When I was a young boy I visited a church at Cranleigh in Surrey and there on one wall was a grinning cat carved from stone. My mother then informed me that it was the original Cheshire cat from Lewis Carroll’s book “Alice in Wonderland”. He used to frequent the church with friends and had sketched and remembered the Cat from that time on, until he used it in his book. Perhaps the tale was something my mother had made up but it stayed in my mind for many years and after reading the book I found a passage which remained with me. In the book Alice had asked “would you please tell me which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Said the cat. “I don’t much care where.” Replied Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” But here the King intervened “Begin at the beginning” said the King, “and go on till you come to the end and then stop.”
Like other passages from Keates, Shelley, Shakespeare, Byron and Omar Khayam, to name but a few, this one remained with me and over the years I have used it often with friends and within my own family with my wife and daughter. This occurs especially if we chance to go on holiday, my daughter in her younger years and my wife to the present day, still enjoy or perhaps endure, my idiosyncrasies. This explanation serves to introduce a stage of one such holiday, on which occasion my wife had asked where we were going, to which I replied “We shall begin at the beginning and go on till we come to the end and then stop.” At which point we dismounted our tram in Switzerland before making our way to its largest international railway station to board a train, but still she knew not where it would lead us. Thus our journey began in earnest.
“ To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town”……Oh no! I think Dylan Thomas claimed exclusive ownership for that opening phrase….So I’ll just say “To begin at the start, in the most unlikely of places, on a seemingly floating magic carpet ride to a place unknown, but in reality aboard Carriage Six of the SBB Eleven –O- Nine from platform 6 of Zurich Centrale station toward the city of Milano.”
It is a warm, sunlit day as the train moves seamlessly along the shoreline of Lake Lucerne, passing places like ‘Baar’ and ‘Zug’ and ‘Walchwil’. The nameless, faceless people in the passing streets soon shall pass, as will likewise the fences and hedges that block the views of lakes and streams and countless fields and valleys; but the mountains tower on, and impress.
I am seeing Lake Lucerne from a different perspective today, looking down at the boat on which I had sailed only yesterday, and wondering if the people on board can see me now, as I had seen perhaps these same people onshore yesterday, when then I stood where they are standing now. There are more cranes here than ever I have seen, in any place I might ever have visited. A passing thought occurs, that perhaps these cranes are building yet more mountains, for there seems endless spare room where the cranes stand high, like preying manti.
The train just glides, no chuntering nor screeching of tracks, no clunks of unevenness or poor alignment, and you can hear the cowbells as you pass them in the fields, while the cranes stand ready to strike, like heron watching their prey. We glide into darkness and Rosemary comments on the length of the seemingly endless echoing tunnel. I explain that in addition to building mountains which is a major obsession of the Swiss, they also drill holes through mountains, to see what lies beyond. Obviously having once created a hole, they needs must, send a train through it to see where the hole will lead. Hence, I explain, we have just driven through a mountain and soon will emerge into another land . Rosemary briefly perused my face for any apparent signs of sanity, before returning to her book, and I to my reflections.
The daylight resurfaced as we reached the tunnel’s end , where the sun once again sparkled across the lakes till they morphed out into rivers before slithering away into the woods or towns, or simply wound their way back up into the mountains. Or rather perhaps, they were sliding down, for can rivers actually climb mountains? These ever present mountains towered relentlessly on, dwarfing the changing landscapes, bare and black against the sky, or mist enshrouded or cloaked in green, while others lay quiet while draped in a blanket of white.
Rosemary read while I counted cranes, or watched the flitting names as they morphed from the guttural Garner Alpen and Bifertenstock or Vogelberg, into the romantic flamboyance of Lugarno, Mendrisio and Chiasso, and I guessed that we were crossing into Italy. As is my usual practice, I had not divulged our destination to Rosemary, so when two girls later joined the train and seated themselves across from us, I entreated them to not reveal our geographical location.
Momentarily puzzled, they then asked conversationally, where we were going. Rosemary had to concede that she had no idea even of where we were and asked for a clue. “We cannot tell you” informed one of the girls, “But when we reach the next station,we will have passed into a different country.” They loved the idea of someone being completely in the dark about an entire holiday and despite their chatting quite extensively, provided her with no further locational clues until they had reached their destination. They informed us that they too, had been involved in their own little drama. It transpired that they had actually booked a flight to their intended destination, but that having arrived at their airport behind schedule, they had failed to clear security before the boarding gate was closed. As a consequence they were refused permission to board the aircraft and had to undertake a fraught taxi race from the airport to the nearest railway station, which was the one at which they had joined us. They had therefore paid out for two forfeited plane tickets, an additional taxi fare and then two train tickets, as well as losing several hours of a short four day holiday, but were very upbeat. “After all.” They agreed, “Because of our detour we have now learned a new and unusual way to take a holiday, when one of you has no idea of where you are going, it must make your travels so much more exciting!”
They alighted shortly before we reached Milan and we settled back to enjoy the anticipated scenery for our onward passage through Milan to Rome, but in that matter at least, our hopes were somewhat dashed. After their departure I did remind Rosemary that I had mentioned going through a tunnel into a new country, and that the girls had told her the same news. Either she had forgotten my statement, or had no idea how it related to the girls….maybe going through a station didn’t count as going through a hole in a mountain! The journey henceforth might well have proved dire, for a committee entirely devoid of imagination had once, long ago, been charged with planning the ongoing train route for the remaining stretch of this same journey; but had failed in every detail. The exit from Milan itself dragged painfully through the most derelict and heartless parts of the entire city, great tracts of filth and squalor, countless abandoned buildings, rife with smashed windows, collapsing walls and holed roofs, rotting rubbish and rusty disused rolling stock, embellished everywhere with colourful but unsightly graffiti.
Things must surely improve I assumed, once we leave the city and behold the surrounding countryside.This would prove not to be the case however, for just where the open countryside began to appear, great concrete walls had been erected alongside the railway, so that our view was obscured. After a while the walls ended, but just as the train went into a gully so that all that could be seen was an embankment, then trees, then the next wall; and so it continued. The trainline tracks appeared also to have been placed exactly equidistantly between the mountains to the left and those to the right, so that on our either side the mountains were close enough to observe, while being too far distant to be appreciated. Few towns or villages were close enough to facilitate an appreciative viewing, while the occasional house that had in earlier times been built close to the lines, was now invariably abandoned, leaving naught but a picture of desertion and desolation . To relieve the tedium of such a monotonous backdrop, I determined to visit the train’s buffet car and after having navigated five carriages, eventually reached my destination. The staff comprised a girl who spoke excellent English and a young man who tried.
I enquired about a Tropicana Orange, but upon learning that it was priced at four euros, demurred. All of the soft drinks were the same price so I decided to not partake, on principle, but engaged instead in some banter. I suggested that the cost was probably due to the high wages paid to the staff, in accord with their celebrity status. When the girl queried this I suggested that the young man was an actor between films. Her quizzical look and raised eyebrow caused me to say “Think Brad.” She laughed, then looked and gasped; “Who?” the young man asked, “Who this Brad?” “Oh my God.” Said the girl, “I see what you mean.” And then to him “Wait a minute, I’ll show you.” Opening her phone to go onto a search engine, she found a picture of Brad Pitt and showed it to him; he laughed, blushed and held his head in his hands. I asked jestingly if she intended to ask him for a date that evening after they finished work. They both laughed and then she said “Wait here a minute.” She dashed off, returning a minute later with a large glass of what turned out to be apricot juice, “Here you are” she said, “It’s a present from us to you”. Despite my admittedly half hearted attempts to pay, she would not take any money, for she said I had entertained them and it really was a gift. I returned to Rosemary with my prize, she was less impressed than the buffet attendants.
When later we disembarked at Milan Central and headed for the exit to change to another train, the buffet girl jumped down from the buffet car as we passed and came across to give me a hug and to say goodbye, the young man too, came down and shook my hand. He smiled at me and unexpectedly said “ If she ask me I say yes.” Then turned away. I had to think back for a moment and then like him I smiled! Just a salutary lesson in how to make friends and influence people! Fifteen minutes later we boarded our next train, this time bound for Tibullus’ “Eternal City” which the ancient romans had once hailed as ‘Caput Mundi’ or Capital of the world. Within a day we had journeyed on toward the opening stage of our next adventure; but we were to travel beyond Rome, for now instead we were to continue on down the south-west coast of Italy to the Bay of Naples. In the fading light of evening we disembarked from the train and followed the hordes out of the station and onto the concourse. “Where are we now?” asked Rosemary. I looked around us and momentarily was reminded of when first I came here many years ago, a much younger man. My sweeping vista rekindled fond memories and images, but also unaccountably, re-invoked a saying coined during the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, which has endured down through the centuries. I thought for a moment, then since my pronunciation might not impress the passing Italian purists, jotted on the back of one of our train tickets
“ Vedi Napoli e poi Muori.”
“ What does that mean?” Ask Rosemary. “See Naples and die” I replied. “But why would anyone want to see Naples and then die?” She asked in bewilderment, for since my degree is in history, and primarily in roman history, she enjoys yet infuriates in not knowing whether I am in earnest or in jest, as does our daughter. “ No, this one is genuine” I replied. “ It comes from the time of the Bourbons when the city was at its wealthiest and most opulent, there is a proverb that goes “Once you have seen the City of Naples. You can die in peace, for you will never again see such beauty.” Rosemary looked at me, still trying to fathom the sincerity of my explanation, then turned and headed for the station exit. “Come on then.” she said, “Where are we going now?” A few resolute and determined strides took her flouncing away from me, but then she faltered and came to a stop. For truth to be told, she suddenly realised that she actually had no idea!
Her question might have been the cause of some concern, considering the hordes that had alighted the train and departed the station before us, but fortunately they had dispersed on foot for the main part, into the surrounding streets. We seemingly had our choice from any of around ten taxis to take us to our hotel, but we were not home yet! When I named our hotel to the first driver, he shook his head and drove off, the second did the same but the third wanted 40 euros to which I offered 30. Leaving his taxi, he went to confer with his colleagues where a heated debate ensued since he did not know it transpired, the precise whereabouts of our intended destination! Upon his return he agreed upon the fee, but said he couldn’t take us right to the hotel since that street was too narrow so he would drop us off at the end of the street. We agreed and held our breath as he raced through the narrow streets, passing all other vehicles at breakneck speed. When after only a matter of minutes he stopped at the entrance to an unlit road, he pointed along to our right and said the hotel entrance was ”Somewhere up there.” I was so impressed with his driving skills that I asked for a card in order to call upon his services on the morrow as a driver. He demurred since he admitted that he was not actually a registered driver! I paid him 40 euros anyway since I thought he had earned it. We made our way in the darkness for about 100 yards before coming to a massive gate through which a double decker bus could easily have passed.
Set into it was a normal sized door through which we gained entry and found ourselves in a huge courtyard.
Crossing the courtyard toward a sole dim nightlight, we found a telephone screwed to the wall with a card saying simply “Please pick up for service.” I did as requested and after a surprisingly brief delay, a female voice asked “Posso aiutaria? How can I help?” Having informed her that we had made a reservation I was asked to look around for stairs and to come up to the third floor. Not seeing anything else that looked remotely like a lift I called again and was told to look over to a doorway for some stairs. These I actually could see but was not prepared to ascend them in the semi darkness with my wife and all our luggage. The woman informed me that she, being the only person on night duty, could not come down to help, however there was a lift in the corner of the quadrangle. My wife had to go across to an iron gateway while I remained on the phone until when I told the woman my wife was now by the gate, the woman released the electric lock from upstairs. My wife then had to hold the gate open until I had entered with all of our luggage before we climbed about 10 wooden stairs to something which resembled an old-fashioned telephone kiosk.
Opening the door we then stepped into something only slightly larger, in which we could scarcely even turn around, I pulled the door closed behind me. Upon pressing the top button we were elevated to the third floor whereupon my wife turned a handle in front of her and we stepped into a corridor. The door closed behind us automatically. Our night-time receptionist had come along the corridor to greet; us and was very friendly and apologised profusely, but explained that there was only one nightshift worker. We were booked in quickly and efficiently and given a hot drink, before being shown to our room. Our misgivings over the taxi debacle, the difficulty of gaining entrance to the hotel, the ramshackle and antiquated lift system and the shortage in number of the hotel staffing were dispelled as soon as the door to our room was opened.
The rooms were spacious and well furnished with even a balcony should we choose to sit outside and even dimmable lights. Our chosen hotel, “The Royal Dante” truly lived up to its name !