There is a kind of writer who is able to go on research trips to provide a better background for their writing. On their return, they will write a foreword to their new novel where they describe their research trip in somewhat Colonial terms. “For this novel, I undertook a research trip to Margate on the Isle of Thanet. I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with the locals, who informed me that ‘Thanet’ means ‘Death’, and I think you will find…”, and so on, and so on.
The rest of us just go on holiday, and if we manage to see something that’s useful in our writing then that’s great – bonus!
A while back (as you will have seen from my last post) the holiday destination was Sorrento. It’s a great place to visit, sitting at one end of the Bay of Naples, meaning you have easy access to Pompeii, Vesuvius, and more tourist destinations than you can shake a stick at.
The way that you get from place to place is by the Circumvesuviana train. This isn’t part of the Italian national rail network, but a privately run narrow-gauge railway. It was built in 1884, and through various changes of ownership, expansion and modernisation evolved into the railway it is today. Now it serves the Bay of Naples, providing public transport throughout the area.
It may surprise you, considering that I wrote “Runaway’s Railway”, but I am not a railway geek. Still, there are some aspects of railways that delight me. For example, as a railway passes through a town, you get a series of snapshots into the lives of ordinary people. Back gardens, apartment balconies, a view into someone’s office. Combine this with some incomparable views across the Bay of Naples, and passing through heavily scented lemon groves…
Later, I mentioned to an Italian friend that I had holidayed in Sorrento, knowing that he came from Naples. “Did you use the Circumvesuviana? I had to use that train every day for five years. I hated it.”
And there you have the other side of the Circumvesuviana.
It’s an uncomfortable old boneshaker, and the seats! You remember those stacking plastic chairs they have in schools, to teach children what life has in store for them? Imagine those screwed onto the floor of a train, and you’ve got the idea. Reliability? Well, no. It doesn’t have that. Timetables? In theory, yes. At least, they have a timetable nailed to the wall in the main stations. It doesn’t bear any relation to the times of the trains, but they seem to turn up often enough.
It might serve a tourist area, but the Circumvesuviana is not a tourist train. It’s a hard working commuter train that offers the best option for transport in a heavily populated area. It might not be pretty, but despite all its problems, it does work, and I will confess a fondness for it (which my Italian friend definitely does not share).
Unfortunately, I didn’t visit Sorrento until after I had finished “Runaway’s Railway”, but that’s not the point. It did cause me to do something so rare that it’s worth noting on a calendar. I actually wrote a poem about the experience.
Hard plastic seats and
Narrow gauge tracks through
Lemon tree’d cuttings
Tourists with children
But when it stops it’s
Not Pompei Scavi
“È rotto”. *
(* “It’s broken”)