It seemed like an awfully long way from Florence to Liverpool this year.
Physically, it took quite a lot of work. A plane, three trains, and a cab. But culturally, the divide between the two cities is oh so much greater.
Imagine the shock-and-awe of moving from Michelangelo to McCartney. Renaissance to Ringo. The River Arno to the River Mersey. Ciabatta to chips. Tuscan sun to Scouser country (Liverpuddlians are also known as “Scousers”).
But because we had to do it, we opted for a night's stopover in Milan, where we could at least visit the magnificent cathedral (currently undergoing a facelift and covered with tarps and plastic) and La Scala opera house (also under wraps). Browse the spacious and elegant shopping arcades, chock full of designer everything at exorbitant designer prices. And perhaps see da Vinci's “Last Supper,” now fully, if controversially, restored.
We stayed the night near the Milan train station at the curiously named Jolly Hotel Machiavelli - which turned out to be a little bit of both - before taking an early morning commuter flight to London and then making our way to Euston Railway Station.
Euston, like London's other main-line stations, has now thankfully transitioned from its post-war Victorian grunge into at least the 20th century, and you can now sit and graze on anything - from Starbucks to sushi - in relative comfort while waiting for your train to be announced.
There was an initial gulp of surprise at the hefty $80-per-person tab for a second-class fare to Liverpool - particularly in light of the giveaway fares being offered by Britain's no-frills airlines to much more exotic and distant locations. But as we were obligated to go through London anyway, a train was the only convenient option we had, 80 bucks or not.
The London-Liverpool run, under Britain's deregulated rail system, is now operated by Virgin Rail, which seemed at first glance to be quite experienced. It had nattily attired staff in red jackets and blue pants sporting whistles and timetables and saying all the right things. “Welcome on board.” “The buffet car is now open.” “The next stop will (probably) be Crewe.” (Our parenthesis!)
The trains themselves were painted in a lively livery of red, yellow, and silver, and as we joined the other passengers spilling onto Platform 12, we thought we might actually enjoy this journey. After all, we are committed, card-carrying train buffs (as we never tire of telling you) and rarely happier than drifting through the countryside with carry-ons in the overhead racks, a little impromptu picnic in front of us, and a few blessed hours in which to relax, read, doze - a sort of Happy Wanderer scenario.
A smiling attendant directed us to carriage “C for Charlie,” which, unfortunately, turned out to be the only one on the whole train designated for passengers without reservations. (Due to our travel schedule, we had obviously had no opportunity to reserve ahead.)
“C for Charlie,” set up airline style, was practically full 30 minutes before departure, but we did manage to grab a couple of window seats across from each other and settled in. Sort of. For the seats, while quite attractively flecked in golds, yellows, and blues, were extremely narrow, hard, and totally unsuited to receive rear ends of any configuration.
And as the compartment filled first to capacity and then went to overflow, with passengers taking to the floor and sitting on luggage in front of the loos, conditions also went from tight to only marginally tolerable.
To its credit, Virgin did leave Euston on time, but then took the better part of half an hour clearing London's grubby suburbs before getting up to country cruising speed, about 70 mph.
By this time the noise in carriage C was building dangerously, as virtually everyone reached for their mobile phones to report in to business acquaintances, friends, and loved ones the obviously extraordinary news that Virgin Rail had actually left the station and was now en route to Liverpool via such notorious beauty spots as Milton Keynes, Ringley, Birmingham, Stafford, and Crewe.
In the course of the next three hours, we were thus aurally included in literally dozens of conversations covering everything from baptisms and bankruptcies to love, life, and the pursuit of happiness.
Despite the extreme discomfort, the noise, the lack of personal space, and the general aggro, we must say that our fellow travelers, despite being packed together like sardines, behaved remarkably well and seemed to take it all in true Brit, stiff-upper-lip stride.
There is some hope of improvement in Virgin's future. In a couple of years it plans to run 125-mph Italian-designed “pendolinos,” or tilting trains, on this same London-Liverpool line. We just fear, after our brief Virgin experience, that “tilting” could well lead to “tipping.” We do hope not.
Oh, yes. We arrived in Liverpool 35 minutes late due to engineering works in Wolverhampton.
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