Friday, October 26, 2012

A Beautiful Day on a Train Puffing; Italy Day Six

Every time I’m at a train station I look for platform 9 3/4.  I simply can’t help myself.  Doesn't everyone want to ride a magical steam train? 
On this trip we were able to do just that.  We booked tickets on the Treno A Vapore per La Festa Della Castagne (Vintage Steam Train to the Chestnut Festival).  

You see it’s harvest season here in Tuscany.  And as I was perusing the internet I happened across this train, taken out of retirement, to transport passengers to the chestnut festival. 

I was sure, absolutely sure, the train would be sold out.  Nonetheless I sent an email in broken Italian asking for tickets.  I received a fabulous email in broken English saying “we expect to have a beautiful day together on a train puffing.”  Be still my heart!

We had to be in Siena at 7:55 am to catch the train.  We left at 6:00 am not knowing how long it would take to find the station.  As it turns out we happened upon the station the moment we entered the town.  We were an hour early and had some time to kill. 
We parked at the lot under the station and went upstairs for coffee and pastries.  The coffee was mediocre at best and the pastry case displayed flies, as well as, baked good (self inoculation, self inoculation -- that was the mantra I kept repeating to myself).  We opted for a second cappuccino from the vending machine on the platform (enough said).  

Finally the train arrived.  The body of the train was pushed to the station by a traditional engine. The steam engine arrived on it’s own accord.  The kids were mesmerized.  They were thinking about Harry Potter and The Polar Express and, I, Mama that I am, Thomas the Tank Engine.  

The exterior of the train was a bit plain (minus the steam).  The interior was gorgeous -- wood seats of two facing one another, pictures over the seats and beautiful luggage racks.  

A band played as we boarded.  Turns out they were with us for the entire trip - playing at lunch and the festival as well.  

The train took us deep into the Tuscan countryside -- it’s final destination a defunct train station.  From there we boarded busses and headed up into the hills.  A place, I might add, that busses really weren’t meant to go.  I did not envy the drivers.  

We were deposited at a farm and left to pick chestnuts.  Now have you picked chestnuts?  I had not.  Turns out they are encased in a very prickly shell.  After a bit of observation we discovered the secret to picking. 1) Find a BIG stick.  2) Pound the living bejesus out of the prickly shell.  3) Reap your rewards.  

Now this expedition was planned for the Italian people; they did not have American tourists in mind.  Therefore there was no translation.  When we got off the bus instructions were given solely in Italian.  We had no idea what time to return to the bus.  We decided to go by herd mentality and simply follow the others when they left.  

This plan worked well leaving the farm -- we successfully made it onto the bus and were transported to lunch.  There were five buses on our tour.  After chestnut picking all five buses drove to the Kronos Restaurant.  This was a large banquet hall made to accommodate large crowds.  Now I must admit, the hall gave us some hesitation.  We were expecting mediocre food at best.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  

We sat down to a six course meal (SIX) that included crostini, bread salad, risotto, pasta, pork and desert.  You could’ve rolled us out of there.  

In between courses the band played and the Italian children danced on the stage (we couldn't convince our lot to do the same).  

Mr. Peculiar correctly noted that he felt like an interloper.  With the exception of two Asian women we were the only foreigners in the crowd.  The Italian people, however, were kind and welcoming despite our language barriers.  

After such a meal a nap was in order.  Instead transported to the Chestnut Festival -- streets and streets of vendors; food, goods, coffee and crafts.  The bus driver told us to be back at 4:00 pm (as I understood in my limited Italian).  The group dispersed and we could not follow the herd.  I only hoped I was right.  

We returned by 4:00 and indeed I as right about the time (yay me!).  However, at this point, the kids were whiny and tired and THRISTY.  They NEEDED something to drink and could not POSSIBLY survive the trip back to the train without a beverage.  

Fine. I, less than happy, dragged the boy back into the throngs of the festival for drinks.  In the meantime our bus arrived.  Mr. Peculiar told the driver I’d left my camera and had to go retrieve it (as if I’d be that careless).  We were back shortly thereafter and boarded the bus.  Right after we got on the roll was called.  There were people missing.  The bus, without an ounce of hesitation, left without them.  Holy cats.  Good thing our tea didn’t take any longer.  

And that tea?  Well that tea had to go somewhere.  This meant a trip to the bathroom.  The girls went on their own as it was just at the front of our car.  They came back whispering and full of giggles.  Little told us "the train poops."  It turns out the toilets emptied directly onto the tracks au naturale.  That's vintage for you!

And another note about vintage trains.  They don't have central heat and/or air conditioning.  This was all well and good in the morning when there was a nip in the air.  Not so well and good after a hot and tiring afternoon.  The train did have windows.  And the air felt great.  That is until the train went into a tunnel (of which there were many).  Steam (aka coal) in a tunnel has nowhere to go but through the windows of the the train.  Talk about a cough fest.  

People took to covering the windows with the heavy curtains each time the train entered the tunnels.  This worked surprisingly well to keep the smoke out.  

And the tunnels.  There were interior lights on the train but they weren't turned on. Therefore the tunnels plunged us into total darkness.   I couldn't help but think we'd come out the other side to find someone murdered.  It had the makings of an Agatha Christie Novel if I'd ever seen one.  

I do believe we all made it home intact (expect, perhaps, those left hapless at the festival).  The train got back in to Siena at 7:00 pm.  We got into our car and were looking forward to going home to chillax (yes I was traveling with the teenagers). 

The parking lot, of course, was a pay lot.  We pulled up to the exit and put our ticket into the slot.  Then we tried to figure out how to pay.  We stuck our credit card into the ticket slot -- nothing.  We could not find a place for coins or bills.  We were hot and tired and frustrated.  I do believe Mr. Peculiar contemplated ramming the barrier (thank goodness he didn't follow through).  

An Italian woman pulled up behind us and was becoming increasingly impatient.  I got out of the car and explained to her via gestures that we didn’t know how to pay.  She held up two coins; i.e. you American idiot.  Finally she got out of her car and walked over the the pay station with me.  She, too, couldn’t figure out how to pay.  She pushed a call button and had an exuberant conversation with the person on the other end.  Then she gestured for us to follow her.  She backed her car back into the lot and we did the same.  

Turns out there were pay stations INSIDE the parking lot.  You had to pay BEFORE you got into your car and tried to leave the station.  Duh (said facetiously).  After paying you insert your stamped ticket into the exit slot and the barrier lifts.   

I was glad the Italian lady was also surprised by the pay system -- it made me feel slightly less stupid (though only slightly).  

We were still full from lunch, skipped dinner and went straight home to bed.  We slept soundly (a little too soundly as we’d later learn).  

On the agenda for the next day?  Siena proper.  Stay tuned.  


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