I stood on the tracks where Firenze-Campo Marte station ended holding a champagne flute emblazoned with the monogram of the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express. There was a bottle chilling in a bucket of ice I’d set on the concrete platform at the edge of the tracks.
It was a quarter to one in the afternoon and the sun shone from a sky so clear and blue it broke your heart, and there was a light breeze that helped make you forget it was the second of November and not a day in high summer on the flats of Tuscany on a spur line between Venice and Rome.
I stood with my back to the last Voiture-Lits car on the Orient-Express, and in front of me, beyond the deserted rail yard where heat waves rippled from the tracks, was the southern flank of Florence, pretending to be a butterfly in the distance. I let myself be conned by this town that had conned Machiavelli and Michelangelo, and Leonardo and Botticelli and had even in the end conned the Medicis, because it was a magic vista, and it wasn't only me who felt it. In the passageway outside the cabins, an American passenger overheard me having a talk with Robard, our new cabin porter, who had replaced the beguiling Mario, he of a thousand VSOE stories, at Santa Lucia Station in Venice for the southbound run to Rome.
"This is the last Rome run, isn't it?” asked the American. “That's why we're going this way."
I told him it wasn't the last run. It was close to the last, but there would be more runs this season. We were traveling off the main rail lines and on spur lines because the Arlberg tunnel was closed. Rockslides, Bruno, our trainmaster, had told me. The worst in years.
Still, it had been some ride. Since barreling from the last of the many short rail tunnels that began beyond the outskirts of Bologna and ended in the rolling, mountain-fringed vintners’ fields near Viano, the Orient-Express had begun a slow crawl through the back streets of Viano and Castello, past new condominium blocks, from whose many balconies flew the lines of laundry that were Italy's true national colors. At times we seemed to almost be sitting in the center of traffic intersections, practically house guests of Florentines who, taking out the garbage late on a sleepy Sunday morning, gaped wide-mouthed at the unexpected sight of the Orient-Express paying call. We rolled at almost the pace of a walk. And as we entered the outskirts of Florence, a city with several satellite stations, we began the longest stretch of backyard-stealing glimpses so far on this incredible crawl through Tuscany.
Then, as the VSOE slowed to a halt outside Firenze-Campo Marte station with a final wheeze of its engine, I looked at the American and he at me.
"You know what? I'm getting off."
"Me too," he said and we both left the train, and the pair of us, two perfect strangers, stood there captivated like all those Renaissance painters who’d painted more background than foreground, and we understood what had made them paint as they’d done, because there it was, right in front of us, too magical and too present to be ignored. I drank in the view of Florence down the long, Giorgione-esque vanishing point of this summer day in November, and I drank my champagne, wind-freshened, ice cold, and neither of us paid any attention to Robard who warned us it wasn't advised, that the train might leave any minute, because the moment had us by the throat.
Besides, hadn't Bruno told me, "We are the stage, you are the actors. If you play your parts well, you'll enjoy the journey more?"
So I played the part of jumping off the Orient-Express in the heat of the moment. I wasn’t lugging a Lektor but I still had some Clos Du Mesnil ’95 left in the bottle. Now I topped off my glass, and raised it high, and drained the last of it. Then I yanked the bottle by its neck from its ice pellet nest, contemplated it a moment, swung, and smashed it against the side of the Orient-Express, rechristening it in the name of Florence and life and youth gone and still to be experienced as the bottle shattered and vintage Krug splashed the flanks of the old Voiture-Lits sleeper.
But now Robard had brought in reinforcements; cabin stewards from adjoining cars. Their faces, glimpsed through windows, showed consternation.
"We could leave any minute," one repeated, pulling the door open. "You should really come inside."
"I'll take that risk. Don't worry. If the train pulls out I'll use this hand-rail and climb onto the roof."
"Please don't try that. And please don't stay out here much longer."
Not that I really intended to. I lingered until I heard two shrill whistle blasts, and the train lurched forward. Now my fellow American innocent abroad (who'd already hopped back on) and my lovely traveling companion, were both hysterically motioning me inside. The last Voiture-Lits car had already rolled a good distance from where I stood. I sprinted and grabbed the rail beside the step and hung on as the train picked up speed. Then the door opened and hands pulled me in. Well, I'd jumped off the Orient-Express and lived to tell about it. Blame Bruno, not me.
It was nearly five when we neared Rome, and I knew it was Rome because of the unforgettable rank-sweet smell of combustion engine smog that still marks it despite decades of European greening. The car's passengers were out of their cabins now. Hypnotized by the crawling pace, they were bored and edgy. And now we gathered speed, and the rails sang sopranos, and the Belle Epoch cars groaned and creaked. As the train galloped into the final tunnel before Rome we were back in our cabin. Robard had gaffed all the cabin doors open. He told me a passenger had complained about the closeness of the air. There was plenty air now. The corridor felt like a wind tunnel.
It was already dark by the time the Orient-Express pulled into Rome Central Station, the Roma Termini. We caught a cab to the hotel, which was the Miami on Via Nazionale, which ran from just west of the station to Piazza Venezia, home to Mussolini’s former headquarters. From the 19th century ambience of the VSOE that had changed little since Georges Nagelmackers originally conceived it, you realize you're in the midst of one of the urban nuclei of 21st century globalization, as much so as New York is, that in fact Rome is New York, albeit with somewhat more Italians.
The cab driver spoke pretty fair English. Too fair, in fact. I thought maybe I’d seen him somewhere before. Like in high school. Also, I'd noticed he took the scenic route down Via Cavour, with a turn onto Via dei Fori Imperiali; a roundabout course that swung past the Vittoriano -- the national monument officially and magniloquently called the Altar of the Fatherland but which Romans usually dub "the Typewriter," “Zuppa Inglese,” and some other things -- spot-lit now that darkness had fallen, instead of taking the shorter and more direct straight-arrow run down Via Nazionale that would have put us there in half the time.
After we unpacked and got our bearings we realized we were hungry. Two blocks away was a MacDonald’s (one of only two nearby eateries, the other being a pizza place) which, in Roman style, was down in a grotto, and which, in addition to a strangely Italianate Ronald who looked somehow like a gigolo, was still hung for the Halloween season with cut-out black cardboard bats and plastic pumpkins whose hobgoblin faces resembled masks from a Goldoni opera buffa. Deeper into this Roman catacomb beyond a neon sign reading "Playland” were more rooms. These contained either extremely authentic copies of ancient Roman statuary or the real McCoys. They seemed to portray either Claudius and Messalina or Nero and Poppaea. Playland had no cute rides or jungle gyms. Just the statues.
The Roman Big Macs were tasty, but you had to pay for extra packs of ketchup. A few blocks away was the Colosseum and one of Rome's main Metro stops, where in space-age stations that presage underground cities on Mars run identical twins to 1970s New York City subway trains covered from stem to stern with graffiti not encountered in the five boros since Led Zeppelin's farewell tour. These have to be seen to be believed. Unlike the statues, their authenticity isn’t in question. Latter-day Giorgiones and Titians (both first seen painting graffiti on the wall of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice) wielded spray cans like Renaissance artists had once used brushes.
In need of a few additional creature comforts after our burgers, we looked for a convenience store. If this were Brooklyn Heights or the East Side, there’d be plenty. But this was Rome, and at 9 PM on a Sunday night the only place open in this chi-chi neighborhood was a superette that had the look and feel of its New York City counterparts and which carried many of the same brands. Unlike the Apple, though, it had a well-stocked wine cellar in its grotto-like depths. Back in our room, I switched on the tube and there was good old Borat. Well, I thought as I uncapped the bottle with the Gallo label, there's no place ... like Rome.
Copyright (C) 2011 David Alexander