Seduced by the slow train to Turin
Something to declare
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator. With Terence Conran he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which evolved into the Design Museum. Stephen writes a regular column for The Independent on Sunday’s Travel section, and contributes features that have previously covered anything from travelling through Japan via the iconic Shinkansen, to the artisans of Florence and driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Sicily.
Sunday 11 May 2014
I often talk about the virtues of the train, so when I recently had to speak in Turin I decided to put my bottom where my mouth is and take the France-Italy TGV. It's an emphatically French service, but then, Turin is the most emphatically French of Italian cities.
There's still a sense of adventure about a long train journey, but I am always amazed how desensitised we have become to the submarine journey under the Channel. In the dark hush of the Tunnel, I muse on how similar the fawn-coloured velour Eurostar cabin is to the interior of a 1993 Renault Clio. Maybe that's why it's lost the shock of the nouveau.
Whoosh into the Gare du Nord and I need to change to the Gare de Lyon. There's just time for a quick lunch in Le Train Bleu, the station's glorious Belle Epoque restaurant. Here, the grandeur of the architecture is equalled only by the squalor of the food.
The train carriages are painted with the itinerary – Parigi-Lione-Torino-Milano – and there's a rush at grand projet speed to just south of Lyon. Then it all slows down where the high-speed track stops. Still, the compensation is that you are now in the romantic part of the journey: the Lac du Bourget where heartbroken Lamartine wrote "O temps! Suspends ton vol!" and then on to the famous passage through the Alps which the Grand Tourists knew. They had to hike in fear of demons and wild animals over Mont Cenis, while we go through the ancient Fréjus tunnel.
It's even slower on the Italian side: this is where the "No Treno Alta Velocita" group is opposing plans to dynamite an Alp and lay waste the Susa Valley in order for every asset manager in Turin to be in Paris and every asset manager in Paris to be in Turin.
Door-to-door from central London to Turin's Stazione Porta Susa was 11 hours, including my Paris lunch. The plane would have been six. And if you are enjoying the view, whatever is the hurry?
Turin is always a treat: the architecture of Guarini and Juvara, the legacy of Fiat and Futurists, Nietzsche, Carlo Mollino and his prostitutes, grissini, arcades, spectacular Baroque piazzas, the Shroud, Alpine vistas, wormwood cordials and the astonishing caffès and pasticcerie.
These last are some of the grandest in the world with beautifully evocative names: Bicerin, Neuv Caval' de Brons and Stratta. The language of car design was established by the Torinese coach builders and they spoke in the Piedmont dialect. So too do the cake-makers. There's common ground here: sensual delight. After a short night though, it was time to return.
An early macchiato at Roma gia Talmone and back to Stazione Porta Susa. My friends in Turin regard the train to Paris as a reasonable option. They are especially keen on trains since Ferrari's boss, Luca di Montezemolo, introduced his private Italo service. But it is presently restricted to Italy, so I was back in the vintage-feeling TGV.
Somewhere near Modane, on the French side of the mountains, I am certain I saw a sign that said "Hotel du Danger" and a pair of high-visibility trousers drying on a balcony. You don't get sights like that on the plane.
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