Sunday, June 26, 2022

The big train ride, day 8 - in which some valuable lessons are learned…

France was heating up, and I had a long train ride ahead of me. Which, as regular readers may recall, left me with a challenge. You see, I started walking ten thousand steps each day in 2016, and haven’t missed a day since. And so, to ensure that I didn’t fail, I had an early breakfast and took one of Dijon’s very efficient trams into the city centre to take advantage of the best of the day.

Dijon is a delightfully walkable city, with seemingly something interesting to see around every corner, as perhaps befits the capital of Burgundy, and on a gloriously sunny day, my only regret was that I didn’t have time to stop, enjoy a glass (or two) of wine and a hearty, if stylish, lunch.

And that, I guess, was the flaw in my schedule - albeit an intentional one. But Dijon is certainly somewhere I’d like to bring Ros to sooner rather than later.

But I did have a train to catch, and a connection to make…

France is, of course, famous for its high speed trains. They are undoubtedly impressive, sweeping across the country on dedicated lines but why do SNCF insist on charging for a mandatory seat reservation? And it’s not a minor amount either, with the cost of a first class seat reservation adding as much as €70 to the basic first class fare. And, if you have a connection, that means more than one seat reservation.

As I headed for Dijon Ville station, there was something nagging away at the back of my mind - what I was going to do the next day. For, whilst everything had been neatly planned up until now, the only fixed point after this journey was a Eurostar train in three days time. But the train to Lyon was on time, I had snacks to keep me going and a solution was bound to come up, right?

At Lyon, I had time to ponder my options before catching the train to Barcelona. SNCF and the Spanish national rail company, RENFE, now operate four high speed trains each day crossing the border. Other than that though, your only real options are either via Port-Bou on the Mediterranean coast, or via Latour de Carol in the Pyrenees. Neither is quick, or convenient, and it leads me to wonder why more fast trains don’t exist. I’d been lucky to get a reservation on this leg, which should have been a warning.

There were no seats available the next day travelling back the way I was coming, and no availability on trains to San Sebastián, either directly or via Madrid, and so I was forced to do something unplanned.

The journey to Barcelona is one to enjoy, with some gorgeous scenery as the train passes through Nimes and Montpellier, along the Mediterranean shore and into Catalonia. We were held up at Perpignan due to a passenger being taken ill and, by the time we arrived in Barcelona, it was already dark.

I did have a plan though, requiring a seat reservation on a morning train out of Tarragona, and as RENFE only do seat reservations for Interrail passengers in person, I headed for the ticket office to make the necessary arrangements. This turned out to be easier said than done, and it required some rather frantic negotiations with their customer service team before I was directed back to the ticket office.

Once I’d queued for a little while, a friendly gentleman remarked that “that hombre” had appeared, sold me a seat reservation and indicated his mild surprise that, with such a Hispanic surname, I spoke no Spanish. But I had what I needed. The Great Escape was on!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The big train ride, day 7 - across the continent to the home of condiment

The idea of sleeper trains is a romantic one and it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, they were headed the way of the dinosaur. Deutsche Bahn were so convinced of this that they decided to axe all of their sleeper trains. Fortunately, their Austrian neighbours saw an opportunity and bought all of the available rolling stock.

The result was a network of routes based from Vienna that allow you to go to sleep in one city and wake up, hours later, a long way away and for no more than the cost of a cheap hotel room. Even if you want a compartment to yourself, and I’m quite keen on that, the cost is still reasonable.

And other people want to get in on the act, with private companies raising funds to fill the gaps that ÖBB (Austrian State Railways) can’t easily service.

My destination was Milan Porta Garibaldi, thirteen or so hours from Vienna, including a two hour break in Villach where the two halves of the train, the other for Rome, were divided and new locomotives connected.

We arrived at three minutes early, leaving me enough time to get to the imposing Milano Centrale to catch a cross-border train to Bellinzona. These are operated by a collaboration between the Swiss canton of Ticino and Italian Lombardy, thus the trains are efficient and rather stylish.

At Bellinzona, the time efficient route to Zürich is via the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Efficient but dull, so I took the slow train, via Airolo and the old Gotthard Pass route and stared out of the window at the glorious Alpine scenery. A dash for a connecting ICE train at Zürich and I was in Basel ahead of schedule to catch an SNCF regional service to Mulhouse Ville. 

I’d never been to Mulhouse before but rather liked it, a walkable town with a complicated heritage as part of Alsace Lorraine. It’s somewhere I might come back to, with Ros this time, as it’s a region that neither of us knows particularly well. One of the aims of this trip was to visit cities less publicised and I think that it has worked well in that sense.

My final destination for the day was Dijon (cue a series of mustard jokes). My hotel was attached to the Toison D’Or shopping mall, which gave me the opportunity to buy that new Fitbit I needed. It’s very nice and a bit more stylish and advanced than the old one.

A quick dinner later, it was time for some sleep - I had another early start to come…

The big train ride, day 6 - a somewhat battered traveller detours in search of profit…

Morning, and time to assess the damage. The knees were somewhat beaten up, with cuts and scrapes the record of the previous day’s mishap. But they were working, so it was time to get on with the show. And I had a plan…

Before leaving Suffolk, I had rummaged through our “random currency box” and discovered that we had 81,000 Hungarian forints. And given that my only fixed point for the day was to catch a train from Vienna at 7.23 p.m., it was time to get inventive.

There is a train service that runs every hour from Bratislava-Petrzalka station to Parndorf in Austria, from where you can get to Györ in Hungary. I needed a new Fitbit as I’d scratched the face of the one I was wearing, and the strap was damaged - neither by the fall, fortunately - and 81,000 forint would probably cover the cost of a replacement. And there was a conveniently located laundromat near Györ-Gyarvaros station…

And, sure enough, the laundromat was rather clever - you can pay by debit card, and the machine adds the laundry detergent itself, thus simplifying matters greatly. Better still, because the machines are industrial, a load of laundry can be washed and dried in about an hour, incredibly useful when you’ve got a train to catch. So, if you’re ever in Hungary and need to get some laundry done, the Bubbles chain comes highly recommended. The machine instructions are in English too, which is a bonus, and there’s an app so that you can book in advance.

Next, to the nearby shopping mall to look for a new Fitbit. The local branch of Media Markt, a Europe-wide consumer electronics store, didn’t have what I looking for and, as it turned out, the forint bank notes were out of circulation. So, I went to a bank to change them.

Unhelpfully, the bank weren’t obliged to do so, as I was nine months too late. Instead, I was directed towards a bank in the centre of Györ which, I was assured, could help. The catch was that they were about to close for the day. And then I had an idea.

Post Offices are run by the state in most places, and Hungary is no exception, so I headed for the main Post Office and, lo and behold, for a very reasonable 3% fee, I was able to walk out with 78,000 forints which I soon converted into €195. Time for a dash to Vienna for that 7.23 train…

Luckily, I’d left myself a time cushion, as we were held up at Hegyeshalom for reasons that never actually became clear. But I did get to Vienna in time for the connection I couldn’t miss.

I found my cabin, made myself comfortable and we were off. The cabin attendant had brought me a nice glass of Sekt, which was drunk as we headed south-west…

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The big train ride, day 5 - in which things go a bit wrong…

It was another glorious day in the Tatras, and I was up relatively early in order to grab breakfast and explore. The sky was full of swallows as, it turned out, they were staying at my hotel too, with nesting sites in the eaves and fledglings to feed.

As part of my package, I was able to get free cablecar rides, so, after breakfast, I headed to the nearby station for the ride up to Hrebienok.

And, having climbed another 250 metres, it seemed a pity not to go for a walk now that I’d got there, so I set off along a rising path into the woods. It was alright at first but, after a while, the path became less a flat surface and more a jumble of rocks. I didn’t really have the right footwear but, well, it seemed a pity to turn round. I picked my way as far as a bridge over a stream where the spray was nicely cooling for a while.

The return journey was rather more treacherous - it’s funny, isn’t it, how descents seem to be like that? - and my skill at picking the right rocks to step onto failed me at an awkward moment. I crashed to the ground, landing hard on both knees and rather taking the wind out of me for a moment. Whilst I was hurt, I wasn’t broken and, getting up a little gingerly, I made it somewhat more slowly back to the proper path and limped back to the cablecar.

Lunch and a beer tends to cure many things, and it was time to set off for a new destination, so there wasn’t time to feel sorry for myself.

I was supposed to return to Poprad-Tatry for my next train but instead I returned to Strbske Pleso for a connecting train to Strba. The train to Strba is a narrow gauge electric cog railway, descending sharply into the valley below, where my reserved train would pick up about fifteen minutes after Poprad-Tatry.

My timing was good, as heavy rain promptly swept over the Tatras from the Polish side, washing out the rest of the afternoon. And I made it to Bratislava in time to do some laundry.

I had booked my hotel in Bratislava based on the premise that it had a guest laundry, thus allowing me to have enough clean clothes to make it through to the end of the trip. The news, on arrival, that no such guest laundry existed, was a bit of a blow to morale. But that was a problem for a new day, and I needed to take the weight off of my aching knees…

The big train ride, day 4 - Stary, Stary night…

Time for a change of scenery and a confession of sorts…

Ostrava not, frankly, having an awful lot to detain the curious traveler in search of entertainment, it was time to set off for one of the high points of the trip, Slovakia’s Tatras. Why Slovakia, I hear you ask? Well, the scenery is apparently spectacular, the air is clean and fresh and, as for the trains…

The day got off to a good start as I boarded the Slovak Railways Pendolino to Poprad-Tatry. A welcome glass of Sekt was never going to be turned down, and if I can persuade Greater Anglia to do something similar, my life would be somewhat enhanced. 

The Slovak scenery was rather attractive, and it gave for an easy journey to relax. And, whilst the connection at Poprad-Tatry was an unrelaxing, and unsignposted, seven minutes, I just about made it.

Now, for the confession. I may have mentioned that I am not a train spotter. Whilst I stand by that, I find unusual trains interesting and what the Tatras have is narrow gauge electric railways. And yes, this one was a bit like a tram, but it was certainly different.

Upon arrival at my destination, I took a gentle, if uphill walk to my hotel, the Grand Hotel Stary Smokovec. It’s one of those classic “turn of the last century” places, built for the comfort of the Austro-Hungarian elite. Breathe in that fresh air, take walks in the great outdoors, shoot the wildlife, that sort of thing. The spa looked very inviting, and the terrace, looking out over the plain below, particularly so given the price of beer in Slovakia.

And, apparently, the Queen and Prince Philip had visited the hotel more than a decade ago, something the hotel was rather proud of. I wonder why they were in Slovakia?

Once I’d dropped off my luggage in the room, I took a train to Strbske Pleso, a nearby ski resort with a lake to boat on or promenade around. There’s also a top notch Kempinski hotel, serving the winter sports set. 

Back in Stary Smokovec, beer was drunk in moderation and a club sandwich eaten. I tend to think that a club sandwich is a good test of a hotel kitchen, as it’s quite simple as a concept yet easy to do badly. Fortunately, this was a pretty good club sandwich…

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The big train ride, day 3 - riding the Ostravan to an evening of light opera in Moravia…

After another astonishingly good night’s sleep, it was time to leave Germany, as I had plans. I hadn’t actually done anything about them but I did have some.

The EuroCity train from Berlin to Prague conveniently stops in Dresden, before heading up the Elbe valley. It has been a popular route for some time, no more so than during the Thirty Years War, when the locals had the misfortune to be on the main route between Saxony and Bohemia. As a result, various armies rampaged through the towns, leaving death, destruction and plague behind them. The “misery of Pirna” rather sums up the catastrophic effect of the Swedish siege of the town in 1639.

It’s a pretty run, with the Elbe on your left as you make your way to Prague. At the Czech border, the river becomes the Labe, and remains a major artery. The train, courtesy of Czech Railways, was comfortable and efficient, with a trolley service serving half-litre cans of Pilsner Urquell for €2. I limited myself to one with lunch…

The connection at Prague was as scheduled, formed by a Slovak Railways service heading for Zilina. I wasn’t going that far, not yet anyway, but whilst the Ostravan was a bit delayed by engineering work, I made it to the furthest corner of the Czech Republic without much drama.

Ostrava is the third city of the Czech Republic, to which one might respond, “so what?”. It isn’t exactly bustling, even on a Saturday night, but I did have plans. And, whilst the local composer is Janacêk, the local opera company were performing an opera by Bedrich Smetana, “The Two Widows”.

The phrase “local opera company” might evoke images of something a bit amateur, but that isn’t the case here, as the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre is what a conurbation with a population of 500,000 should be able to support. And they’ve got a gorgeous performing space…

I bought myself a ticket online, a front row seat in the Gallery - priced at 500Kč, a very reasonable £17 for the best seats in the house. And whilst my Czech is wholly non-existent, the fact that it was being subtitled in English was an unexpected bonus. Why that should be is anyone’s guess, but a confused tourist should never refuse such a courtesy.

“Dve Vdovy” is a fairly light-hearted tale, based on a one-act farce written by Mauritius-born novelist and playwright Jean Pierre Félicien Mallefille. Nobody dies, over-dramatically or otherwise, and there is a happy ending, which is nice. Occasionally, performers would appear offstage, and the acting was more than respectable, something that I value in opera.

All in all, a perfectly charming evening and, if you’re ever in Ostrava, do see if there is a performance on at the theatre. If nothing else, you’ll enjoy the theatre building itself, and the quality of the performance will be high.

I walked back to my hotel through a surprisingly deserted city centre. If the locals don’t come out on a Saturday night, where are they? Admittedly, this may have something to do with the curious fact that restaurant kitchens appear to close at 9 p.m. But I had a song in my heart and joy in my soul. Life was alright…

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The big train ride, day 2 - I like gummy bears but, on the whole, I’d rather be in Dresden…

So, the great adventure was under way, and I awoke with a sense of purpose in anticipation of… well, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure. I knew that I had a train to catch at 11.30, and I had plans to find pork and beer at the other end but, apart from that, it was all a bit “free form”.

Mannheim was quiet. Shopping on a Monday morning clearly takes second place to work but that’s probably what you’d expect from Germans. They do take pride in public places though and the flower beds surrounding the Wasserturm were stunning in an explosion of colour.

All in all, it was very nice but, whilst I was tempted by the possibility of a tram ride to Heidelberg, I had that train.

The 11.32 ICE train to Berlin Gesundbrunnen was late. This was beginning to become a habit but Deutsche Bahn do have an unusual way of dealing with the possibility of less than entirely gruntled passengers - free gummy bears. Germans are clearly big fans of Goldbaren, as you see them in Lufthansa lounges too. Yes, it’s only a small bag, with perhaps ten gummy bears, but Deutsche Bahn appear to be major purchasers from Haribo. Indeed, we lost so much time that a second round of gummy bears was forthcoming.

My scheduled connection at Leipzig was doomed, but the 16.00 Regional Express had been held for connecting passengers. Unfortunately, it seemed as though a large percentage of the population of Leipzig were trying to catch it too and it was impossible to get on board. Muttering under my breath that even Greater Anglia are better than this, I stomped off to find the DB Lounge. The Interrail ticket rather confused the stern looking woman at the desk but she  eventually let me in to raid their supply of gummy bears and drink their free Diet Coke.

The 17.00 wasn’t anywhere near as full, despite the cancellation of the 16.31 ICE train, and we rolled across Saxony in a leisurely manner until we reached my destination, Dresden.

I like Dresden. I first came here with Ros seven years ago for a European Liberal event, somewhat unwillingly, I confess. I was wrong, as Dresden is much nicer than its press. You can walk around the Altmarkt and along the banks of the Elbe, eat pork and drink beer and generally forget the notion of rundown heavy industry and general decay. And considering just how much damage was done to the city at the end of World War 2, the reconstruction of the historic quarter is little short of astonishing. I’m particularly fond of Brühl’s Terrace, nicknamed “The Balcony of Europe”, where you can stroll, stop for a coffee or dinner and enjoy the view of the Augustus Bridge.

And, as intended, pork was eaten and beer drunk, before I turned it for the night. I had an earlier start the next day…

Friday, June 10, 2022

The big train ride, day 1 - the longest journey starts with a single community bus ride…

I enjoy travel, as regular readers will testify. And it is as much the actual journey as the destination sometimes. It’s not that being somewhere isn’t enjoyable, but the process of travelling from A to B should bring some joy.

A month ago, it was Europe Day and, to celebrate this and the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the Interrail ticket, there was a short lived offer of half-price Interrail tickets. So, I bought myself a one-month first class Interrail ticket, usage any time in the next year.

Which brings me to a train somewhere in Hesse…

I left Creeting St Peter yesterday morning, dragging a pleasingly small suitcase on wheels and with a small rucksack on my back, using our Connecting Communities demand responsive transport to get me to Stowmarket station in time for the 9.32 train to Liverpool Street. I’d activated my pass and was curious to see how it would work.

The idea is that you select your train using the handy app that Interrail offer and, once you know that you’ve boarding it, you mark the train by sliding a little ‘button’ to the right. This ensures that the train company get their share of revenue from the ticket. If asked by a ticket inspector - they all seem to be called train managers these days - you show the QR code for your pass and all is well. They are theoretically supposed to check that you’ve entered the train on your pass, a throwback to the time when they were in paper form, but nobody seems to be too bothered about that.

The first problem was as Liverpool Street, where the QR code didn’t trigger the barriers, but there was someone on duty so they let me out with merely a perfunctory glance at the QR code, so no harm done.

I’d cautiously left more than enough time to get to St Pancras but it was a nice day, and my 10,000 steps don’t walk themselves, so, rather than take the Elizabeth Line to Farringdon and then ThamesLink to St Pancras, I walked through the Barbican Estate to Farringdon, where my ticket again failed to trigger the barrier. And, again, I was admitted to the platforms. I do find myself wondering what QR codes I could show and still be let in…

St Pancras International was, as news reports has suggested, busy. However, the Eurostar staff had separated the queue by departure time, so it really didn’t take that long to clear security and French immigration control. And I’m a big fan of Eurostar, which offers happy memories of trips to ALDE Party Financial Advisory Committee meetings. A first class Interrail ticket gives you access to the Standard Premier carriages, although you do have to pay €38 for a seat reservation (€30 in standard), which means wider seats and a meal (in this instance, a salmon quiche and a fennel salad, plus dessert and a quarter bottle of wine).

I had a tight connection in Brussels, fifteen minutes for a Deutsche Bahn ICE train to Frankfurt Airport and an on time arrival was good news. The bad news was that all of the shortcuts from Eurostar to the main station were closed, with a full complement of passengers attempting to make it past a narrow gap.

I did make it to platform 5 though, although there was no sign of a train. Now there are certain expectations of German trains, the primary one being that they run on time. Given my final destination, it wasn’t a crisis, but for the two young Americans attempting to get to Kiel via five connections, it was looking a bit grim. I hope that they made it…

We were twenty minutes late into Frankfurt Airport, which meant a later train to my final stop for the day, Mannheim. And, again, the train to Basel was late, by about twenty minutes. So much for German efficiency, it seems… On the other hand, the hotel couldn’t have been much more convenient for the station and, having checked in and dropped off my luggage, it was time for a brief explore and a bite to eat.

Mannheim is not an obvious tourist destination, although it is convenient for Heidelberg, which most certainly is one. It is quite prosperous looking though, with a main shopping street full of big names from the retail sector, and the Innenstadt is very walkable. The main feature is the Wasserturm, an enormous water tower which stands at the eastern end of town.

Sleep was calling to me though, and I was soon back in the hotel, where I fell into a deep sleep, ready for another day…