On the platform of the Florence train station, people are waiting for the train to arrive. No rush, as if everyone had already activated the “slow mode” which will soon catapult into the past. And here is the announcement of the “Centoporte – Dante’s train”, the ancient train – made available by the Italian FS Foundation – which along the historic Faentina railway line, the first in Italy to cross the Tuscan-Romagnolo Apennines, retraces a part of the wandering in exile of the Great Poet, in 1302, following his death sentence by the Black Guelphs who had come to power in Florence, and ended in Ravenna (a total of 126 km and about twenty tunnels). The emotion grows and so does the euphoria of getting on these ancient carriages from the 1920s and 1930s, which recall the stagecoaches of the early 20th century, all polished. The hostesses lead everyone to their own seat, to the third-class compartments with wooden seats – the most crowded as if they were a painting by the French painter Honoré Daumier – or to the first-class compartments, with guaranteed privacy with elegant red velvet seats (yes call it “Centoporte” because once upon a time there was a door on each side of the train).
And here it is the starting whistle for the journey through time, wrapped in that sense of eternity that adds charm to the story. Outside the window, wonderful landscapes parade among vineyards, expanses of olive trees, ancient farmhouses, up to the wild chestnut and beech woods and mule tracks, to then descend on the Romagna hills rich in orchards and crops. The deafening noise of the vehicle on the rails – single track – confuses thoughts and mixes with the voice of the guides who, with the support of radios and earphones, narrate the history and curiosities of the places touched by Alighieri, starting right from the Tuscan capital where was born in 1265, a place of love and pain, which recurs very often in his Divine Comedy. It happens, on dedicated days, to be able to meet Dante himself (the actor Riccardo Starnotti, founder of Dantflix) who wanders along the corridors declaiming the canticles of Dante’s literary masterpiece and is available to take selfies and photos to immortalize these unique moments. The project is funded by the Emilia-Romagna Region and developed by Apt Servizi Emilia-Romagna with Toscana Promozione Turistica and with the organization of Il Treno di Dante.
The assistants also provide valuable information on museums, fortresses, theaters and palaces, which can be accessed free of charge, or have discounts in restaurants and trattorias, by showing the Dante Train ticket at the entrance, even on a day other than that of travel (until 4 June and, after the summer break, from 2 September to 1 November). There is also a new formula of the Cruise of the Cities of Art (on the weekend of 2 June), with stops in two locations linked to the Poet, Bologna and Ferrara. In the center of Bologna, the then twenty-year-old Dante was able to learn about and deepen the philosophical innovations that came from Paris and the literary production of the subject of Brittany, linked to the legends about King Arthur, in vogue among the students of the time. In the Este city he left traces of his art and valuable works, probably also motivated by personal ties: according to some hypotheses, the Alighieri family, formerly Aldighieri, originated there. The invitation remains to contemplate, to enjoy slow rhythms, to rediscover small pleasures.
The first stop is Borgo San Lorenzo, a center which, under the influence of the Habsburg-Lorraine of Tuscany, became the main point of reference in the Mugello area. Even today it is connected to a dense network of paths for walking and trekking all year round. The race continues on the hills of Vicchio, birthplace of Giotto and Beato Angelico, and past Crespino del Lamone up to Marradi (Fi) and then Brisighella (Ra), among the most beautiful villages in Italy (on April 30 and the Moretto artichoke festival is held on 7 May with dedicated stops). Meanwhile, between a story and advice, in small accompanied groups, you can enter the goods carriage, characterized by its cream color, or the “button room” with the safe, an iron box that was used to transport valuables post offices, but also with “kennels”, where in reality hens and piglets were transported rather than dogs. The Postal carriage, dedicated to the Post Office, is striking, where at least three people worked there for sorting the correspondence or for affixing the sealing wax seal on the registered mail.
Faenza (Ra), the home of majolica, deserves a longer stop.It is worth wandering aimlessly through the streets of the centre, lined with artisan workshops and high-class shops that make your eyes shine only when you cross the threshold. Or stop for a coffee at a table in one of the bars in Piazza del Popolo, or – during the opening hours of the town hall – the advice is to go up to the terrace to admire everything from above and in front of the Palazzo del Podestà enriched by merlons Ghibellines that almost looks like a handmade lace. And then don’t miss a visit to the Mic – International Museum of Ceramics which in over 16 thousand square meters exhibits collections from the Far East, rare ritual ceramics, and precious fabrics of Pre-Columbian culture, pieces of Islamic art and international works of art by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Burri, Fontana and other great contemporary masters. The exhibition of Galileo Chini (1873 – 1956), ceramics between liberty and déco, is also visible until 14 May: over two hundred works including ceramics and preparatory drawings, refined decorations, lustres, elegant female figures to discover a versatile artist among the pioneers of Liberty in Italy and refiner of deco taste in the twenty years. The artist was able to rework the rich tradition of the Tuscan Renaissance, from the festoons of leaves, flowers and fruits to the figures of satyrs and sirens. This is evident in the large ornamental plates, in the extensive use of the female figure, always intended as an allegory of spring.
Once outside, but it would take many more hours to go through all the rooms, Palazzo Milzetti, the National Museum of the neoclassical age in Romagna, leaves you spellbound and you almost always walk with your nose up to admire the frescoed ceilings by Felice Giani, an artist who has reinterpreted the art of Greek and Roman classicism, in the colours, in the harmony of the bodies and in the trompe l’oeil of the fake doors and curtains. Inside, a dark midnight blue elliptical room dedicated to what used to be a spa complete with a bathtub.
Dante’s train, now in its third edition, offers the possibility, on the weekends of the middle seasons, the best for this type of discovery holiday, to take a day tour (75 euros for a return ticket during the day and discounts for children) or to choose different packages at different prices, including a standard and charming formula and family offers with discounts (info here). For a gourmet break or stay, each structure offers an emotion, such as La Baita in the historic center, a typical shop and tavern, or Villa Abbondanzi just outside (there are also two restaurants, the Cinque Cucchiai and Il Fenicottero Rosa Gourmet and a bar for aperitifs, also open to non-guests), an ancient 19th-century villa surrounded by an immense green park (it is protected by the Superintendence of Architectural Heritage and the conservation of the park is considered to be of public interest by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Environmental). You stroll among fountains and flower beds, centuries-old trees such as sequoias, downy oaks, cypresses, white hornbeams and holm oaks, and a pond with pink flamingos. A small temple frames the rose garden and the four Doric columns support the pediment on which a quotation from Horace’s Carmina is inscribed: “Non Desint Epulis Rosae” (don’t miss roses at banquets), an invitation to party and celebration.*100026 *
Finally, whether you stop for the night or do it for the day, the tour concludes in Ravenna, the city where Dante died (in September 1321) but also which inspired him. For the great poet, the Romagna town represented a unicum for its literary production, so much so that he wrote a large part of Paradise here. His tomb, with its polychrome marbles, is a destination of continuous pilgrimage, as is the nearby Quadrarco di Braccioforte, an ancient oratory, where Dante’s remains were kept during the Second World War. In the church of San Francesco, known as Dante’s for the link with the writer, you can see fragments of mosaics from the primitive apse which, curiously, are covered by water. Just lean out of a small window located under the main altar, after having illuminated the crypt, to admire them while goldfish wallow on them. Almost everywhere, wandering through the streets of Ravenna, the figure of Dante hovers among portraits and murals, and it almost seems to hear the last verses of the tenth canto of the Inferno: “when you will be before the sweet beam | of her whose beautiful eye sees all, | from her (Beatrice) you will know the journey of your life” (vv. 130-132). That is the future, while for those who got on that historic train, the past is now much clearer.