Wednesday, 2 October 2019


Every time I stay in Venice I like to visit somewhere I've never been before, so that I might add another brick to the mass of LEGO® pieces that exist inside my head. When I have enough bricks I will be able to build an impregnable fortress inside my mind, with livestock and a well, and then I'll never have to interact with the world again.

So this year I popped along to Burger King®. It's just across the bridge from the train station. A few years ago there was a Burger King® in the middle of Venice, but it closed, and the new Burger King® was always packed so I avoided it.

"But", I hear you say, "when you go abroad you should eat what the locals eat", to which my reply is that Italians love fast food just as much as we do, and when they don't eat fast food they tend to cook at home, because they're a lot like us. The reality is that your view of the continent is an idealised imitation of someone else's dream. For the record I can confirm that Venice's Crispy Chicken® is much like Crispy Chicken® anywhere else.

I only visited Burger King® once, however, firstly because I didn't want to spoil the thrill of discovery and secondly because Venice now has a KFC®. It's hidden away in a newly-built shopping mall adjoining the train station. Venice's KFC® is just a few feet away from huge crowds of people, but it's quiet because it's out of the way. For the record I can confirm etc.

But what to do during the rest of the day? Feltre is an anonymous but very attractive small town in the foothills of the Dolomites. It's about two hours from Venice by train. There's a Lidl right next to the train station if you want to stock up on food. Why Feltre? It has a Wikivoyage page and if nuclear war broke out it would probably survive quite well given that it's surrounded by hills. The mountains mean that Feltre has some fascinating cloud formations.

The suburbs. As an Englishman I'm used to suburbs that look like grim hellscapes, but Feltre isn't like that. The building in the bottom-left is a hospital. It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

I went during a weekday and there were very few people about. Most photographs of the place on the internet show empty streets and deserted squares, which probably suits the locals fine. The whole town is built around a castle on a hill, and you have to do a bit of uphill walking to get there.

The rest of this post is mostly sarcastic, but Italy does suffer from a widespread small-town malaise; Feltre has a train station, but a lot of remote towns in the hills don't, and despite being picturesque they're difficult commutes, and traditional agriculture no longer pays the bills, so the young people move out and no-one moves in.
Feltre seems prosperous - everything was spotless and in good repair, despite the empty streets - so perhaps it's the Italian equivalent of those little villages in Somerset that are full of second homes.

There's a certain amount of "be careful what you wish for" with Feltre. Venice is packed with people, which is frustrating, but there's a lot to do. Feltre on the other hand doesn't have crowds, but there's nothing to do unless you're one of those creepy people who likes to sit down and read a book, or perhaps you enjoy peace and quiet or something like that.

So, as I sat on a bench in sunny Feltre reading Michael Collins' Carrying the Fire and munching on a croissant that had a sausage rammed through the middle, I remember thinking "what went wrong with my life". Later on I saw a first-generation Saab 900 Turbo, a rare sight now in the UK:

As a kid I thought they looked awkward - the back end is an angular Austin Allegro, the front looks like a duck's snout - but in 2019, as a grown-up, I think it looks awesome, especially in jet black. My hunch is that the cold, thin air in the Italian mountains is relatively benign on car bodywork but the steep gradients probably murder gearboxes, but then again the Saab 900 was famously robust so hopefully this one will survive for years to come.

I also saw a train. I learn from the internet that the Trenino Express Dolomiti cost the town €90,000 and links Feltre with Pedavina. Tickets are €3, it runs on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and it has a capacity of forty people, so if you have a calculator and you know the timetable and average passenger load and the cost of the driver's wages plus fuel and maintenance you could probably work out how long it will take to pay for itself.

Sadly the castle was closed. I learned from Carrying that Fire that at a temperature of 21c / 70f I would be able to sit on a bench for eleven days before dying of dehydration. People tend to measure out their retirement in terms of money, but you could measure it in water as well. Running the maths through my calculator, if I had 1,700 litres of water right now I could probably survive until the end of my days. How much would it cost? A one litre bottle of San Pellegrino is £1, so 1,700 litres of water would cost me £1,700.

And, I mean, if I consolidate my credit cards and borrow some money I could have £1,700 right now. Assuming I never do any exercise I can, right now, buy all the water I will need for the rest of my life. What about food? All I have to do is sleep with my mouth open and enough insects will crawl inside to keep me sustained. The big problem, of course, is shelter. That's a lot more expensive than water. If shelter wasn't a problem I could retire right now.

And that's Feltre. The last train leaves for Venice at 20:13, so I didn't get a chance to evaluate the nightlife. Feltre has been around since at least Roman times, when it was called Feltria. What does Feltria mean? I have no idea. Something to do with felt-making? Who knows. Its most recent brush with fame was in 1943, when Adolf Hitler of Germany visited Benito Mussolini of Italy to have a chat about the impending victory of fascism, but although they met at Feltre's train station the actual conference took place at Villa Gaggia, which is twelve miles north-east.

In 2003 the city was twinned with Newbury, I assume because someone in Newbury's council wanted an excuse to use public money to fund a trip to Feltre. I can't think of any other reason. I imagine if you found a list of Newbury's council members circa 2002-ish and went through what remains of their social media presence around that time you could probably pinpoint the individual council member who was responsible - perhaps AI could do that for you - but what would be the point?