I suspect that most non-regular visitors will be drawn here by what's on the left. Eyes right please, that's where the story is.
According to the World Bank Italy is still the world's 8th largest economy. However the vibe is rather different on the ground. The birth rate is low, and the population is aging. Everybody talks about "2008" as if it's an insidious and pervasive plague that just doesn't seem to have a cure... which in some parts it doesn't. One of the things we noted throughout Italy was:
- The number of buildings which were half constructed and then abandoned;
- How few new buildings were being constructed (though of course in an ancient country the scaffolding and repair business is still doing a roaring trade);
- The number of empty buildings with "For Rent" or "For Sale" signs on them. Boy, did we notice those.
I saw this in Rome, Tuscany, the road to Venice, Venice itself, Burano, the road to San Marino, Napoli, and in the various mountain villages in between. (Villages which now also have to contend with having been hammered by regular earthquakes in the several months since August, and were already labouring from a loss of their younger population members because of a lack of work.) To some extent I saw it in Firenze, and to a much less extent in Milano, which is pretty much the industrial, commercial and business heart of Italy so that's not a surprise. But as soon as we started heading up to Tirano, I again saw building after building abandoned or to rent or to buy. Having Milano there has clearly not been a panacea for the Lombardy region.
I had a friend who was a university lecturer in Roma, and who moved to the US because it was so hard to make ends meet in Roma. Our tour director agreed that the Euro's strength against other currencies made visiting other countries more affordable... were it not for the fact that the pay rates are so woeful that he couldn't actually afford to go to them to enjoy the Euro's strength in the first place. Of course anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence, even in a "science" as dismal as economics. However the plethora of signs and the relative absence of building activity (doubly noticeable when your next stop is Switzerland, where construction is abundant) are so pervasive that it would be impossible to say that economic difficulty is not a real "thing" in Italia.
The point, I get to it. The trains are yet another example of this economic malaise. If you leave aside the gleaming new Frecciarossa high speed trains which are, indeed, state of the art (except for the gawdawful luggage racks and coffee), the thing that is most noticeable about Italian rolling stock is its age. Whether it's freight locomotives or intercity trains like the Trenord one that took us to Tirano, they look old and they look tired. This one may well have been state of the art when it was built but I'd be very surprised if that was later than the 70's. The carriages lack air conditioning, and because the windows were locked closed we ended up being in a sauna for the first half an hour or so before the guards mercifully came along and cracked them open. Actually I was doubly grateful for this because it meant that later on I was able to shoot through an open window. (I was also a little bit lucky. When we entered the platform our tickets were checked. Then on the train the conductors came through and checked the tickets again. And one told us that we hadn't stamped the ticket in the machine on the platform... which we hadn't seen. She said (in English) "It says that you need to do that on the ticket" - and she pointed to a note on the back of the ticket which does indeed say that in Italian - "But you speak English, yes? It's OK, I'll stamp it for you." "Thank you" I said in English, feigning monolingualism and carefully hiding my SPQR insignia from view. In some other places you'd end up copping a fine for that, tourist or not. I probably should have read the conditions but really, who does? Doubly so after the ticket had been manually checked at the gate.) This again is a painful point of comparison with Switzerland where the rolling stock is modern, comfortable and frequent, even including niceties like power outlets and USB ports on some of the inter-city trains.
The fact that Italy is still #8 in GDP rankings doesn't matter a damn if too much of that is going to too few. And that too seems to be pervasive, not just in Italia. It would, however, explain why this disparity between statistics and the reality of most people's lives exists.