The railroad runs eastward from Nice along the coastline of the Riviera, through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Or so we had been told, and we were looking forward to the ride.
And the country may indeed be as lovely as advertised; what little we saw of it was certainly fine. Mostly, though, we got to see the interiors of tunnels. Because what the guidebooks and brochures don't tell you is that much of the trip is underground: one long tunnel after another. (Technically we have been to Monaco, but all we ever saw of it was what amounted to a subway stop.)
It was a pity, because what we did see was enough to make us wish for more: high steep mountains to the left, vistas of sea and beach and occasional islands to the right. I suppose the tunnels were unavoidably necessary - the mountains come right down to the sea in that area, leaving no way to go around them, only through them - but they made the trip boring and rather unpleasant.
We had been thinking of stopping off at Genoa, but decided against it; from what I could see from the train, I didn't think we were missing much. After Genoa the railroad started acting like a real one instead of a subway, and we got to see a little of the country. The Po valley looked rich and fertile; I hadn't realized Italy had such fine farming country.
We didn't need to look out the windows, though, to know that we were no longer in France. Ever since crossing the border we had been increasingly conscious of one definite national difference: Italians talk louder. No worse than Americans, on the whole, or Mexicans or Greeks; but after a few days in France and England, where people hold their voices down in public places and noisiness is regarded as tacky, the effect was a little disconcerting until you got used to it.
In midafternoon we reached Milan and made our way through the crowded Stazione Centrale (one of the many butt-ugly Fascist contributions to Italian architecture). I stopped at a newsstand, took a deep breath, and asked, "Avete una carta di Milano?" and to my amazement the guy nodded and handed me a city map. My knowledge of Italian is minute, and while I had tried to brush up a bit in the preceding months, I never really got a handle on it. (Just similar enough to Spanish, and just different enough, to constantly throw me off.) But here I was communicating; maybe it would be all right, at least for this short time...I didn't need to worry, as it turned out; practically everybody seemed to speak at least some English.
After a bit of walking and looking we found a room at the Hotel Kennedy, a very odd sort of hotel that occupied only a single floor of a tall building (there was another hotel several floors down) but one with excellent rooms; in fact this was the best room we had the whole trip.
Our room overlooked the busy Viale Tunisie, though at that time of day there wasn't much traffic. Enough, though, for us to have an introductory look at the Milanese driving style, which can best be described as psychotic.
So far Milan hadn't made all that wonderful an impression on us. The people seemed very friendly and pleasant, but the area up around Stazione Centrale wasn't particularly attractive - boring, blocky, characterless modern buildings - and above all the air was almost unbreathable. Milan, in fact, has a serious air-quality problem. (If you can even call that choking, sinus-clogging mixture of toxic gases "air.") I had just about gotten over the effects of that bug in London, thanks to the fresh air of Provence and the sea breezes of Nice, but a few whiffs of Milanese atmosphere and I started fighting for breath again.
Still, we were there, might as well see what there was to see; and as we moved on toward the center of town, looking for something to eat, the city did get a good deal more attractive. There was quite a beautiful park not far from the hotel, where people jogged or sat on benches or walked their dogs. The big one gave me a suspicious look and a preliminary bark but nothing more.
Finally we arrived at the Piazza San Babila, with its old and heavily reconstructed church. We didn't know the nomenclature or the historic details at the time; it was just the first place we found a café (or whatever the correct Italian term) that was open and serving. We ordered a pizza.
Some of you are way ahead of me.
Ever since we started planning the trip, we had had this one goal: to have a real Italian pizza in Italy. We knew - various people had warned us - that Milan isn't the best place in Italy for pizza, that it's more a southern specialty. Still, we figured any pizza anywhere in Italy would have to be cosmically superior to any pizza anywhere in the United States.
Well, so much for naive expectations. Not that the pizza they brought us was bad; on the contrary, it was quite good, for what it was. It just wasn't anything we could recognize as a pizza.
Look, I know what a pizza is. You've got a crust at least a quarter of an inch thick - three-eighths is more like it - with thick layers of cheese and tomato and the whole thing covered with sausage and pepperoni and black olives and green and red peppers and...you know. Maybe you get fancy now and then and go for Canadian bacon or broccoli or hamburger or something, but you know damn well that's not a real pizza.
What we got in Milan was a kind of large tortilla spread with a thin layer of cheese and tomato sauce, with some thin slices of (quite excellent) ham spaced about its upper surface. That was it: no pepperoni, no olives, no peppers, none of the good stuff. As I say, it was quite good and even yummy in its way. It just wasn't pizza.
(I am assured that the sort of pizza I am used to is of American origin rather than Italian. Maybe. If so then they ought to study the way we do it, because we do it better. If this be chauvinism so be it...but I don't really believe that's the case, because I know people who say they have gotten thick-crust pizza with everything on it in Naples. I think we were just in the wrong part of Italy.)
Still, whatever it was, it tasted good - and was an exponential improvement over anything we'd had in Nice - so we walked back to the hotel feeling considerably better. It was too late for sightseeing; that would have to wait for tomorrow.
Next day we strolled back down toward the center of Milan, pausing now and then to marvel at the expensive clothes in the shop windows, the well-dressed people hurrying along the sidewalks (Milanese don't seem to have heard of dulce far niente) and the lunatic traffic which the helmeted cops seemed to observe benevolently rather than seriously try to regulate. It occurred to me that being a traffic cop in Milan must be a lot like being a professional wrestling referee: mainly you stand around and maintain the pretense that there actually are some kind of rules.
Motor scooters seemed to be tremendously popular, with both men and women; you saw fashionably-dressed ladies blasting along on Vespas and Yamahas, sweater sleeves tied around their waists. This dashing but somewhat insecure practice led to one of the high points of the day: crossing a side street, Phyllis found a perfectly good, apparently new black sweater, bearing an Italian designer label, lying on the pavement where someone had lost it. It fit, too. The day was definitely looking up. Even if I still couldn't breathe.
On the square across from La Scala we took a break and sat watching the people go by. We wondered what this building was and eventually learned that it was the 16th-century Palazzo Marino, now the city hall. There was a young couple kissing on a nearby bench. As far as we could determine, there is always a young couple kissing in any public place in Milan. The Milanese seem to be as inveterate public snoggers as the Parisians. And good for them say I.
Finally we went on, entering the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele - a kind of fancy shopping mall, I don't know how old - and emerging on the other side to confront the world-famous Milan cathedral.
NEXT: THE DUOMO
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