On (or off?) the Rails to Pontremoli

What’s the point of always using the car to visit places in Italy when, with a little careful planning and consultation of the Trenitalia web site, one can enjoy beautiful countryside, not worry about crazy roads (and crazy drivers) and reach one’s destination refreshed and ready to explore on foot? Train travel is still incredibly cheap in this country if one avoids all those high speed express trains and uses the much more enjoyable local branch lines which fortunately have been largely saved the terrible fate which Dr. Beeching imposed on their UK versions.

When yesterday promised good weather, we decided to visit Pontremoli which is famous for its prehistoric steles (more of that later.). We took the train from Bagni di Lucca and changed at the superstation of Aulla where there are no human station attendants in sight but where we met a friendly station barman with an attractive train set (0 gauge) running all the way round the well-equipped refreshment room’s upper walls. Unfortunately, the trains were not working on that day in the bar because of a derailment. We hoped this was not a sign that the full-scale Italian railways we were using were going to run into a similar spot of bother.

Interestingly, the rolling stock of this enterprising barman’s railway was modelled on the Austrian Zillertal railway which coincidentally has also supplied some of the rolling stock for the Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion light railway in Powys Wales which we are very familiar with, having resided on-and-off in that area for close on twenty years.

There were going to be more strange coincidences between this part of Italy and the Celtic parts of the British Isles, including not only Wales but also Scotland and Ireland, as we were later to discover that day.

There’s a lot more to Pontremoli than its museum of prehistoric finds as we found out. The old centre has some picturesque corners in varying state of attractive decay. Almost immediately, for example, we were invited through an unlocked door into an abandoned baroque palace of unimaginable splendour. Every room on the piano Nobile was a majestic and enthralling display of beautiful frescoes and also of great sadness as the vandals had already been there and ripped out many fittings including what must have been glorious fireplaces. This mixture of grandeur and decay, of majesty and misery touched us with both astonishment and melancholy.

Why was this palace abandoned? What was life in it like once? What grand soirees, what ladies flouncing crinolines and gentlemen in periwigs, what orchestras playing gavottes and minuets, what flunkeys adorning the walls, what mountains of venison and jellied fruits, what amorous trysts were enacted under those mythological ceilings populated with angels and loving gods and goddesses? Imagination ran riot as we entered one dusty, empty room after another and more and more rubble surrounded our path.

Our little adventure in the unknown territory of Pontremoli had begun and a lot more was to follow that day …..