The Journey to Rome

If you are going to explore Rome, the first question would be: how do I get there?

That is a question which would get a different answer from almost every person you ask in almost every period of time since Rome-travelling began. You could go by a low-cost flight. You could go by foot. You could travel in style in a horse-carriage. You could go by train. And since I prefer not to be 10 kilometers up in the air if I can avoid it, I am now on a train with destination Rome. Well, actually with destination Hamburg – I started off from Gothenburg early this morning, changed trains in Copenhagen in a sudden snowfall; now via the Rødby-Puttgarden ferry over a windy grey January sea towards Hamburg, then to Munich, and late in the evening I will board the night-train to Venice (already looking forward to morning coffee when I get there). From Venice, one of the Frecce-trains will take me to Rome in just a couple of hours: Italy is quite at the forefront when it comes to the network of modern, high-speed trains, Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca and Frecciargento, with four different comfort classes from Standard to Executive and departures almost every hour from Turin, Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples…

In Germany, on the other hand, Deutsche Bahn is paring down their train services, especially night trains. Only last year, I took the night train from Copenhagen to Bern – with additional couches heading for Prague and Amsterdam – but by now, that train has been cancelled. There is such an atmosphere about night trains – it feels like travelling in the old world, with all the romantic inconveniences, unexpected travel companions, a bottle of sekt waiting for you if you travel first class, or the sleeplessness of an uncomfortable couchette for four or six if you are on a budget. On the DB homepage, one can read more about European night trains. Their names could not be lovelier: the exstinct line to Bern was called Aurora; tonight I am going with the Pictor, and Pollux, Capella, Orion and others are waiting for you if you want to travel slow and groundbound.


Gunnar Ekelöf

091e9575-4806-44c3-87af-54968fe1306d.pngGone are the days when one could go by the same train all the way from Stockholm to Rome, something that Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf did 1953 in the company of his young colleague Åke Hodell – Ekelöf took Hodell to Rome on a home-made ’scholarship’ with educational aims. These, it turned out, consisted mainly in heavy wine-drinking and beholding the Hermaphrodite in the Villa Borghese collection, all humourously described by Hodell in Resan till Rom med Gunnar Ekelöf (2001), including hilarious adventures during the journey.

Do we want our journey to be meaningful? Or do we just want to get it over with and reach our goal in the cheapest and quickest possible way? For the medieval pilgrim, the journey itself was an indispensable part of the pilgrimage: suffering hardships on the way, preferably on foot, was included in the penitence. The journey became the symbolic image of a formative experience and the moral way to eternal life – yet, it was also a matter of means: if you were wealthy, you could pay someone else to perform the pilgrimage for you.

The symbolicism of the journey to Rome was central for Vilhelm Lundström (1869–1940), the first professor of Latin at the university of Gothenburg (then Göteborgs högskola). When he took his eight latin students to Rome in 1909 for a two-month course in topography and epigraphy (proudly labelled ’the first Swedish university course in the Mediterranean’), he spent as much as ten days on the journey to Rome, although it would have been possible to travel at much higher speed.

Vilhelm Lundström portrayed by Carl Oscar Borg.

Vilhelm Lundström portrayed by Carl Oscar Borg.

He wanted his students to learn from what they saw on the way, to see and experience history as they passed right through it, all in the tradition of the German neohumanist concept ’Anschauung’. Thus, they stayed overnight in Berlin and Regensburg to look at archaeological museums and Roman ruins. But Lundström was also a true romantic, which meant that the stop in Innsbruck included a poetry recital in the Goethe-Stube of hotel Goldener Adler, as a preparation for the initiation ritual the next day: at Gries am Brenner, Lundström and his students left the train to cross the highest part of the Brenner pass on foot, while Lundström told his disciples about the many historical and history-changing travellers over the Alps, including Swedish queen Christina in the 17th century. After a stop in Sterzing, the group spent several days in Verona as well as in Florence before reaching Rome, late in the evening on a delayed train and in heavy rain, with the students anxiously waiting to cry ’Ecco Roma!’ as the tradition, transmitted by Lundström, demanded.


Three of the students at the Brenner pass.

As I write this, dusk has fallen outside the train windows somewhere near Hannover, and as a precursor of my own Alp crossing tonight, the train steward hands out Alpenbauer Bayrische Bonbons with 20 alpine herbs. Sometime soon, I hope, I will reenact the Lundström journey as an empirical experiment, maybe in connection with a planned new course on sustainability and humanistic study trips, to discuss the modern potential of the old Anschauung-pedagogy. Although hotel Alte Post in Sterzing closed recently, Hotel Goldener Adler and the Goethe-Stube are still there, and for a Lundström fan such as I, no Rome journey could be quite complete without it.

Alte Post

Read more about Vilhelm Lundström and his Rome course here in an article which I wrote together with historian Dr. Frederick Whitling in 2011.



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