Here’s a fact for you: Benito Mussolini never actually claimed that if his Fascist Party were given power he would ‘make the trains run on time’. He once asked if a train he needed to catch could arrive on time, and presumably the embroidered myth grew up because it sounded exactly like his particular combination of bragging and pettiness.
Still, it’s hard to talk about trains in Italy without the story cropping up, and that’s exactly what I’m here to do. The entire country has recently gone high-speed train mad. First it was the Trenitalia Frecce (‘arrow’) services, the fastest of which, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrows’) connect Turin and Salerno down the spine of the country. With speeds of up to 300kph they’ve brought a TGV-style pizzazz to getting around by rail. Then 2012 saw the first Italo services between Milan and Naples. These boast similar top speeds to the freccia, but have a whole lot more going on: they’re privately run, they’ve done away with paper tickets, they named the service in consultation with passengers on the website, there’s an onboard cinema and there’s a lot of leather in the carriages. We caught the Italo from Milan to Rome to see what Europe’s next generation of railways might be like.
However, while travel for its own sake is all very well, let’s not forget the humble cities served by this marvel of 21st-century transport. Milan is famous for its cathedral, the lace-like duomo, and being one of the vociferous contenders for ‘fashion capital of the world’, but it also boasts some engineering marvels to get us in the mood for the journey to Rome. The canals (navigli) to the south of the city were in part designed by Leonardo da Vinci: they once crisscrossed the whole town, and while the survivors are confined to Milan’s bottom left-hand corner, they are emblematic of the way the renaissance city embraced cutting-edge technology to maintain its trade coffers and cultural profile.
On a similar tip, though four centuries later, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a kind of super-arcade on Parisian lines – if not scale – predated the Eiffel Tower by 20 years with its revolutionary use of ironworks, married here to delicate glassworks. It’s in the form of a cross – like a religious icon devoted to high-end retail – and the conjunction of its axes is marked with a superb glazed dome and branches of jewellers Bernasconi, Louis Vuitton, Prada and McDonald’s.
The Galleria was clearly one of the inspirations for Mussolini’s greatest legacy to the city of Milan: the Centrale station. Although it was conceived before he came to power, it was Benito’s vision of a new, Roman-empire-invoking Italy that gave Centrale its architectural steer. It’s very very big. It’s very very marbly and it’s extremely silly: vast classical statues look coyly over their shoulders in the chilly hangar-like atrium. There are gigantic flights of stairs everywhere (the disabled presumably not looming large in the fascist world view) and the recurring motif is of a squat grumpy eagle perched dizzyingly just below roof height. Although only certain rail services use Centrale, it’s worth a visit in its own right, though be wary of pickpockets: it’s surely some new low of tourist ignominy to get robbed at a station you’re not even travelling from.
Anyway, there’s no place for dippers, panhandlers or massive top-level corruption in the Italia of the new Italo: all is sleek, clean and dynamic. We’re waiting for it early one stuffy morning on a platform at Milan’s most downbeat station, Porto Garibaldi, next to a man who’s asleep on a piece of cardboard. He awakes briefly as the powerful cylinder-like conveyance pulls into the station, then sinks back into sleep as it leaves.
Rather than classes, the Italo trains have three ‘ambiences’ (we know): ‘Smart’, ‘Prima’ and ‘Club’: ‘Club’ is the poshest, with the option of being cradled in a womblike ‘sitting room’, assuming your womb is the
colour of caramel and embroidered with hares. The hare is the symbol of the Italo: fast and agile (not boxy). How fast and agile becomes apparent about ten minutes after leaving Garibaldi. Once clear of the city, the Italo hits its stride, and the handy digital speedometer above the inter-carriage doors climbs to 200kph, then 250, 270, 290 and stops at 300kph. There isn’t a rattle or a whine, hardly even a whisper of wind.
The Italo is much more like air travel: you might as well forget the outside world, it’s pretty unvarying at these speeds. Instead, it’s all about the onboard experience, hence the cinema car and the ever-attentive staff. We imagine it must be a bit of a boon if you’re travelling with kids: none of the hassle of airports and most of the speed of flying. We quite like the enforced downtime of travelling by train: spending time
with a book, a coffee and a subtly changing view. It’s one of the nearest things we have to a proper contemplation of time and the idea of journeying. The Italo is certainly quick, and it’s certainly groomed, but isn’t it just a bit soulless?
Back to reality. The benefits of the Italo’s perfectly mannered ambience become obvious when, less than three hours later, we arrive in Rome. If the Italo represents a forward-thinking quality amid all the history and tourist dollars, then the Eternal City is not necessarily resting on its laurels either. The Maxxi (via Guido Reni, 10), which opened in 2010, is the city’s Tate Modern, though Zaha Hadid’s confrontationally modern and unconventional contemporary art museum has been a lot more divisive than London’s equivalent.
Significantly, though, it’s well away from the classical and renaissance highlights of the centro storico. So if you want some headspace in the middle of town, you can find it in another recent monument – albeit a rethinking of an earlier rethinking of an ancient one. The Museo dell’Ara Pacis (Via Repetta) was built in 2006 to house a 1930s reconstruction of emperor Augustus’ altar of peace, commemorating the end of the Gallic wars. This was again a Mussolini initiative, the focal point of a severe new piazza surrounding Augustus’ mausoleum. The 1930s housing for the altar was deemed no longer fit for purpose, and pulled down in the early 2000s amid much grumbling. Richard Meier’s glassy replacement was then opened in 2006 amid a lot more grumbling, chiefly over its largeness, glassiness and that it hadn’t been there for hundreds of years (or at least 70-odd). They’ve pulled bits of it down, and there’s still lobbying to get rid of it. In fact, it’s a tremendously successful space, offering, appropriately, both sanctuary and stillness.
The huge altar from 9 BC is more like a soft marble room: you feel shrouded by its antiquity rather than coldly impressed by it, and the light-filled space is cool and removed from the heat and tourist mania outside. The nearest comparison we can make is, oddly, to the new contemporary art museum in Milan, the Novecento (‘900’, ie 1900s): situated in the Piazza Duomo, it occupies the serene pavilions of the Arengario Palace, started under Fascism in 1936, and the antithesis of Milan Centrale’s bombast: a De Chirico dream arcade, to reconfigure Europe’s troubled 20th century.
What they’re going to do about Europe’s troubled 21st century remains to be seen. New Frecciarossa trains are promised for 2013, with top speeds of 400kph: where will it all end? And, more importantly, how quickly?
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to both Milan and Rome. Return tickets start at Dhs4,170 to Milan; Dhs2,880 to Rome.
Where to stay
Uptown Palace, Milan
One third of a small chain of Milanese hotels, the recently opened Uptown Palace is business-oriented in style, but don’t let that put you off. Staff are friendly and helpful with none of the obliqueness sometimes encountered in Italian hotels. Highly recommended.
Doubles from Dhs740 per night. Via Santa Sofia 10, www.uptownpalace.com (+39 02 305131).
Hotel dei Borgognoni, Rome
Brilliantly situated five minutes from the Spanish Steps, the Borgognoni occupies a classic Roman townhouse and has some upmarket touches such as private terraces with some of the rooms, a fine marble hallway and plenty of old-school style. Not budget, but excellent value for what it offers.
B&B doubles from Dhs1,135 per night. Via del Bufalo, www.hotelborgognoni.com (+39 06 699 41505).
Dubai to Italy
Flight time: Approximately six and a half hours.
Time difference: Three hours behind Dubai.
Dhs1 = 0.21 euros.