Do not be misled by the moody look. My great friends Bill Taylor and his wife Lesley - M and Mme Salut will be meeting them in Havana in the new year - had a mostly wonderful time on a long slog by train through Europe. Let Bill tell you a little more about the places they saw and some of the characters they encountered ...
The gods can be such irony mongers. Damn them.
Lesley and I have built a 16-day, six-country, 2,500-kilometre rail trip around the Vienna-to-Venice train – a spectacular, eight-hour ride through the Alps and the one day we really need the conditions to be clear and bright.
Instead, it’s the one day out of a two-week run of unseasonably mild and sunny weather that is forecast to be heavily overcast and rainy.
Scenery? What scenery?
Prayer goes against the grain. But cursing turns out to be just as effective. Providence relents under a barrage of imprecation and sends the drizzle and low clouds 24 hours early. The dourness begins on our last evening in Bratislava and follows us as we take the train to Vienna, an hour away, to spend the night.
We’re happy with that. Rain suits Vienna.
We have an early start so we’re booked into a hotel, part of the Russian Azimut chain, next to the station. It’s clean, efficient and wholly uninviting. Also the first hotel I’ve stayed at in years that has a Bible in the room.
Upon hearing that we’ll have left before breakfast is served, the receptionist – Viennese, I think, rather than Russian – says the hotel could provide lunch boxes for the train. Then she adds, with disarming if appalling candour, “But we’d rather not.”
Our room isn’t quite ready so she brings us coffee while we wait. And then charges us for it.
One night at the Azimut costs slightly less than three nights in an altogether charming place in Bratislava.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back in March, Lesley and I spent a week with friends in Venice, our first visit. A beautiful city, especially as it wasn’t totally overrun by tourists (Us? We’re travellers, thank you!), with nice people and reasonable prices. Once we reconciled ourselves to the flooded streets, we enjoyed it very much.
One of those places, though, that we had no thoughts of rushing back to. Except…
We were in the station checking out a side-trip to Padua and I noticed a rather old-fashioned looking train with a grubby red locomotive, totally out of keeping with the bullet-nosed 300-km/h expresses.
Love at first sight. It was going to Vienna and I wanted to be on it. I’m fond of trains – especially ones that look like what they are and not wingless jets – and this had to be a beautiful ride.
Fortunately, Lesley shares my enthusiasm. On her 60th birthday, she took a solo four-night train trip from Toronto to Vancouver.
All we have to do is add a few stops to our European itinerary with the help of an invaluable website, The Man in Seat 61 (https://www.seat61.com). This guy (no, there must be more than one) seems to have ridden every train in the world and knows all the ins and outs.
Eurail and a couple of other sites deny the existence of a direct service between Berlin and Bratislava (we’d have to change in Vienna) or Vienna to Venice (train to the border and then a bus).
We have the evidence of our own eyes that the latter exists and Seat 61 finds us a daily train between Berlin and Budapest that stops in Bratislava.
We fly from Toronto to Amsterdam then take to the rails: Berlin, Bratislava, Vienna, Venice and Rome and home from there.
Bratislava is new to us. Back in 1990, when the Berlin Wall had just been breached, we took a hovercraft up the Danube from Budapest to Vienna. It stopped briefly in Bratislava but we weren’t allowed to visit.
It’s a lovely place, pretty and inexpensive. You can see it all in a couple of days.
We stay at a small hotel called the Bastion. A young woman checks us in and show us to our room. Her name is Sloka and she speaks excellent English. She worked for a year, she says, in a factory in England.
It’s quite late so we eat (very well) in the Bastion restaurant. Sloka serves us. Next morning at breakfast, she’s there again. Does she never sleep?
She’s working a series of 15-hour days, she says, to build up some days off.
Sloka is a delight. Attentive, funny, informative – she even teaches Lesley some Slovakian – and someone the Azimut could really use.
Dawn is still unbroken as we pull out of Vienna. The sun comes up, the mist burns off and the mountains are glorious as the train wriggles between them.
Venice is the best city I know to arrive at by rail: The picturesque approach across the causeway (as we try to ignore the two cruise ships that tower hideously over all that history) and then the station exits onto the Grand Canal. You find yourself, bags in hand, in the middle of a picture postcard.
But we’re not tempted to linger. On next morning to Rome aboard the only really fast train of the trip. And a family across the aisle, who get off in Florence, that we’d like to know more about…
They’re Russian – parents, expensively dressed with lots of luggage, and three children; a girl, incredibly self-possessed, of about 13, a boy maybe 8 and a girl around 5. All three speak excellent English but, though the eldest has an American accent and is reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” in English, it’s clearly not their first language.
There’s a middle-aged Scottish woman with them, rather eccentrically dressed in a flowing dress. Nanny? Governess? Whatever, she keeps them buckled down to lessons for much of the almost four-hour trip. The parents – our first genuine Russian oligarchs? – pretty much ignore them.
Interesting. As are the two guys next to us on the train from Berlin. Again, both reading books in English and speaking to each other in English. But, from their accents, it’s not their first language. Nor is German. The train’s running a few minutes late and they’re worried about getting to a concert sound-check in Prague on time. They get off at a station in the suburbs.
In Berlin, the woman who runs our Airbnb apartment shifts in mid-sentence between English and German and seems confident that we’ll keep up. She draws us a map of the neighbourhood on three pages of a large desk diary, putting in the cafés and bars we shouldn’t bother with as well as the good ones. It proves to be entirely useless.
The fridge, she assures us, works perfectly “but the light inside is forever destroyed.”
In Rome, we’re let into the B&B by a very elegant and stylishly dressed French woman. She turns out to be the cleaner.
There’s a board on the wall outside each room upon which guests’ names and countries of origin are chalked. This, I suppose, is so you either have a topic of conversation over breakfast or can sit in silent suspicion.
We chat to a middle-aged Spaniard who tells us he used to teach Spanish in England and the United States and German in Spain. What does he do now?
“I play music for the tourists in Ibiza,” he says.
He’s gone next morning. Another story to which we know the beginning and the end but not the crucial middle.
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And roll on January ...