Notes from a Great European Food Adventure (London-Paris-Berlin-Bucharest-Istanbul-Athens-Milan-Basel) via a lot of other places …

SATURDAY 28 OCTOBER 2000 13.53 London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord (PARIS 2 nights)

The sky fell on southern England in August, causing great disappointment among its inhabitants. They complained. What happened to our summer? In September the sky fell on them again. They lamented. What is happening to the weather? The rains flooded the fields, filled the drains and streets, and covered the roads and rail lines. Worse was to come. The sky fell on them again in October. They cried. This is terrible. It was. It was terrible alright, terrible for two eejits called Anne and Robert who began to wonder if the gods were conspiring against them, you know those gods that look after the weather on Europe’s western fringes. The floods knocked out part of the railway network. The network was bad enough, and now the gods that run Britain’s railways were in collusion with the weather gods. I wondered if we would ever get out of England, to embark on our marathon six month, 60 city journey from one end of Europe to the other on its extensive rail network.

In the week before our departure, as the rain ceased and the floods subsided, my fears eased, until the London to Leeds train came off the tracks at a place called Hatfield about 50 km outside the English capital. The crash panicked commuters and travellers, especially when it was revealed that the cause of the crash was a defective section of rail track. Immediately, delays were announced for the thousand of kilometres of rail track across Great Britain. The delays, it was announced, would get worse at the weekend, starting the morning of October 28.

This was information we did not need to know. Months of planning – selecting routes, buying tickets, booking hotels – and it seemed it was touch and go whether we would be able to leave on our chosen train or even get out of the country by train. We’d already had one major set-back when we learned that the visas we had applied for from a company that specialises in visas were not forthcoming, and Russia and the Baltic states were now off the schedule. The visas we needed for the Balkan and eastern European countries would have to be gotten later.

I didn’t sleep well on the Friday night. I wasn’t nervous but I was anxious. There was much gossip about and not a lot of reality. Anne decided to visit her local railway station, Ipswich, and ask directly for information. Trains are travelling every hour, an Anglian railway guard said as a train pulled in, and corrected himself. That’s the first one for two hours, he said, the previous one was cancelled. She decided to get a ticket for the 7.42 the following morning. I decided simply to get to Brighton station as early as I could. Because I had some currency to collect at nine o’clock and I wanted to get the 9.20 Connex service to London, I booked a taxi for ten to nine. At the station I was assured that if I changed at East Croydon and then again at Clapham Junction I would get to Waterloo with only a little delay. The delays are in the Croydon area, two guards said.

Surprisingly, given the scare stories that had been going about the day before, the journey took 65 minutes. The 9.20 cruised into East Croydon a few minutes before ten, hardly late at all. A train stopping at Clapham Junction arrived two minutes after ten and at 10.17 I boarded a train at Clapham for Waterloo, arriving eight minutes later.

Anne’s journey had been tedious. The defective track on the line to Liverpool Street restricted her train to twenty miles an hour between Colchester and London. The 70 minute journey on any other Saturday morning started ten minutes late and became a stop-start, quick-slow two hour test of Anne’s patience. The journey across London on the Underground was less testing and at twenty past ten she wandered into Waterloo and decamped outside Burger King because the queue into Costa Brothers, our rendezvous point, snaked back into the concourse. I followed five minutes later, as she sipped coffee, ate hash browns and wolfed down an egg-bacon roll. Our meeting time had been eleven o’clock. Check in time at the Eurostar terminal was half one. We had decided to meet early in case there was any unfinished business to attend to before we left. We had three hours to wait. Still, we had arrived safely.

‘Food good, is it?’ I asked sarcastically.

We decided to move down into the Eurostar lounge where the food is slightly more nutritious, if not excessively over-priced. I declined to hand over Stg£1.25 for one croissant, so I sat over a cup of black coffee and whiled away the time writing postcards of Eurostar trains, buying stamps, posting the postcards, exchanging currency, making goodbye phone calls amidst a cacophony of announcements about delays and cancellations. The sky, it appeared, had started to fall again. With broken tracks to slow everything and everyone, it promised to be another miserable day for rail travellers in southern England.

I had wanted to change sterling at the Post Office but the nearest one was closed. The Bureau de Change in Waterloo station was staffed by an Asian woman with a cherubic face and a warm smile. I didn’t warm to her company’s rate of exchange and commission as I parted with Stg£203 and collected Ff1100 French francs and CHf250 Swiss francs.

This activity took us past noon. Anne suggested we check in. Eurostar at Waterloo is a hybrid of central railway station and hub airport. Automatic ticket machines greet the traveller who is asked to pass their ticket through a slot which, with a whosh, swallows it and then ejects it with not so much as a hiccup. Narrow gates spring open and woebetide the traveller who doesn’t make it through before they shut again especially if the traveller has a 65 litre rucksack and a large piece of luggage, plus several plastic bags full of odds and ends. We both made it and presented ourselves to the smiling uniformed Afro-English customs control who staffed the airport-style security gates. They must have taken pity on us for as I started to gather my various coinage and other metals to deposit in the tray beside the metal (and armaments) detector gate, you know the ones that look like time-portals, one guard waved us around the gate, scanner and his pensive looking colleagues behind the luggage conveyor belt.

This egalitarian solidarity left us facing an airport-like lounge with shops and cafes and restaurants and 90 minutes to browse and perhaps exchange some money for food, drink and presents. We found a trolley which displayed slots for one pound, two pound and ten franc coins. Anne put in a two pound coin and we loaded up our luggage.

‘It’s to stop people taking the trolley away,’ Anne explained, registering my bemusement. ‘The coins are for convenience, you get them back anyway.’

‘Emmh,’ I said. I didn’t like that argument. ‘Yeah,’ I added, ‘I can just see people trying to get on the train with that contraption or trying to take it out of the station which apparently people have been known to do.’ Unconvinced I drove towards Costa Brothers. Anne had missed the opportunity to sample their hospitality in the larger station concourse. I wanted a black coffee and one of their delicious almond croissants. Anne asked for a cafe latte.

In front of me in the queue a thirtysomething smart-suited man was starting to have an argument about the price of his cup of coffee. The thought came to me that he was not a frequent traveller on the Eurostar from England to the European continent. The Costas staff thought so as well.

‘It’s the same price upstairs,’ one said when the man demanded to speak to the manager.

‘You want the supervisor,’ said a woman speaking English with an Italian accent, I’ll get him.

She started to laugh, as the man took his coffee and sat at a table. A youngish man came out. The woman laughed as she served me. Was serving in a coffee shop a matter of fun?

‘Do your job,’ she said to the young man, that man (she pointed to the smart-suit, who had sat as far away from the counter as he could) has a complaint.

‘Me,’ was all her young colleague said.

‘Yes,’ she said, this is what you are paid for.

He seemed reluctant to engage with the smart-suit. As I handed over a fiver for two coffees and one croissant, I said, ‘your prices are higher here than in other Costa places.’

‘Our wages aren’t,’ another colleague said.

I took our drinks and food to a table not that far from the smart-suit and the young Costa manager. As I had turned to move away from the counter, I decided to drop the 50 pence change in their tips tray. A few tables away I could hear the smart-suit arguing with the young Italian woman. I couldn’t hear what became of their conversation. It was a storm in a coffee cup. Coffee and food is always expensive in and around public transport systems, especially in Britain. It always has been and the workers have always been poorly paid.

Our train driver would not be allowed to increase his speed until Ashford in Kent and then it would be in the lap of the gods (the French ones) whether our train would be re-allocated a time slot to go through the tunnel. Ah well, at least we’ve made it, I thought. The adventure had begun.

We had been decanted into first class by Eurostar’s public relations department, who wished us well on our marathon journey. Anne noted that this entitled us to drinks and lunch. We overheard the other two passengers in the carriage ask a steward when lunch would be served. We were still in England when it arrived, not that far out of Waterloo station. By the time we got to Ashford and an American boarded to fill up the carriage (‘because I want to do the tunnel’, he said), lunch was over and cleared away. I wondered what the fuss was about. This wasn’t the sort of fare George Nagelmackers served his customers, nor did it compare with the fare on Iarnrod Eireann’s twilight Cork to Dublin express — by comparison.

Anne was more impressed with it. I was simply enamoured with the menu card and the thought of the food. Quenelles de champignons sauvages, vinaigrette aux fruits des bois to start; filet de porc britannique rotim chou rouge braise, sauce balsamique, compote de pommes et pommes de terre sautées or Cabillaud grille, legumes mediterranéeans sauce tomate au basilic, rix pilaf for the main course.

But this wasn’t the rickety old half seven from Cork Keant to Dublin Heuston, where chefs produce Irish breakfasts bacon, sausages, black puddings, egg, toast, bread, butter, jam, tea or coffee to order, everything made in the kitchen on the train. No, this was the sort of fare you get on most continental flights, pre-cooked, compacted and congealed and served on plastic.

Ah well, so much for modernity. I had to remind myself that the Eurostar is a joint operation between the French and the English, and train cuisine is not what it used be especially in England and even in France, where train cuisine had a reputation all of its own to go with the cuisine of the regions. It wasn’t hard to imagine. We were still crawling past England’s green and brown monocultures. Soon we would be crossing French fields with exactly the same look.

There was a time before cheap flights, charter flights, roll on-roll off ferries, excursion buses and high-tech cars when the only way to travel was by train especially across continental Europe. As a means of travel around Europe, the train is still the most comfortable. On the main inter-city routes it is generally fast, with few delays, and if you can get your head around the idiosyncrasies of each country’s ticketing system and grasp the complexities of the timetables, it is a relatively stress-free way to enjoy Europe’s major cities.

Despite its soggy food, the five-year-old Eurostar train, along with the other high speed trains that flit like grass snakes across the European landscape, is the equivalent of the great expresses that ran over the continent during the golden age of steam engines and luxurious carriages, when the promise of romance and danger was stamped on each ticket, if you believe the creative writers of the time, that is.

Before, between and after the two wars that ravished Europe during the 20th Century, travel by train was the best way to get from one city to another, and for the rich the only way to see spectacular scenery in remote places. Trains like the Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul via the Simplon Tunnel) or the Nord-Sud Express (St Petersburg to Lisbon) offered a means to get across Europe in relative safety. Trains that transversed the Alpine route from Montreux by Lac Leman to Luzern by the Vierwaldstattersee in Switzerland offered a means to enjoy Europe’s rich landscape.

More than a century after fast rail travel was introduced as a means of daily passage for royalty, politicians, government couriers (and spies!), businessmen and those who could afford to get on a train in Paris to attend a function, meeting or rendezvous in Venice, it is now a pragmatic reality. If you want to get from London to Paris, take the 300 kilometres an hour Eurostar to the Gare du Nord. If you want to get from Paris to Lausanne, take the 300 km/hr Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) from the Gare du Lyon. If you want to get from Lausanne to Milan, take the 300 km/hr Cisalpino. If you want to get from Milan to Venice, take the 300 km/hr Eurostar Italia. That’s the western European section of the Orient Express route made famous first by Maurice Dekobra when he wrote his Madonna of the Sleeping Cars featuring a Scottish Princess, subsequently by Agatha Christie when her infamous detective Hercule Poirot successfully solved the mystery of a Murder on the Orient Express and finally, before the service by the Compaigne Internationale des Wagon-Lits et Grand Express was ended, by Ian Fleming when his hero-spy James Bond survived an attempt on his life as the train sped past the Italian lakes towards the Simplon tunnel in From Russia With Love.

All the major routes made famous by the fancifully named steam expresses, which pulled salubrious carriages still exist. They are now more glamorous than ever, and they carry fast trains sleek polished metal snakes with rounded colour-streaked noses. Instead of Wagon-Lits seating, eating and sleeping cars, the high-speed trains of Europe’s rail companies offer clean, comfortable, air-conditioned carriages (and sleeping berths) with a range of services. The Deutsche Bahn 280 kilometre an hour Inter City Expresses offers radio and specialist programmes classical and pop music and fairy tales in the arm-rest of each seat; a trolley service, which carries a large range of snacks and hot and cold drinks, marks a constant furrow along the corridor; a restaurant car offers haute cuisine and traditional food; for the long-distant traveller videos of the latest films are available for viewing; and one carriage has a conference room, space for wheelchairs, disabled toilet and space to change babies’ nappies.

As we sped through the Channel Tunnel, a project conceived in the 19th Century to facilitate rail travel and finally realised in the late 20th Century to facilitate the movement of commerce, I imagined the dreams of those travellers who marvelled at the trains of the era of fantastic engineering and fabulous adventure when Jules Verne used Bradshaw’s Continental Railway, Steam Transit and General Guide to send Phileas Fogg and Jean Passepartout around the world. Here we were on a train of fantastic engineering embarking on a fabulous adventure, and I tried to ignore the flat and mostly featureless landscape, the fields of sugar beet and wheat, and the endless lines of squat, bent fork-like pylons that disappeared over the horizon. Paris, I knew, was also over the horizon the train was heading towards.


Never mind Paris in the Spring, Paris in the Autumn is a magical place to be. We didn’t know when we arrived a few minutes past six the previous evening what was behind us. We had wandered down in to the Metro, bought our eight franc tickets for the central zone and braved the Saturday evening rush hour to find our hotel on the Blvd du Rueilly. We had checked in, sorted ourselves out and had gone to the streets, with nothing in mind except to see how far the Gare du Lyon was from the hotel. We had given ourselves two nights in Paris.

The first week, we had decided, would be a short holiday before the serious travelling began. Our planned route had already been disrupted because the Russians and Belarussians had not responded quickly enough with answers to our questions about the necessary transit visas, so it seemed we would not travel from Helsinki to St Petersburg and from St Petersburg to Berlin via Warsaw. This was far from our minds as we returned to the hotel with crisp bread, Caprice des Dieux (un amour de fromage – a mouth watering commercial brie) and fruit juice. We had eaten the cheese and some of the bread, had watched TV and eventually had fallen asleep.

Sunday started as a simple reconnaissance exercise. What was the quickest way to the Gare du Lyon? We had gone one way the night before, which took us along an underpass below at least twelve tracks, and now we needed to see if the other road to the station was quicker. We were carrying two heavy rucksacks, a large black sportsbag which contained a sleeping bag and several plastic bags, and I didn’t want to do a lot of walking with this gear. It was quicker, because we found a street and a plaza – which was being used by twentysomething and thirtysomething roller-bladers as we crossed it – that led into a shopping mall immediately below the tracks.

During this event we passed several cafes, mostly frequented by doady men in drab suits, and one cafe seemed much the same as another. We choose one and stood at the counter drinking coffee, aware that we had a day for relaxation once the recce was complete. That took us next to Gare du Austerlitz, for trains to the south-west. We had it in mind to see as much of central Paris as we could but it wasn’t practical and we soon realised this.

We skirted the station and found ourselves on the Blvd du l’Hopital, where we went in search of food. We passed several closed shops and then spotted a patisserie full of people. We joined the queue. This gave us the time to decide what to choose. Among the delights on offer were various baguettes, quiches, pastries and croissants. Usually I will pass a quiche without giving it a second glance, but the range behind the glass counter looked so appetising I couldn’t resist the effort to try one. I spied a slice with spinach while Anne liked the look of one made with onions. With a combination of broken French … e voudrais du bagette et e’pinard et ognions quiche et … and pointing fingers we bought our lunch.

In a shop, back towards the Jardin des Plantes towards the Museum of Natural History and Evolution we bought more Caprice des Dieux, a carton of mixed juices and a persimmon – the fruit that is known to western Europeans as kaki. I fell in love with this fruit when a Swiss friend introduced it to me, extolling its heavenly flavour and effect on the taste buds. I had a feeling when I bought it that it wasn’t ripe. I cut a piece and immediately regretted it. Unripe kakis turn the mouth into a dry and bitter zone, which is only relieved with a fruit juice. I kept it hoping it might ripen but it later ended up in Lake Maggiore.

After lunch, which was shared with the pigeons of the garden, we walked towards the Rue Monge and just missed a market. It was three o’clock and the day was slipping away from us. I wanted to go to St Germain but I also wanted to go to Montmarte. Anne didn’t mind where we went. As we located and walked along Blvd Port Royal, for the first time feeling the cold as a wind began to pick up, we compromised, and turned towards the Jardin Luxembourg. We skirted the palace in the middle of these gardens, and struggled through thick swards of people towards St Germain.

The attraction was revealed to be giant photographs of Earth taken from the air hoisted on to the railings around the gardens. As we moved between the upwardlooking gazers, stopping to gaze up ourselves at the photographs, we came across several postcard stands and a tent. Inside there was a flurry of activity as people thrust credit cards and one hundred franc notes at the two people selling copies of Yann Arthur Bertrande’s coffee table book of photographs of La Terre. Further inside the tent more people were watching the La Terre video. Unable to resist I thrust three hundred francs at one of the sellers, collected my copy of La Terre and five francs change. We emerged out of this Le Terre Marche and found a cafe not far away, in the heart of St Germain. Its walls were painted green, the doors red. Its interior, wooden benches and tables, contained the flowering youth of Paris, sipping hot chocolate, coffee, herbal tea, fruit juice and beer. We sat, drank coffee and people-watched. Then we left and walked into the approaching storm. We crossed the Seine and walked around Notre Dame.

‘Do you want to go inside,’ I asked Anne.

Then I saw the length of the queue. Notre Dame’s admirers stretched the length of the plaza. So we walked on, crossed Pont d’Arcole, and had noddles and rice and Evian water in a Chinese cafe on Napoleon’s Rue de Rivoli.

La Terre was disappointing, it did not have many food pix!

At six we took the Metro back to the Du Rueilly Hotel, rested for a while, sorted a few things out, and took the Metro to a station near Tour Eiffel. As we turned a corner to reveal the late 19th feat of engineering, a fierce wind caught us. We looked up at the Eiffel Tower. Two arc-lights at the pinnacle of the tower pierced the Parisian night, drawing constant bright and fading lines across the city. We walked through the garden from the east and under the four pillars along a pedestrian area that once carried traffic. A sign in front of us, as we approached the North Pillar, announced that the top platform was closed, so we made do with a ticket to platform two. We got in a lift at the bottom of the North Pillar. It wasn’t until we walked out of the shopping area and on to the outer platform that we discovered why the top platform was closed. Tour Eiffel was swaying with the wind that forewarned the storm. I had come out wearing only a t-shirt and wastecoat, and I was now cold and uncomfortable.

Back in the hotel, after watching the antics of Kevin Costner playing Robin Hood on Channel Six, the weather forecasters announced rain for the following day. We decided to set out earlier for Gare du Lyon. We still had no idea what was behind us.

MONDAY 30 OCTOBER 2000 12.48-16.45 Paris Gare de Lyon, to Dijon, to Vallorbe, to Lausanne (LAUSANNE 1 night)

The rain started as we approached Gare du Lyon. We had spent most of the morning eating a slow breakfast of coffee and croissants, and packaging and posting La Terre to my youngest daughter Ciara. Our fast train to Lausanne was scheduled to leave just before one. We arrived in to the spacious environment of the old station which was still housed in its original 19th century building some time before noon and had more coffee, sitting by soft metal tables in an open area outside the station cafe, looking towards the platforms, served by dutiful, uniformed waiters. We idled the time away until we realised that we still had to buy lunch for the journey. A luggage trolley was acquired, our assorted belongings mostly containing food were loaded on and, while Anne guarded our possessions, I went looking for food. I found a patisserie across the road from the railway station, but the rain was now persistent and the sky was darkening. It took only a few minutes to find a shop with cheese, tomatoes, pâté and juice. It took only a few more minutes to get back to Gare du Lyon. In that time my clothes were soaked. I greeted Anne and pointed to the sky.

The rain is following us, I told her.

Our train sat serenely at platform H. By the time we walked its length to carriage 14 and our reserved seats, the deluge came down and the rain flashed in torrents. Paris was virtually black as the TGV sped towards the south-east. The storm followed us. It didn’t dissipate until we cruised out of Dijon. We passed through Dole and Monchard as the architecture of the buildings changed from rural French, austere and pragmatic, to rural Swiss, sharp and idealistic, from house to chalet. The train chiefs changed at Dijon, where they warmly clasped hands and spoke energetically to each other, and again at Frasne.

The electronic board announced that the train was running twenty minutes late. If the changing architecture and landscape wasn’t an indication that we were approaching Switzerland the change of train chief and the announcement … approaching Vallorby … was all we needed to know. None of this … the next stop is … business two seconds before the train pulls in to the station.

The Swiss way you get time to collect yourself and your belongings. We were at the border between France and Switzerland. At Dole the sky changed from a steely-grey to a blinding white, at Vallorby it was sky-blue. After several short tunnels and the Mont d’Or Tunnel our TGV emerged into south west French-speaking Switzerland out of the mountains above Lake Geneva, providing a glimpse of shadowy alpine peaks, lurching to the left and right on the titled curved rails mostly at speeds of 180 km an hour. At Vallorby a long transcereals train sat beside a lone Swiss Federal Railways regional train. A few minutes later two immaculately dressed Swiss policemen asked for passports. Outside, the sugar beet monoculture competed with the vines and the wheat.

We had arrived in Switzerland.

The storm had followed us. It had been windy in Paris but it wasn’t until we got to Lausanne that we realised how bad it really was. Unlike Paris – where we arrived with a hotel booked for two nights – we were on the western edge of the Swiss Riviera – Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux by Lac Leman – without anywhere booked. We hastened into the SBB rail centre, which sells international and domestic rail tickets and hotel rooms.

For some reason which was not explained to us, the woman who served us said she could not book us a hotel in the region, we had to go to the Tourist Office. They too were unhelpful. We were given a map with a list of hotels and their tariffs, but when the first two hotels were rang (one answered and was fully booked, the other rang out), the woman making the enquiries gave up when we insisted we wanted somewhere closer to the station.

Lausanne is built on a steep sloping hill and accomodation is scattered from the top of Lausanne to Ouchy on the edge of the lake. With heavy rucksacks on our backs I was reluctant to walk too far, so the woman suggested the Continental Hotel across the road from the station. Its tariffs were listed at CHf180, so we gathered up our large bits and small pieces and wandered out into the Lausanne night. It was raining.

A teenage-twentysomething greeted us with a very warm smile and good English when we asked vous parley Anglaise because neither of us had the energy to negotiate a room rate in Swiss-French. She had a room for us but it would cost CHf285! Anne looked at me and I looked at her. We were tired, we still had to get rail tickets to Stresa beside Lake Maggoire and to Copenhagen via Hamburg and Luzern, so we agreed, signed the hotel form, gathered the keys and went up to our room and showered.

While Anne showered I turned the TV on. The weather forecast was just ending, and I missed the conclusion. What was the weather going to be like in the Rhône Valley and around Lake Maggoire, which had been flooded two weeks earlier? We would soon find out but not before we bought our tickets.

Refreshed, we went back to the station, to the Swiss Tours section of the SBB ticket office and found a friendly and helpful clerk who took CHf902.50 (the CHf2.50 for a map of Lausanne, so that we could find the Cafe Romana, the place to eat fondue in the town according to one of his colleagues) from us and gave us tickets from Lausanne to Stresa and from Stresa to Puttgarden (the German port that links Germany with Denmark) via Spiez, Luzern, Hamburg and Kopenhavn with the necessary seat reservations on the ICE to Hamburg and the EC to Kopenhavn. The only snag was his failure to book us on a train to Kopenhavn on the Saturday, so we went for Sunday. It would mean two nights in Hamburg.

The Cafe Romana was easy enough to find without the map. It was beside the church of St Francois on the main shopping thoroughfare several parallel streets up from the station road. Located in an alleyway across from the church we hesitated before entering because it was full of people, all local by the cut of their clothing, their manner and their accent. As we looked around and wondered where we could sit, I saw a sign above the kitchen that announced the Cafe Romana had been established in 1951. And it looked it. This was a glimpse into Switzerland’s past, when the country was still clinging to its culture, its traditions and its unique forms of language Schwyzerdeutsche in the German speaking cantons, which comprise almost two-thirds of this southern European country, and the regional versions of French (particularly in the Geneva, Vaud and Valais cantons), Italian and Romanche. Now the majority of the German-speaking Swiss add English to their array of languages. The Swiss are generally warm, friendly, courteous people with a strong sense of identity, an even stronger sense of belonging the kind that is rooted in place. Swiss people are very proud of their country no matter what language they speak, even if many younger Swiss harbour thoughts of Europeanisation.

The Cafe Romana epitomised this and when a thin, almost gaunt-like, woman dressed in a white apron and black dress, her money belt around her slight waist, realised our plight I knew we would be looked after. She didn’t speak much English and with our broken French I wondered momentarily how she would resolve the problem. We were standing close to the kitchen, while waitresses darted out carrying food and in carrying finished dishes, looking very lost. Meanwhile the waitress who had told us to be patient was dragging a smallish square table to an area between similar sized tables and several oblong tables joined together. In a flash she whipped out a white table cloth, produced cutlery from somewhere, chairs from somewhere else and motioned us to sit while she bought the menu cards. A badge on her waitress’ uniform told us she was Virginia. We thanked her and ordered fondue, house white wine (for Anne) and wheat beer (for myself).

Well fed, we walked back to the Continental. The rain had eased to a fine drizzle. We bought fruit juice in the station shop and wondered about the weather. The rain had got heavier while we were in the shop. Back in our room, we switched the TV on and flicked channels, hoping to pick up a weather forecast. When the weather finally came on, the forecast graphics looked funny and it wasn’t because they were different to what I was used to. Beside the forecaster was a map of Europe and on the map beautifully drawn grey clouds with droplets dripping out of them moved gracefully eastwards and southwards – along the railway line we had been on from Paris and along the line we hoped to go on to Stresa.

TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER 2000 Lausanne-Martigny-Martigny-Stresa 12.00-12.47 + 13.48-15.51 {actual time 16.30 because of delay between Sierre and Brig. Bus Sierre-Brig, line closed, delayed} (STRESA 1 night) Ticket CHf63 each

Breakfast in the Continental was a feast of fruit juices, various breads, cheeses, cured and salted meats, condiments, pastries, tea and coffee. We had decided to get the noon train from Geneva Airport to Brig, get off at Martigny – the first major town in the Rhone Valley (the Valais Canton) – leave our luggage in a station locker, buy some Lira, food and stamps for the postcards we had bought in Lausanne, and return to la Gare for the 15.48 EuroCity train to Milan and get off at Stresa. We settled at our breakfast table and had a leisurely meal, taking an hour which brought us to around half ten. We had plenty of time to finish breakfast, go across the road to Swiss Tours and book hotels in Stresa, Hamburg and Copenhagen – the immediate destinations on our route. That was the plan.

When we crossed into the ticket office there was no one in the Swiss Tours section. We waited and waited. The minutes passed, eleven, five-past, ten-past … Then a young man appeared at a desk and pressed a button to announce our ticket number on the screen. We sat at the appropriate desk. He had vanished. After another five minutes had elapsed he finally returned.

Swiss Tours cater for the three, four and five star hotel bracket in Europe’s cities and popular destinations. In Swiss francs this means a bottom tariff of CHf100 for a single or CHf200 for a double – expensive prices if you are on a six month, 60 city tour of Europe and trying to keep expenses down. The next problem is the limited number of hotels Swiss Tours have available to them. They provide a quick and efficient service and no matter what the time of year is can run out of rooms. After the debacle of the previous night (and despite the luxury) our top limit, we decided, would be CHf200. At this tariff there was nothing in Stresa for us.

‘No problem,’ I said, ‘we’ll find a place easily enough. I’m more worried about Hamburg,’ I told him.

There was only one hotel in the Swiss Tours brochure in our price range and it was fully booked. ‘Ah well,’ I said, ‘I’m sure with a city the size of Hamburg we’ll have no problem.’

He smiled. I wondered.

‘Do you want me to look in Kobenhavn?’

‘Yes, yes, go ahead,’ I said.

Being nearly a week away there was no problem this time. He quickly found a hotel for CHf195, a place near the station called the Absalon. What was a problem was the time. It was twenty to twelve and we hadn’t booked out of the Continental. Our luggage was still in the room and we hadn’t paid. So Anne remained to collect the voucher and all the rest of the paraphenalia Swiss Tours give you when you buy rail tickets to a city and book the hotel with them.

The promised rain hadn’t arrived. I skipped across the road, collected the key to the room and fetched down our luggage – like a Sherpa on Mount Everest – struggling in to the lift and out and around to the foyer. I asked the smiling young woman from the evening before for the bill, and I waited. It was 11.45. I waited. It was 11.50. I waited. It was 11.52. Anne came through the door.

We climbed into our rucksacks and rushed across to the station.

‘I still have to collect the voucher,’ she said.

‘Okay, I’ll find out what platform the Martigny train is leaving from.’

It was now 11.56. Then as I walked back to the Swiss Tours section the man who had been serving us came past me. I found Anne alone in the office. ‘Where’s he gone?’ It was more a plea, than a question. ‘To get our hotel details,’ she said.

It was 11.58 when he came back with the package – voucher, map and Berlitz book on Copenhavn, tags for our luggage, and information on other accomodation in Copenhavn. I didn’t believe for a moment that we would miss the train because, most of the time, you can set your watch by a Swiss train. If the station clocks say 11.59 and the train is scheduled to leave at 12.00 you know you have a minute to get the train. On occasions it will leave a few minutes late. I didn’t look too closely at the clock I was so hurried trying to make it to the platform on time, and I suspect our train was a little late.

There was another reason. Something was wrong. A TGV from Paris was supposed to stop at Lausanne and leave three minutes after our train, but when a TGV did arrive, it emptied and then went off in the opposite direction.

When the train chief came to check our tickets between Lausanne and Vevey he told us the line was broken between Sierre and Brig, and a bus service would be provided. This changed everything. We decided to get off at Martigny and keep to our general plan, but take the earlier train – the Inter City 13.48 to Milano Centrale. This gave us approximately three-quarters of an hour to do everything in Martigny. It wasn’t enough. Banks in the Valais canton do not re-open until 1.30. We would be pushing it to get currency changed in time. We decided not to bother. We didn’t have a hotel booked in Stresa and we wanted to get there before dark.

Back in Martigny Gare we collected our luggage and crossed under the tracks to wait for the Milan train. Some Swiss rail stations, particularly in the Valais, have mechanical signs and clocks on wooden boards. The clock will be set at the time of departure of the next train. The signs show its destination and the stops in between. It had not been changed since twenty past one. Our scheduled train was not signposted. Yet, despite ten anxious moments, my fears that something was wrong were allayed when an ordinary Swiss Regional train arrived. We boarded it.

At Sion, the middle town of the Valais, the electronic sign showed the destination as Sierre. My hope that somehow the line would be cleared were frustrated. We were getting a bus and so it was when the train arrived at Sierre. Everyone was ushered quickly off the train and onto a bus. Within minutes of leaving the train two buses had been filled with passengers for Brig and beyond. As the bus made its way through Sierre and out on to the main road to Brig I looked for signs of flooding.

About 1000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Visp on the northern side of the Rhone valley, beside Sierre. Once a flood plain, the Valaise Swiss reclaimed the valley in the 1940s to establish an agricultural basin mostly for the production of pears and peaches and for various heavy industry. Sierre is an industrial centre, Visp houses its workers. When the rains came in mid-October torrents of water flooded down the mountainside and washed the foundations of both roads and rail tracks away, and settled in the homes of the people of Visp. Brig, which is in the German-speaking region of the Valais, is also an industrial town.

Brig is also the junction where trains slip nonchalantly into the Simplon Tunnel and emerge at Iselle and eventually Domodossola in Piedmont or crawl slowly up the northern side of the mountains where unseen a train disappears into a tunnel or moves around the mountains beyond Brig towards the east of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. We arrived in Brig and just as swiftly as we had been ushered off the train at Sierre we were ushered on to the train standing impatiently at platform 6. It was an Italian Inter City train, with comfortable, air-conditioned, six-person compartments. We piled in to one that had two people in it and before we could say a word it was pulling out of the station. It was only twenty minutes late. In the end there had been nothing to worry about.

We passed quickly through the Simplon Tunnel, emerged alongside the Diveria river to glimpse the forgotten village of Iselle, back into the darkness of the tunnel hidden below the high peaks of Togano and Alpe Cheggio and out around the sweeping turn of the Diverdo valley towards Domodossola, where we stopped.

Domodossla is the station where Italian and Swiss customs and police get on to check passports. All the good effort at Sierre and Brig was wasted here. Usually the timetable will allow a 15 minute stop. After twenty minutes I got up to see why we hadn’t moved. I walked to the forward end of the carriage and peeped out one door. The doors on each side were open. Some Swiss train chiefs were leaving a Swiss Regional train sitting two tracks away, walking towards me. I moved out of the way as they climbed through and got out the other side. They walked over to the station buildings and disappeared in to one.

Then, in a flash, the sky fell on Domodossola. I turned away to tell Anne and noticed an Italian plain clothes policeman well, he looked like one slip into the compartment at the end of the carriage. I walked past and glanced in. A man in his fifties was opening his luggage. The policeman was looking earnestly at the luggage.

At this moment some Italian train chiefs, who were standing in a group outside the train, quickly walked towards the train. One punched a button on the outside of the carriage. The door slid open. One by one they marched through the train, as the Swiss train chiefs had done, and walked over to the same buildings. I returned to my compartment and as I explained to Anne that some poor fella was getting a hard time I saw the plainclothes policeman march him in to an office in the station buildings. I wondered about this all and then forgot about it.

The storm had caught up with us. Would it reach Stresa? Would it move east? Eventually the train started. A few minutes later we got to feast our eyes on the majestic panorama of the eastern edge of Lake Maggiore between Verbania-Pallanza and Sesto. Stresa was just around the corner.

By taking the train from Paris to Stresa we were following in the tracks of numerous romantics. Although our ultimate destination is Istanbul, we had experienced the grandeur of one of the most scenic railway routes in the world, across the Jura, alongside Lac Leman, into the Rhone Valley, through the Simplon Tunnel towards the splendour of the enchanting Italian lakes. These majestic lakes in the apron of the Alps have enchanted many a traveller. Gabriel Faure’s enchantment was so childlike it has remained timeless. ‘A vision rises before my eyes and I half close them in an effort to fix it and enjoy it to the full. I see lovely terraced gardens, bushes of rhododendrons, heavy with flowers, white boats on blue water, bright villas in the midst of cypresses, woods of chestnuts and olives. In a few hours my bag is packed, my seat taken,’ he wrote in The Italian Lakes, the book the Medici Society of Boston and London, published for him in 1924.

Faure was disenchanted with post-war Paris. ‘From the carriage that takes me to the station I look disdainfully at the remnant of mankind which stays in the Paris streets. I pity the poor souls taking the air on the banks of Seine. And a few minutes later, seated in the Simplon express, I feel the joy of the hunted beast in desperate flight who suddenly knows himself in safety. And I fall asleep, as Joffroy Rudel died, – dans des odeurs de fleurs, dans des bruits de violes – with my head full of the wonders that shall attended my awaking.’

This is a man in love with Italy and impatient to feast his eyes on the beauty of its flora, the majesty of its lakes, the irresistibility of its towns and villages and the splendour of its culture.

‘Unfortunately, it is nearly always a dismal awaking. Daylight comes drearily through the curtains through which I peep. The train is climbing slowly and laboriously between high mountains, whose tops are lost in the clouds. I recognise the magnificent, but colourless, Valais landscape. We pass Sion, where Chateaubriand, if he had continued in his embassy, could have nursed his ennui to his heart’s content; then Viege, at the foot of the towering mass of Balfrin. A heavy fog lies on the river and on the dew-pearled meadows. The clouds droop lower and lower. I feel some drops of rain. I close the window, cursing – just my luck. In the station of Brigue (Brig), a real deluge puts the finishing touch to my despair, and I think: so it is going to rain in Italy, too! But, always, there is the same joyous and intoxicating surprise awaiting the traveller. A radiant, resplendent sun is shining at the mouth of the tunnel. The little town of Iselle lies basking.’

At Stresa it was still daylight but only just. The sky was darkening. The rain that fell was slight and I hoped we had missed the storm. Like Faure we wished for a radiant, resplendent sun. We walked quickly and turned out of the station towards Lake Maggoire. In front of us, on the right, at the road junction I saw the sign Albergo. Hotel! It was called the Orsola Hotel and I had a good feeling about it.

Avete matrimoniale camere libere? I asked a stout woman who appeared from behind a room at the end of the corridor when we rang a bell on a counter facing the front door.

Si, she said.

Quanto costa, I asked.

I was unsure what she said next but after a few moments of indecision we realised that it was Lira£100,000 for a room with a shower and Lira£80,000 without. For Stresa this was a very good deal. In exchange for our passports she gave us a key. Her teenage daughter led us up a spiral staircase to a room with a balcony.

We now had to find some lira. We asked the stout woman’s mother, who sat on an armchair watching a TV perched high in a corner of the room at the bottom of the corridor, where we could find a bureau de change.

We went out the front door and down towards Lago Maggiore. What I did next was stupid. At the bottom of the road by the lakeside the sky fell on Stresa and by the time we changed some sterling at a shop selling tourist maps and books (and money) getting Lira£3000 to Stg£1 (we bought Lira£300,000) I was drenched, not soaked, drenched. Anne had the good sense to put her rainproof clothes on. I hadn’t. The gods had favoured Faure. With us they had chased us across western Europe. We would have to wait until the morning to witness the radiant, resplendent sun that attracts travellers to this hidden delight under the Alps.

Still, the weather didn’t deter us. After I got changed we headed out again and through the misty rain we found a restaurant down a narrow street off the lakeside road. I tried the door. It was locked. A man who had the appearance of the owner materialised with a drill in his hand.

We open at quarter to seven, he said in English.

We turned away and found a cafe-bar around a few corners. After a couple of beers and a few glasses of wine we returned. The restaurant had a dozen people, some eating, some waiting to be served. There was nothing spectacular about the menu but the food looked good. I had swordfish with dandelion leaves, Anne had tagliatelle. We both had salad and shared a bottle of the local red wine. To finish off because it was staring at us out from behind a glass-fronted fridge we had the home made tiramasu. Despite the crazy weather the night in Stresa was a small adventure. We had found a comfortable hotel and an excellent restaurant.

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000 Stresa-Spiez 15.09-17.24 Ticket (Stresa-Basel) CHf95 each (SPIEZ 1 night)

The bedroom was dark when we awoke. The shutters had been pulled shut on the window to the east towards Lago Maggiore. Curtains covered the windows and door out on to the balcony, to the north. The railway ran north-south past Hotel Orsola. At around three in the heart of the dark night, six, perhaps more, trains bound for the Simplon or coming from the Simplon thundered past, carrying hopes and dreams and travellers. I heard the trains in my own dreams. Anne confirmed they were real and loud.

I heard at least three, she said. Strangely we never heard the early morning trains, which were more frequent. That’s the mystery of the silence of the night. Now it was morning and outside it was fresh. The air had cleared, the storm had abated, the sky was blue a deep almost oceanic blue. We got up and went in search of breakfast, ignoring the offer of breakfast at Hotel Orsola for Lira£10,000 each. I wanted to go out onto the lake. I wanted to see the Isola islands.

As we moved towards the pier and the ticket office, several men in white-peaked caps of the naval style came towards us. I ignored the gestures of the first one, the second was more persistent. He realised we wanted to go out on to the lake.

Francoise, Deutsche, Anglaise, he rhymed.

Irlande, I replied instinctively, then said Anglaise, pointing at Anne.

Adam, he said reassuringly in a delighted voice and walked away to find Adam. Adam appeared. He took us aside and showed us the tariffs on the board for the big boat.

Normally it is Lira£90,000 for two to Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori, he said. I’ll do it for Lira£60,000.

We said we wanted to go and would come back to him. We had some business to do, we said. We also wanted to buy some food. Stresa, like many rural Italian towns and villages, closes on Wednesday. Although some shops were open most were closed. For about an hour we wandered around and through the narrow lanes and roads of Stresa. Beside the Post Office, which was closed, we discovered a wonderful little shop. The window display of food was enough to entice us in. When we left 15 minutes later we had parted with Lira£27,000 in exchange for cartons of fresh Italian bean soup, pasta with vegetables in tomato sauce, fish balls and fried zucchini. In a small shop near the lakeside road we bought some bread. All this became a brunch as we sought out Adam and dined on Dino, his small cruiser. He took us and a young family out to Pescatori first. As we passed a small island occupied by cormorants he told us it was called the Island of Love.

As you can see the trees are dead, he announced. Three years ago it was a beautiful island, full of flowers. The trees died because the cormorants pissed on it. Their piss was full of acid.

He was full of stories. He had learned his English from his mother who had left for Cambridge 44 years before to learn English herself.

The palace on Isola Bella is owned by a family from Milan, he said, but they have closed it and only open the gardens and the house twice a year, in March and October. As much as I appreciated the architecture and the view of the palace, particularly from the train, I didn’t leave deprived. When we finally arrived on the island, after a quick look at Pescatori, it didn’t look as magical and as romantic up close as it did from afar. When we returned to Stresa I think I upset or perhaps worried Adam.

How do the boatmen organise themselves? I asked when he had tied up Dino.

I don’t understand, he said.

Do you have a collective? I said gently, and added, when we came down, one of your colleagues went to fetch you, to give you our fare. Does that mean you all work for each other?

I don’t understand, he said again, I’ll get my cousin. He located his cousin and we went to greet him. Dressed in black with that confident and healthy manner of New York Italian-Americans, the cousin also looked bemused. I repeated my question.

It is a fixed rate, he said defensively.

Are you a collective, a co-op? I persisted. Do you work for each other? Do you pool your income?

No, he said, we work individually. I have my boat, Adam has his.

Somehow what he said didn’t seem to make sense, after what we had witnessed, and if that was his truth there was no point pursuing it. We said ciao and went and sat by the lake.

Anyone with a creative spirit writers, painters, artists who has witnessed the Italian Lakes is usually overcome by its magnificence. On a fine day with a bright blue sky, the mountain peaks crisp with snow, the vista is spectacular. The low lying wisps of clouds will transfix any artist. Sitting a few hundred metres above the lake, they appear motionless. Yet they are turning imperceptible slowness, gradually changing shape while remaining over the same area of water the products of lake and mountain precipitation. Sadly it was time to leave and I left my cloud to fade into the dusk. We had luggage to collect and a train bound for Spiez in central Switzerland to board.

The ride past Brig and up in to the mountains and valleys of central Switzerland is one that even the Swiss never take for granted. As the train leaves Brig it avoids the line along the floor of the Rhone valley this week because it has no choice and climbs gradually along the northern side of the mountain. The buildings and the houses of the Valais gradually began to fade to dots on the landscape and finally to a blur of green and brown and black and red as the train climbs higher. Through short tunnels the train slips until it reaches another tunnel high above the valley floor. This time the train screeches as it turns inwards, almost grinding itself in to the tunnel. When it emerges the valley floor is gone. A gorge has replaced it. The train moves along the side of this gorge and begins its descent. When it emerges into another valley, the Swiss alps surround the train, but it is dark and we can only imagine the snow covered icy peaks.

We are approaching Spiez on the lakeside of the Thunersee. We have to change here for the Golden Pass rail line between the Thunersee and the Brienzersee below the Eiger and its companion peaks. It is such a beautiful route that we decide to stop and seek out a hotel. On the road down to the lake we found Hotel Krone. The rate is CHf100. We’re in and then we’re out, down to the lakeside for dinner in a traditional Swiss restaurant run by Jorg Gloor and Beatrice Meer – the Schlosspintl.

The menu has been changed to Swiss tastes so we roll with chef Jorg’s flow. Anne has a mixed platter of breaded fish and chicken with potato wedges accompanied by a tartar dip and a spicy dip. I have spicy melted cheese on bread and a mixed salad. It is only on the walk back up the hill that we realise perhaps that we had too much beer and wine. More likely it is the thought that we are out the hotel door the following morning at seven for the early train through the mountains.

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER 2000 Spiez-Interlaken Ost-Interlaken Ost-Brunig-Luzern 8.00-8.20 + 8.30-10.24 {bus InterlakenOst-Riggenberg. Line being repaired} (LUZERN 1 night)

Anne and Robert at Brienz

Early start. A 6.45 wake-up. We appear to be the only people staying in Hotel Krone. The night before, as we took off for a more sophisticated eating place, the Krone restaurant was brimming. Apart from a group of older soldiers most of the people appeared to be travellers. We didn’t stay around to find out if they were local people. Power showers are common in continental Europe. Hotel Krone didn’t have showers in the rooms, only in cubicles at the end of the corridor on each floor. When you are tired and still waking, a power shower is not only refreshing, it is a wake up shock.

The hotel kitchen staff had left out a flask of black coffee and small white crispy rolls for breakfast. We drank most of the coffee and took the rolls with us. Anne desperately wanted juice, so we left as quickly as we could. I had checked out a patisserie while she fetched down her rucksack. Unsurprisingly they had bread and pastries and no juice.

We hastened to Spiez station. Dawn had broken. A typical Swiss morning blue sky, white-peaked mountains, pine-covered slopes, fresh air greeted us. It wasn’t cold. The walk to the station took less than five minutes. We got there at just before half seven. Commuters, mostly young people, were starting to appear onto the platforms. Several people were chain-smoking. Few were awake. In the station shop I bought mineral water, multi-vitamin fruit juice, some postcards of Spiez and the local paper the Berner Oberlander. Our train wasn’t due until eight.

It was a Swiss Inter City train from Thun at the north western edge of the Thunersee scheduled for Interlaken Ost, where we needed to change for the Brunig Golden Pass line. The train takes twenty minutes, cruising around the southern curve of the Thunersee. We are surrounded by high peaks Niederhorn, Eigier, Monch and the Jungfrau (the top of Europe at 4158 metres). The train stops at Interlaken West, disgorges most of its commuters, and slips quietly across the valley town to the East station. As we leave the train and walk down into the subway beneath the tracks I notice that the entrance to the platform for the Brunig line has been bared with red and white tape. There is a notice but I don’t bother to read it. My first thoughts are about flooding, but I can’t imagine that up here. As we come out in to the crisp morning I see a train chief.


There is a bus to the next station, he replied, detecting my concern that we may have to travel all the way by bus. Our connecting train was scheduled to leave at 8.30 and so does the bus. Our train chief is quick to usher his commuters and travellers including us onto the train, particularly when I persist in my question about the disruption. The line between Interlaken Ost and Ringgenberg is closed because work is being done on the line, he added.

At Ringgenberg we are just as quickly urged to get on the red Brunig train, accompanied by our train chief. There had been about 20 people on the bus. Within two minutes we are all on the train, the doors are shut and we are moving around the Brienzersee.

In the 1920s when the Swiss completed years of tunnel building and mountain gouging to allow easier access to hidden and obscured valleys and lakes (including the Simplon Tunnel to northern Italy), rail travel became a plaything for the rich. The Orient Express from Paris had changed route to bring its passengers down in to Lausanne and along the lakeside of Lac Leman past Vevey and Montreux before it sped away along the Rhone valley towards Brig, the Simplon, Iselle, Domodossola and Stresa by Lake Maggiore. Not everyone, though, was bound for the decadence of Venice or the opulence of Istanbul. Some intrepid travellers disembarked with their huge luggage chests and embroidered bags to take the Monreux-Oberland-Bernois Golden Pass train.

If the Orient Express route along Lac Leman, the Rhone valley and the Simplon Tunnel is spectacular, the Golden Pass route is magical. We have joined the route at Spiez and changed from a commuter train to a one engine, two carriage tourist train. No longer a through train from Montreux to Luzern, the Swiss still advertise the route. It simply means a change of train at Spiez and again at Interlaken Ost. Our red train skirts the Brienzersee, leaving it at Brienz to cross the valley to Meiningen where the engine changes ends to take us up in to the mountain. It is a slow climb. A few kilometres out of Meiningen the train engages a section of traction track and is pulled high into the mountain. This is what we got up early to witness. We are lucky. The weather that has teased us since we left London has moved north. The morning is clear, the sky is blue and visibility is perfect for autumn. This is picture postcard Switzerland, the German speaking heart of the country, with its exquisite chalets and flowing meadows, mountain cows and goats their bells echoing down the valleys, flashing waterfalls, pine slopes and snow-capped peaks. Gradually we cross the mountains and descend down and along the Lungernsee, the Samersee and finally the Vierwaldstattersee to Luzern. It is half ten and Luzern is wide awake. Outside the station the air is suffused with the aroma of cooking and cooked chestnuts. After a breakfast of bread and cheese on the Brunig train we are satiated and as much as I want some chestnuts we pass by, cross the river and go in search of Luzern’s Pickwick pub (and hotel) where we are hopefully staying the night.

We locate the Pickwick on the northern side of the lake, dump our luggage and go shopping. After Luzern we are heading north through Germany and Denmark into Sweden and west to Norway. Anne still needs a fleece, gloves and a hat. I need a hat and gloves. We also need a Swiss multi-purpose knife, a decent automatic camera with a zoom lens, packets of dried fruit and nuts the Migros supermarket chain do a range of dried fruits and nuts and mixes in a brand called Sun Queen. For the cost and quality there isn’t a better brand on the market fruit juice and nectar and I want a bottle of multivitamin tablets. We get everything except a knife (because we keep forgetting about it) and a camera, but we walk the streets and lanes of Luzern in search of a Migros for far longer than we expect. This isn’t an ordeal because we find a yuppie-free cafe-restaurant off the beaten-track away from Luzern’s free-marketers and their haute cuisine lunches. It is the coffee that tempts us in and the warm greeting of the young waitress. Her confidence and vivaciousness permeates the cafe which seems to attract blue collar workers and older people who want simple fare – carbohydrates and protein. The lunch special is that. Schnitzel (pork wrapped in bacon with a sage leaf and pan fried), spaghetti with pesto and a side salad. I leave this to Anne and go for a Swiss version of carbonara pasta with melted cheese and strips of bacon and a side salad. It turns out to be the best food of the day. Pickwick’s is a basic English-style pub and, according to those who know, is the cheapest hotel in Luzern. Travellers pay for room and bed. En suite is extra. Breakfast is in the cafe next door. Their bar food is basic fast food out of a packet. Only the potatoes in the form of french fries are made from the raw ingredient. Everything else is processed. We don’t eat much that night.

FRIDAY 3 NOVEMBER 2000 Luzern-Olten-Olten-Hamburg 9.41-10.18 Olten + 10.31-17.32 Hamburg Seat Rerservation Olten-Hamburg CHf66 Ticket Basel-Puttgarden CHf247 each (HAMBURG 1 night)

After months of planning and rescheduling routes to avoid being in the wrong climate at the wrong time of year, we are on our way to Scandanavia before the weather gets too cold. We want to be in Iberia, the south of France and Italy over the colder months of December, January and February.

We awake around eight, pack and head straight for the station. In the shopping mall we buy bread for breakfast, in Luzern Bahnhof Buffet we have coffee and in a last minute dash in to a Migros in the station I buy some gruyere cheese. Our train is the 9.41 to Basel, but it is a few minutes late. Our destination is Olten, 40 minutes up the line, where we want to meet the 8.40 Thuneree service from Interlaken Ost bound for Hamburg. These are the German ICE trains, long and white and fast.

We try to position ourselves on the platform to be beside our reserved seats. This is easy enough because Swiss Rail display carriage numbers or letters on the electronic boards. We just aren’t sure which direction the train is coming from. I assume, because it is coming from Interlaken Ost via Bern, that it will be from the same direction as Luzern even though it is coming from the south and not the east. It is due. I look towards the Luzern end of the station and see a long white train swerve along the tracks towards us, making hardly a sound as it stops and its doors open with a gentle hiss.

We locate our carriage and find two women already in compartment. One is German en route for the rural south, the other is Swiss using the Ice as a local train to get to Basel 35 minutes away. Neither has seat reservations. The German woman explained that it is customary on these trains to find compartments free until the train is deep in to Germany. I asked her if she wanted her case put up on the rack.

‘I am only going as far as Offenburg,’ she said. ‘I live in a quiet place, a beautiful place, that people come to visit, but it is not on the main rail line, so I have to change trains,’ she said.

She had been visiting her sister, who worked as a make-up artist in the theatre, in Luzern. She would be home just after one o’clock.

‘The train will be in Offenburg at a quarter past twelve,’ she said, glad to be going home. ‘A week is a long time. We would have got on each other’s nerves, so I came home.’

I did not ask her age, but her manner suggested she was in her sixties. She was, I thought, a woman out of time. The fast train sped her home but she deplored the faster pace of life of 21st Century Europe.

‘People are not polite,’ she said. ‘They are selfish. If I had put my case on the rack I would have struggled to get it down. No one would have helped me. Germans are becoming selfish. They do not know what is happening. The notion that German business people, industrialists and politicians are running Europe is wrong. America runs Europe. People are blind. I lived in America for two years,’ she said, appearing to want to add credibility to her analysis, but she was not a ranter. She spoke English with a strong American twang and might easily have passed for a mid-American tourist. I had brought my laptop out to try and catch up with this diary.

‘You will have peace to write soon,’ she said. ‘You will have a hour until Mannheim.’

Three of the four vacant seats in the compartment, after she got off, would be taken at Mannheim, the fourth at Frankfurt airport. I felt sad when she got up to go.

Auf wiedersehen,’ she said, revealing her natural accent. We wished her well and told her to take her hard working sister on holiday.

The rest of the journey to Hamburg is uneventful. Outside the sky is grey and the mood in the compartment became somber when the Frankfurt passenger got on. He had the look of a businessman and acted like one. Anne and I ate our usual bread and cheese. We arrived in Hamburg at half five in the midst of the Friday night madness and in our haste to get out of the station we walked along a subway and on to what seemed to be the major shopping thoroughfare. It took us more than an hour to find a hotel and that only happened because we stumbled apon one of Hamburg’s ten Irish pubs, Finnegan’s Wake at the corner of Borsenbrucke, as we tried to find our way out of the commercial centre. We had walked in to the middle of Alex Springer’s media empire (Der Spiegel, etc) and there was no way we were staying in any of the hotels in the vicinity. I felt a right fool when I asked the barman if he had good English.

‘A little bit,’ he said in a north Tipperary accent.

‘I’m looking for a decent but not too expensive hotel,’ I said.

‘There’s one we use for our musicians,’ he said and went on to explain that we needed to get a yellow U-Bahn to Feldstrasse. ‘Across the road from there is a hotel called Figaro. You can’t miss it,’ he said, ‘it’s got a Coco Cola sign.’

We found the yellow U-Bahn and we got off at Feldstrasse alright. He didn’t tell us what we would find there. At the top of the steps, as we rocked on our rucksacks weary after more than an hour’s walking, we met a wall, more than twenty people thick, of young people and another wall of plain clothes police and ticket guards. Outside there was a fun fare in a place called the Dom. It was heaving with people. Somehow we found the Figaro Hotel, Coco Cola sign and all. There was a cafe attached full of Turks watching a soccer game on the television. We ignored it and walked up to the reception. A notice on the glass partition told us to walk back down in to the cafe. There I found two young women serving.

Dopple-zimmer frei? I asked. One said something and moved from behind the counter. She came back with a man in his forties. A room with a double bed (shower and toilet in the hall, tv in the room) was ninety Deutsche marks. We had decided we would stay for two nights, so we parted with DM180 in exchange for the keys, left him to his soccer and cards (I think that is what I interrupted) and headed back to Feldstrasse. We were both in need of a drink. I wanted a Guinness and we both wanted to thank the barman. By the time we got back to Borsenbrucke, the pub was barred by two young men who wanted six marks each for the evening’s entertainment.

What’s on? I asked. Now I could have sworn he said two women, but it turned out to be two men keeping to Hamburg’s tradition with some basic R‘n’B and R‘n’R. Undeterred we paid up, greeted the barman, ordered drinks and asked if the food was still on. The barman recommended shepherd’s pie. Anne said she’d have some. I just wanted Guinness, but when it arrived I ate her white bread and some of her salad. We were served by Bart who told us that the Irish pub bubble had burst in continental Europe.

There’s too many, he said. Most aren’t making money.

We didn’t get to talk to him much because he was rushed off his feet and he worried that a drunken work crowd might do a runner, they were so pissed. We didn’t stay for the evening. The day’s travelling had caught up with us and we wanted a reasonably early night. Back at Feldstrasse the fun fair was buzzing. It would be a noisy night. As it turned out, it wasn’t but that might have had more to do with the Guinness (and the Franciskaner wheat beer we bought in a petrol station across the road from the Figaro).

Hamburg was Paris revisited, we got to have a lie in, or least I did. Anne went across the road to the Wal Mart (the American supermarket chain) she had spotted the night before.

‘It’s so big I got lost,’ she said when she returned with breakfast. I’d asked her to get a couple of Granini bottles of peach or pear nectar.

‘Is it usually this cheap?’ she asked when she poured some.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s about two and a half francs in Switzerland, I think. How much was it?’


I knew Wal Mart was cheap, that’s crazy. (To put this in perspective, later we bought a bottle of peach necktar for DM2.80.) It was just as well it was cheap because we didn’t have a lot of Deutsche marks, and they were all gone when we found a health food store at the other side of the U-Bahn tracks when we decided to walk into the city a hour or so later. I spotted some Marseilles olive oil soap. We bought cheese and snacks. The walk into the centre of Hamburg took half an hour but that was because we took our time. This would be a lazy day. I had wanted to do some writing later in the day, so we decided we would wander around the place until four or five and then come back to the hotel, buy some food and drink in the Wal Mart. That was the plan.

We still did not have a camera and this became a priority, once we had discovered where the ATMs were located. In Hamburg they are announced by a large red sign with the words HASPA and it was only when this was pointed out to us that we found them at virtually every street corner. We wandered back towards the central railway station, guided by the church spire we had seen the night before. This brought us out in to the mall above the station and Anne immediately spied ATMs inside the entrance. Money collected, we made a beeline for the Tourist Centre, ostensibly to find a book on Hamburg in English for Ciara and came away without one but had a map of the central area and directions to several bookshops. Eventually we found a bookshop, found a book and to celebrate we had some coffee. This became the refrain for the afternoon, wandering around Hamburg looking for the various items we needed. Finding a camera shop was easy. Finding someone to serve us was difficult. We left one shop after waiting for 15 minutes because people came in and didn’t seem to care that there were other people waiting.

‘We’ll find another shop,’ I told Anne when she expressed a concern that we might search for another camera shop all afternoon. A few minutes later we walked into a much smaller shop and bought an automatic with a 180mm zoom lens. The young man who served us was intrigued by our adventure, and, like the older woman we had met on the ICE train, he seemed insecure about the role young Germans were expected to play in modern Europe. A recent experience in France had shook him up.

‘We stopped our car at traffic lights,’ he said. ‘Some people started to cross. Then they saw our German plates and began to give Nazi salutes marching across. What’s that about?’

‘Ignorance and racism is everywhere,’ I said. There wasn’t much else we could say to him. Anne asked him if he knew a restaurant serving traditional local food. He went off to consult a colleague, who recommended a place next door. As we left I couldn’t help feeling that he was amused that we would want to eat traditional German food.

In the end we did neither. We took a look at the place next door. It was a bar with restaurant food. We decided the beer would be an unnecessary temptation at that time of the afternoon, had a snack instead and headed for the docks with the idea in our heads that we would walk back. It has been a lazy day and so it continued, so much that we realised it was getting late. We took the U-Bahn and missed the Wal Mart by five minutes. It closed at four on Saturdays.

Luckily we found a Spar shop not far from the Figaro and bought food for the evening. It had been our first rest day from travelling since Paris and time to get some writing done. But first I must explain why we have travelled towards Milan en route to the east and turned back and headed towards Scandinavia.

SATURDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2000 Hamburg-Kobenhavn 13.29-17.59 SR Hamburg-Kobenhavn CHf24 (COPENHAGEN 2 nights)

Notes lost …

MONDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2000 Kobenhavn-Malmo-Malmo-Goteborg-Goteborg-Oslo-Oslo-Bergen 12.36-13.11 +13.52-17.00 + 17.34-21.45 + 23.11-7.00 SR Malmo-Oslo Sek144, Berths Oslo-Bergen Skr442 (BERGEN 1 night)

The journey from Oslo to Bergen on NSB’s comfortable Signatur trains is spectacular by itself, especially in the snowscape of deep winter, until the traveller reaches Myrdal and sees the green Flamsbana gleaming in the snow-light. This train descends 2838 feet in a 12 mile spiral to Flam and the Sognefjorden the longest and deepest fjord in Norway.

Out of the blue the train chief slipped tickets into our hands. ‘These are for your breakfast, go to the hotel across from the station,‘ he said nonchalantly. We were bemused.

The sight on arrival in the grand hall of the grand hotel is a grand breakfast, an assortment of hot and cold foods that surely has no rival anywhere in the world.

Think of every possible breakfast food that is served across Europe, add the Norwegian love for loaves and fishes, cheeses and crisp breads, bacon and eggs, pickles and potatoes, and then something you never imagined.

The cheeses were brunost, gamalost, gudbrandsdalsost, jarlsberg, norvegia, pultost, ridder and snøfrisk. We sampled them all, the jarlsberg was amazing. The fishes were klippfisk (cod), lutefisk (lyed cod or ling) and sild (herring). There was something called leverpostej (liver pâté with anchovy), which was indescribable, and there was something I never thought possible, potato bread that made Irish potato bread taste ordinary. They called it potetlefse or simply lefse, we ate it with smoked bacon grilled to a crisp and smoked salmon. When we enquired we were told that traditional lefse is made with potatoes and rye flour, but these morning are made with pastry flour and sour cream.

‘Can I stay here all day,’ Anne asked.

Later we learned that she could have stayed all day, they did not end breakfast until mid-afternoon.

Sadly this tradition has relapsed. On the sleeper trains between Oslo, the capital of Norway, and Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim and between Trondheim and Bodø in the far north, a modest breakfast is served onboard. The grandiose buffet breakfasts have become a thing of the past, although some hotels are clinging to tradition by presenting modest buffets.

TUESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2000 Bergen-Myrdal-Flam 10.55-12.43 + 12.50-13.40 SR Bergen-Myrdal Nok50 Supplement Myrdal-Flam Nok160

The fishermen stayed on the farm of the wealthiest man in the village, Christen Fretheim. It has been said about him that he looked like a giant and he worked like one too. He took over the farm in 1879, he opened a post office in 1890 and a steamship service in 1895.

The lodgers at Fretheim enjoyed staying on the farm, and the need for a hotel became evident. This was the beginning of Fretheim hotel.

Fretheim hotel became fully booked with fishermen, tourists and construction workers. The demand for coaches and coachmen increased and in 1902 Christen opened an coaching inn beside the hotel. At the most he had ten coachmen and 14 horses dealing with transportation over the mountain. In 1908 more than 79 tourist ships carrying 10,000 passengers docked in Gudvangen and 4,500 came to visit ‘the heart of the grandiest scenery, with a succession of marvellous views’.

Christen Fretheim married Miss Hertzberg who unfortunately died in 1903. They had no children. In 1909 Christen’s cousin Marthe Fretheim arrived in Flam to help out with the hotel. She turned out to be fantastic as her job, and within a short period of time she had practically taken over the running of the hotel. Every little detail that Christen had overlooked, she made the most out it.

Marthe was a kind lady, who among other things loved gardening. People soon talked about the wonders she had created with the garden surrounding the hotel. The guests also felt Marthe’s care. When the caravans headed for the mountain in the winter, she made sure that everybody stayed warm by wrapping them in newspapers, knitted shawls and fleece. Marthe Fretheim provided for every guest, and in the evenings ‘the caring lady with the candlelight’ walked each and every one of them to their rooms.

Christen Fretheim died in 1916 but Marthe stayed at the hotel for the rest of her life.

Between fjords Sognefjord 200km long and Nordfjord lies Joestedalsbreen the largest glacier in Europe. Sognefjord is 1,300 metres at its deepest with 1,300 species of marine fauna.

Flam railway carried 370,000 passengers in 1999. Railway is 20 km long, 20 tunnels, max speed up 40 km/hr, max speed down 30 km/hr, 8 halts, height at Myrdal 866m, gradient 1:18, 55 minute journey.

THURSDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2000 Bergen-Oslo-Trondheim 10.55-17.58 + 23.05-7.16 SR Bergen-Oslo: Nok50 Berths Oslo-Trondheim: Nok560 (TRONDHEIM 2 nights)

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SATURDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2000 Trondheim-Bodø 8.32-18.30 SR Nok50 (BODO 2 nights)

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MONDAY 13 NOVEMBER Bodø-Narvik Bus 308km, 363Nok 7.40-1420 Narvik 14.20 {ferry at Bognes 12.25} (NARVIK 2 nights)

The northern halts of Tagkompaniet are Narvik and Lulea, its southern halts Stockholm and Goteborg. It stretches from the far north of Norway to the south west of Sweden, a distance comparable to Italy from Denmark. At its northern terminal, Narvik – a thriving port and home to 19,000 people, it passes an unforgiving landscape of deep fjords, hidden valleys, flushing rivers and high peaks. At its southern terminal, Goteborg – a bustling city of , it passes a gentle land of wide lakes, managed forests and green monocultures. It is the ‘Orient Express’ of the north – a train ride that takes just over 24 hours. In summer the train leaves the land of the midnight sun and crosses the rivers valleys of central Sweden.

Desolate and frozen in winter, this was an unforgiving landscape of deep fjords, hidden valleys, snarling rivers and high peaks, which was transformed when the seasons changed and the sun remained constant in the summer sky. In the mountains and valleys, wildlife roamed. In the fjords and rivers, fish swam.

This abundance of life soon attracted hunters from the Meditterranean and Asian lands. Gradually over the millennia civilisation began to flourish. By the early years of the 20th Century humanity completely dominated the wildlife and had conquered the landscape.

Not only was this land abundant in fauna, fowl and acquatic life, it was also rich in minerals and ores.

Narvik at headland between two fjords Beisfjord and Rombaksfjord at the foot of Fagernesfjellet, a 1200 metre high mountain.

It was the Ofoten Railway which transformed the former town of Victoriahavn into the modern town of Narvik when it was built at the end of the 19th Century. The need for an ice-free harbour to export the iron ore from the mines of Kiruna in Swedish Lappland led to its construction which took five years to build and was completed at the loss of many lives in 1903. The Ofoten Railway has a latitude of 68 degrees north. Metre by metre the line of the route was carved out of the rocky terrain using manual labour with tools such as crowbar, sledgehammer, mallet, drill, pickaxe and shovel, and the horse. Access roads were also constructed along with drains, conduits, workers’ dormitories, power stations, ropeways and quarries. In 1923 the line was electrified. It was a pioneer in the use of modern rail technology such as centralised traffic control, cab radios and automatic train protection. The electric locomotives used to haul the iron ore trains are among the most powerful in the world. As well as passenger traffic to Sweden the line carries 12 to 15 trains carrying iron ore a day from Kiruna and a daily freight train Artic Rail Express conveying goods such as fish bound for southern Europe and fresh fruit and vegetables for Narvik. The Ofoten Railway extends for 42 km from Narvik to the Swedish border. The line winds its way through steep rugged mountaineous terrain north of the artic circle with a variety of contrasting scenery from the fertile slopes bordering the fjords to the barren mountain plateau.

A few kilometers after leaving Narvik the train reaches the southern shores of Rombaksfjord, where it runs alongside vertical cliffs with a magnificent panoramic view westwards. The line hugs the steep rock face and between Narvik and the Swedish border it passes through 15 tunnels, 10 between the stations of Rombak and Bjornfjell – the last station in Norway is Bjornfjell, 514 metres above sea level, 2 km from the Swedish border. At Katterat station it is a short walk down to Rombaksbotn where the navvies had their village during the railway construction. The navvies cemetery is on the descent from the plateau at a place called Tornehamn in Sweden.

WEDNESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2000 Narvik-Boden-Boden-Stockholm 11.20-17.08 + 17.20-7.40 Berths Boden-Stockholm Nok495 (STOCKHOLM 2 nights)

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FRIDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2000 Stockholm-Orebro 12.54-(16.00 delayed 65 minutes because electric engine broke down) (OREBRO 2 nights)

The 12.54 from Stockholm to Orebro was delayed for 65 minutes when the engine broke down. The ticket office in Orebro was closed when we arrived. On Saturday afternoon it was also closed. On Sunday morning at Orebro South station there was no one at the station. We took the 12.10 to Mjolby but when we got there we were told the 14.18 and the 16.18 were fully booked. There were no seats available. The clerk recommended that we talk to the train guard. We got on and were immediately rebuked by the guard who said we should not have got on the train without reservations. I said we were unable to buy them because the ticket offices were closed. He then ordered us up the carriage and produced a piece of paper which he consulted. After a few moments he told us we could sit at seats 44 and 45 of carriage one, in a section of first class that had been downgraded to economy.

Founded in the 12th Century as a trading centre Orebro became the European centre of mining and iron ore trade. In 16th Century King Gustaf Wasa erected the castle which now dominates the city.

It was my second visit to the city, Anne’s first. It seemed different to me. ‘Indifferent,’ Anne said.

We did not find the food we wanted.

SUNDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2000 Orebro Sud-Mjolby-Mjolby-Malmo 12.14-13.44 + 14.18-16.46 (MALMO 1 night)

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MONDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2000 Malmo-Hamburg-Hamburg-Osnabrück-Osnabrück-Amsterdam 7.03-12.15 + 12.47-14.37 + 14.55-17.49 SR Malmo-Hamburg Sek124 + Hamburg-Osnabreuck Sek62 Ticket Puttgarden-Hamburg Dk325 Ticket Hamburg-Amsterdam: DM125.20, each

Norway and Sweden were fun up to a point, that being a lack of sun, a crap railway system and apart from the fantastic breakfasts in Bergen and Trondheim the food was poor and the coffee was undrinkable. Still we escaped there this morning, leaving Malmo at seven to arrive in Amsterdam this evening at six. Booked into a 4 star hotel because they were doing a deal at forty pounds a night. We’re staying until Wednesday because I’m going over to the Hague where a friend from Ireland is protesting at the climate conference. Then we’re off to Basel in Switzerland again and at the weekend down to Spain and Portugal.

We had an eventful day. When we got on the train at Malmo the conductor pointed out that our InterRail passes did not start until tomorrow, so we had to pay him as far as Hamburg in dollars! Then Anne went to the ticket office in Hamburg, with half an hour to spare before our train to Osnabrück, and nearly didn’t make it. She came down with five minutes to go. Then the train was cancelled. Well it was moved to another station. We found out that we had to take a train to Hamburg Harburg or someplace like that and change there. On the train the conductor announced that the train for Osnabrück which was going onto Basel would leave from platform three. When we got there they said platform four, then they changed it again, but we found it and got on. It was running 15 minutes late and we had 17 minutes before our connection to Amsterdam, the train from Berlin, but we made it. It came in five minutes late and we got to Amsterdam ten minutes behind schedule. We now have a pattern where we put our luggage in a locker and go looking for a hotel. It took us a while last night in Malmo but in the end we found a beautiful old hotel not far from the station for 32 pounds. This time the tourist information at the station in A’dam said a four star hotel in the city was doing a deal so we decided to take that. We’re staying at the Schiller something tulip in Rembrantplein.

WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000 Amsterdam CS-Basel SBB 10.05-17.46

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THURSDAY 23 NOVEMBER 2000 Basel SBB-Luzern 16.53-18.05 Luzern-Basel SBB 22.54-00.15

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SATURDAY 25 NOVEMBER 2000 Basel SBB-Spiez-Spiez-Zweisimmen-Zweisimmen-Montreux (Montreux Oberland Bernoise-Golden Pass)-Montreux-Martigny-Martigny-Le Chable 10.04-11.53 + 12.03-12.40 + 12.44-14.28 + 14.49-15.22 + 15.38-16.05 Le Chable-Martigny 16.32-17.01 Martigny Croix-Le Chable 18.44-19.05

Christened the Golden Pass by English aristocratic travellers in the 1930s, this 210 kilometre journey through the panoramic heartland of Switzerland taking in all its central lakes and its highest mountains involves three changes of train. They knew what they were talking about. On a clear day it is, by far, the most beautiful railway journey in the world in both directions.

It starts in Luzern by the Vierwaldstattersee (Lake Luzern) or in Montreux by Lac Leman and takes five hours. If I have a preference on the best way to do it first time around (because this is a journey that needs to be done each way, in the morning and in the afternoon), it’s to start in Luzern and plan the journey to take the three panoramic trains, which only run at specified times.

The first train out of Luzern is the 7:34am Swiss Federal Railways Brünig Express to Interlaken Ost. That meets the 9.36 to Zweisimmen on the Lotschbergbahn Express (sufficient time for a succulent second breakfast). Finally the 10.50 to Montreux on the Montreux Oberland Bernois Happy Cow Express.

That’s the stuff of printed timetables, the journey itself is unforgettable. Leaving Luzern, alongside the lakes of Luzern, Wichel and Sarnen, the line begins to ascend. By the time it reaches the lake of Lungren it faces a mighty climb of 3,000 feet, on traction, to get over the Hasliberg mountain through the Brünig pass to Brienz, and the beginnings of its long lake, 1,500 feet above sea level. That’s as low as we get for the rest of the journey, but it’s not downhill yet, we have more mountains to climb.

At Interlaken, at the far end of Lake Brienz, we change onto the standard gauge line of the Berner Lötschberg Simplon (the largest private railway company in the world) for the journey past Lake Thun to Zweisimmen on their new luxurious train. We are now 3,000 feet high in an oasis of mountain chalets, pine woodland and rolling green pasture where the two Simmen rivers and the railway lines of the BLS and MOB companies meet. From here we rise towards Saanenmoser, at almost 4,000 feet the highest point of the route, and gradually begin our descent into Gstaad, Château D’Œx (home of hot-air ballooning), past Lake Vernex to Montbovin (where you can get off and board the Belle Époque cars of the ‘Chocolate Train’ to Gruyéres, home of chocolate, cheese and wine)., and finally through a tunnel or two into Les Avants and the majestic white and wispy vista of Lac Léman, the Castle of Chillon standing like a cormorant looking out at the French shoreline

SUNDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2000 Le Chable-Martigny 12.50-13.19 Martigny-Le Chable 15.38-16.05

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MONDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2000 Le Chable-Martigny-Martigny-St Gervais-St Gervais-Lyon Part Dieu-Lyon Part Dieu-St Etienne Chateaucreux 10.50-11.19 + 11.39-14.05 + 14.24-18.13 + 18.35-19.23

We managed to raise ourselves quickly enough to have breakfast coffee, croissants, roll and jams and pack to get the 10.50 to Martigny. I rushed to get some money and we got the new Mont Blanc Express from Martigny to St Gervais. Both carriages have the small oblong panoramic windows in the roof. The Mont Blanc Express used to only run as far as St Chatelard on the frontier and to Chamonix in France. This year 2000 the service was extended to St Gervais in the Trient Valley in a jointly run Martigny MC/SCNF arrangement. The drivers exchanged trains at St Chatelard and our French driver wished us bon appetite as we settled to a lunch of bread and cheese and juice. All was white above, below and around us. In some places the snow had settled to a depth of 60cms. At St Gervais we just had time to get some French money out of the ATM in the station and have coffee (Ff7 each) in the station cafe. The train to Lyon followed the Trient Valley. At La Roche sur Foron and Aix Les Bains the engine was uncoupled and we went back out the way we had come in and along another line, finally towards Lyon Part Dieu.

TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000 St Etienne Chateaucreux-Lyon Part Dieu-Lyon Part Dieu-Limoges Benedictins 12.15-13.04 + 13.10-18.17

Arrived at St Etienne Chateaucreux around half seven and wandered out into the night. Several hotels greeted us from the station concourse. Anne went into the Hotel Terminus. They wanted FR395. She said she’d get back to them. We found a cafe and asked the barman if he knew of any traditional hotels not too expensive. He phoned a friend who spoke good English but his recommendations were booked. In the end we booked into the Hotel Ibis, a chain scattered across Europe functional en suite boxes with the ubiquitous tv. After we found a small pizza restaurant we shared a 4 x fromages grande pizza we returned to the cafe-bar and got into a conversation with a French-born Arab who wanted to debate the existence of God!

WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000 Limoges Benedictins-Bordeaux St Jean-Bordeaux St Jean-Irun 10.27-12.41 (15min delay leaving Limoges, waiting for Brive train 12.56) + 13.09-15.34

Stayed in Hotel du Gare, a crumbling old building with musty rooms, bed, bide, washbasin, table, chair. Ours was room 9 on top floor, a balcony room overlooking the road and the station. Ff150 for the room was cheapest yet. Bed was comfortable. Following a walk around this Limousin city, we found a traditional Limousin restaurant, formal yet flexible and not too expensive. La Vache au Plafond at Avenue Garibaldi, Limoges. We were greeted by a man who might have been the owner or manager. He directed us to a seat. Another man, the head waiter perhaps, asked us if we wanted aperitifs. Two menu boards were rested on a ledge beside our tables. A woman took our order. Anne had chicken with port stuffing and cabbage with bacon and roast potatoes. I had a white fish with lemon slices, salad and cubed peppers. We had a mixed cheese salad to start, a bottle or Bordeaux and a bottle of water. Tariff was Ff303. Following morning we woke early to the sound of traffic, mostly electric buses on overhead tram lines. We wandered out, found a small grocery store, bought orange juice, clementines and soft cheese, then a patisserie and bought croissants and a baguette. We had coffee in the Hotel du Gare. As we packed out rucksacks from the floor below a lone saxophonist played, but it might have been a loud radio.

THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2000 Irun-Vigo 8.45-20.10

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SATURDAY 2 DECEMBER 2000 Vigo-Porto-Porto-Lisbon 8.25-10.39 (10.50)

Vigo to Lisbon via Porto on a Sunday with an InterRail pass! Portugal is a poor country. You can tell this by the half-finished bungalows hacienda style and the EU funded development all over place, a bit like the west of Ireland before the Irish decided they were in the primera liga of economic nations and the Euro money ran out.
You can also tell Portugal is one of those peripheral EU regions because there are sections of bridges and sections of roads and sections of rail tracks and no big children around to join them together. They should be joining up Portugal’s major cities and ports and factories, so that the country is connected to the European transport infrastructure of roads and bridges and rail tracks. Will they ever be finished and who will pay for them? The EU? The Portuguese? Tourists? Travellers? Well these two travellers didn’t get the chance to contribute to Portuguese Railways’ coffers. They spotted our InterRail passes. No money there then, next please!
We certainly got that impression when we presented ourselves at Porto’s Campanha station one Sunday morning of a wet and miserable December in the Year of the Millennium.

Our train from Vigo in north-west Spain was running late, as we suspected it would be, so we weren’t sure whether we would get the 11.00am fast train to Lisbon or the 12.10pm slow train via every station along the west coast of Portugal to Lisbon. In the end it wasn’t an option. We quickly found the ticket office and the information desk. A woman was talking to a male colleague. He moved aside.

Fala Ingles?


Ah well, never mind. We joined a queue. It was now 10.55 and the fast train was about to leave. Then we were face to face with a smiling ticket-selling woman.

Fala Ingles?

A little, she said and smiled again. How much is a seat reservation on the 11am to Lisbon? I asked. Do you have tickets? She asked. Yes, InterRail passes, said Anne, my travelling companion. Her face dropped. She motioned to a colleague and said something in Portuguese which probably wasn’t complimentary about InterRail. That’ll be 5,000 escudos, she said. We now had a problem. We didn’t want to pay for a section of the rail track to Lisbon. We just wanted to pay for seats. On the back of the InterRail it was written that a supplement was payable on the Portuguese high speed train. It didn’t say that supplement would be three quarters of the fare. How much is the fare to Lisbon? Anne asked the woman. That’ll be 3,300 escudos. The InterRail pass gave a reduction of a quarter. It didn’t matter because we had run out of time and we didn’t have the necessary currency anyway. You can get the 12.10, the ticket woman said obligingly. The search for escudos took me a short walk out of the station because the ATM beside the ticket office wasn’t working. I’d been told this by the woman who was cursing it in front of me. Then it gave her some money so I tried too. But it wanted a card I didn’t have, and when I didn’t produce the required card and push it into the welcoming slot, it told me my time was up and my transaction had been cancelled.

What our smiling ticket woman didn’t say was that the 12.10 got into Lisbon at half four, two hours after the fast train, and that, along the route, it collected most of the Portuguese population desperate to get to Lisbon, to join their ship or their regiment or study or work or visit relatives or just return home. A typical Sunday afternoon train anywhere in the world, crammed full of far too many people in the seats, on the seats, beside the seats, in the aisles, in the spaces between the compartments and for all we knew helping the driver drive the train. It reminded me of the Friday night express to Limerick Junction from Dublin on the first weekend after the beginning of college when the first-year students were desperate to get home to sanity and their scattered friends. Despite all the manic running around and the desperation to board one of Portugal’s finest high speed trains, time as it always does when you are no longer in a hurry slowed down.

It was ten past eleven when we found a table in the station cafe and I went looking for another ATM machine. It had, miraculously, stopped raining and a few minutes from the station I found a friendly ATM which spoke English and gave me some money. Unfortunately it was all in 5,000 escudos notes. Back in the cafe Anne didn’t want a drink and the woman behind the counter didn’t really want my 5,000 escudos note for a 90 escudos coffee. I didn’t have a clue what she was saying to me but her body language was enough, so I shrugged a sorry at her. She turned away. We decided to get on the train.

Built a very long time ago this was the sort of train you see in 1950s colour-tinted movies, a chrome shell, upholstered seats, rubber floor, scary gaps between carriages, doors that flung open fortunately inwardly and nowhere to hide from the smokers. After looking at their shiny green, red and white bullet-shaped fast train this one looked like the old train beside the new train in the publicity shot promoting the new age of travel. This is the way it used to be folks (old chrome train), this is the way it is now (shiny colourful train), the rail way! Ummph. Outside the station it was grey. The buildings, the factories, even the fields were grey. And the train was chrome, almost grey. A grey day.

The closer the train got to Lisbon and it was a slow journey for most of the route the heavier it became as more and more and more people with their luggage climbed aboard.

TUESDAY 5 DECEMBER 2000 Lisbon-Madrid 22.05-8.25 Berths HotelTrain Luisitania Escudos24,699

Deutsche-Bahn will probably question my assertion here that the Talgo-Lusitania Hotel train is the best night service in Europe. No arguments, it is. Their restaurant car surpasses Mitropa by virtue of a chef who cooks to order, a bar that stays open to the small hours and en suite cabins.

WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2000 Madrid Chmartin-Barcelona Sants-Barcelona Sants-Puigcerda 11.00-18.00 (18.30 delayed outside Barcelona) + 18.57-22.05

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THURSDAY 7 DECEMBER 2000 Puigcerda-Latour de Carol 10.07 (delayed 10.25)-10.13 (10.31) (Bus to Andorra La Velle)

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FRIDAY 8 DECEMBER 2000 L’hospitalet-Latour de Carol-Latour de Carol-Toulouse Matabiau-Toulouse Matabiau-Montpellier-Montpellier-Avignon 7.27-7.55 + 10.40-13.26 + 14.18-16.39 + 16.48-17.43

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SATURDAY 9 DECEMBER 2000 Avignon-Arles-Arles-Marseilles-Marseilles-Cannes-Cannes-Monaco 10.49-11.09 + 12.19-13.08 + 13.29-15.28+ 15.30 (15.35)-16.40 (delayed 40 minutes because three teenagers climbed on to the train from the track side at Antibes)

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MONDAY 11 DECEMBER 2000 Monaco-Luzern 10.21-7.35

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TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000 Luzern-Olten-Olten-Lausanne-Lausanne Geneva Aeroport-Geneva Aeroport-Venezia Saint Lucia 11.41+ 12.4714.57 + 23.09-7.09 Berths Simplon Express Geneva Aeroport-Venezia S.L. (CHf205)

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THURSDAY 14 DECEMBER 2000 Venezia S.L-Bologna-Bologna-Ancona 11.07-13.07 (13.16) + 13.28 (13.35)-16.14

The fish market under the Rialto Bridge in Venice

We’re now in Ancona on the second day of our Italian tour. We have seven days I think in Italy. Venice was much different in my last experience and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Anne found a reasonable hotel, I managed to get masks (one for wear and one for the wall) for Ciara, (and a Murano glass necklace one of these days I need to visit that glass factory because they sell the seconds off cheap to the market sellers; not that I’m thinking of going into business but Ciara is very interested in this kind of jewellery so I could supply her so she can train to be a good capitalist!) and I finally managed to figure out how to get around Venice and its islands you take public transport the busboats that transverse the grand canal, skirt the main part of Venice and travel out and to and from the other islands, Murano being one of them.

We got to Venice just after seven on the Simplon Express from Geneva airport and then had a wonderful day. Don’t know how I managed to stay awake and Anne lasted the pace as well. We bought a day ticket for the boat lines and took one along the Grand Canale, getting off at San Marco to gaze at the Basilica and the San Marco Compo. These Doges certainly knew how to live. Finally took a picture of the Bridge of Sighs which used to house a prison it was said no one could escape from until Casanova did and upset Venice’s rulers. It’s still a maritime place and the fish market beside the Rialto bridge is stunning. The bridge itself is a work of art. I’m not into palaces and churches and things like that but the craft and art work is amazing, which is why I can’t wait to get to Florence to see Michaelangelo’s work again.

After Ancona we travel to Foggia along the Adriatic coastline and from there we take a couple of trains or maybe one I can’t remember across to the land of the pizza pie (When the sun meets your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amoray – Dean Martin in case you’re wondering) and coffee. Napoli has the best espresso coffee in the world and the best and cheapest pizzas. After Napoli we head back north towards an afternoon in Rome and two nights and a whole day in Florence, then Pisa, then Genova, and onto Milan and to Brig through the Simplon tunnel again and back to Switzerland. Then it’ll be a quick run over the mountains into France and over to Evian Les Bains, across Lac Leman to Geneva, back to Martigny and Le Chable and by then I would say a well needed rest, even if there are mountains to climb.

FRIDAY 15 DECEMBER 2000 Ancona-Foggia-Foggia-Napoli Centrale 11.02-14.02 + 14.25

Notes lost …

SATURDAY 16 DECEMBER 2000 Napoli-Roma Roma-Florence

Notes lost …

Wash Out

Our first great European food adventure ended early in 2001. The rain followed us across the continent and after enduring nondescript days when all we seemed to do was dry out we realised it had rained on 76 days across November, December and January. We brought the trip to a close because it had been a relative disaster from start to finish. We had set out with an itinerary and with hindsight the inclement weather had to be cast as the catalyst for our calamity. On reflection the cause for our failure to realise the purpose of the trip was the tight schedule and the haphazard nature of the world of food.

Travel writing is based on observation and knowledge. Food-travel writing is based on meticulous planning that is almost fastidious to the extreme. It took three reckless trips for us to realise that the journey was nothing more than a mere fulcrum to aid our purpose, which immediately became a catch 22 with a twist. To find what we wanted, we had to know what we needed. We could not do that without the journey and the journey was the problem, it got in the way, it was a distraction. We needed a new plan.


Our second great European food adventure began with a trip across the North Sea to the southern shores of Scandinavia and across into northern Germany. This time we were prepared. We would continue to observe and collect but this time we would look for specific foods and try to determine what was traditional. This was easier in the Nordic countries because they had begun their food revolution. The move toward local, fresh ingredients and traditional food methods was in full flow in the early 2000s.

The first adventure had been a wash-out but it had also been a revelation. In the mid-1990s the Swiss triggered the traditional food rennaissance when they realised they needed to build a database that contained all the details of their indigenous produce, artisanal products and traditional recipes. Gradually this information filtered into the cafes and canteens and restaurants where the chefs and cooks who wanted to change the food culture attempted to introduce new foods based on old foods. This made our job easier. Whether it was serendipity or something else we stumbled into Cafe Romand in Lausanne and were immediately rewarded with a menu full of legendary dishes that were traditional to the core. The same thing happened with the Schlosspintl in Spiez where we had inadvertently arrived on their first day, a fact we did not learn until many years later. I had misinterpreted Beatrice Meer’s comment about the menu. Now the Schlosspintl is reknown for a menu that is based on what is available on the day!

We had selected locations we believed would suit our quest. Foggia in eastern Italy revealed traditional delights in unexpected places like the railway station kiosk where we bought various aubergine snacks. Vigo in north-western Spain was an inspired choice and again we were rewarded in cafes and restaurants with the range of traditional food, a seafood paella to be expected in this fishing port and a quixotic tapas board beyond the unexpected. Barcelona and the Catalan heartland was a rich treasure of the kind of food we wanted to sample and record, a task that was made easier by the launch of their own traditional food database. The idea was in the air.

Those continuous trips in 2000 and 2001 were ridiculous fun but not remotely fruitful, not to the extent that we had expected. Trying to work on the run, so to speak, only works with a definitive plan. Those early trips showed us why food-travel research is difficult. Subsequently we meticulously planned every trip and where possible organised every visit, usually with direct contact to the protagonists prior to arrival. This is now the standard method, employed by every visual media director, to utilise local knowledge and avoid surprises. Unfortunately it is a soundbite method. Our method had to be more precise, and revelatory. Subsequently each of our proposed trips had a strict itinerary and while there was free time for casual observation, especially during the travelling, the end product was determined by pre-trip preparation.

THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2001 Berlin Zoo-Munich 8.05-15.07
SATURDAY 3 NOVEMBER 2001 Munich-Aulendorf 9.51-12.46, Aulendorf-Friedrichshafen 12.52-13.25, Friedrichshafen-Romanshorn 13.41 41 minutes
SUNDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2001 Romanshorn-Rorschach-Buchs-Vaduz
MONDAY 5 NOVEMBER 2001 Vaduz-Feldkirch 9.38-10.13 Feldkirch-Vienna 11.13-18.50
WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001 Vienna Sudbahnhof-Prague Holesovice 10.55-15.21
FRIDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2001 Prague Holesovice-Bratislava 12.39-17.03
SUNDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2001 Bratislava-Budapest 11.18-15.33
TUESDAY 13 NOVEMBER 2001 Budapest-Bucharest 7.10-21.48
THURSDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2001 Bucharest-Istanbul 14.05-7.20
MONDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2001 Istanbul-Thessalonaki 8.20-22.54
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2001 Thessalonaki-Athens 11.06-16.51
THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2001 Athens-Thessalonaki 13.05-19.16 Thessalonaki-Sofia 22.04-7.40
SUNDAY 25 NOVEMBER 2001 Sofia-Belgrade 10.50-18.32
TUESDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2001 Belgrade-Zagreb 6.20-13.05
THURSDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2001 Zagreb-Ljubljana 13.05-16.10
SATURDAY 1 DECEMBER 2001 Ljubljana-Trieste 16.10-19.15
SUNDAY 2 DECEMBER 2001 Trieste-Naples 21.37-10.08
MONDAY 3 DECEMBER 2001 Naples-Capri
FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER 2001 Capri-Naples

Construction of the new parliament buildings in Berlin adjacent the old parliament

Notes lost. The following sketch was written from memory.

We took the central European route out, braving the Bosphor night train from Bucharest (after a long day journey from Budapest and a night in the Romanian capital). The Bosphor connects with the Balkan Express at Svilengrad at two o’clock in the small hours and arrives at the Bosphorous anytime between nine and ten o’clock. The journey through France, Germany and Austria had been uneventful. The trains were comfortable and fast. Because we weren’t in a hurry we travelled first to Prague and then Bratislava after Vienna.

The adventure began at Bratislava, once the central switching yard of central Europe. It reaches all points on the compass. These days trains pass through. There are only three trains a day from Bratislava to Budapest. We decided on the noon train from Prague because it was scheduled to get to Budapest at ten to four in the afternoon. Bratislava station is a typical concrete edifice of the communist era, now adorned with shops and cafes and an information centre with clerks not too bothered about international trains. We got to the station early, stacked our backpacks, drank an alcoholic coffee each and checked our train. It was late, which was a shock because we had become used to the punctuality of western European trains. When it finally arrived and we got underway we found ourselves in German-built wagons from the 1950s. But we also found a delightful old restaurant car, complete with a sort-of-chef who urged us to try the goulash.

At Budapest we saw what we expected to see at Bratislava, night trains carrying old Pullmans and Wagons-Lits bound for Belgrade, Berlin, Moscow, Munich and Istanbul. We decided to take the day train, the Traianus, which left the following morning at 07.10. We were now travelling into the unknown, into a world of corruption, skulduggery and smuggling. The Hungarian train clerks had stamped our tickets and smiled. It seemed it would be another uneventful journey, with only a grey sky and monocultured fields to keep us company. Our wagon was empty except for us and a Romanian student called Georgia, who had taken her first tentative steps out of her country and was unsure whether she was on the right train back to Bucharest. Then we reached the frontier towns of Bekecsaba and Lokoshaza, and the fun began.

Windows were pulled down and the goods were loaded in. People poured into the wagons, carrying the world and everything else on their shoulders. We reached the frontier. Customs and police and Romanian train clerks got on. Our passports were checked, our tickets were inspected. We had taken the advice of Deutsch Bahn, who sold us most of our tickets, to buy Global Inter-rail Passes and upgrade with supplements, seat reservations and berths. Except for Belgium, Spain and Portugal these are never questioned. Now they were, and all we could tell them was that they were valid, but still the questions were asked. We realised later, after talking to Georgia, that a scam was being operated on the trains between Hungary and Romania, and true enough we didn’t see any of the people laden down with goods offer any tickets to the train clerks or offer anything more than a smile to the customs and police. Usually most trains carry two train clerks. This train had six and I couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on, even though the sort-of-chef in the restaurant wagon tried to explain to me as he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Not long before we reached Bucharest, with the train running more than an hour late, a smart, well-dressed middle-aged man got on, summonsed the train clerks and had a leisurely conference with them, his notebook and pencil in hand. Then we reached Bucharest and the goods were off-loaded.

Once again we broke our journey and spent a few nights in Bucharest. The station, Bucuresti Nord, was crawling with aggressive looking men whom we later discovered were there to prevent anyone without a ticket getting into the station. It was dark when we arrived and we couldn’t find an ATM so I looked outside the station and then got into a row with the station minders when I tried to come back in. I waved my passport and ticket at them when we came back to board our train to Istanbul.

If we thought the Romanians were up to no good, they were mild compared to the Bulgarians. Our train carried old wagons and sleeping berths that had not been serviced since they were built. I flooded our cabin because I failed to spot a leak in the basin plumbing and then the heating went off. “Frig,” our Romanian neighbours in the next cabin said. They were used to it. Two young Australian backpackers were on the train, and weren’t impressed when the Romanians (police, customs, anyone’s guess) went off with our passports. I thought they were taking them for the duration of the journey and we wouldn’t be bothered again until we reached Istanbul.

Such innocence. At the frontier with Bulgaria they handed the passports back and a discussion began with the wagon chef and a Bulgarian train clerk about our tickets. “If they are not valid it’s your problem not mine,” I told him. I brought out my Cook’s European timetable to prove that our Global Rail Passes were valid in Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Something told me he wanted me to cross his palm with something. A youth came up with a box while we were staring out the window – a preoccupation with rail travellers at frontier posts. It was full of bottles of alcohol and soft drinks, and snacks. I bought a bottle of vodka from him. I knew we would need it later.

Sometime after one o’clock the train reached Svilengrad and for the next three hours the train was halted, shunted, wagons from the Balkan Express added, started, shunted again and halted again while our cabin door was repeatedly thumped by a succession of customs and police.

We were told to buy our Turkish visas at the border. We didn’t know that meant being woken in the small hours, instructed to leave the train, go to a draughty shed to buy a visa, take it to another draughty shed to have it stamped and then get back on the train, where – half an hour later – the same smiling Turkish man who had told us we must get off the train to buy our visas knocked on the door to make sure we had done what we were told.

In the morning as the train cruised along the shore of the Bosphorus, the man in the suit came back. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. ‘You want hotel in Istanbul?’ he asked. ‘We’re fine,’ I said. He smiled, shook my hand and walked away.

If you ever decide to travel by train in eastern Europe buy a first class ticket. Travel by train in eastern Europe is the cheapest method of travel. Anyone who travels second class obviously hasn’t any money or they are stupid foreigners who know nothing or backpackers who want to travel on the cheap. Cross-border journeys are to be endured because there is generally an elicit method behind the reason for travelling. It’s easier and not much cheaper to get to Istanbul by plane.

But seeing the Bosphorous and Istanbul in the full glare of a bright morning was worth it.

Gustave Flaubert thought Istanbul would become the capital of the world and during the first half of the 20th century it was the destination everyone desired, for reasons that are not obvious to us today. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk insists that Istanbul suffers from end-of-empire melancholy, and it is this state of mind that defines the city on the Bosporus. Does this melancholy touch the souls of the tourist and the traveller?

Arriving in Istanbul at the start of Ramadan, the citizens are penitent because this is an important time of year, yet the overwhelming character of the people is humbleness.

And friendliness.

We are thrust across the Bosporus onto the Anatolian side of the city, and manage to persuade Jimmy our host to let us cook in the style of Keith Floyd the food we have bought in the markets. The kitchen in Jimmy’s hotel has seen better days, but Floyd would have loved it. Jimmy then forgets we had bought and cooked the food ourselves, and gives us a bill for meals!

Turkey is the food basket of the world, and all food is in Istanbul. Traditional Turkish food is, with French, Iberian and Italian, among the best in Europe, shaped by centuries of interaction with the world to the east and west. The cuisine of the Ottoman period is still with us, albeit disguised in the clothes other cuisines have dressed it in. From fried anchovies to doner, shish and yoghurt kebabs, meat-filled flat-bread to rice and chickpeas, sesame breads and stuffed aubergines, sweet honey and pistachio (baklava) pastries and all kinds of börek (rolled) pastries with countless fillings, Turkish traditional food is diverse, reflecting an amazing harvest of fishes, fruits, meats, nuts spices and vegetables.

We spent five days in Istanbul in search of the perfect carpet, a search that was so exhausting that Jimmy, in utter exasperation said, ‘madame, there are no magic carpets in Istanbul,’ and gave up after another fruitless trip to a carpet warehouse. We crossed the Bosporus and, after a period of quiet solitude in the Kapalicarsi (the covered grand bazaar) buying Anatolian spices and drinking Turkish tea, we wandered out of the Nuruosmaniye Gate into the grounds of Nuruosmaniye Camii mosque along to Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, and there on the steps up to an unassuming door we met Bulent, a former soccer player honing his skills as a seller of rare, expensive silk-wool carpets. We went inside and, accepting the wonderful hospitality of these endearing carpet sellers, took our time examining an endless array of creations, several from Tabriz in the Azerbaijani region of Iran, across the Anatolian border.

We had found our magic carpets.

Istanbul is a magical place. It has a wonder that transcends the world, a wide-eyed innocence that attracts wide-eyed innocents, travellers of the heart, lovers of a culture that places the moment in the mood. For some that is art, for others it is food. For us it is both. Ali, the owner of Bazaar 54, realised we had been seduced by the magic in the carpets.

A year later he arrived in the west loaded with the silk-wool carpets we coveted. ‘Take your pick,’ he said.

After five nights in Istanbul we boarded the 08.30 train out of Sirkeci station. This is a local train to Pehlivankóv, where the line divides – one track turning north-east towards Kapikule on the border with Bulgaria at Svilengrad, the other turning south-west towards the Turkish frontier station of Uzunkóprú and Greece.

At Pehlivankóv the electric engine was replaced by a diesel shunting engine. When it stopped a few minutes we had the feeling it had broken down. We looked out. There was a man in a boiler suit with spanner in hand. At Uzunkóprú our wagon was connected to a load of freight wagons and I brought some more vodka from a man in a hut. Eventually we crossed the Meric / Evros river to Pythion on the Greek side, waving at the solemn Turkish soldiers and the cheerful Greek soldiers as we passed their barracks on each side of the river. We had decided to stay in Alexandropolis for the night, get the early train to Thessaloniki the following day and take the night train to Sofia, where we could pick up the Balkan Express to Belgrade.

When we planned the journey we had to decide between Sofia and Skopje. In a different century we might have taken the more direct route to Belgrade but in the spring of 1999 the train on the Skopje-Thessaloniki line was bombed by a NATO pilot on the bridge near the frontier station of Gevgelija, killing 55 passengers. Superstition got the better of us. And after the discomfort of the night train from Bucharest to Istanbul, the train to Sofia was luxury.

Sofia turned out to be the most expensive city we had visited. And we couldn’t wait to leave. We had been warned to keep an eye on beggars and thieves but no one warned us about predatory taxi drivers, hotel owners, restaurateurs and station mules. Our train from Istanbul had been caught in a snow storm and was three hours late. We had booked reservations but we had also left our rucksacks in the left luggage, where our two mules remained at our service. When, finally, the train arrived and they carried our rucksacks onto the train they demanded twenty US dollars for the carrying. We came to an agreement they didn’t think was mutually acceptable, and when we found the compartment we were booked into, it was so full of smoke we couldn’t see if there were any spaces. It was a non-smoking compartment. We found another and then regretted it when first the lighting went out and then the heating. It wasn’t until we reached the heavily bombed city of Nis that the heating came back on. By then I was glad of the vodka I had carried with me, which we shared with an old couple who had got on at Dimitrovgrad.

Belgrade is a big old terminus station and ours was the last train of the night. It was shut and staffed only by three policemen who kindly bought a phone card so they could phone our friend who was supposed to meet us. We had no dinars and there wasn’t an ATM we could use our western cards anywhere near the station. We stayed for three days before moving on to Zagreb, Ljubljana and Trieste. It was the end of the adventure. In ten years Croatia has embraced the European Union ideal of society, Slovenia is catching up and Italy – well Italy is great food, passionate people, great dressers, sublime footballers and a railway system as good as anyone’s in western Europe.

The journey from Ljubljana is one of the most spectacular in Europe but the reason why the Swiss wanted to kill off the Orient Express is because they knew that their railway lines are second to none (including Norway) in Europe. Travelling past Lake Maggiore, through the Simplon, along the Rhone valley, past the Chateau de Chillon and Lake Geneva, Montreux and Lausanne, and into the Jura is a delight for the eyes and not one to be squandered in a comfortable Wagons-Lits bed. There are many reasons for taking the train to and from Istanbul. One is arriving in Istanbul, the other is arriving at Lake Geneva.

We never did get around to writing the book we had planned for various reasons, largely because we lost most of the material we had gathered on the trips, the physical and the electronic. Now, however, our Orient Express’ food-travel book is imminent.


From Brig, climbing 3,500 feet above the Rhone valley, turning towards Goppenstein, the Lotschberg tunnel and the Berner Oberland (cheese-making country), this is a three hour journey that should be travelled each way. In summer the 06.17 Cisalpino from Basel to Milan via Brig is a morning delight, and if you go all the way you get to see the Simplon and Lake Maggiore. Trains from Basel are every hour, from Brig every two hours.

Milano Centrale in the early 2000s featuring a Swiss regional train and an Italian inter-city train.

The Cisalpino faded into history when the reasons for its existence were removed and the company, an Italian-Swiss operation, was disbanded. It was named after the mountain region between Brig and Domodossola. So we are going to pay homage to one of the most laid-back trains in Europe. The train was cool, the staff were cool and the journey was cool and comfortable. And the espresso served in its buffet car was as good as the coffee in Milan central station – among the the best in Italy. Here we replicate the timetable of the early morning service from Milan for those who have fond memories.

CIS 40 (20.01.08)

  • Milano Centrale 07:25
  • Gallarate 07:57-07:58
  • Domodossola 08:43-08:48
  • Brig 09:16-09:20
  • Visp 09:26-09:28
  • Spiez 09:53-09:54
  • Thun 10:03-10:05
  • Bern 10:23-10:34
  • Olten 11:00-11:02
  • Liestal 11:17-11:19
  • Basel SBB 11:29

2000-2001 InterRail Experiences

If you want to travel slowly around Europe the InterRail pass is perfect. Delayed trains, cancelled trains, missed connections, expensive upgrades and inflexibility are all part of the InterRail package. Experience the delight of routes where there are only two trains a day. If you miss it you are stuck in an inadequately serviced station for hours. When you arrive finally at your destination it is nearly midnight.

Experience the delight of trying to buy seat reservations in busy railway stations when the train you want to get is scheduled to leave in ten minutes. Experience the delight of missing your connection only to find the next train you can use your InterRail pass on isn’t until the following day. Experience the delight of spending up to twelve hours in trains with no refreshments, food or drink. Experience the delight of travelling in comfortable seats in carriages fifty or more years old. Europe is now geared to high speed trains between the major cities. In western European countries like France, Germany and Switzerland the InterRail pass will carry you across each country, but in countries like Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Portugal it is a hinderance to travel because the only trains that run all the principle routes are high speed trains which require seat reservations and supplements at almost full price of the ticket.

If I wanted to travel on Europe’s slow trains I’d built a time machine and head back to the 1950s. InterRail passes may be fine for students on summer vacations, students who don’t want to spend money and don’t mind crashing on station benches or travelling overnight or staying in hostels. For the serious traveller who wants to experience the delight of high speed travel on comfortable well-serviced trains that are punctual buy an ordinary ticket. It will save you money in the long run.

If InterRail want their over-26 passes to be taken seriously they will need to consider the market and issue tickets that are valid on all trains at all times and only require seat reservations to be issued, if necessary on board the chosen train. If this increases the overall cost it will be a small price to pay for a pass that is convenient and flexible. At the moment the InterRail pass is a hinderance to stress-free rail travel around Europe.

NETHERLANDS Staff at Rotterdam station said pass was not valid on Thalys train and refused entry to train. According to InterRail it is valid but a supplement is payable.

SWITZERLAND On the Martigny to Le Chable, Orsieries and Le Chatelard lines pass valid for 50% of the fare. This appears to be the only major rail company in Switzerland that does not give a full reduction.

PORTUGAL Our train from Vigo arrived in Porto ten minutes late. The connection for Lisbon was a high speed train leaving at eleven. When we asked about seat reservations on this train we were told there was a supplement payable for InterRail pass holders. Fare on high speed train is 3,300 escudas. Reduction for holders of InterRail passes is 800 escudas, requiring a payment of 2,500 escudas.

SPAIN When asked why the supplement to the IR pass for the Talgo train from Madrid to Barcelona was so expensive (17 euros each compared to 3 in France), the ticket clerk asked – who issued these tickets? I replied – the French and the English. There you are, he replied, not Spanish.

FRANCE Train from Latour de Carol (8.10) to Mont Louis was cancelled because of a srike. A bus was laid on for another passenger but we were told to take the next train at 15.40 (seven and a half hours later). InterRail passes are obviously not regarded as valid for essential travel.

We had the sense to send the notes we compiled during the early days of our adventures to friends and that is the only reason some of them exist today. All of our food notes and most the food related material we gathered during the continuous trips of 2000 and 2001 were lost as the consequence of misfortune. Subsequently we devised a method that allowed us to travel and collect and record the material we needed for our food-travel books. That story will be revealed in our much delayed Nostalgia | Culinary Adventures on the Orient Express. Anne and Robert.