival means Verona is extra crowded and even though it has only just stopped raining there are already masses of tourists back on the streets. I think I actually hear more German than Italian spoken as I walk on from the Piazza.
I follow the crowds around to a house which claims to be the home of Juliet from the famous Shakespeare play. There is a little courtyard and a balcony where Juliet is supposed to have appeared and pined for Romeo. This is actually Verona’s “must see” spot and there is a constant line of people queuing to go in.
Considering it is based on fiction it all seems slightly ridiculous, but it is hard not to get caught up in the romance of the thing. Outside there are walls full of “post-it” notes onto which couples have written their names and messages. People have even placed bits of chewing gum on the wall and then written messages on them too. It is beautiful and disgusting at the same time.
I love the fact that in the middle of all these declarations of love is a business card left by a Dutch builder. I almost want to reward his enterprise by calling him for a quote.
Arena di Verona
The sun is out again now but the storm has lowered the temperature. I spot a neon thermometer on the side of the building, it says 21 degrees.
I stop off at a bar near the Piazza di Signori for an apertivo. I sit there drinking my artisan beer munching on olives and crisps whilst a German family at the next table have a shouting match with each other.
In the play, Romeo was banished to Mantova and I can’t help thinking that just at this moment I would actually prefer to be back in the quieter, smaller city too. I’d like to return to Verona but when it is less busy I think.
I wander off again and make a walking tour of three of the main churches. I visit the Chiesa di Santa Anastasia, the San Fermo Maggiore and the main cathedral. They are all stunning inside and out.
At the cathedral there is a service in progress and it seems very well attended. I recall a survey several years ago that had over 70% of Italians indicating that God played an important role in their lives. The result in the UK was less than half that figure.
Eventually I come back to the Piazza Bra and I am amazed at the sheer number of tourists eating in the restaurants there. On the opposite side of the Piazza they are already queuing for the security check to get into the opera. I walk past an enterprising stall that is selling cushions for the hard stone seats in the arena. They have cushions available in all colours and designs.
I have seen enough for now. I go back to the station, find the airport bus, pay my six Euros and 20 minutes later I am in the departure terminal. It is close to midnight when the plane finally takes off. It has been a long day but, as always with Italy, not an entirely unpleasant one.