July 22, 2004
Three Flavors of Alps
DAY 273: The sun came up over the Rhône as I waited for an early morning taxi on the riverbank. I was the only one awake in probably all of the Ile de la Barthelasse at 6:30, other than security guards or groundskeepers. I was the only one on the island trying to get an early train out of Avignon to move onto another destination.
Usually I just make a reservation the day before for a train I want to take, but for the past three days, the French national TGV train network reservation computer system was down, forcing anyone who wants to get a train pray for a seat the day of departure. I knew I had a long day of train travel ahead of me, so I wanted to get the first train out -- my early awakening paid off and I got the train I wanted that departed at 7:31.
My ultimate destination was Florence, Italy to the southeast, but with the Sunday schedules, the only way I could work out getting there by sundown was to actually go northeast first, via Geneva, Switzerland. My early morning train took me to the French city of Valence on the way, where I switched trains to one bound for Geneva. After an hour layover in Geneva, a train took me to Milano Centrale where I hopped on yet another train for Florence. I spent about three more hours in transit and arrived in Firenze (Italian for Florence), where I managed to find a place to stay a couple of blocks away from the Arno River.
Spending all day on trains wasn't too bad. Most of the time I caught up on writing, although a lot of times I just spaced out the window. The four trains took me through the Alps, and I traveled over the borders that separate them into three flavors: French, Swiss, and Italian (picture above). The French were nice, as were the Italian -- the Swiss ones I was pretty neutral about (pun totally intended).
Most of my train trip I kept from starving eating panini sandwiches from train stations, the cheap but decent way to get by in the area. That frugal diet all changed when I met an Aussie named Val at the hostel, who had been traveling all over Europe on a severance package from Oracle Systems in Dublin, spending most of his time crashing at friends' houses. In fact, when he checked into the hostel at the same time I did, it was he first time checking into such a place.
"Do you usually worry about your gear?" the hostel novice asked me.
"Nah, most people are usually worried that you're gonna steal their stuff," I said.
Val had really lived it up with his package from his former employer; in just about six weeks, he had blown about the same amount of money I had spent over eight months, splurging in fancy hotels, bars and clubs across Europe. With a cheap place to stay this night -- after deducing his funds wouldn't last forever so he better start toning the decadene down -- he didn't scrimp on a place that just served paninis. Instead, the two of us went out to a nice outdoor restaurant/cafe in a piazza to swap travel tales over risotto, gnocchi and a fine bottle of chianti.
As far as the flavors of the fine Tuscan food and drink went, they were rich and robust, the way real Italian food should be, and there's nothing really neutral about that.
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