Cambridge to Siena and back, part one

There was also that other conference I wanted to report on… I plan to mainly do this as photoblogging and travelogue, since I made it to so little of the actual conference; that will get a post in the middle, and the third post will be photos of Siena and Florence, but this one is about the journey.

Doors to a building on the Rue du Temple des Filles, Paris

Doors to a building on the Rue du Temple des Filles, Paris

There were some medieval things on this journey, but not many, and these aren’t one. I went to Siena by train. This seemed like a reasonable way to have a bit more fun with the journey than stooging around airports that aren’t where Ryanair wants you to think they are, and there was just about time in hand. The Man in Seat 61 advised me that it was feasible, and a very helpful chap from Cairo arranged the tickets. It all seemed a bit too easy, almost. But I duly stepped onto the Cambridge Cruiser, and then the Eurostar, and arrived in Paris all more or less according to plan.

View of the Seine, Paris

I've made so many bad 'in-Seine' puns I couldn't not photograph it

On arrival in Paris I was asked for money within seconds of leaving the Gare du Nord. Undeterred, I set out on foot for Paris Bercy station. This had looked doable, in the time, on a map, and so it turned out to be, though I did keep getting distracted. There are a number of monumental things en route and some of them even have pretensions to relevance in this blog:

Portal of Saint-Laurent de Paris

Portal of the church of Saint-Laurent, Paris

Paris-Bercy station Paris Bercy is in the south-east of the city and it’s definitely less grand than the monumental places one passes through to get there. There was more litter, more graffiti and a child who’d been left on a balcony nearby to yell its unhappy lungs out while whoever was looking after it got on with something else.
There was also as before a small but determined representation by a crippled beggar…

A lousy picture, but his right foot was bent backwards and he never put weight on it

The train was late arriving—and Bercy lacks something as a place to wait—but did eventually arrive, and once all five of us had squeezed into the fairly spartan cabin, established the chain of shared languages by which messages could be passed around the group (Italian to French to English to Chinese), it was possible to start to enjoy the journey.

The one of the two waiting rooms at Bercy with a departures monitor. Lacking some basic facilities, I thought...

The countryside south of Paris is full of dead industry, wasting farmland and endless graffiti; it does not look like a happy place to live. Eventually rurality overcame this picture and not long after that, so did darkness.

Countryside by the railway south of Paris

Triumph of the countryside on the route south of Paris

I don’t know about you but I find sleeper trains a misnomer, and even more so when their stifling over-populated cabins are lit by a night-light one can’t extinguish and one brought no face-mask. Morning came as something of a relief as it meant I could try and scare up coffee from the buffet car, although the two staff there were very reluctant to serve us rather than those who had paid for a seated breakfast. After being told twice over half an hour that the counter would be open in five minutes, an enterprising American discovered that he could reach the coffee canister himself, served everyone and disappeared off leaving a note on the counter. The barista then explained in horrified tones that we shouldn’t have done that, but since she refused still to open the buffet for us to pay or to serve coffee, no other solution offered itself. Eventually her boss took over and let us buy food also but it wasn’t any working model of customer service I recognised. This would become more familiar over the next few days.

By this time we were passing through Bologna. I didn’t photograph Bologna as from the train it appears to be an endless waste of empty railway sidings, punctuated by occasional shunters moving stuff from liminal factories that clutter the horizon. The one station there seems to lie between miles and miles of switchbacks in either direction, but as it was now Saturday morning it all stood idle, which added to the whole air of commercial dysfunction we were experiencing. I did not photograph this. Instead, a full two hours after we’d been woken and told Florence would be soon, we finally arrived there and I weakly disembarked.

Paris-Rome sleeper train, arrived in Florence

My conveyance as I left it

On stepping out of Florence station I was immediately asked for money. That avoided, I walked a short way down the street, and observed significant-looking domes in the distance that I would have to come back for, as well as the inevitable tourist trappery and a certain sense that the place is running low on funds. In the below, note if you will not just that the building beyond the junction in the centre is the Hotel Boccaccio, but that the peeling edifice at left is the police station…

Police station and Hotel Boccaccio, Florence

I had hardly escaped the station beggars, however, when I was more or less assaulted by the internationally-familiar sight of Romanesque!

Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Which, quite frankly, looks better from behind (though the sun coming out also helped):

Entrance to the cloister of Santa Maria de Novella, Florence

Thus fortified by a certain amount of medieval beauty, I returned to the station, dodging the beggars, and found a train to Siena. (Note to self and others: even though one’s tickets may only remind you to stamp them before boarding in France, this also applies in Italy. The conductor was thankfully forgiving.) This almost immediately made everything well again. Although the weather was still improving rather than good, the beauty of the countryside was immediately clear, and it also had that particular resonance with me that comes from knowing obscure things about the area, largely here from the work of Chris Wickham. (I now understand why he spends so much time working on Tuscany…)

Perhaps the hill of Poggibonsi, through a glass muzzily

For example, this is a terrible photo, unless what you wanted was a record of the state of the train’s windows, but what I was trying to photograph is the immensely interesting site of Poggibonsi, which I’ve talked about here before. It was passing that that made me realise I was actually here, in a historic landscape in another country to the one where I’d gone to sleep, on something very like a holiday. And that was good. For all that, I think that the best picture I got on this leg of the trip may well have been nothing medieval at all, because historic landscape or not it’s got a railway running through it, and that railway links a load of places where people of the now live, work, play and get bored. And when they get bored, sometimes, beauty happens…

Graffito on a gravel truck at the trackside just outside Florence

Graffito on a gravel truck at the trackside just outside Florence

2 responses to “Cambridge to Siena and back, part one

  1. Pingback: Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Cambridge to Siena and back part three: really gratuitous photo post « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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