Paris and the South of France Tour

Day 16 Saturday May 16, 2009
Nice - Turin

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I felt really good when I woke up. Whatever had been dragging me down for more than a week seemed to have departed. I finished packing and made quite certain that I had not left anything in the hotel room. I audited my money belt and decided to get some more euros.

I passed them at least twice on the previous day, but I never noticed these statues on sticks.

Sue joined me for breakfast at 7:15. Phoebe, Nancy, and Barbara Postles were already there. Jacqueline arrived shortly after we did. Patti and Tom came down for a quick cup of coffee. They were flying home immediately through Paris and Boston. Jacqueline was taking the train to Lyon in search of her roots.

Our train was the last one in the first column.

Jacqueline engaged someone in a discussion about what each person would savor the most upon returning stateside. Jacqueline mentioned that she had missed soaking in a bath tub that was big enough for her. I definitely missed our two black cats. They were from the same litter and looked a lot alike, but their personalities were polar opposites. Giacomo almost always craved affection; Franklin was extremely wary of human contact.

After breakfast I ran to get 100€ from the ATM at the BNP Paribas branch that I had previously noted across on the other side of the Place Massena. The weather had cleared up. We would definitely have a nice day to travel to Turin.

The train station was packed.

We checked out, and I paid our hotel bill. The hotel did not charge Sue for the drink that they had provided her on Thursday while she was waiting for the room to be ready.

We asked the people at the desk to call a taxi for us. The cab ride to the train station cost us 15€. This definitely seemed like a rip-off. I should have found out what the charge would be before we asked for a cab. If I had had an inkling that it would be so expensive, I definitely would have walked the luggage up to the station and let Sue take the tram. It was only about a mile.

Our train was waiting for us.

The train station was much more crowded than it had been on Friday afternoon. We looked up on the board and discovered that the train for Milan by way of Ventimiglia was on time and was leaving from track G. That was our train. While we waited, Sue went to the information desk and discovered that we could indeed have traveled through Cuneo instead of Genoa. I speculated that we had been unable to make reservations for this route on the Internet because the service that ran from Ventimiglia to Turin was of a different level from the service between Nice and Ventimiglia.

We had to walk down the stairs, but we were able to take an escalator back up to track G. There we saw an old Trenitalia train. It looked a little odd among all the new French trains. Because we did not understand the numbering of the cars, we seated ourselves in the wrong one. A group of more train-savvy teenaged girls chased us out. Two of the seats in our designated compartment were occupied by an English couple. The gentleman helped us hoist our luggage up onto the overhead racks. An Italian lady sat by the window. I should have taken photos of these people, but it never occurred to me.

The Ventimiglia station.

The train left promptly at 10:02.[1] After our hike to Villefranche, I was not a bit surprised that we passed through several tunnels after leaving Nice. The train seemed to be going very slowly. Several of the kids on the train screamed when everything went dark for a minute or so.

Since we were scheduled to be on this train for over two hours, I took the Eee Pc out of my backpack and worked on the journal.

Our first stop was in a foreign country, Monaco. The English couple got off at the very modern underground train station there. They had no luggage, so they were clearly just making a day trip from Nice to Monte Carlo. It had never occurred to me that anyone might be taking Trenitalia from Nice to Monaco. The borders in Western Europe had almost disappeared.

The last stop in France was at Menton. A guy with fairly long hair wearing shorts and New Balance shoes sat down in our compartment for a minute, but then he left. I saw him walk by a couple of times.

The vendor brought his food cart aboard the train.

The third stop was a lengthier one in Ventimiglia. It was immediately obvious that we had departed the Côte d’Azur. The train station was the old-fashioned kind with wooden platforms. Nearby lots of clothes were hanging out to dry on the balconies of apartments. We could see a guy with a cart on the platform selling food to passengers of our train. The scene brought to mind Chico selling “tootsie-frootsie ice cream” in Day at the Races. We were definitely back in Italy, and it felt good.

Shortly after we left Ventimiglia, the guy selling food rumbled past our compartment. Evidently he and his cart somehow boarded the train in Ventimiglia, and he was hawking his wares on the train.

The Italian stops were announced very clearly. That was a blessing. We certainly did not want to miss our connection in Genoa.

After the train stopped briefly at Diano Marina, a nearly unbearable squealing sound made it impossible to do anything but cringe for five minutes or so. The squealing stopped as abruptly as it started. A Trenitalia conductor in a green jacket came by and checked our tickets.

The toilet was a little unsettling.

Near Alassio I could see people swimming in the Ligurian Sea. Shortly thereafter we made another quick stop in Bordighera.

It did not surprise me too much that the Sanremo station seemed much more elegant than the other Italian stations. The music festival in Sanremo was probably the most important cultural event of the year in Italy. A lady in a black skirt got on the train there and took a seat our compartment. She had a dark suntan and wore heavy makeup. At first I suspected that she might be a minor celebrity.

As we passed through the next stop in the Porto Maurizio section of Imperia I was helping Sue brush up on her Italian. The lady who had been on the train from Nice chuckled at my attempts to correct Sue’s pronunciation of Italian words. As usual, Sue mixed in a good deal of Spanish. You could call it Spantalian. When the lady realized that I could speak enough Italian to keep up my end of a simple conversation, we had a nice one. Among other things, she informed us that the train was thirty minutes late.

Oh, no! We figured that we would certainly miss our connection. I told the lady that we only had six minutes to make our connection in Genoa. I had a hard time remembering the correct Italian word (corrispondenza) for connection, but I pulled it out of somewhere. She said that if it was a true connection, the train would probably be on the track across the platform from ours.

We had to console ourselves with the knowledge that another train bound for Turin was scheduled to leave in about ninety minutes. I finished up the potato chips that I had purchased in Antibes accompanied by a side of sugar-coated walnuts that Sue had been carrying around with her for a while. I also took a slug from my water bottle.

Somewhere around Finale Liguria or Savona we saw a very large pile of coal between the track and the sea. Both of the ladies in our compartment got off at Savona.

As we approached Genoa, Sue went out to stand closer to the door. A group of backpacking kids began to assemble in the corridor. I grabbed my stuff and moved past them to stand by Sue. I did not realize that they too were waiting to get off at Genova. We passed several train stations in Genoa before we arrived at Piazza Principe at about 1:30, 24 minutes late.

I immediately noticed that the sign for the train on the adjacent track said “Torino,” so we hurriedly dragged all of our luggage over to the train and clambered aboard. I was still in the act of situating my big red bag up on the overhead rack when the train started to move. What a relief! We had made the connection. If we had hesitated at all, we probably would have missed it.

The train to Turin was not at all crowded. Sue moved over to the other side of the aisle so that she could shoot some movies. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a pretty boring trip as far as scenery was concerned. The first part of it mostly consisted of tunnels. We emerged from them briefly for stops at Ronco Scrivia, Arquata Scrivia, and Novi Ligure, all places that I had never heard of.

The train emerged from the mountains for the last time at Alessandria, which is where a group of young people boarded. Alessandria had been one of the settings for Umberto Eco’s book, Baudolino. According to Eco, the city had been constructed in the time of Frederick Barbarossa and was named after Pope Alexander III. The idea was that if the emperor attacked the town, the pope might feel obligated to defend it.

A lot of people joined us at Asti. Most of them seemed to be rather young, late teens and up. I had to wonder if there might be some kind of festival, other than Fiera del Libro, about which I had learned while making hotel reservations, taking place in Turin that weekend.

My new best Romanian friend.

A guy with a dark complexion wearing a black NY Yankees jacket and black Major League Baseball pants sat across from me. He took out some cheese to eat and offered some to me. He tried to start up a conversation with me even though his Italian was worse than mine, and his English was even worse than that. I asked him about his outfit, and I told him that the Yankees in the U.S. were like Juventus in Italy.

He showed me his passport card; it identified him as being Romanian. To Sue’s horror I let him look at my passport, too. He was surprised not to find any stamps. He evidently did not know where to look, and I did not enlighten him.

We employed a little Italian and a little English to chat a bit. He told me that the cheese that he was eating was called Njord, and it came from Norway. He never was able to persuade me to try any. He also said that he rode a bicycle. Maybe he meant that he competed in bicycle races. He had evidently been to England and Scandinavia. I was a little suspicious of him, and the fact that his identity card was from Romania did not exactly put me at ease. He finally got bored of me and dozed off for a few minutes. Before we reached Turin, I asked him to pose for me, and he did.

We passed a lot of flat land. I guessed (correctly) that we must be going up the Po River valley. There were farms, small forests, and orchards. We made short stops in Vilafranca-Cantaranna, Villanova, and Trovarelo, before we reached the station at Lingotto.

Could a scene like this ever be photographed in a French train station?

Lingotto was within the city limits of Turin, and it was obviously heavily developed. I had read that the big FIAT plant and headquarters were both near the Lingotto station. So was an automobile museum.

Porta Nuova.

We arrived at Porta Nuova at about 3:45. No one ever checked our ticket on the second train. The Porta Nuova station dwarfed the station at Nice. It seemed as if we walked several blocks just to get to the door. A group of scouts were trooping along beside us in single file. Everyone had to grab onto the hand or some piece of equipment of the person in front. I had a great time watching them. At one point a kid with glasses wiped his nose on the strap of the pack of the girl in front of him. I did not get a picture of this incident, but I was lucky enough to snap a pretty good shot of the group. That it came out was something of a miracle; we were hauling our luggage through the station at the time.

The Hotel Genio, which was right across the street from the train station.

We exited froom the station onto Via Vittorio Emmanuele II. We could see the Hotel Genio, a Best Western hotel with three stars, off to the right and across the street from Porta Nuova. I could not understand why it felt so good to be in Italy, but Sue said that she felt it, too. We both had many really good memories of Il Belpaese.

Sue liked this room.

We had no trouble at all with the registration. The lady at the desk was from Croatia, but she spoke perfect English and Italian. We left our passports with her, and she gave us the key. The room was one flight up, but there was an elevator.

The key to the city.

When we entered room #110, we thought that we had died and gone to heaven. It had a huge bathroom with two sinks, a bidet, and a towel rack! You could make coffee in the room! There was free wireless Internet access that was easy to use! Only the phone was a little weird. It looked nothing like any telephone that either of us had witnessed.

A bathroom in which one could turn around.

We were a little worried about the electricity because we did not bring any Italian adapters. It turned out that we did not need special converters for Italian electricity. In fact, one of our old converters that we had never been able to use with French outlets worked fine in the Hotel Genio. That meant that we would be able to recharge batteries even while Sue was using her CPAC machine. Another of our oldest converters fit into the outlet without difficulty, but it showed no sign of life. I pitched it.

Coffee on demand!

We unpacked. I took a shower and discovered that the room was less than perfect. The shower, which did feature a cord to pull in case of emergency, did not have a soap dish. I could find no place at all to put the Selsun Blue. The soap I had to balance on the top of the shower door.

Check out the nightstand.

After I dried off from the shower, I washed out my orange polo shirt. I wrung it out in a towel and hung it on a plastic hanger suspended from the lintel of the shower. I planned to wear the green shirt on Monday and the orange shirt on the last day of our vacation.

Not a conventional hotel phone.

Sue expressed interest in attending a musical concert. She has always liked almost every kind of live music, and the livelier the better. She asked at the desk as to what might be available. They told her that there were often concerts on Saturday evening in either Piazza San Carlo or Piazza Costello, both of which were on the town's main drag, Via Roma, the street that stretched from the center of town to Porta Nuova.

Sue and I decided to make a passeggiata down Via Roma. Sue's leg was bothering her, so we went slowly. This part of Turin was packed with people both young and old. To reach the other piazzas, we had to go around Piazza Carlo Felice, which was roughly horseshoe-shaped. Either side of the pedestrian-only street was predominantly occupied by booksellers in temporary stands, but we saw a few permanent stores as well. After about ten minutes of walking we were disgusted to find ourselves back almost at the train station. We had turned completely around and had never even noticed.

After walking in circles we took a break by this fountain.

On our second circuit we kept our eye on a red sign on a retailer on Via Roma on the other end of the piazza. If we had not been alert, we might have missed Via Roma again and taken another lap.

Piazza San Carlo was hopping. The stage was at the far end. The Mediaset trucks were on the right.

Via Roma was positively jammed with people, most of whom were speaking Italian. Most were walking rapidly, as if they were headed somewhere rather than on an evening stroll. Apparently, unlike us, they knew where they were going. This part of the thoroughfare was lined with tony clothing, jewelry, and even home stores intermixed with a few American stores like Foot Locker and Timberland. In a display window I saw an orange linen suit that was to die for, and I nearly picked up a pair of bright green suede loafers to go with it.

The primary job of the Polizia Finanziaria seemed to be to conduct close visual surveillance of all young female attendees.

As we approached Piazza San Carlo, we realized that something important must be going on. We could see several big Mediaset[2] trucks parked on the side, and a large stage with Jumbotron screens was in place at the end of the square closest to Porta Nuova. Evidently something called “Sfida Dei Talenti” (Challenge of the Talents) was being broadcast on channel 5. Packed around the stage were a few thousand people, mostly teenaged girls. We kept to the outskirts, where it was still very crowded but passable. We were probably in the square for ten or fifteen minutes, and during that time nothing seemed to happen on the stage.

This guy was a pretty good singer.

We lost interest and resumed our trek down Via Roma. It soon becaume evident that more people were headed toward Piazza San Carlo than away from it. We passed another long line of expensive-looking retail stores. After three or four blocks we came to the Piazza Castello, which appeared to be nearly as large as the huge Main Market Square in Kraków. As we entered, we noticed a small crowd gathered around a guy singing. Although he was accompanied only by his guitar, he was quite good. We listened to him sing songs by Jim Croce and Paul Simon. Then he sang the “Halleluia” song by Leonard Cohen. Sue probably would have liked to stand there all evening, but we had already been walking for quite some time, and we had yet to see a restaurant. We had skipped lunch; I was in no mood to skip supper. I had heard and read far too many good thing about the food in the Piedmont.
These exasperated adults had their hands full trying to keep the kids out of the water.

We lingered for a few minutes so that we could take photos and movies of Palazzo Madama and the other buildings surrounding the square. Then we headed toward Palazzo Reale. When we saw that we could not get through, we turned to the northeast and followed Corso Verde Reale. We were surprised to find that the neighborhood got a little dingy pretty quickly. We passed some bars, small restaurants, and cafes, including one that specialized in kebabs and one that served Turkish food.

As the sun got low, the huge square began to empty.

A journey of two blocks brought us to the small piazza in front of the Palazzo di Città. On the left was a place called Ristorante Conte Verdi. The waiter evidently mistook us for Italians when I told him “Siamo in due.” He handed us Italian menus. I took it as a compliment, but we had a little trouble reading it and sheepishly had to ask for the English version. It did not help much. TheEnglish version did not attempt to translate nearly nearly every Italian word that we had trouble with (“nodino”, for example).

I took photos while Sue enjoyed the Russian wine.

Sue and I both chose the “tipico” fixed-price meal for 25€. We also ordered a red wine, which the waitress identified as being from Chile. Any doubt about whether we were really Italians had been dispelled when I asked for Russian (“russo”) wine rather than red (“rosso”) wine.[3]

The antipasto was delicious.

When we first arrived at the square, quite a few people who could have passed for hippies in my heyday were engaged in all kinds of celebratory activities. Shortly thereafter, a streetsweeping machine came through and methodically broke everything up. By the time that we were ready for dessert, the square was practically empty. One guy wearing a skirt (definitely not a kilt) over hairy legs remained. He definitely seemed to be either drunk or stoned.

Ditto for the agnolotti.

Italian meals generally featured four courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, and dolce. The primo was the pasta course. The secondo included meat or fish, perhaps with a side dish or two. Dolce was dessert.

Our antipasto course, which consisted of a bit of soft cheese, some tomatoes, red peppers, and anchovies covered in a pesto sauce, was extremely good. The primo was agnolotti, which were stuffed raviolis covered with a sauce made from the juices of roasted veal. If anything, they were better than the antipasti.

The veal and spinach tasted much better than they looked.

At that point the waiter brought us dessert. I reminded him that we had not been served our secondo yet. He apologized and disappeared. The secondo, which arrived a few minutes later, was the nodino, which was essentially chicken-fried veal, but ham was also somehow involved. We had asked the waitress to explain this, but her English was not up to the task.

Tiramisu was the perfect finish.

The veal was accompanied by spinach that was “velveted” in cheese. I don't ordinarily appreciate cooked spinach much, but for some reason the meat flavor and the cheese-spinach combination went together very well.

Dessert was tiramisu, which was extremely good. The espresso was strong but tasty. In fact, the only disappointment in the whole meal were the breadsticks, which came wrapped in paper. They were no better than Stella D'Oro.

As we sipped our caffé Costadoro, we felt pretty good about the whole vacation.

The whole meal came to only 66.50€, which we thought was quite reasonable for a gourmet feast. I had forgotten about the ever-present cover charge in Italy. We also had to pay for a half liter of water. Both Sue and I considered this by far the best meal of the trip.

While we were eating, an accordion player came buy and played a medley of pop standards. I was not impressed. He asked for money, but we did not give him any. Four guys came by trying to sell us flowers and met with the same level of success. Neither of us could remember ever previously being accosted by flower salesmen in Italy.

The bridge over the Po River.

Some people at other tables were smoking cigarettes. Maybe we benefited from a favorable wind, but the smoke never bothered us.

After we left the restaurant, we encountered a guy who was at least my age wearing a kilt. He appeared to be tattooed on every inch of his body. Who knows what group he was asssociated with?

Torino by night. I was oblivious to the people in the car, but they evidently noticed my camera.

The streets were still amazingly crowded as we walked back to the hotel at about 10 p.m. When we arrived at the hotel, Sue obtained the key from the desk and went up to the room. The night air was envigorating as I walked toward the River Po to take some photos. En passant I passed a Japanese restaurant, at least ten pizzerias, a place specializing in English-Greek food (whatever that was), a pub, and C'era Una Volta, which was a restaurant that had been mentioned in either Fodor’s or Frommer’s. I found the views across the river to be pretty good, but not outstanding.

I came back to the hotel, went up to our room, inserted my earplugs, put on my eye mask, and fell asleep while Sue watched television. I was pretty sure that the star of the movie that she was viewing was Nino Banfi, who had talked about this film in his interview with Acquerello Italiano.[4]

[1]  Why was it that European trains were almost always on time, and American trains were almost always late? Is it just that Europeans have more experience at rail travel?

[2]  Mediaset was the television network owned and controlled by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s leader and wealthiest citizen.

[3]  I was a cheapskate. I should have sprung for a Barolo or a Barbaresco, or at least a DOC wine.

[4]  Acquerello Italiano is a magazine that includes a transcript of an hourlong recording of stories, songs, and interviews in Italian. I had subscribed to it for several years.