We boarded the train in Florence station at just a little after 10:00pm with a rugged bunch of backpackers, ageing Austrian couples and young parents eager to fully experience Europe with their sleep-deprived children. Florence had been an intriguing town once. It still is when one considers it on purely aesthetic grounds. What with the beautiful amber glow that dresses the city’s palazzos, the cobbled paths that lead drunk Italians through tribes of unruly travellers and of course the works of Italy’s masters bequeathed to its every street and building, filling one’s every step with visions of immense beauty.
I wondered how it would be to grow up in such a city. Would one be desensitised to art entirely – grandiose and blasé? Or would it fuel a greater appreciation – enchantment and sensory inspiration? Today in Florence, all that beauty remains but the streets have become the pathways of a resort town, uniform tourists its denizens, tour guides its loudest voices and fashion students posing as its finest artists.
Though it truly is beautiful.
Eventually, after we were informed by the Austrian conductor that we would be delayed by up to an hour and taking a slightly different route to Vienna – via Salzburg – due to an accident on the line, we sat back into the train seats and began to appreciate the journey. At first, the sights were something of a bore. A couple of stations passed and then Bologna came with a little noise to fill the airwaves but the station wasn’t full. Shortly after, as we pulled into Mestre, Venice’s industrial neighbour, and requested our beds be made, we were suddenly surrounded by a dense fog marring the view from the window just enough to turn boredom into excitement…with just a hint of irrational fear.
With the beds now made, we laid on the bottom bunk drinking the complimentary sparkling wine with the lights out, watching as the skeletal shadows of leafless trees turned into the shadows of farmland that, so boggy and descended on by fog as they were, must have concealed the foulest of deeds and most terrible of monsters.
Maria eventually fell to sleep. Her black hair covering her pale skin, the free bottle of sparkling wine her sleeping pill. I couldn’t sleep, the mechanical sounds of the train a constant rhythmic disturbance, and my imagination sparked by the world just beyond the window. I stared, searching the dark for whatever it wished to present to me. As the train went on we passed the occasional house decorated for Christmas with colourful bursts of light that clung to the bricks and mortar of a family home – robed in darkness and fairy lights. We moved past abandoned parking lots lit only to reveal their darkest corners and sped away from the occasional flood light, just visible through the thick layers of grey that had shrouded the earth. The train fell silent save for the sounds of steel against steel and the speeding hum of the train engine that would accompany us for the rest of our journey.
For a while there was nothing but darkness outside the window as we sped further and further away from the shores of Italy and onwards to Europe’s gateway to the east, which was still so far away. I leered at the glass trying in vain to make out even the slightest shape from the world outside, but all I saw was my eyes reflected softly from the subtle backlight of my laptop and a distant flicker that ignited them as we quickly entered and left a station, whose name it was impossible to see. Orange and red lights began to return, lighting railway crossings in the remotest of villages. A stark white light pulsated some 100 metres in the distance and a bellowing of fog danced around it. I sneaked a look through the spy hole of my train compartment to catch a glimpse of whomever had just slammed the door next to mine, but I saw nothing save for the well lit corridor of the train, the shutters that masked the windows and a small photograph clinging far too perfectly straight to the wall, serving to glorify the Euronight train service through the years with 70’s smiles and bleak grey cabins captured in black and white. Back at the window I continued my watchful gaze to the world just beyond the glass.
I squinted through eyes that were beginning to feel heavy, and as I did, I saw a shape moving besides the train, but as my senses awoke, it disappeared. I looked as far to the side as I could manage but it was too late, we had passed it. Seconds later, shadows played on the skyline, at first they were the branches of still trees and then, as though moved by a heavy wind, they were animated, furtive and ghost-like, their chaotic movement blurred by the smokey fog outside and at the same time partially illuminated by some unknown light that wished for them to reveal their secrets as much as I did. A hedgerow obscured my view and for a moment all was still and cold save for the train. A speeding chaos in the calm of night. A moment later I could see the trees again, but they were nothing more then dead wood posed. Frozen by frost and awaiting winter snow.
We soon passed through a dimly lit town whose factories though ghastly, shined a beautiful shade of grey akin to the skyline of one of P.K Dick’s dystopian cities. We slowed as we passed through the train station, and just a solitary old man stood to watch the train. He looked plain enough, grey hair leading to a navy blue woollen vest, eyes hidden behind thick glasses, but as we passed for a split second I thought I saw his eyes burn with colour and his straight lips turn upwards into a razor sharp smile, but when I looked again he simply stared forwards, hands in pockets, seeing off the train with indifference and silence. The train continued at this slower pace as it passed through the outskirts of the small town, we passed a stone gate, numerous orange street lamps and around 30 houses of which not a single one showed even the slightest sign of life.
I had passed out staring through the window but was woken by another sudden bang in the corridor outside my door. This time though I could not move, I could not even move my head to look towards the door, let along rush to the spy hole to see what was out there. I was mesmerised and frozen in position. For the fog had cleared and in its place a frame of stark jagged mountains and a painting so lucid I could barely breathe. The sky was alive with bright twinkling stars weaved into intricate patters in their thousands. For a moment, the mountains cleared leaving only towering heights to both sides and a sky bejewelled with the Gods’ finest diamonds – burning a lantern of maps into the sky – covering the entirety of my view.
I opened the window to its fullest extreme to properly take in the scene, and for a few minutes my wife was awake to enjoy it with me. We stared in awe, me awake and unable to move my which was face poised to the sky, my wife rubbing the sleep from her eyes to see as much of this nocturnal artistry as we could, until, as they do, a tunnel some 10 minutes of travelling in length took it all away. When we breached the other side, as was inevitable, the mountains had grown, and the sky was almost impossible to make out from the bunks of our sleeper compartment, aboard the 22:14 Allegro Tosca sleeper train from Florence to Vienna.
Awoken by the sounds of Austria just beyond the train car, and the scents of tea and coffee beyond our door, I couldn’t help but hope it was still nighttime, and the stars were still waiting to be discovered. Alas, we had caught up to the reality of the world once more, and the stars were gone. The sun was beginning to rise and the train was alive with the sounds of languages inter-mingling and the coming excitement of our arrival.
We ate breakfast while enjoying the changing countryside from the window. We passed through towns and cities of all shapes, our tired eyes enhanced by a second burst of caffeine, until we finally reached the Vienna Hauptbahnhof a little after 10:38 on a grey winters morning. The demons of the countryside of Italy’s Veneto had stayed away from the train, though had been lured ever closer thanks to the thickening fog, but thankfully, as though willed on by some unseen force, the stars had guided us to safety through the night and we were safely at our destination. Vienna, the gateway to Eastern Europe.