Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sometimes Travel is Boring

I have to say that travel is a lot easier when the weather is warm and the skies are blue. If it’s sunny and eighty degrees you can go to a caffe, have a glass of wine and basically do nothing but watch the people. I can do this for hours. When you do this in a foreign country you can say you’re soaking up the atmosphere or learning about the culture. If you do this in Charlottesville eventually a waiter will tell you to move along.

I bring this up because we have had awful, depressing weather for at least a week. We wake up and the sky is a yellowish gray, the kind of light that can set off migraines for me. And that’s on a good day. Other days it rains, or the sky is almost the color of charcoal. It’s hard to know what time it is. We were out yesterday afternoon, and it appeared to be dusk. It was actually 3:30. We enjoy the night better than the day, because that depressing low-lying cloudy sky becomes atmospheric after the sun goes down, and it really isn’t very cold out. There are lots of people out strolling in the central area, and with the Christmas lights it really has that festive bustling quality that a “real” city can have. I mean cities where people actually live and work.

We are leaving Bologna in a week, and are just trying to revisit parts of the city we have enjoyed. After visiting Ravenna we decided that we didn’t have it in us to scope out any more neighboring cities, rushing around to the sites and trying to make train connections. So, for the most part we are staying put. Except for my idea last week of visiting San Pietro in Casale, 20 minutes outside of Bologna. If you look for this town in a guide book you won’t find it. Here’s a link though. The reason we went there was that every time we took a train east we would pass it. From our vantage point through the train window it seemed like a pretty little town, and one afternoon I could see an outdoor market taking place. So I got it into my head that we were “meant” to see this town.

Getting there was easy and cost about $5 for all three of us. We arrived at about two in the afternoon and upon leaving the train station were greeted with an unpromising view of blocks of non-descript housing planted along a straight road that spread out in both directions, seemingly without end. Here’s a little bit of geography and history for you. With few exceptions, notably the Apennine Mountains, Emilia-Romagna is FLAT and as a former midwesterner I know flat. In addition the road that connects towns and cities along this terrain is perfectly straight and flat. The fact that it is superimposed on an ancient Roman road makes it a little more interesting. But only a little. So, San Pietro in Casale is adjacent to this road It is mostly residential, composed of two- and three-story apartment buildings. (Single family homes are the exception in Italy, even in the rural and suburban areas.) There are some factories and office buildings on the edge of the town and then the town gives way to orchards and small farms. Eventually you will run into one of the prosperous and interesting cities of the region--Mantova or Parma, for example. But you'll also come across a lot of towns you've never heard of.

There was nobody around as we walked through residential streets looking for the central area. The green and blue shutters of the cream- and peach- colored homes were closed tight. We felt like intruders, as though we had ridden into a town of the Old West on our horses. Bill expected that at any minute we’d hear a creaking door, flapping loose on a hinge. Perhaps the sound of a tinny piano would come from a town saloon. But no. At last we found the center of town which consisted of several banks, a movie theatre, a church , stationary store and a couple caffes. Except for the caffes everything was closed. There were a couple solitary people sitting outside, but the weather wasn’t really hospitable enough to do this with any enjoyment, and they didn’t look like they were especially happy to be huddled on the benches

So, within about fifteen minutes it became clear to us that San Pietro in Casale was undiscovered for a reason. It’s pretty boring. The funny thing is that when you go somewhere that has little to recommend it, you tend to search for interesting things about it. It’s kind of like when I go to my dentist and I try to figure out the pattern on the textured accoustical tile ceiling. It’s something I wouldn’t spend five seconds doing under normal circumstances, but when I'm getting my teeth drilled and filled, I suddenly find this activity quite absorbing. In a similar way, we looked for anything that might be a tiny bit interesting in San Pietro in Casale. Certainly, the church, Saints Pietro and Paolo (that’s one church, two saints) is very pretty in terracotta stucco and white. Unfortunately it was closed. We came across the town supermarket. It was in in a well-designed modern shopping center of sensible dimensions; it didn’t overwhelm the apartments around it. We admired the timbers that served as a portico and looked nice against the stucco walls.

I guess I can now see where that expression, “Nothing much to write home about” comes from. But this too is travel. Some places are just ordinary and probably most people the world over live in just such ordinary places. The good part is that the town's residents won’t have to worry about a travel writer buying a home and penning a witty travel-log called “My Year of the Bella Vita in San Pietro in Casale and Don’t You Wish You Were Me” which will subsequently bring in huge tour buses and ruin the town. To be honest, there isn’t much there to ruin.

We did what we generally do when we’re at a loss. We found a caffe. This one was quite comfortable, possessing chairs and tables. Perhaps you already know that at least half the caffes in Italy offer only stand-up bars, so to find one with furnishings was quite a welcome sight and served to give shape to the day. We had a light lunch and I took a look at jewelry the woman at the next table was selling. After lunch we had dessert. And then we had coffee. And we laughed thinking ahead to some day in the future, when back home in Virginia, we’ll say, “Remember that crazy day we went to that boring town ? What was it’s name again ? Who's idea was that ?” I don’t know that San Pietro in Casale will ever hold any magic for us, but it will always be worth a smile.

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