Having moved all of our gear from our previous yacht Pindimara to our new yacht Elizabeth, it was time to beef up her systems to get her ready for the long trip from England to Australia. We unpacked everything and put it all away, finding that, because of the ducting for the heating system, 39′ Elizabeth had much less storage space than 34′ Pindimara.
Still, we got it all in, removed the TV and sound system to make space for food and tools, upgraded the elderly batteries, and checked all the subsystems to ensure that they were fit for purpose.
I spent a relaxed sunny afternoon threading child-friendly safety nets, and an inordinate amount of time in my shipping-container workshop, expanding the ridiculously small Euro-sized fibreglass gas cupboard to fit a standard LPG canister.
…and sometimes, we even went sailing!
We took Elizabeth to Cowes to repair a dent where somebody had rudely rammed her in the marina, and took the opportunity to get my expanded gas cabinet properly installed, and to do the antifouling. We also discovered that the occasional alarming prop shudder that we’d experienced was down to, uh, the propeller being so fractured that is wasn’t really attached to the boat at all. It’s a mystery how it had stayed on the shaft all this time.
Meanwhile, in the real world, my gardening business had reached a point where I needed to take on occasional staff in order to grow. Some tasks, such as my favourite job of fencing, really benefit from a second set of hands. Unfortunately, England was going through a backlash against the perceived threats of the “gig economy” and “zero hours contracts”, and there was all kinds of legislation coming in against what normal people would call piece-work. Since gardening is not only seasonal but weather-dependent, it makes no sense to pay an employee on days when neither of us are working, but that was the direction in which the legislation was heading.
The other option would be to take on a proper permanent employee or apprentice, but in order to make that financially viable, I would then need to buy a second van and a second set of equipment, which in turn would necessitate a bank loan. My financials supported such a plan, but then I would be looking at settling down for another few years to double my customer base and provide my staff with a stable working environment, with a view to leaving them to run the business when we finally took Elizabeth cruising to Australia… but in reality this approach was fraught with issues. Where would I find this mysteriously unemployed paragon of expertise and virtue? Once trained up, would they want to take on the responsibility, or would I need to start again with somebody else? How long, seriously, would it take to pay off the loan while simultaneously paying a full-time wage?
We also needed to consider that we were currently living in inexpensive student accommodation while Bronwyn studied Archaeology; this was not a permanent arrangement, and could we afford to rent a regular house in this area, and bring up a child, while simultaneously reducing our business income?
And then there was the health question. I had originally switched from computer work to gardening in an attempt to curb increasingly painful carpal tunnel and upper body pain caused by endless hours hunched over a desk, and in that sense, the career move had proven to be a winning combination. My nerve sheaths were no longer inflamed, my posture had greatly improved, and my core strength had increased dramatically. I felt really great.
Now as I entered my 52nd year and my third Winter as a gardener, I found myself running into new difficulties. Much of my work involved holding heavy vibrating machinery extended at waist- or shoulder-level. New nerve damage flared up all across my shoulders, neck and arms, swiftly turning to permanent chronic pain. I began eating Codeine tablets like sweets, and screaming loudly to drown out the pain as I tackled simple jobs like hedging. I started to take a rest-day in the middle of the week, but that wasn’t going to support any kind of business expansion. The pain spread, and became the permanent and debilitating misery of fibromyalgia.
And finally, although Berrima loved living on the boat and sailing, we had never been out with her in a blow, or in any situation where one or the other of us was not able to take care of her. We know a number of cruising families, and have read a lot of cruising books, but had so far not found the answer to the simple question: What do you do with a small child when the situation necessitates “all adult hands on deck”?
We sat down with some families that had done it, and pinned them down to the answer that we had always suspected, but never acknowledged to ourselves. You tie the child to the bunk below, go up on deck, and try to ignore the screaming.
Now we’ve met quite a number of kids that have grown up afloat, and without exception they have been marvellous, well-adjusted people. The benefits of cruising the world clearly far outweigh the unhappiness of being forced to wait below while your parents deal with Important Stuff that, frankly, shouldn’t happen too often on a well-run voyage. But still, we found ourselves unable to countenance it.
So there it was. Reality check. I was getting too old for physical labour, political and economic realities were getting in the way of growing our UK business, we wanted our daughter to grow up in Australia, and we found (somewhat to our surprise) that we had deep misgivings about sailing there with a child so young.
It was a big decision, but we made it. Bronwyn gave up her degree, we closed the business, sold Elizabeth, and moved to an IT contract on the other side of the world.
We were happily living on our yacht Elizabeth at our berth on the Hamble, running a local gardening business and bringing up our four-month-old daughter Berrima aboard. It was a lovely marina, and the staff were great; when Bronwyn was pregnant, they even used to get up early and sweep the snow from the pontoons. There was a nice bar at the marina, and good shops and pubs within an easy walk across the fields.
Then Bronwyn was given the opportunity to study Archaeology in Winchester, and we were offered family accommodation on campus. I could run the gardening business equally well from there, and Bronwyn could take advantage of the campus day-care and walk to lectures, so we moved off the boat and on to dry land. Elizabeth was still just down the road, though, and we still got the opportunity to sail on the Solent at weekends.
As the winter months drew in, gardening work tailed off and I was offered a short IT contract in the UK Midlands. I commuted up and down the country, staying in hotels in the week, and returning at weekends. Then Bronwyn also got offered a short contract at the same site. There began a complicated dance of baby-sitting, with several kind people weighing in to help us out at our hotel in Telford; thanks to Gisela, Julia, Phil and Di for all your efforts!
In the meantime, it didn’t make any financial sense to keep Elizabeth on her powered berth on the Hamble, so we moved her onto a pontoon at Shamrock Quay on the River Itchen in Southampton, where she could sit quietly while we worked in the Midlands and took time off to finish decorating our property in Uruguay.
When we returned to her in early 2016, poor Elizabeth was looking very shabby indeed. A winter sitting in the damp of the river near to some overhanging trees had encouraged a great deal of unwelcome growth on the decks.
Thankfully, as part of my gardening business I had a powerful jet-wash, and after a couple of day’s work I got her presentable again. And then it was time to go sailing.
The pontoon in central Southampton was inconvenient for Winchester, and we weren’t too impressed with the algal growth from the river, so we looked around for somewhere else to keep Elizabeth. Eventually we settled on Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, just a short ferry journey from Hythe which was accessible by train. There was also a car ferry if we needed it, and most importantly, it was wonderfully inexpensive.
We installed Elizabeth on a free-floating pontoon close to the ferry terminal, and started moving our cruising gear aboard. It was time to set her up for ocean cruising.
While fitting out our previous boat, Pindimara, for cruising, we always had to keep in mind that we would have to sell her when we ran out of money at the end of the voyage. This restricted the modifications that we could make, and every change to her structure had to be reversible. It worked out well for us; once we’d removed all of her cruising gear, Pindimara looked pretty much like any standard weekend cruiser, albeit with rather over-specified running gear. The agent was delighted to handle a yacht in such pristine condition.
With Elizabeth, we’re not constrained to keeping her ‘standard’. She’s already over ten years old, and by the time we think about selling her – if we ever do – she’ll be old and hoary enough that nobody will expect her to look like the catalogue.
But that’s all in the future. To begin with, it’s time to get rid of all the equipment that really isn’t us, and which in our opinion is just taking up valuable space. The two previous owners have already made some thoughtful and well-executed changes, but some of them are more suitable for a marina-based caravan than for an ocean cruiser. For instance, one entire shelf was taken up with a flat screen TV and associate aerial paraphernalia, and another locker was filled with video and amplification equipment. We like music as well as the next person, but a five-speaker sound-surround takes up a lot of valuable storage space…
We also discarded a loudly ticking brass clock which was keeping me awake, and some expensive gimballed paraffin lamps which looked great, but made us nervous as we couldn’t ever foresee a scenario where we might want to have naked flames at sea.
In idle moments, I have been sketching designs for the conversion of the forepeak into a more practical seagoing cabin with ample storage, and of the ‘sofa-like’ lounge furniture into something that can work as a sea-berth. We also need to install a proper fridge suitable for 12 volt operation in the tropics, because the standard cavernous Frigiboat is only really useful under shore power.
Out on deck, we are more than happy with the existing modifications, such as extra cleats and cars, a sunshade and a cockpit cover, an extending wooden cockpit table, and some rather neat glass doors at the top of the companionway.
The gas locker, though, is set up for a single 2.72kg camping canister. Even though there’s ample space under the bulkhead, Bavaria have explicitly moulded the inside of the locker so that the more standard large bottles won’t fit, and we are forced to use the more expensive tiny camping variety. Our local chandler is of the opinion that there’s a conspiracy between the European yacht manufacturers and the gas company Calor… be that as it may, that’s one job that needs sorting.
The voyages of our previous boat, Pindimara, were at least partly a test to see if this was a lifestyle that we might want to embrace later in life. Regular readers of this blog will know that we found that it agreed with us rather well, and even though the practicalities of our post-cruise finances meant that we had to temporarily return to the corporate world, we began to plan ahead for our permanent retirement from the rat race.
It took a few years to arrange affairs to our satisfaction, and family matters meant that we were constrained to stay for a while in the UK. However, we finally quit our jobs in the city, and slowly segued into a different pace of life. Bronwyn started a new degree course which should enable her to find outdoor maritime work as we cruise, and I began a local gardening company which brings in just enough cash for us to eat and to pay the marina fees, while getting me fit and out into the sunshine. At the same time, our daughter Berrima was born, and for a while we dropped out of public ken, overwintering on Elizabeth and concentrating on bringing up a child and building the new business.
Both our daughter and our business are now nearly five months old. One is starting to show intelligent interest in the world, and the other has for the first time turned a profit. I finally took a day off to do nothing but lounge on deck and play with Berrima, and felt the muse take me to update our blog.
We have been understandably busy and haven’t really spent much time working on the boat, but on the other hand we are taking a long view. We can’t set sail for good until Bronwyn finishes her degree, and in any case we want Berrima to be old enough to be comfortable on her sea-legs. This gives us a three-year window to get everything ready, and then the plan is to spend a year or two cruising around the Mediterranean, cross over to the Caribbean, and then finally cross the pond to Australia.
In the meantime, one of the downsides of living with a pre-toddler is that despite our best intentions, the interior of our yacht resembles an embarrassingly un-seamanlike cross between a caravan and a laundry. On the few occasions that visitors have prompted us to take the time to go for a sail, it took a full morning to prepare the boat for sea (i.e. to shove half the stuff into lockers, and to hide the other half ashore) and even then we were essentially sailing single-handed as Bronwyn needs all her faculties to concentrate on feeding our ever-hungry passenger. This has tested the limits of our adaptability and we have temporarily declared the boat a visitor-free zone until our new crew-member is able to cope a little more independently.
The grape vines that we helped to prune last year were now due for harvest (vindimia), so we flew back to Extremadura in Spain to see if our efforts had been successful. It was a long drive from Madrid and we didn’t arrive at John’s finca until the small wee hours, but there was still time for a nice glass of wine before bed. In the morning we met the rest of the crew and headed out onto the slopes.
We’d heard that the vines had had a bad year, and at first we were a bit nervous that this was down to our pruning efforts, but it soon emerged that it wasn’t just “our” vines that had suffered, and indeed all the other local vineyards had also been hit by the dry growing season.
Last time we’d seen these vines, they were little more than gnarled stumps dotting the hillside. It was fascinating to see how they had responded to our pruning, with two leafy stems springing a metre or more from each carefully selected nub. Some stems were bare of fruit, many held only a bunch or two, but some were weighed down with grapes.
A few of the bunches had been attacked by fungus, and could not be harvested. A badly timed frost had wiped out many of the tempranillo buds, while leaving the other varietals intact. Up on one slope, a surprising quantity of fruit had sustained some kind of physical damage despite being protected by nets, so we cut out the bad ones before tossing the good fruit into the basket.
Soon our hands, clothes and tools were dripping in sticky juice under the hot autumn sun. Pausing occasionally to snack on fresh figs or swig water from bottles, we laboured on until the tractor trailer was crammed with sacks of fruit.
Friends arrived from a neighbouring finca, bringing still more friends, and we tucked in to a table groaning with food, washed down with cold beer.
Then we needed all hands on deck to unload the grapes from the sacks into buckets, pour them into the crusher, tote away the buckets of stalks, ensure that each grape made several passes through the machine, and finally convey the buckets of sweet juice to the wine vat.
Everything depends on getting this right, and so it is intense and focussed, but also great fun. In the short breaks between unloading each sack of fruit, I looked around the sunny courtyard filled with busy smiling people, and it seemed that I could feel the presence of generation after generation of winemakers, all meeting in this place at this time of year to begin the magic.
Five hundred litres of grape must later, it was time to make up a batch of yeast and start the fermentation process. The vats would now need to be stirred every two hours for the next couple of days, so John wouldn’t get much sleep but it’s worth it to get decent quality wine.
WIth the main tasks completed, it was time to take the children on a tractor ride while we started to tidy up and hose down. When the kids returned, they took over the clean-up, although possibly the dogs and children may have ended up wetter than the equipment.
Later that evening, the neighbours threw a party which went well into the night, drinking wine and chatting under the stars. We didn’t emerge from our beds until the following afternoon, briefly considered clearing up the nets from the vineyard, and then put that off ’til tomorrow in favour of a hike up to the old Roman dam. On the way back down, we collected blackberries to make jam, and set them boiling while we settled down to yet another sumptuous meal. There isn’t anything quite as relaxing as a lazy evening at the finca.
2014 is a year not only of Bronwyn and my significant round-number birthdays, but also of our tenth wedding anniversary. This is a year that we have been planning for since before we were married; this is the year that everything changes.
During our wild and wonderful travels around the world, we have been seizing opportunities and laying ideas like duck eggs. A very few of them hatched and wandered off or were eaten by pike, but most of them hung around and slowly grew to adulthood. Some even turned into swans. All of them come into their full plumage in 2014. This is the year that we get all our ducks in a row. Quack, quack, quack.
We never expected this particular duck to be the first. In fact, its basic features are less duck and more cuckoo. Decades ago in a different life I made an investment decision that, for most of its long and sometimes expensive life, was a lemon. It bounced along through recessions and financial crises, being bought and re-sold by commercial players in the sub-prime market, but the policy itself was locked in to mature in 2014. I had always assumed that when I received the pitiful payout, I would then invest it in some other (hopefully more profitable) venture.
So here we are. The investment matures next month, and mysteriously has picked up a bit of value in recent years, despite the global recession. But what to do with the payout, in a world of minimal interest rates and austerity?
At about the same time, we realised that if we were going to stay in the UK, we really really didn’t want to keep haemorrhaging rent payments, and we were already feeling over-exposed in the property market, so we didn’t want to buy another house. So where would we live?
After the dramatic success of our life on our first yacht Pindimara, we have always planned to buy The Next Boat and sail her home to Australia from wherever we happened to be. This wasn’t due to happen until about 2019, but we suddenly realised that we could kill three birds with one stone by buying The Next Boat, and living on her until we were ready to leave.
One of the best things that I did when purchasing our first yacht, Pindimara, was to accompany the surveyor on his inspection. Over the course of a morning I had learned far more from him than he later put in his report, and was still benefiting from his advice years later.
In our search for a surveyor for Elizabeth, then, we used three simple criteria: The surveyor had to have good qualifications, respond quickly to email, and welcome the buyer’s involvement in the survey. We chose Ian Anderson and booked a day off work.
Ian was really, really thorough, and together we spent almost a day going over the vessel with a fine tooth-comb. We could find absolutely nothing amiss.
Ian flew off to Nigeria to survey a warship, and Bronwyn and I agreed to pay Derrick the full asking price, as long as he had her anti-fouled (after all, she was already out of the water for the survey) and would sail her back to Southampton for us. He readily agreed, and also offered to take us sailing so that we could get used to her before delivery.
We had a great sail with the Derrick and Audrey on Elizabeth. We all got along very well and had a lot of laughs, and the trip highlighted a number of design improvements that Bavaria have implemented since building Pindimara. Elizabeth has an updated rig with in-mast furling, which make single-handed sailing much easier. Purists argue that a furling main sacrifices performance, but it quickly became clear that Elizabeth was much, much faster than Pindimara, and that the battenless rig was much simpler to reef single-handed. The electronics were also better integrated, particularly the autopilot which worked effortlessly.
A couple of weeks later, we all met up again in Southampton. Derrick shed a quiet tear as he gently patted Elizabeth goodbye, and The Next Boat became our new home.
Everybody who has ever owned a yacht is continually, even if only in the background, thinking about The Next Boat. With some years in the UK ahead of us, we had idly been putting some thought into one day buying a new yacht and sailing her home to Australia. There was no real urgency, but we had some investments maturing and no real idea what to do with them, so we had been keeping half an eye on the ‘yachts for sale’ pages of the internet.
There was one lovely world-cruiser in Florida, and another nice example in the UK’s west country. We put in some quiet requests for more information, and discovered that the Florida boat was already under offer, and that the UK yacht’s owner had suddenly changed his mind and didn’t want to sell after all.
A third likely candidate showed up near Southampton. She was a ten-year old Bavaria 37, slightly larger than our previous yacht Pindimara but to the same familiar and proven design. In addition she was the roomier “Master’s” version, with the advantage of a two-cabin layout and only a single head. Because she was a private sale, she was considerably cheaper than other similar boats from dealers, and yet she looked to be in remarkably good condition with most of the extras that we wanted.
We discovered that the owner, Derrick, had just spent a week sailing her east from Southampton and then north up the coast to East Anglia, but England isn’t very big and nothing is really very far away by road, so we drove over to see her.
We were quietly impressed. Derrick, who has been sailing her for almost ten years, is an excellent hobbyist electrician and woodworker, and has kept her in great shape. Every repair and change was an improvement on the original without materially affecting her design. We immediately commissioned a marine survey.
The reason that Iceland exists at all is due to the mid-Atlantic ridge, the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates which runs pretty much north-south down the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. The two plates are moving apart at a rate of several centimetres a year, being pushed apart by molten lava welling up between them. Some of this new material gets pushed up above sea level and forms Iceland, which is why the country is so geothermally active – hence the geysers and hot springs.
One of the items on my bucket list has always been to visit the mid-Atlantic ridge. I had always vaguely assumed that I would have to get there using some kind of submarine, but I hadn’t realised that the ridge is visible as an identifiable geological construct at Þingvellir in Iceland.
The site is so obviously unique that when, a thousand years ago, the newly formed alliance of Icelandic farmers needed a central place to meet, they chose Þingvellir. For hundreds of years, the Law Rock which sits on the ridge was the site of Iceland’s legal deliberations. In time, wrong-doers were also punished here, usually by being outlawed from society for a fixed period of time, or to duel on an island in the Öxará River. When the country converted from the Norse to the Christian religion – an event which also took place here at Þingvellir – the punishments got more severe, for instance in the case of incest, the man would be beheaded and the woman drowned by being dragged across the lake in a sack. Although the modern parliament now meets elsewhere, important national events are still celebrated here.
Even though I’d now seen and touched the edges of two neighbouring continental plates, it still didn’t really feel as if I’d properly ticked off the Ridge from my bucket list. I had been thinking about a submarine and instead found myself ambling along a tarmac path with bus-loads of tour groups. Yes it was picturesque and fascinating, but something was missing.
Luckily Bronwyn had already thought of this, and had booked us a scuba dive to the bottom of the Ridge. We were met by the incomparable Nina and Wouter of Scuba Iceland. It’s so nice to occasionally meet up with other travellers who are such kindred spirits. They were taking us down into Silfra Fissure, known to be one of the best fresh-water dive sites in the world, and the closest thing possible to diving between the two continental plates.
Silfra is part of a river system that drains melt-water into Lake þingvellir, so it’s only a couple of degrees above zero. For this dive we donned thermal underwear, then a fleece under-suit, then a thick neoprene dry-suit. Because of all this additional buoyancy, we also had to carry a lot of extra lead weights, plus big tanks, so getting dressed was quite the process and definitely not a solo affair. Eventually, though, we were ready and staggered down to the start of the fissure.
The dive is in three phases. The first part is prosaically named ‘the toilet’ and is a narrow channel along the Ridge. Then there’s The Cathedral, and enormous open space littered with tumbled lava which has fallen from the walls rearing on either side, and finally the Blue Lagoon, which has a deep sandy bottom scattered with freshwater springs. Visibility is crystal clear at 120 metres, and the glacial melt water shades everything a beautiful shade of blue.
Silfra is a shallow dive, rarely deeper than ten metres. Buoyancy control is always a little hair-trigger on shallow dives. This was my first dry-suit dive, and my first dive in fresh water, so there were a lot of new variables to deal with and I struggled to equalise my buoyancy and ran into a few rocks along the way. Nevertheless I had plenty of time to appreciate the ethereal beauty of the place, as well as occasionally just hanging out in the fissure and thinking, “I’m inside the mid-Atlantic Ridge!”
The journey from the north west to the south west of Iceland takes a couple of days and passes through a number of areas containing waterfalls and geothermal activity. We had intended to make an early start, but got chatting to the nice people at the HestaSport activity centre in Varmahlíð and it was after ten when we finally hit the road.
The initial climb over the pass to Blönduós was beautiful in the sunlight, with fresh powdery snow being blown in ever-moving snake-like patterns across the road and down the frozen river alongside.
We stopped off at Deildartunguhver, the largest hot spring in Europe and probably the most voluminous hot spring in the world. The flow is now piped off to serve the hot water needs of the neighbouring towns, but there is a long strip of scalded land where boiling water bubbles and spits to the surface.
Our next stop was at the twin waterfalls Barnafoss and Hraunfossar. The first (‘child falls’) is a narrow ravine which used to flow through stone arches. The story goes that the mother of two children who died there broke the arches to make it safer. The second (‘lava falls’) is quite interesting. It’s not really a waterfall as such, but a line of spring water pouring out from between two strati of lava rock, resulting in a long line of small falls dropping into the river below.
Our room for the night was at an out-of-season golf hotel, the Icelandair Hamar in Borgarnes. It was operating with a skeleton staff, but fortunately one of those was the excellent chef and we once again dined in perfect Icelandic style. This country is a foodie heaven.
We kept the curtains open that night, and were once again treated to a spectacular display of northern lights. It was brief – only about five minutes long – but enormous, with green-tinged arms spreading right up into the sky in a shimmering triangle.
Dawn (10 am!) saw us already on the road, because we needed to put some miles under our belt if we were to tackle the standard Reykjavik tourist trail, the Golden Circle. Passing through Laugarvatn on the way to Geysir we found ourselves feeling a bit peckish. We by-passed several ‘coffee cup’ traffic signs and then found the ‘knife and fork’ which meant a proper restaurant. At the door of Lindin, we were greeted by the owner and head chef, who seated us and presented us with a simple menu of extravagant dishes. We had scored again.
As a starter I had four different carpaccios of game; goose, reindeer, horse and whale, accompanied by a rather excellent goose liver pate. Bronwyn had been hankering for a salad, and although there wasn’t one on the menu, the chef knocked one up from the contents of his greenhouse. For mains, Bronwyn had another of those stunning Icelandic lamb dishes; the lamb here is to die for. I went for an almond-encrusted fillet of arctic char. All wonderful. We left fat and happy.
The eponymous water spout at Geysir no longer performs on a day to day basis, it is only active during earthquakes. Fortunately the nearby Strokkur still runs every eight minutes or so. We watched quite a few cycles, varying from quick bursts to big jets, or even double jets. The thing that surprised me was the short duration of each blow, only a second or so. We entertained ourselves watching other tourists trying to catch the eruptions on film.
The final waterfall on the Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It was by now close to sunset, and the wind chill was seriously bitter, so we scuttled around the falls mummified in layers of fleece and feathers. Gullfoss itself is pretty impressive, with a wide upper fall followed by a second at ninety degrees down into a transverse gorge, all hung about with snow and ice. There is a path down to the waterside, but it was encased in ice and closed for the winter season, so we peered down at the falls from above.
Shivering but content, we hit the road and headed for Reykjavik, where we needed to drop the car off at the rental office. As I pulled out onto the highway, I felt a moment of melancholy that our road trip was nearly over. Then the setting sun peeked out from the clouds and illuminated the snow-covered slopes beside us, and the sadness was lost in a gorgeous pink haze of beauty.
It was time to leave Akureyri and return to the west, but this time we decided to go over the top of the pass rather than back around the coast. It had been snowing quite heavily for several days, so we were a little relieved to wake to blue skies. The snow-ploughs had done a good job, and we got over without any trouble.
A few days ago, we tried to get to the geothermal pool at Grettislaug, where legend has it that the outlaw Grettir the Strong warmed up after swimming seven Arctic Ocean kilometres from the island of Drangey. On that occasion our map was incorrect and we ended up on the wrong side of the peninsula.
This time we had better directions. The last section is a minor road which was described as ‘icy but passable’. The road was indeed thick sheet ice, but the spiked tyres held their own. About two kilometres from the pool, there was a farm gate. We got out to open it, and discovered that even though the car was doing tolerably well, we could barely stand on the slippery surface.
Another half kilometre, and we could see the end of the road down by the sea shore. However, the ice was now stacked in transverse ridges and the car was starting to slide. I was confident that I could safely take us down to the shore, but less sure that I’d be able to get us back up the hill afterwards. For one of the very few times in my life, I chose the risk-averse option, and spun the car round to face back the way we’d come. The only way that we could go further was on foot.
That was far easier said than done. It was impossible to even stand on the road without crampons, which we had neglected to pack. The fields on either side were also iced up, but occasional tufts of yellow hay projected through, and it was possible to very gingerly make progress. After a few hundred metres, we admitted that we’d never make it, certainly not without risking a certain bruising or worse. We turned round and carefully picked our way back to the car.
A question of gait
Emma from HestaSport had saddled up some horses for us in nearby Varmahlíð. The Icelandic horse, which resembles a Shetland pony, is the only breed of horse allowed in Iceland, having been introduced here around the 1000 years ago and kept pure ever since. The reason that the rules are so strict is that it is now the only breed of horse that naturally possesses five separate gaits. Elsewhere in the world, two have been lost, modern breeds being only able to trot, canter or gallop. Icelandic horses also have the tölt and the pace. The tölt is fast and yet comfortable because, since only one hoof is on the ground at any one time, there is virtually no up-and-down motion in the saddle. The pace is a very fast sprinting motion where the horse rocks from side to side with both left feet on the ground, then both right.
The ground was icy here, too, but the horses had spiked winter shoes which made them sure-footed even on sheet ice. Emma told us that they are so good on ice that new riders often forget when they dismount, and end up sliding underneath the horse because they can’t stand up. Certainly these horses had no problem negotiating the icy, snowy, tussocky ground.
On the way back to the stables, Emma showed us how to tölt, and we had some fun changing the pace up and down. It’s a really versatile gait, and you can genuinely just sit in the saddle and let it happen, it’s like floating on a cloud. Why can’t all horses do this?
Heat and Light HestaSport also have some lovely little cottages on top of a nearby hill, and we had rented one for the night. Our little cabin has 360 degree views and is one of five clustered around a geothermal hot tub. After preparing dinner in our kitchen, we lazed under the stars in the 40 degree water and watched as the first slight haze of the northern lights appeared. There was a clear cold sky so we were hopeful of an auroral display later in the night, but it was too early yet for anything to happen.
Much later, as I was penning this blog with all the lights off and the curtains open, a glimmer of movement caught the corner of my eye. At exactly eleven, a shimmering band of light spread out across half the sky. Streamers shifted abruptly back and forth, searchlights shone brightly into the heavens, and mysterious black bars of anti-light danced back and forth along the shining arc. Half an hour later, the lights went out and it was all over, but we felt privileged to have witnessed the display in this amazing place.
A tale of two waterfalls
Half way from Akureyri and Myvatn is Goðafoss (God’s waterfall), so named because when the region converted to Christianity, the chief threw all the old Viking religious icons over the edge. The snow-storm was blowing a gale, but we arrived just as the sun rose over the mountains and the mist began to clear. Walking tentatively out to the falls, it wasn’t immediately clear which parts of the snowfield were safely laid upon volcanic rock, and which spanned minor tributaries of the river, but we got close enough to have a good look.
To complete the set, we also wanted to visit Dettifoss, the highest-volume waterfall in Europe, nominally two hours away by car. The route passed Lake Myvatn and then climbed higher, and ever higher. The road surface vanished beneath drifting snow.
About 40 minutes shy of the route indicated by our hire car’s GPS, I suddenly hit the brakes. There was a signpost to what was clearly a shorter, better way to the waterfall. I reversed, turned off the highway, and almost immediately came up against a chain slung across the road and a sign, ‘Impassable in winter’. Obviously the computer knew something that we didn’t.
I reversed back onto the highway, and we continued on. The tarmac ran out and we were technically on gravel, but it made little difference because the road was anyway covered in sheet ice. We crossed a tiny little suspension bridge, turned a corner, and piled into a deep snow drift. Another chain. Road closed. We now knew something that the computer didn’t.
Reversing our tracks, we headed back toward Lake Myvatn. The nearby volcano of Krafla has erupted 29 times in recorded history, so the area is full of geothermal features. We stopped off to look at the volcanic fields of Námafjall, a colourful area of steaming rock, bubbling mud pots, and smoking fumaroles. The thermometer claimed 1 degree centigrade, but the wind chill was bitter, and we were glad to warm ourselves by the bubbling vents.
Across the road is a geothermal power station. We discovered that the visitor centre was closed in winter, so we decided to drive up to the volcanic fields of Krafla but the road was blocked by snow and anyway, even if we’d got through, any kind of hiking would have been precluded by the blizzard which was now coming in horizontally.
The only sensible thing to do was to go swimming, so we headed for Myvatn Nature Baths, a geothermal hot swimming pool. We were warned that because of the strong easterly wind, the western end of the pool was off limits because all the boiling water tends to congregate downwind. We ventured tentatively in that direction, and it was indeed blistering. The rest of the pool, though, was lovely, and the wind was continually churning the water so that there were pockets of warm interspersed with pockets of really hot. There was also a cold swimming lake and a pair of steam rooms. Bliss.
Eventually dusk started to fall, and along with it, more snow. It was an interesting drive back to Akureyri, but we made it down to sea level with only minimal sliding, and were soon tucking in to a good warm fish dinner at the hotel.
It was a long drive up to Siglufjördur, Iceland’s northernmost town, but the snow-covered volcanic scenery was beautiful. For several hundred kilometres we had the company of a couple of French hitch-hikers, who were heading to Akureyri to work for their lodgings on a sheep farm. The weather was fine when we picked them up, but the roads became icy as the temperature dropped to zero and I was glad of the studded tyres. We dropped the hikers off as close as we good, but I don’t envy them farm work in this weather.
We were booked in to a little house near to the docks, with clear views of the sky above the fjord. The overnight aurora forecast was good, with high activity and clear skies, but in the end there was no display. The morning, however, brought gale-force winds and freezing rain. We cooked a quick breakfast and then slithered down the road to the Herring Museum. Everything was dark, and more to gain shelter from the sleet than in any real hope, Bronwyn pushed at the door and it opened. Inside we found a hand-bell, which summoned a cheerful man who explained as he unlocked the rest of the museum that they didn’t keep opening hours in winter, they just opened up if anybody showed up.
The museum is a masterpiece, and has already won several awards. It spans three buildings that document the sixty-five years of Iceland’s ‘Herring Adventure’. In the early 1900s, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. One day, Norwegian fishing trawlers arrived, chasing the herring shoals. Finding good catches, they bought property along the Icelandic coast and began processing their catches there. The locals soon caught on, and sleepy Siglufjördur became a thriving industrial centre, the ‘Atlantic Klondyke’, attracting workers and investors from far and wide. Fortunes were made as the Icelanders took over all of the fishing fleets and built processing plants up and down the coast. The herring industry soon represented at least 25% of the country’s GDP, and post-war Europe became heavily dependent on Icelandic herring meal as animal fodder.
Then in the early 1960s, the herring catch began to decrease. Scientists warned of an impending crash, but ‘herring fever’ was in full swing and everybody started building bigger and better trawlers and faster and more mechanised processing plants. This kept supply in line with demand until 1969, when the herring failed to show up. The boom was over, and the herring towns just melted away.
Nevertheless, the entire episode is credited with turning Iceland into a modern industrial nation. Those who had made money in the Herring Adventure employed the newly mobile and motivated work-force and moved into cod and other industries, and the nation prospered. In the early 21st century, the herring even came back.
The Herring Museum consists of three restored warehouse-style buildings. One showcases the offices of a typical herring company, and the accommodation given to the itinerant workers who showed up each year for the herring sorting season. It also houses a couple of very interesting films of the herring catch coming in, one dating back to the early 1930s and the other which was produced for the 1939 New York Expo, which gives you an idea of just how important it was.
The second building contains a complete herring processing plant. Any herring that weren’t good enough to be stored whole in barrels, were fed into a factory, where the oil was boiled out and bottled, and the remainder crushed into animal feed.
The third building is the real jewel in the crown. It contains the most incredible collection of, well, stuff. It’s all contemporary with the Herring Adventure, and includes a fleet of genuine fishing vessels of all sizes, moored up against a simulated dock as if they it’s the middle of the night and they’re waiting for their crews. The superb thing is that it is not organised like a museum, it’s intended to be a complete reconstruction of daily life. You can go anywhere, climb everything, open all the doors, pick things up and look at them. Inside cupboards you’ll find boxes and tins of food, if you lift a bilge hatch you can climb down into the hold and find all the tools and parts that you would expect if you were aboard a 1960s fishing vessel. Scattered around the dock are little workshops and nets being mended, chandleries packed with all sorts of exciting goods. It’s hard to describe what a wonderful treasure trove it is; we had it all to ourselves and spent the entire morning exploring.
The only thing that finally dragged us back to the car was the building gale outside. Somehow the wind sleeting over the roofs of the warehouses was chilling the buildings far below the nominal 2 degrees on the thermometer, and our extremities were starting to freeze as we poked about in one more ‘just let me look in here…’
Somewhat reluctantly we got into the car, and headed out into the blizzard toward Akureyri, which will be our home for the next few days while we explore Lake Myvatn. After a couple of indifferent drinks in our hotel bar, we headed across the street to the incomparable Rub 23 restaurant, where I had minke sashimi followed by five different fish fillets, each flavoured with a different ‘rub’, and Bronwyn had three kinds of fish sashimi (including a beautiful fresh cod) followed by a wonderful slab of ‘sous vide’ beef. To mark the occasion, we splashed out on a bottle of my favourite Meursault wine. A perfect end to a perfect day.
There’s a toll tunnel out of Reykjavik, which was thick with smog from traffic fumes. We emerged coughing into the sunrise, which is less impressive than it sounds because sunrise at this time of year is at 10 am. We were heading around Iceland’s ring road for the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes. The GPS in our hired 4WD kept saying “Please take the second exit from the roundabout onto One”, until we turned her off, because there is broadly speaking only one highway of any length on Iceland, which is the One that we were on.
The landscape near the city was rugged with gnarled volcanic rocks dusted with snow, but as we climbed higher we began to see enough forage for the ubiquitous Icelandic ponies.
Once we arrived at the peninsula, we decided to circumnavigate it anticlockwise, taking in the Snæfellsjökull (glacier) on the way, if the pass happened to be open.
The northern coastline is dotted with little fishing harbours, and we stopped in one for lunch. We ate the local cod, which was fresh and beautifully prepared. The bartender was an ex-fisherman, and I asked him about the depleted cod stocks that had been on the UK news for much of the late 1980s, but he said that as far as they were concerned, there had never been a noticeable cod shortage, and there had always been plenty to be found.
We had noticed a number of tasteful roadside sculptures along the way, and were rather impressed by some of the modern churches. The one on the hillside above the restaurant had a lovely sweeping modern exterior and a simple Lutheran interior, complete with a beautiful stainless-steel organ and a simple oil painting instead of an altar piece.
Further along the road is the little mount of Helgafell, surmounted by a ruined chapel. The local legend goes that if you climb to the top without either speaking or looking back, then you should stand in the ruin, face East and make three wishes. We parked at the bottom and duly began to climb. Presumably it is much easier in the summer! I don’t think that many people attempt this in an icy wind when the ground is frozen and icy, but we did finally make it to the top. Bronwyn did vocalise a little on some of the dicier sections, and I’m not sure if leaning down to lend her my hand counts as ‘looking back’, but we made some wishes anyway. Possibly one of the wishes should have been that there was an easier way down…
Our next intended stop was down a track which we judged too icy even with our studded tyres, so we continued on to the turn-off to the glacier. We quickly encountered a sign which stated in English ‘Impassable’. We checked with a local who was working on his truck, and he said laconically, “Closed. There is snow”. As we drove off, the glacier dumped a blizzard across our windscreen.
The change of route gave us the opportunity to drive on to Djüpaloénssandur and walk down to the black sand beach, which is littered with the remains of a trawler which went ashore in 1948. The wreckage has been left as a monument to those who died, and touchingly it does not seem to have been disturbed except by the sea.
On this beach are the ‘lifting stones of Dritvik’. These are four large boulders of varying weights alongside a flat waist-high platform. The story goes that if you could pick up the 25kg ‘weakling’ and put it on the platform, then you could work onboard a Dritvik fishing boat in a junior capacity. In order to work as an oarsman, you needed to lift the 54kg ‘half strong’. Bronwyn managed the weakling, I managed the half-strong, but neither of us attempted the 100kg or 154kg weights.
As dusk was falling, we started to look for restaurants along the way, because we had gained the impression that there wasn’t a restaurant at our next hotel. The few that we found were either closed for the season or not yet open for the evening. In the end, Bronwyn phoned ahead to ask if we could get anything to eat close to the hotel, and they rather tentatively suggested that we should book into their restaurant. Thank goodness that we did! Both the hotel (Hotel Búðir) and the restaurant were stunning. Fine dining overlooking the fjord, with the mountains glowing in the background. The food – an untranslatable local fish – was gorgeous. Afterward we whiled away the evening with locally brewed porters and that typical Icelandic duo of birch-bark liqueurs, Björk and Birkir.
We needed to find a hotel somewhere between Seville and Malaga, and stopped off half way at a town called Antequera. This was an almost random choice, but we liked it so much that we stayed on. It’s a lovely town, founded by the Romans as Antikara, we infer as a midway garrison between the olive groves of the centre and the trading ports of the coast. There are few Roman remains there now, but there are a plethora of city walls, churches and cathedrals, all clambering picturesquely up the steep hillside to the castle.
The hotel were keen to direct us toward a nearby restaurant, but we were put off by the coach parking and English menus. Instead we located a couple of nice little bars, cafes, and a superb Michelin recommended restaurant, the Restaurante Reine. This latter is part of a Hospitality School, and when we arrived early and off season there was only one waitress on duty. As far as we could tell, the three of us were the only people in the restaurant, and yet she not only cooked seven impeccable courses but also appeared with the decanter at perfect intervals, and by the time we’d finished our coffees, the kitchen had already been scrubbed clean.
The most popular tourist destination in the area is El Torcal, a wide area of Jurassic limestone that has been eroded into classic and picturesque karst formations. There are two circular hiking routes through the system, and we took the longer 4.5 km one. The sign said that it would take two hours to complete the circuit, and – perhaps uniquely in the history of national parks – it actually did. This is because there is no real path, just markers sticking up as you scramble from rock to rock, and there are innumerable side tracks, tunnels, caves, and high points to be explored.
I understand that it is often too hot to visit in summer, but in January the temperature was only just above freezing. We soon warmed up, and made it round just as dusk was falling and the clouds were moving in.
Just down the road from El Torcal is Lobo Park, which is a collection of wolves from around the world. All of them are captive-bred, often cubs taken from zoos that don’t have enough room for them. The owners then bottle-feed them so that they become accustomed to humans, although not domesticated. Once released into one of the many large enclosures, the wolves range freely in packs. Our guide explained that they had already fed this week, but she brought a bucket of meat scraps with her and – although wild – they were happy to come close to the fence for a snack.
When we were about half way around the park, all of the wolves in the entire valley suddenly started howling, an explosion of joyous sound to which it was impossible not to grin in response. It reminded me of the excitement of sled dogs when they realise that they’re about to go for a run, but what were these wolves so interested in? Our guide, also grinning, explained that the park’s owner, Daniel, had just entered the property. Because he has bottle-fed every one of them almost from birth, he has a very special place in their psyche.
A chance meeting at a party, and we found ourselves driving to the Extremadura region of Spain to help prune grape vines. Extremadura lies to the centre of the country, butting up against Portugal. It is effectively a desert, with high summer temperatures and frequent droughts. These conditions are excellent for the production of wine, particularly dark reds from tempranillo and garnacha grapes, and our friend John needed a hand pruning his vines ahead of the spring growing season.
John has thousands of vines, and a competent person can prune about ten an hour, so there was a lot to do, especially as Bronwyn and I were complete beginners. However, John was a patient tutor and we soon got the hang of it.
There is a lot more to vine pruning than just hacking off the old growth. You have to evaluate the state of the vine, try to figure out what the last pruner was trying to achieve, make your own decision about what you want to achieve in terms of the number of branches and the direction that you’d like them to grow in, and then cut away everything that gets in the way of your chosen result. This includes cutting away useless suckers and last year’s stumps, sawing off failed branches, stacking stones under the trunks so that they don’t sit in ground water, and judiciously knocking off any tiny buds that will ruin the final shape. It’s not physically hard, but mentally more taxing than you would think, and sometimes we found ourselves sitting down next to a plant and talking to it while we tried to figure out the best way of encouraging it to grow a good crop.
The days quickly formed a pattern which went: Drink wine from the vat and laugh until the small wee hours; sleep til midday; prune vines til dusk; repeat.
John also makes some excellent olive oil, but some of the eating olives had been sitting in brine for too long, so Bronwyn spent a pleasant afternoon rinsing and re-packing them.
We did also find time for some long tramps around the countryside, and for foraging trips to the local markets. On one rainy day when pruning would have been a chore, we climbed up to a Roman dam that had been built at the top of a local creek. Despite the soaking wet foliage, we attempted a cross-country route which took us hiking through ancient olive groves and clambering over fallen rocks, discovering on the way an old embankment which might just have been the Romans’ original construction road. After some laughs and spills, we did finally make it to the dam, which is in remarkable condition considering its age. There is a slot that obviously used to contain a sluice, which has been slightly widened out at the bottom by thousands of years of erosion.
Deep in the heart of the Extremadura desert, the little town of Trujillo is famous as the birthplace of Pizarro and other conquistadores. Far from being the cream of Spain’s military forces, the invaders of the Inca and Maya nations were often penniless Extremaduran farmers who had been suffering from years of drought. Although a few were poor gentry or at least soldiers, many had no experience of either sailing or war, and few either survived or made their fortunes. Those that did return, spent their gold prodigiously, building castles and palaces on the hill above Trujillo, with fountains and pleasure gardens. Sadly those that returned were also ignorant of the ways of wealth and investment, and after a very few years the gold ran out, and they moved out of their palaces and back down into their farms.
The result of this curious historical legacy is that the little town is architecturally much grander than it might otherwise have been. The last time that I was here, most of the palaces were still in ruins, but since then Trujillo has been visited by relative prosperity, and many of them have been restored.
Despite my many perambulations across the length and breadth of Spain, I have always avoided visiting Seville. This was not because I didn’t want to go there, which I emphatically did, particularly because I wanted to see the site of the 1992 Expo. I wanted to do the city more justice than a day trip while on my way to somewhere else. Serendipity tossed in a few days to kill while driving from Trujillo to Malaga, so we thought that we might as well spend them in Seville.
On our arrival by car, we got thoroughly lost in the tiny alleys of the old town, a warren of one-way systems and dead ends. As we reversed out of yet another pedestrian walkway, We swiftly realised that if we indulged our usual plan to take a hop-on hop-off bus, we would miss all the interesting old parts of the city, because there was no way a bus would fit down them. Once we eventually ditched the car in a car park that was more expensive than our city-centre hotel, we decided instead to rent a bicycle tour guide.
We arrived at the bike store to discover that we were the only clients that morning. Because of this, and because “you are young and can cycle”, our guide Antonio decided that instead of simply doing the normal city tour, we would also tour some of the lesser known sights and take in the 1992 Expo. This would mean stepping up the pace a bit, but he thought that it was probably do-able.
The 1992 Expo
The Expo was pivotal in the formation of modern Seville. Until then, the city was a bit of a nowhere place, with no particular crop or market to distinguish it from its neighbours. In fact, through its long and chequered history, there have been periods of hundreds of years when the city didn’t exist at all, particularly after the river port silted up and all the excise business moved to Cadiz.
Then Seville hosted the Expo. The government co-opted the rather beautiful premises of the local ceramics factory and issued invitations. Hundreds of countries built pavilions to showcase their wares. The French brought an Ariane rocket, the Japanese built the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Australians opened a bar. The Expo was an immense success, and kick-started Seville’s tourist industry in such a way that it never looked back.
Although many of the pavilions were taken home after the festivities were over, some were left behind. One notable case was the Australian pavilion, a bar with one month’s licence which had been such a success that the owner skipped town with all the proceeds, leaving behind all his staff with no wages or tickets home. They petitioned the government, and received permission to continue operating the bar for a full year, so that they could recoup their losses.
There are also some buildings dating back to the 1929 Expo, which was a showcase of all the Spanish nations, plus a couple of extra invitees such as Israel (which did not then yet exist as a country). Plaza de España is a tremendous edifice built in a mixture of styles including Mudéjar, which is a beautiful faux-Moorish architecture popular in the city. The Plaza is now largely used as government offices but the canal is a popular spot for rowing. Antonio told us that, when he was growing up, this was a good first date where you could attempt to splash water on your girl’s top to make it more transparent.
Everybody we met told us that a visit to Seville was not complete without a visit to the Alcázar (Royal Palace), so we spent an afternoon poking around in it. Originally a Moorish fort, the Alcázar consists of many Arab courtyards with water features and mosaic tiling, surrounded by extensive gardens. Even in winter it is quite a lovely space.
Sevillians have an interesting theory about the history of their city. They maintain that it was founded by Hercules, who was a refugee from Atlantis (Tharsis) which had been flooded with sand by a tidal wave. The story goes that Hercules set up twelve trading centres around the Mediterranean, which became entangled in the Twelve Labours of legend, with the founding of Seville somehow related to cleaning out the Augean Stables. Sevillians also recognise that much of their infrastructure was implemented by Julius Caesar, and there are statues to both of these founders at one end of the Alameda de Hercules.
The cathedral is sometimes touted as the largest gothic cathedral in the world. However, it was pointed out to us that (a) only a small part of the cathedral is gothic, and (b) since the Vatican is by definition the largest cathedral in the world, Seville was not allowed to consecrate the whole building. Still, it’s an impressive pile with a great tower.
But what about the oranges? Seville’s name is inseparable from the orange fruit, and the trees are everywhere. However, none of them are edible. It is alleged that they were introduced during a period of Arab rule, when the pith of the sour oranges was used to provide acid for the production of gunpowder.
There are plenty of tourist-trap restaurants in Seville, but by ignoring any place that was on a main street or advertised an English menu, we managed several respectable crawls of lovely little bars. We drank copious copas of good Rioja, and ate innumerable tapas of (usually) Iberian ham and cheese. The locals were always welcoming, and obviously proud of their place in their blossoming city.
One of the delights of travelling in southern Spain is the architectural contrast caused by repeated waves of Arab and Christian colonisation. For instance, the Arabs might hold sway for a few hundred years, incorporating pre-existing Roman stones into their mosque. Then the Christians might arrive, knock down the mosque, and use not only the pre-dressed stone but also enslaved Arabic stone masons to rebuild a cathedral. Of course, the Arab stone masons only know how to build in their own style, they know nothing of Gothic architecture, and so inevitably the cathedral gains an Arabic flavour. A few hundred years later, the Arabs might return, knock down the cathedral, enslave all the Christian stone masons, and build a mosque, with the same result. Some of the most wonderful examples of Spanish architecture, such as the Alhambra in Granada, are the product of this kind of history.
The history of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba is probably unique. When Christians invaded the currently Arabic city, they appreciated the beauty of the current mosque, and instead of demolishing it wholesale, they decided to incorporate much of the original building into their new cathedral. They kept the outer orange gardens, and also the inner courtyard. The courtyard was open to the outside world in the Arabic style, so they filled in the external arches with chapels in the Catholic style. Finding that they were unable to conduct Christian worship with all the sight-lines blocked by arches, they knocked out the centre and added a cathedral-style tower, dome and choir. The result is a gorgeous blend of the two architectural styles.
The most obvious feature of the Mezquita is the outer courtyard of double arches. The 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite (constructed using pieces of the pre-existing Roman temple, plus others from the nearby Mérida amphitheatre) are connected with red and white striped arches. Much of the striping derives from the use of differently coloured of bricks, but in some of the outlying areas, where money was tighter, the stone has been painted instead. Either way, the result is stunning.
The original mosque had a really beautiful mihrab or prayer niche, which has been retained in the current cathedral.
In the middle of the mosque, the Christian invaders then built the heart of a cathedral, retaining many of the original mosque’s features.
Photographs don’t really do this place justice. You have to visit and soak up the ambience. A beautiful corner of the world, one of those true architectural delights.
The January weather in England was typically dire, and neither of us were working, so we rented a flat in Malaga. The idea was to spend a relaxing few weeks just hanging out in the sun and learning Spanish. We got a cheap flight and before we knew it we were ensconced in a nice little apartment in the centre of the city.
Although we’d only recently been in Malaga on another jaunt and still remembered our way around, we thought that we’d take a guided bicycle tour of the city with Malaga Bike Tours, which proved to be a lot of fun. Coincidentally it was also a bank holiday, el Dia de los Reyes, which is the day that Spanish children open their Christmas presents, and so the town was empty and quiet. Our guide, Izzy, was very relaxed and more than happy to sit around waiting in the sun while we nipped off to examine the inside of churches or explored the botanical gardens.
Malaga and indeed much of southern Spain was Moorish territory for hundreds of years before the Christians pushed this far south, and so the architecture is often a blend of the two architectural styles. When Mosques in particular were captured, they were often simply re-purposed as churches with little amendment. The result is that the churches are often a lot more colourful and intricately carved than is usual even in Catholic Europe.
On the other hand, Malaga’s cathedral was built from the ground up, the project taking long enough that it embraces the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, until finally the project ran out of money when building the second of the planned two towers. The cathedral quickly gained the affectionate nickname La Manquita (the cripple), and when much later the authorities planned to finish the tower, there was an outcry and she was left alone to this day.
The city is bisected by the Guadelmedina river, which in common with most of the watercourses that descend from the mountains of Malaga is really a dry wadi, particularly since it has been dammed to form a water supply. An attempt has been made to turn the dry river bed into a recreational area with grass and fountains, but unlike the rather splendid linear park in Valencia, the architects haven’t really pulled it off. All that remains is a beaten-up and graffiti-strewn strip of rubble that is largely used by dog-walkers and skateboarders.
Of course two of the wonders of Spain are the meat and seafood. Pictured below is a meat platter that we ordered in a little roadside bar, and a squid platter that we ordered in a cabana on the beach.
High above the city are two castles or palaces, the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro, joined by a slender double-wall that snakes up the ridge between them, a little reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. Originally built by the Arabs, they have been repaired and rebuilt many times across the centuries, resulting in an interesting mish-mash of styles. Even the original builders incorporated pillars and dressed stone from an earlier Roman amphitheatre.
The palace, now only a shell, must have been stunning in its day. Even now, little fountains play in the courtyards, and tiny artificial streams run in channels down the centre of every mosaic path. It is a very beautiful and relaxing place.
Although originally you could walk along the defensive wall between the two castles, that path (Le Coracha) is now closed to visitors. However, a switchback of marble tiles takes you along the south side of the wall, with views out over the port and bull ring.
There isn’t too much left of the palace itself, but a walkway along the fringing wall is worth it for the views.
Jardin Botánico-Histórico La Concepción Out beyond the northern suburbs of Malaga lies La Concepción, the world-famous botanical gardens created back in 1855. Climbing up the side of a steep hill, the gardens comprise a network of little paths and streams crammed with biological specimens from all over the world, all luxuriating in the balmy Malaguese climate.
It took us a while to get out there, because rather than take either of the direct buses, we inadvertently chose the slow stopping bus which eventually dropped us in a nearby suburb, but local buses are always an adventure, and we happened to get off outside a farmer’s market which allowed us to buy cherries for lunch.
We spent the whole afternoon wandering around the gardens, enjoying the different collections and relaxing in shaded corners to enjoy the views.
Hammam al Andalus
And finally, what better way to recover from a hard day’s tourism than to relax in an Arab bath house? We visited the Hammam al Andalus several times. There are hot, warm and cold pools, hot stone slabs, and a steam room. The interior is just beautiful and there’s nothing quite as relaxing as lying floating in a hot pool while gazing up at the intricately carved domed ceilings.
We also indulged in a few kessa massages, which involve a series of gentle and relaxing sensations. First hot water is gently poured over you body, then you are covered in an enormous lather bubble which pops gently against your skin, before finally being scoured by an exfoliating glove… and repeat. It is superbly relaxing. If we lived here, we would go every week.
The Queen Elizabeth pulled in to Malaga dock, and we hopped off to explore the city. Most of the passengers jumped into the line of waiting taxis and buses, but we chose instead to stroll along the sea defences to the old lighthouse that marks the beginning of the town.
Underneath the lighthouse, a cheerful man had lit a fire in an old rowing boat – a tradition along this coast – and was cooking fish for sale in the neighbouring cafe.
I had vague childhood memories of tower blocks and traffic, so I was prepared to be unimpressed, but in fact we both instantly felt at home in this happy, vibrant town. The visitor from the sea instantly finds himself in the exotic gardens of Malaga Park. This was built at the end of the nineteenth century when it was realised that most of the citizens of the city could not afford to visit the wonderful Botanical Gardens that are situated to the north of the town. To this end, the local ship owner instructed his captains to bring back trees from whatever part of the world they found themselves in, as they shipped their cargoes across the seas. The result is a lovely strip of very exotic trees, scattered with mosaics, fountains and sculptures.
The most obvious building in town is the cathedral, known locally as ‘The Cripple’ because it was never finished and is missing a tower. Built over such a long period that each facade is from a different architectural era, the interior of the cathedral is awe-inspiring. There are dozens of altars and chapels, and an incredible ceiling that just makes you want to lie on the ground and stare.
We didn’t really have time to visit the Alcazabar (castle) on this occasion, but we did nose around in the Roman amphitheatre below it, and the recent archaeological discovery of enormous stone vats that were used for brewing a famous fish sauce, the recipe for which has since been lost to antiquity.
With only a day to spend in Malaga, we finished our trip by visiting the striking group of buildings known as the ‘ABC’, for ‘Ayuntamiento, Banco, Correos‘ (Town Hall, Bank, Post Office).
Then, as was normal for this whistle-stop voyage, it was back to the ship for dinner.
We only need to board our pre-booked compartment on the Trans-Siberian Express, but our driver insisted on coming into Moscow train station with us and waiting until our platform had been announced. This took a while, so we hung around outside the station bar and sank a few Lowenbrau beers and tried to make conversation with him in pidgin Russian and French. By the time the Trans-Siberian rolled in, we were rolling a bit ourselves.
As we walked the length of the train, looking for our assigned carriage, we noticed that standing in each doorway was a pair of Mongolian conductresses, each smartly dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt, sometimes a very short blue skirt.
We found our compartment, which was officially a four-berth but, because we’d paid for first class, there will only be two of us in it. It’s a tiny little space but our home for the next week or so. The train shook itself and then moved slowly out of Moscow station, destination Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and then Beijing in China, six thousand kilometres on the longest railway line in the world. I stuck my head out of the window and howled; I am on the Trans-Siberian Express!
Our carriage is full of travellers, we have Chileans and French on either side. As night fell, all six of us got amazingly sloshed on canned Tuborg from the restaurant car which is an arduous nine carriages away.
The next morning, we started to learn a few of the features of this train. Each carriage has a ladies’ and a gents’ toilet, but the gents’ on our carriage isn’t working. I tried to use the gents’ in the next carriage, but was firmly turned away by the conductress there, so our carriage’s toilet is now effectively unisex. Either way, it has no toilet paper, but luckily we brought some with us.
At the end of each carriage is a wood-fired samovar, tended by the conductress, which provides hot water for drinks. Although we did bring coffee and a press, there is no crockery or cutlery, and we didn’t think to bring any with us. However, with the aid of a pair of nail-scissors, we managed to fashion a flimsy coffee cup out of the base of a water bottle.
Along each corridor is a red woollen carpet, nailed to the wooden floor with long brass tacks that keep popping out. The conductress endlessly patrols this carpet, either sweeping it or hammering the tacks back in. I’ve already trodden on one of those tacks, which leaked blood everywhere, but worse than that the carpet sheds little pieces of red wool which get into every crevice of your luggage and which pile up in little drifts on the floor of each compartment.
On our first morning, we made the long trip to the restaurant car for breakfast. We gathered that although this particular train consists of Mongolian rolling stock (and therefore Mongolian staff), the restaurant car gets changed when we cross borders. Since we are still in Siberia, the restaurant car is Russian, but will be exchanged for a Mongolian one at the border town of Naushki. We sat down to a pleasant dish of potatoes fried with dill and garlic, with a side of pickled cucumbers, plus our own pressed coffee in a borrowed water glass.
At about lunchtime, the train pulled in to a station. It looked pretty quiet and desolate, but we got out anyway to stretch our legs. Suddenly there was an explosion of elderly ladies, sprinting across the tracks and ducking under trains, carrying trays of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, smoked fish, bread, and even cling-filmed plates of fresh hot food. I bought some freshly roasted chicken with boiled potatoes, and Bronwyn scored a couple of salted gherkins from a plastic bucket. We also managed to buy some sturdier soft drink bottles so that we could make better coffee cups. Just about everything cost 100 roubles (about two English pounds) per item. The chicken tasted superb, far less bland than the stuff sold in Western supermarkets, and the potatoes were wonderful.
All this time, we had been chugging across a rather monotonous flat Siberian landscape of birch, pine, and the occasional open field. At the base of the Urals, our old engine was exchanged for a new one. We started to climb, but slowly. Were the birches looking a little thinner?
The trees thinned out into grasslands. Occasionally we passed a rock-crushing plant or train repair yard, and now and again a village of wooden houses. There were no signs of crops apart from some extensive market gardens behind some of the houses, and – very occasionally – some hay ricks, although it wasn’t clear what the hay was for, as we didn’t see any farm animals.
The Trans-Siberian isn’t really about the outside world, it’s all about the microcosm that is the train, and it didn’t take long for us to fall into its rhythm. In the morning, after sweeping out the night’s accumulation of red dust-balls, we’d hang out in our compartment and catch up on our reading. During the day, we’d hang out of the window and watch the world go by. Occasionally a freight train would trundle past on the other track. We’d snack on yesterday’s left-overs and wait patiently for the next stop, where we would leap out and grab meat, beer, ice cream, whatever was being sold by the ladies on the platform. In the afternoon, we would entertain visitors (our largely empty carriage was always popular with people travelling second class). In the evenings, we would party.
And then, one night, near the tail end of an exceptionally good party, our compartment suddenly filled with armed police who confiscated our passports and made Bronwyn pour all our glasses down a sink. Then they took away our few remaining bottles of booze, including a rather expensive bottle of French wine that I had in my luggage for a special occasion. It was all a bit of a surprise, and since we didn’t have any languages in common, somewhat mysterious.
A few days later, they returned with an interpreter, who attempted to explain. It seems that each train has a contingent of police who live in one of the rear carriages. They told some story about us keeping other guests awake, but since the party had extended the full length of our carriage and included not only everyone in every compartment but also some people from other carriages, we could only infer that we were keeping our conductress awake and that she had made a complaint. At any rate, they gave us our passports back, suggested that we should party in the restaurant car instead of our carriage, and said that my special wine bottle would be returned to me when we arrived in Ulan Bator.
That night, we all went to the restaurant car and drank them out of beer. The two elderly Russian ladies who ran the restaurant shuffled calmly to their supply fridge and re-stocked. These ladies were great, they were everybody’s great-grandmother, fussing around the tables in their flowered dresses and permed hair. In the day, they liked to sit in the corner and snooze, and by night they slept on the floor of the restaurant. Before long we were clearing up the glasses for them, and when we’d finished the second cabinet-full of beer, we waved them to stay seated and just helped ourselves directly from the supply fridge while they smiled and waved their gratitude. We’d been drinking some fairly boring lager up until now, but I found a whole cache of more interesting beers in a back corner of the supply fridge, which was nice.
One peculiar thing about the train is that it always keeps Moscow time regardless of the fact that it traverses seven time zones. This means that the concepts of ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ drift considerably from the day outside; midday outside now corresponds to about six in the morning train time, which introduces a certain amount of jet-lag (train-lag?) in the staff. After a while, we realised that the two ladies were nodding off, so we bought some more beers and left them to make up their beds on the floor. We didn’t want to have a repeat of the police fiasco, so rather than returning to our carriages, we decided to party in the tiny space between the restaurant carriage and the rest of the train. That worked too.
One of the few real towns was Omsk, which seemed large and prosperous, and had actual kiosks on the platform instead of mobile vendors. We bought hot chicken and bananas and thought we’d have a quick look around the town, but there were armed police everywhere who were preventing passengers from leaving the platform. In fact it was here and at another station close to Irkutsk that we realised that many of the platform vendors weren’t locals at all, they were actually travelling on our train with us, and hopping off at the stations to sell goods to the locals. In the stations with a heavy police presence, they simply sold clothing and plastic goods out of the train windows.
Suddenly a lot of things fell into place. I had wondered at the purpose of all these tiny little communities in the wilds of Siberia. What were these people doing out here? But now I realised that it is the train that is their raison d’être, without the train there would be no people. It is a nine thousand kilometre linear village, which has sprung up alongside the necessity to ship ore from one side of this enormous country to the other.
Many of our fellow travellers disembarked at Lake Baikal, but we had some deadlines to stick to so we stayed on board. We’ll see the world’s deepest freshwater lake on another occasion.
We likewise passed through Ulan Ude, which seemed to be a pleasant and prosperous city. Scattered amongst the Soviet-era apartment blocks were smart new houses, and closer to the tracks were the same kind of wooden home that we have seen all the way across Siberia, each with its own market garden packed with vegetables and fruit.
The railway here is also lined with lock-up garages. Some of them appear to be derelict, but others have been fitted with chimneys and new roofs. Do people live in them, or do the owners keep a fire burning to keep the cars from freezing in winter? We could not tell.
Brightly coloured paintwork was common on private houses. I was amused to see that the most common colours were pale blue and pale green, both of a shade usually to be found only on railway stations, signal boxes and signal poles.
We got a new engine for the final run down into Ulan Bator, this time a smoky diesel. Close now to the Mongolian border, the terrain changed completely. The railway lifted up onto an embankment as it followed a small river that wound its way through an old flood-plain, with a small range of hills rising up on either side. The flat plain was purple with heads of wild garlic, but it was the scent of a badly tuned diesel that drifted in through the window. It wasn’t long before my hands and face were black with grease. Never mind, Mongolia is just around the corner.
Moscow’s Red Square is enormous. Everybody tells you that, and they are all correct. Everybody also says that it’s too big to photograph, and they are right too. It is bounded on one long side by the red outer wall of the Kremlin, and on the other by the enormous and expensive GUM shopping mall.
In the Soviet era, GUM carried the same products at the same prices as any other store in the USSR, but because of its proximity to the Kremlin, it tended to actually have items in stock, so enormous queues used to build up outside. During Perestroika, the GUM morphed into a collection of expensive boutiques and jewellery shops, and now no Muscovite shops there, because it is cheaper for them to fly to Italy to buy those same products. Indeed, every shop that we passed, with its expensive wares and guarded by impeccably dressed and very bored staff, was completely empty of customers.
At one of the short ends of the square is the Resurrection Gate, rebuilt like much else in this area after it was torn down by the Soviet regime so that tanks could roll unobstructed into Red Square for parades. At the other end is of course St Basil’s, which is exactly as beautiful as you hoped it will be, and which somehow managed to survive the communist era because it was used as an armoury.
On our visit, the central part of the square was fenced off while workers removed a temporary ice rink and put in stands for an upcoming display of military marching. We made our way down the fourth long side, past the long queue of people waiting to file past Lenin’s tomb, to see the changing of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Kremlin We’d been told that obtaining tickets to The Kremlin was a complicated process, and indeed it was. Initially we queued at the entrance, and when we reached the front, we were told that we should have pre-bought tickets in the Alexander Gardens below. We left and found a little row of ticket cabins. Each one displays a poster showing different “technical break” times of half an hour, twice a day, at which time that cabin will suddenly close and leave the queue hanging until they open again. The game is to judge which of the cabin queues will allow you to get to the front before that queue has a technical break.
An additional complication is that tickets for the Armoury only come on sale at certain times, and go off sale when that ‘sceance’ is full. If you happen to reach the cashier after the end of one ‘sceance’ and before the start of another, then you are out of luck, which presumably explains why we were told that tickets for both the Nikolas tower and the Armoury were ‘impossible’. The nice lady did, however, allow us to buy a general admission ticket.
We queued up at the Kremlin entrance again, and on reaching the front, I was turned away because I was wearing a small backpack, much smaller than the hand bags being carried by the women who were being admitted in front of me. Perhaps I should have asked Bronwyn to carry it, but now I had to go back down to the gardens and check it in to a cloakroom. On my return, I was finally allowed in.
The Kremlin (fortress) contains five cathedrals and a palace, along with numerous political buildings which appeared to be undergoing major reconstruction. Our ticket entitled us to visit each cathedral and palace, and also the surrounding gardens. At each doorway, and elderly lady solemnly signed our tickets so that we could not pass that way again.
Inside, each cathedral was painted from floor to ceiling with saints in the usual Orthodox style. Each painting forms an icon, which church-goers pray to as an intermediary because they aren’t worthy to pray directly to their god. Instead of an altar, there are more icons, but these are individually painted on wood panels which are stacked in five or six rows up the wall. As individual icons get refurbished or gain popularity they are moved around between churches, and the upshot is that all the best and most powerful icons end up in the best and most powerful churches. Those churches are in the Kremlin, and many of their icons date back to the 14th century. This is all very interesting, but after five cathedrals full of them, we were quite tired of looking at icons.
We did try to get into the Armoury even without a ticket, but were politely turned away, so after a snack and a drink in the rather lovely gardens, we headed back out into the big city. We needed to buy some supplies before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Waiting at the Aeroflot terminal in Riga, Latvia, we were becoming increasingly amused by the antics of a backpacker at the next gate. Two pretty girls were waiting to board the plane to Tashkent in Kazakhstan. It seemed that the young man had befriended them, and had suddenly bought a ticket to join them on their plane. It is technically possible to travel without a visa in the Baltic states if you have a letter of invitation from a local hotel or tour operator, but clearly he didn’t have one. I imagine that it would be possible to sort this out, perhaps by quietly greasing the wheels of commerce, but he wasn’t getting very far by declaiming wildly, “I don’t need a visa, because I am French!”
We had both visas and letters, so we left him to it and boarded our plane to Moscow. On our arrival, we emerged into the scrum of sign-wielding drivers and suddenly realised that we couldn’t be sure to recognise our name in Cyrillic. Eventually we established that none of them were waiting for us, but then a late arrival came hurrying up with a board carrying our names in Latin script.
Our transport wasn’t exactly a limo, in fact we climbed up into the front of a delivery van full of crates of vegetables. Several things immediately became clear. Firstly, there was something seriously wrong with the transmission, resulting in a serious rumbling vibration at speed. Secondly, we heard the rumble all the time because our driver went completely flat-out, treating all other traffic like obstacles in a video game, passing on one side or the other and using all of the available road, including both hard shoulders, exit ramps and lane dividers. We looked in vain for seat belts as the driver squeezed the big truck into spaces that wouldn’t accommodate a motorcycle.
The other drivers apparently regarded this behaviour with complete equanimity, without a hint of squealing tyres or honking horns. However, I only saw one other vehicle driving in a similar manner, and that was a taxi that incredibly managed to weave in front of us on one of the hard shoulders.
Eventually we arrived at a securely guarded gate and were decanted, shaken but not stirred, into the guarded lobby of our hotel, complete with security turn-styles. Our room was pleasant enough, though, with views out over Moscow’s iconic red and white chimneys.
It was clearly time for a beer. The hotel’s barman seemed a bit surly at first, but thawed a little when we all had a laugh at a 10-year old Chinese boy who came in to try to buy beer ‘for his brother’. Later in the evening, we discovered that the barman works 12 hour shifts every night from 9pm, so he was just a bit tired.
We were feeling a little jet-lagged ourselves next morning, but soon perked up after a pleasant breakfast before meeting our guide, Diane. She showed us how to use the metro (28 roubles to anywhere), and the three of us descended to the Green line, which was built during Moscow’s second wave of metro building, when Stalin declared that money was no object and that it had to be the best subway in the world. He got what he wanted; stations from this era are an amazing confection of echoing marble halls with high vaulted ceilings.
Three stops later, we were in the heart of the theatre district, with its impressive collection of building in styles ranging from Classical to Romantic, and Soviet in the form of the former KGB headquarters.
As we walked, Diane talked about growing up in Soviet communal housing, with three to five families sharing a kitchen and bathroom. She was ambivalent about perestroika, when each family was assigned a new flat just for themselves, which was theirs to own and do what they want with. Although she could see that this put Russians on the same footing as other Europeans, she mourned the loss of the social aspect of shared housing, where everybody looked after one another. This concept of universal flat ownership kick-started the fledgling capitalist economy, and the city has a feeling of general wealth and integration. The city is clean and well-kept, and the populace seemed dynamic and well-off, particularly the women wearing expensive and sexy European fashions. We looked for echoes of the Soviet era but only noticed the security guards in booths on every escalator, and the very large number of workers that seemed to be necessary to perform the more menial jobs.
Some of the buildings that we’ve see, such as the lovely little pink and white cathedral on Red Square, are recent copies of historic buildings that were blown up in the Soviet era to make way for more suitable projects. There is a heart-breaking photograph of the fabulous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour being demolished to make way for a half-kilometre high brutalist memorial topped by an eighty-metre statue of Stalin. While the deep foundations were being dug, war broke out and work was halted. The hole was used as a swimming pool until finally a copy of the original cathedral was built by public subscription.
The monument’s foundations were so deep that the architects added a second underground cathedral beneath the first, and then Moscow’s first underground car park beneath that.
Both cathedrals are liberally gilded inside and intricately decorated. Being Orthodox, there are no pews or seats inside, and the walls are ringed with icons. These are paintings of saints that are venerated, prostrated before, and kissed in the hope that the saint will mediate between you and god. Quite a few shawled elderly women were energetically throwing themselves at the feet of, and kissing, every saint in the enormous space. Cleaning these paintings must be a long job.
We said goodbye to Diane, ate a great lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, and then went in search of the cheap river ferry that plies up and down the Moskva as part of the cheap Metro network. We couldn’t find the ferry, but instead a man in a naval uniform sold us a ticket on a tourist boat that cost ten times as much. We had no idea where the boat went, but it turned out to be a great way to see Moscow, and as a bonus it also had a small bar.
Once past the astonishing memorial to Peter the Great’s inauguration of the Russian navy, we passed blocks and blocks of Soviet-era communal housing, including one ‘luxury’ building (only one family per apartment) that had been built specifically to house artists and writers, who could then easily be spirited away in the night by the KGB. Diane had told us that if you saw your neighbours’ lights on after midnight, then you knew that you would never see them again.
We still didn’t know where we were going, but all the other passengers disembarked at Kiev Metro station so we did the same and had an easy ride back to the hotel.
After a short nap, we headed out to a nearby Lebanese restaurant and dined on charcoal-grilled meat with pickled vegetables, washed down with Armenian wine, finishing up with a nice fruity shisha.
As everywhere in Moscow, the service was friendly and attentive and we had a great time, eventually stumbling back to the hotel in the small wee hours, ready for the next day’s sight-seeing. Tomorrow we were heading for the Kremlin.
Having recently purchased a pair of Brompton folding bicycles, we thought that we’d take them to Bordeaux, so we fairly randomly booked in to a guesthouse, 123 Chemin du Bord de l’Eau in Macau, just down the road from St Emilion and Margaux. The owners were away when we arrived, although their gardener let us in and made us comfortable, so we set off in the evening to find something to eat. It is the off season, so every business in Macau is closed, apart from the pizza shop.
Stephan the pastry chef had a good laugh when we told him about my wheat allergy, because he only cooks pizza and bread. However, he worked out a neat compromise by baking a pizza with a cream sauce instead of tomato. That way I could pick off the correctly cooked toppings without getting them contaminated with the bread crust. Brilliant! And naturally, we washed it down with a nice bottle of Bordeaux.
The next morning we cycled out to nearby Margaux in search of an open vineyard.
Most vineyards were closed for the off season, but we did come across Chateau Dauzac, where the wonderfully welcoming staff were dumbfounded to see tourists so far out of season, but gave us a great tour and wine tasting.
On our return, the owner was back, the incomparable Serge: Ex-restaurateur, ex-wine maker, now hotelier, chef and artist. We all got on well and Serge announced that he would cook dinner for us, producing awesome quantities of foie gras both au naturel and lightly fried in duck fat, also figs grilled with goat’s cheese, and endless superb rich dishes washed down with lashings of wine. He even invited us to share a bottle of his very own St Emilion wine, which is no longer in production but quite lovely. We had not initially intended to stay another night, but changed our minds and agreed to return after visiting St Emilion.
The town of St Emilion is beautiful. We did bring our bicycles with us, but after one look at the steep cobbled streets, we decided to explore on foot. Previously a fortified town, St Emilion stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking its vineyards. I would imagine that it is probably crammed with tourists in the summer, but on this January weekend it is empty.
The fifth century church is a marvel, with its domed ceilings and extensive gothic extensions.
From a local shop, Bronwyn obtained the key to the clock tower (Closter), to give us unrivalled views of the town.
Before leaving St Emilion, Serge had arranged for us to visit another vineyard, Chateau Figeac, where we and some visiting Italians were given a good-humoured tour by an impressively multilingual guide.
Back at the house, Serge excelled himself, and co-opting Bronwyn as a willing sous-chef, produced a marvellous tuna savichi, followed by langoustines and a stupendous magret du canard. To top it all off, Serge produced his own creation Framboise Tchekhov, a marvellous dish of strawberries in a caramelised sauce.
On the next morning, resisting the temptation to stay for the rest of the year, we packed up the bikes, and – promising to return – headed for the Pyrenees.
The train from Oslo to Bergen is famed for being one of the most picturesque journeys in the world. The train stops often on its way up into the mountains, picking up passengers from the outlying regions of Oslo, and then settles in for the long and beautiful haul along the granite spine to the coast. I have done the trip before, and wanted to show it to Bronwyn, as it seemed like a great way to celebrate our wedding anniversary. However, this is the electronic age, and half the passengers in our carriage closed their window shades to concentrate on their laptops instead of looking out of the window. The two guys closest to us carefully occluded half of our view by closing their blind, and then packed up their computers and went to the buffet car, possibly to drink beer and watch the scenery go by, leaving the rest of us in the dark. It took some judicious seat-hopping, and a certain amount of hanging out of the door windows, to appreciate our journey.
On the lower slopes, hay fields scattered with occasional wooden cabins were punctuated by tiny villages and towns clustered along rivers, each community widely separated from the others but always painted bright colours, usually red or yellow.
After several hours of climbing, we attained the snow-line. Here again there were scattered cabins, but between and among them was nothing but scattered and shattered rocks, with only the occasional bowl of summer snow. Presumably these places are unusable outside of the winter months. The few towns are given over to skiing, but in November they were not yet open for business, although the pistes were being mown in preparation.
Impressive melt-water waterfalls sprang from the dark granite as the train plunged through tunnel after tunnel, some bored through solid rock and others constructed from sturdy timber as a defence against avalanches. Melt-water lakes, some already re-frozen, sat amid a lunar landscape. Very beautiful.
Finally we arrived at our destination, Myrdal, at the top of the world, where the famous Flåmsbana train waited to take us down to sea level. Privately run, this is the steepest non-cog train in the world, dropping 864 metres in 20 kilometres of beautiful switchbacks.
The genial conductor pointed out some of the finer views, and suggested that if we moved to the disabled compartment, there was a window that could be opened for a better view without exposing the other passengers to the 6 degrees outside. As we dropped into the first incline, we caught a glimpse of the Rallarvega, the mountain trail from Myrdal to Flåm which we intended to walk later in the week. About half way down the valley, the train stopped for a few minutes so that we could get out and admire the thundering Kjosfossen waterfall.
As the track flattened out into the valley above the fjord, we descended into cloud, and when we emerged from the bottom it was dusk. The tiny but beautifully formed town of Flåm spread out before us, and we stepped out of the train onto the quayside.
Eating in Flåm
We moved into a lovely little apartment overlooking the fjord. We’d felt lucky to get the apartment at all because both of Flåm’s hotels had said that they were full, only their most expensive suites were available, but in the event it turned out that they were actually empty and running on skeleton staff for the off-season. It was the same story with the restaurants. The receptionist at the Fretheim needed to see our reservation, so we tried the other restaurant in town. There was nobody there until we tried the kitchen where we found a surprised waiter chatting to his girlfriend, but we dined very pleasantly on catfish in black butter sauce. On another evening we made a reservation at the Fretheim, to find of course that we were the only diners, although the salmon tartare and venison in red wine were delicious. Both restaurants were operating on a two-dish menu which would not change for the off-season, so we were doubly glad that we had a fully equipped kitchen in the apartment.
A cruise down Naeroyfjord
One morning, we took the local bus to Gudvangen, involving a 5km tunnel to the top of the pass and then an 11km tunnel back down to sea level, in order to catch the ferry back to Flåm. The point of this was to see the Naeroyfjord, designated a World Heritage Site because of the unspoiled beauty of its fjord terrain. We were very lucky that the sun had boiled off the cloud layer and although it was very cold, we sailed under a clear blue sky. The scenery was breathtaking, not least because of the crystal clear reflections of the mountains in the water, disturbed into surreal shapes by the waves of our passage.
Hiking from Myrdal to Flåm
One morning we took the Flåmsbana back up to Myrdal, so that we could walk back down again. There is a trail, the Rallarvega, which was originally built by the navvies who were building the railway, but which is now mainly used as a precipitous mountain-bike trail. Years ago, while back-packing in this area, I had hiked down this trail and still remembered the experience with fondness and awe, so I was keen to introduce Bronwyn to the experience.
The views are fantastic, and the sheer scale of the vertical cliff faces that tower above is enough to make you feel utterly insignificant and so very privileged to be there, crawling like an ant down the face of the glacial valley.
At the bottom of the gravel track, the Rallarvega becomes a formed road and winds along the valley floor. Occasional farms dot the landscape, but at all times the heart-breakingly sheer mountains tower above, punctuated by endless waterfalls. By each fall, some early settler has evidently built a house to take advantage not only of the water, but also of the view.
After almost 20 kilometres, we came abreast of Old Flåm, where we paused to admire the neat little church and its gravestones with their tale of a few families with familiar names (Flåm, Fretheim) spread over hundreds of years. Like the landscape, the social scene changes only slowly.
There is a brew pub in Flåm, but for most of our stay it had remained firmly closed. Over our stay I had managed to drink several of their products at different restaurants and hotels, particularly their stunning Imperial Stout. Norwegian alcohol prices are notoriously savage due to heavy taxation, but at NOK 185 (about GBP 18) for a bottle, I reckoned that this was probably the most expensive beer that I had ever drunk.
And then one day, the brewery doors were open, to reveal a bar modelled on a Viking longhouse, with carved wood and reindeer pelts and a large fire.
After a few pints of the excellent stout, I got chatting to the brewer, Evan. It turned out that he had taken a batch of the stout that I was drinking, and then matured it in oak whisky barrels to make what he called ‘Lynchburg’. This was so good that, in an attempt to prevent it from being all drunk at once, he had almost doubled the price to NOK 340, or GBP 34 a bottle. This did not prevent a visiting American from buying the entire stock. Luckily for me, Evan had kept a case back for himself, and I was able to buy one, now definitely and without doubt the most expensive beer that I have ever drunk. It was worth every Krøne.
Travelling light as usual, we arrived at Oslo airport with only cabin baggage, booked an express train from an automated ticket machine, and after a clean and fast trip emerged blinking into the Autumn sunlight. The friendly Hotel Thon was easy to find, and we were given a room on the second floor with a balcony fully fifty feet long and twenty feet wide.
Close to the station is the Aker Brugge, an area packed with restaurants, all with busy outside areas, everybody chatting and drinking and eating. Many of the seats were draped with sheep fleeces, and at other restaurants the waiters handed out blankets as you arrived, so that despite the ten degree chill, short sleeves and mini-skirts were not uncommon.
We chose to eat inside a cosy Italian restaurant, where the drinks were the typical Scandinavian triple the English price, but the service was friendly and the food was excellent. Eventually we ambled out into the last hours of light, intending to get a quick nap at the hotel before going out on the town.
On the way back, we passed an enormous brick building that looked like a power station but which turned out to be the Radhuis or town hall. We stopped to admire some friezes along the outside walls, carved wooden scenes from Viking mythology, and then suddenly realised that the building was still open to visitors.
We went inside and found ourselves in an enormous space, not dissimilar to the turbine hall at the Tate Modern in London, but painted throughout with allegorical wall friezes not only there, but also in a chain of spectacular rooms that led around the second storey.
The paintings were in the style of 50s communism, all square jaws and bold colours, with heavy emphasis on agriculture and industry. However, each frieze told a story, and that story was often a complex mixture of mythology and the recent German occupation, mythical figures juxtaposed with prisoners in concentration camps. The bear of Norway baring its teeth at uniformed trolls as they tear the clothes from the newly released princess. Very stark and very effective.
It was evening when we finally tore ourselves away, and continued to our hotel for that nap. Our alarm went off later that night, but we were happy to ignore it and sleep through for the next twelve hours. After all, we were on holiday.
Frogner Park (Vigeland Park)
The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee and herrings, we headed out to the glorious Frogner Park, which has long been one of my favourite places in Europe. This entire green space is given over to the works of Gustav Vigeland, who designed and built the whole thing over a ten year period. The weather had been a bit glooomy, but the sun came out and glowed from the carpet of yellow maple leaves underfoot, as we joined the hundreds of tourists enjoying several hundred works of art spread over almost a kilometre.
The Oslo Museum is situated in Frogner park. We watched a very clever and entertaining film called “1000 years of Oslo”, which was put together in an amusing way from shots of museum exhibits and paintings. It covered exciting periods of boom and bust, wealth and poverty, and then skipped suddenly from the 1920s to the present day, missing the occupation and holocaust. The actual museum did much the same thing, with a display for every period of settlement since the Vikings except for the World Wars. The Norwegians had an ugly war.
On our final evening, we headed up to the Grünerløkke district, which is famous for its local bars and cafes. We were not disappointed, there were establishments of every style and ethnicity. We stopped at a few for glasses of wine and snacks, and were pleased to find that – presumably because of the vastly over-taxed prices – each small glass of wine was checked and re-checked and treated with a great deal of respect.
At one bar the owner suggested that we try a soup made from lamb, cabbage and potatoes. It was very good, and we were told that in traditional bars it is made available as a cheap dish for the benefit of heavy drinkers. I did have trouble getting my head around the idea that anybody who can afford to be a heavy drinker in Scandinavia might need cheap food, but the concept is still admirable. At another bar I scored a beautiful lightly poached whole trout with leeks and a cauliflower sauce. They certainly know how to keep their patrons happy in Oslo.
My first impression of Dublin was of the strange smell, something of a cross between old food and stale cigar smoke. As we ambled about in our first hour in the fair city, we noticed the additional bouquet of foetid seawater and burnt rubber, which didn’t help my first impression of the centre as being surprisingly dull and a little squalid. However, matters improved somewhat as we wandered into Temple Bar and popped into The Quay for cabbage and mash and a big slab of bacon, washed down with my first ever pint of real (ie Dublin) Guinness. Mmmmm… the hype is all true. Guinness tastes much, much better in its home town than anywhere else, much lighter in texture and with a more delicate flavour with a hint of cream. Very nice.
On, then, to Madigans, a beautiful gin palace, for copious Guinness and amusing conversation, before staggering over the street to the hotel, in which we were woken early in the morning by the merry sounds of a couple of drunks duetting in Gaelic as they stumbled down the road.
Later that morning we took the tourist bus tour. Bronwyn and I have, independently over the years, formed an attachment to tourist bus tours, especially of the ride-all-day-around-the-city open-top running-commentary variety. There’s something strangely satisfying about sitting in the freezing wet, huddled over a squawking loudspeaker, and trying to figure out which of the million visible objects the (probably synthetic) guide is talking about.
This particular bus took us on an interesting circuit of the Georgian and Mediaeval districts on a suitably cloudy day. The history presented by the scratchy voice was a jumble of revolutions and battles, not particularly pro- or anti-English but just a continuous roil of revolution and counter-revolution.
For me, at least, this higgledy piggledy history was brought into sharp relief by the hundreds of placards bearing the face – but not the name – of Gerry Adams, currently it seems a respectable politician, but years ago when I was growing up in London he was the face of terrorism, appearing smirking on the news every time an IRA bomb killed yet another crowd of innocent Londoners.
It was explained to me in a bar that, in the current election campaign, each party was only allowed to advertise with so many placards for their candidate, but that the Sinn Fein had so much money that they’d decided to put up hundreds of apolitical posters instead, bearing only an instantly recognisable face but no overt election statement.
We left the bus to buy some postcards and some stamps. Outside the Dublin Post Office is a monument to the millennium, an incredible metal needle soaring heavenward, impossible to capture on film, one of those objects that has to be experienced in the flesh. Most Dubliners seem to hate it, and take great pleasure in pointing out that their millennium statue wasn’t finished until 2003.
However, it is the Georgian facade of the General Post Office itself that really grabs your attention. The Dublin GPO became a symbol of the 1916 Easter Rising when members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army seized the building on Easter Monday, and Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish republic from its steps. The rebels remained inside for almost a week, but shelling from the British eventually forced them out. Inside the post office is a set of stunning oil paintings depicting the event.
From one piece of history to another: The next tourist bus dropped us outside the somewhat forbidding walls of the Guinness Brewery.
Inside, it has been converted to a bit of a tourist shrine to advertising, although with enough tongue in cheek and enough real historical content that we didn’t mind too much. Our entry ticket was a drop of Guinness forever sealed in a perspex paperweight… you get the idea. And then, perched on high up a tower over the brewery, you can sup a pint of (sadly, overly chilled) Guinness straight from the source while enjoying an unrivalled view of the stainless steel industrial stout towers and, er, the rest of Dublin.
The Maltese speciality food is rabbit, which you can buy roasted, stewed, or made up into a spaghetti sauce. After a few days on the island, you realise that this is because the terrain does not lend itself to the existence of any larger animals, or indeed to any kind of farming at all.
The landscape is uniformly scattered with white head-sized boulders, offering little cover to anything apart from rabbits and small birds. The former are, evidently, eaten. The latter are the subject of the national sport of shooting at them, the smaller the better. Every fifty metres or so of the rubble-strewn landscape is equipped with dry-stone hides providing protection from the sun and a good view of a selection of artificial wire and wood perches designed to tempt the little finches and tits above ground level.
Any doubts of the ubiquity of the lunar landscape are easily dispelled. Climb to the top of the nearest convenient hillock and you see the whole island spread before you, a flat dish centred on the enormous dome of Mosta cathedral. Any visitor quickly realises that most of the Maltese maps and signposts are incorrect, wishful or just plain imaginary, and we soon discovered that the easiest way to navigate was to drive to the top of the nearest rise, spot the Mosta Dome, and take it from there.
In fact, driving anywhere on Malta is an interesting experience. Although the roads are technically tarmac, much time and a lot of traffic has passed since they was originally laid, and in the intervening years they have simply been patched over and over again, until now there are very few places where the original road surface can still be seen. There are holes and craters everywhere; while we were there, a crack opened up in the middle of the main road outside our hotel which was fully a metre long, half a metre wide, and of cavernous depth. It yawned, unheralded, for most of our stay, after which a half-hearted attempt was made to fill it up with tarmac, reducing its depth to a mere foot or so below the road level.
Mix all this with Italian-style foot-to-the-floor style of driving, a propensity for fast cars, and a complete disregard for other vehicles’ bodywork, and driving becomes an exhilarating experience. This is not to say that the Maltese are bad drivers; on the whole they seem to be highly skilled (possibly there is some Darwinism at work here) and they are polite and courteous on the road… until you show signs of hesitation or weakness, at which point they move in for the kill. It was for this reason that we were not overly distressed when our original hire car, an elderly Escort, was stolen on the first night, because the replacement Hyundai had much more power and responsive handling and allowed us to level the playing field a little.
Two strong themes persisted during our stay, and coloured everything that we saw. The first is a very long and strong sense of history. Malta is home to the oldest structures in the world, pre-dating the pyramids and Stonehenge.
Millennia later, much of its modern history was dominated by the Knights Templar, who pretty much owned the place for hundreds of years, and who built forts and castles against what they saw as heathen Moorish pirates.
However, the Moorish influence is clear in the Maltese language, which is clearly of Arabic origin although – uniquely – written using the Latin alphabet. More recent history includes Malta’s legendary stand in the last World War, and its current status as a freeport and financial centre.
The second striking thing about Malta is the intense pride that the locals have in, well, everything. This is particularly evident in Valetta’s small but excellent War Museum, where tales and pictures of the good natured stoicism of the civilian population under siege invite comparison with blitzkrieg London. Drawing such a comparison is probably not all that surprising, as Malta is intensely British. Although it gained independence in 1976, the whole population is bilingual in Maltese and English, and (apart from the Arabic street names) a glance up any shopping street could easily fool you that you were in some English town.
A fleet of ancient but lovingly restored English motor coaches, long retired from active service elsewhere in the world, form the local bus service. Each resplendent in yellow and orange livery, with the exact make and model proudly displayed in sprawling calligraphy where in earlier times you might expect to see a destination plate, these owner-operated dinosaurs provide a noisy, uncomfortable and unreliable service over the potholed roads. Apparently immune from even the few observed road laws, they appear to have a special dispensation to operate without lights, which can be somewhat alarming late at night.
While driving, walking, or simply standing still on any convenient hillock, you cannot help but notice that there seem to be rather a lot of churches. Maltese churches tend to excess. Every small town raises money to support its own church by local subscription, resulting in a certain amount of one-upmanship between neighbouring communities. Many local churches thus more closely resemble mainland cathedrals than places of daily worship, the whole process culminating in the enormous structure on the neighbouring island of Gozo, apparently built in direct competition to the Mosta dome.
It can be surprisingly difficult to get into these churches, as they keep short and irregular opening hours, but it is often worthwhile. In many of them, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with red tapestry, and the floors are made entirely from colourful marble tombstones.
This small country is a gem. We spent days wandering the byways of the ancient towns, discovering tiny restaurants that turned out to be amazing gourmet experiences. There are fascinating corners such as the little museum of ancient working life in Gharb, and the bone-filled catacombs of Rabat. And don’t get me started on the excellent local wines…
Since Adam had secured himself a contract in Mallorca, it seemed rude not to visit him, so one weekend I packed a toothbrush and set off for Palma. After an initial foray around the bars of the city and a few hours of kip, we ate some painkillers, bought some sunglasses, and headed off to explore the island.
Despite the hordes of English and German tourists that line its shores, Mallorca is still very much a Spanish (or, in view of its somewhat partisan nature, I should say Catalan) island. Tourism is highly concentrated in a few definite areas, leaving the rest of the island relatively unspoilt. Only relatively few visitors bother to hire a car and explore the interior, which is a pity. Or not, depending on your point of view.
The island itself consists mainly of a flat plain, edged along the western seaboard by a small mountain range. Scattered here and there across the flat portion are little isolated outcrops of rock, each standing high and proud above the terrain, and each equipped with a lonely castle, hermitage, chapel or convent. Many of these buildings are exquisitely decorated, and a privilege to visit.
Palma itself, the capital of Mallorca, retains a strong local flavour. The old town, although replete with restaurants and the inevitable Irish bars, has a genuinely busy Catalan night life that remains largely unaffected by the huge parties and clubs in the nearby resort of Magaluff, although you’re as likely to meet a resident ex-pat as a true local. They go all night, too. At five in the morning, street life resembles mid-evening in any northern European city, apart of course from the comfortable temperature and the universally happy faces.
In the daytime, the castle-like cathedral dominates the Palma skyline. The inside, however, somehow disappoints, even though all the right ingredients are there. Intensely coloured windows high up in the walls refract coloured light onto the ceiling, but it only seems to plunge the many monuments and chapels into gloomy darkness. Having said that, the altar major is exceedingly impressive, a Woodroffe-esque flight of oil lamps circling above the altar amid a sculpture of sails and reeds.
We pretty much circumnavigated the island over the weekend, and were presented with a continuous barrage of breathtaking views. Here are couple from the northern coast.
Hidden away in one corner of the western mountain range is a spectacular road. Aptly named Sa Calobra (The Cobra), it plummets via a knot-work of switchback hairpins from the heights down to the sea. There isn’t much to see at the bottom, but that isn’t important, it is the road itself that is the whole point of the journey. This area is made from a brittle white limestone that is scarred by rainfall and sculpted into the most amazing shapes. Sadly for this record, we descended in the gathering dusk and so I don’t have too many pictures, but if you’re ever on Mallorca with access to any vehicle at all, my advice is simple: drive it down The Cobra. You won’t regret it.
We’d been having a lot of fun in Tuscany, but it was time for Patrick and Helga to return to work. I was resting between contracts and fancy-free, and had intended to carry on to the south of Italy. However, the weather was getting uncomfortably hot and I was hankering for some cool mountain breezes, so we formed the familiar delta formation and headed northward together.
In Modena, the others peeled off for Switzerland, and I headed in the direction of the Brenner Pass and Austria. The day continued hot hot hot, so I just hung in there at a steady 160 kph and waited for some altitude. It certainly got higher, the temperature dropped barely at all.
It was a Sunday, and the only way that I could get fuel was to feed my few remaining 10,000 lire notes into automated petrol pumps, so by the time I reached Varna I was not only low on fuel but hungry and broke as well. I pulled into a hotel/campsite/restaurant where a nice young girl took half my remaining cash in exchange for a place to pitch my tent, and told me that there was a bank machine just up the road. She was right, but it was broken.
Still, I had enough cash for a few beers, so after pitching my tent I wandered over to the bar, where a rather lovely Goth girl not only served me a well-deserved Weissbier, but also told me that if I hung around for another hour then the kitchen would open, and – joy of joys! – after that I could put my entire bill onto Visa. Several hours, a number of beers and a splendid meal later, I was joined by a German couple, and we laughed and told stories until it was time to stumble to bed.
In the morning, my new friends stopped by my tent on their 600 trailie and mentioned that instead of taking the Brenner Pass, they’d found a guide book that recommended the smaller and little-known Jaufenpass towards Otzal. Somewhat later, after leisurely breakfast, I followed, and soon found myself tearing around a tiny, crumbling and deserted switchback road, heart swelling with that sheer unadulterated joy that only comes from riding a bike fast in the mountains. As awe-inspiring view replaced stunning vista, I was both figuratively and literally on top of the world.
The pass dropped into a deep bowl, containing the attractive little town of St Leonhard, awash now with the lunchtime thunder of motorcycle exhausts. I considered staying to look around, but I was hungry for more and was soon climbing up some crazy mule-track of a road, emerging on a high ridge looking out onto a wall of alps stretching from side to side across the world. Here I caught up with the Germans again, who were having a great time, but who had blown a headlamp bulb and were thus having some nervous moments in the tunnels. I rode point for them down to the Austrian border, and then at the toll booth found that once again I didn’t have enough cash for the crossing. Luckily, however, I found a forgotten envelope of German Marks deep in my luggage, so they let me through.
We continued in tandem down the other side until we got caught up in a snarl of bikes doing no more than 80 kph on beautiful winding roads. Not only was it a crying shame, but the sun was beating down on my leathers and I was getting uncomfortably hot, so I waved goodbye to my friends and got the hell out of there. Once up to cruising speed, I thought that I may as well stay there – and in any case the toll booth had stripped me of all my remaining cash – so I settled in until I dropped out of the mountains and onto the autobahn.
I was going to meet up with Moz in Munich, but he was still at work when I arrived, so I scouted the local bars and settled, as usual, for the one with the most attractive barmaids. When Moz finally turned up, the shift changed, and we began to be served by Carole, who seemed to run the place. She turned out to be such fun and we had such a good time that we simply stayed there for the rest of the evening.
I had no real plans for my next destination, and sitting there under the stars in the middle of the night, chatting over yet another bottle of the bars best wine, I thought to myself, why move on? I could cheerfully come back to this bar every night.
Dropping out of the Grossglockner Pass down to Cortina, we successfully located a bank machine, and began looking for a hotel. Since I’d just made myself a millionaire – last chance before the coming of the Euro! – it seemed only sensible to stay at the best place in town. A Hotel de Poste valet fought for the privilege of being driven by Helga to the parking lot, while the manager ushered the bikes into the vaults beneath the hotel. The rooms’ jacuzzis eased away the aches of the day, and, through the window, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites rocked to the lights of an electric storm. All it needed was some Barolo and Chianti to end a perfect day.
Helga had become adept at picking superb biking roads from the map, and the next day she excelled herself. Patrick and I thrashed our bikes unmercifully, and soon, having regularly redlined in every gear, I began at last to regard the XJR as being fully run-in. After a mind-bending run down to Belluno, we got onto the autovia to Venice, riding in delta formation behind the Alfa, and making occasional forays into the distance whenever we felt the urge.
We weren’t actually heading for Venice itself, but for the Lido de Jesolo, a long thin peninsula that curves around to a point just short of the canal city. The promontary is one long beach packed with campsites, equipped with a regular ferry service into Venice itself, and we soon found ourselves a suitable berth in amongst a load of caravans.
The following morning saw us all crammed into the Spider for the short hop to the ferry, and we spent a pleasant morning ambling around the Venetian side-streets and back-alleys. The stripy-shirted gondola touts were out in force, and when we happened on a small fleet of particularly fine gondolas under the Rialto Bridge, we stopped and asked how long we got for our no doubt exorbitant fee. “Ah, said the gondoleer, we prefer-a not to think in-a terms of time. We think in-a terms of experience. You want-a the short trip, the medium trip, or the long trip?”
For 300,000 lire (about GBP 100), we took the long trip. Patrick and Helga were ensconced in some style on a padded throne, while JP and myself sprawled out at the sharp end. The man had promised to take us to corners where nobody else went, and we were somewhat surprised to find him true to his word. From the crowded main thoroughfares, where fleets of overladen gondolas jammed end-to-end with coachloads of tourists jostled for space with bargeloads of vegetables, we slipped smoothly into a maze of cathedral-silent canals backing onto old Venetian palaces, cruising the vivid green water and quietly wondering at things in hushed tones so as not to disturb the peace. It was quite a magical experience, and in the end the gondolier was right, we had no idea how long wed spent on the water, but all of it had been thoroughly enjoyable.
Back on land, the day was hotting up and the crowds were thickening. An hour-long queue snaked around the heat-bowl of San Marco on the way into the Doges Palace, so we jumped on a ferry bound for the Lido to see what was there. The answer appeared to be not much, but we had a fine time sitting at a streetside bar and watching the girls go by, until finally wending our way back to the ferry and to our sandy home.
On the beach was a bar restaurant which boasted an internet cafe, and since I was not only in the process of arranging an email mortgage but was also hoping for a job offer in the sun, I thought Id give it a go. Sitting only metres from the sand, I fired up the PC as the beautiful barmaid brought me the first beer of the night. This, I thought, is the life. But sadly, it was not to be. I couldn’t get a connection, whatever I tried. The barmaid poked heroically at it for a while, and then declared with pretty gestures that she’d have to call the expert. This worthy duly emerged, drying his hands, from the kitchen where he’d been washing dishes. He clicked on a few icons and then stood back, shaking his head. “Is-a the internet,” he explained, “sometimes it-a work, sometimes it-a not work. Try tomorrow?”
The following day saw us hammering down the autostrada towards Firenze. The truckers all loved the chick in the red sports car, and pumped their horns manfully, although they couldn’t quite work out what to make of the two powerful motorcycles hovering protectively by her back bumper. The sun was very bright and we were all wearing sunglasses, which became problematical in the frequent dimly lit tunnels, where all we could see were the faint disembodied glow-worms of tail-lights floating in the air before us. Still, we made it through alive, and at last Patrick guided us off into the wilderness toward Imprunetta, where he knew of an agrituristico where maybe we could get a room.
Theoretically, this is a kind of working farm where you can stay, but the Agriturismo Vecchio Borgo di Inalbi is a far cry from a farmhouse B&B. Exquisite little terracotta-tiled apartments are scattered amongst olive groves, the whole set in a chianti vinyard and supplied with a restaurant and swimming pools. Over dinner, we soon discovered that although the food and service, although passable, weren’t exactly cordon bleu, the wine was out of this world. Discarding the suggested carafes, we insisted on their best, a rich thick dark 1998 Chianti, which (to their evident delight) we proceeded to drink by the crate for the duration of our stay.
Tuscany is made for motorbikes. Stripped down to the barest minimum of protective clothing – the temperature was in the forties – Patrick and I howled around the local roads, grinning like maniacs, while Helga and JP lounged by the pool. Occasionally we’d stop in some tiny bar for a cooling ice tea or perfect Italian coffee, being politely ignored by unsmiling men nursing a plate of sausage and something in a small glass. In the towns and villages, children would point at the bikes. Strangely, they would dismiss the exotic but Italian-made Ducati, and would stare in awe at the XJR until they could make out the badge, upon which they would stare wonderingly at each other and breathlessly exclaim, “Yamaha!”
One evening we all visited nearby Siena, a marvellous maze of steeply sloping alleyways clustered about a vivid green-and-white striped cathedral and of course the huge bowl-shaped Piazza del Campo, the finish line for the bi-annual Palio, the famous bare-backed horse race through the town.
We arrived at the Piazza in twilight, just as the pavement cafes were lighting the candles, and we sat and watched the people taking an evening stroll or simply sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.
The chef of the back street restaurant that we chose had won the Palio in 1967, and such is the respect that this engenders that, when we asked, the waiters discuss it in hushed tones, beneath walls filled with pictures of his triumph.
It all started in Munich. Helga, her young son Jean-Paul and I all drove to Patrick’s place in preparation for our week or so in Italy. Considering that we’d just spent six hours on the road, and were planning to spend much of the foreseeable future driving, Helga and JP did the sensible thing and went to bed. Come midnight, of course, Patrick and I were sitting under the Maximillian statue in downtown Munich, hoping that a friend would eventually turn up and show us where the party was at. Sure enough, at one in the morning he eventually decanted from a taxi and took us to a wonderful rave in what appeared to be an old school, where we danced and watched the girls until the sun came up.
Only then did we set off, a somewhat bizarre convoy of Patricks Ducati 748, my fully laden XJR 1200, and Helga and JP in Patrick’s recently restored Alfa Spider.
We were supposed to be doing the long haul to Venice, but what with all the fun we had burning around the mountains in the sun, and time out for an impromptu dip in the lake at Achsen, we decided to make for our familiar ski-resort of Zell am See instead.
Zell am See (Austria)
Patrick and I were having a fantastic ride, ranging ahead of the car and racing each other and everybody else up and down the mountains, pausing every now and then to catch our breath and wait for Helga to catch up. It was wonderful, and we arrived content but thirsty at a campsite close to Zell, where we were delighted to find that the bar was open.
Several beers later we got around to having some food, and then, just as we were getting stuck in to the post-prandial refreshment, we realised that (a) we didn’t have any Austrian cash, and (b) they didn’t accept Visa. No matter. Leaving the others at the table, Helga and I nipped into town in the Spider, where my cash card put the machine into such a flurry that it had to reboot. Warily we tried a second machine with Patrick’s card, which Helga happened to have with her, and luckily it behaved long enough to give us some Schillings. Hurrah! We set off for the campsite… only to realise that we were now thoroughly lost.
After about an hour of driving around in the dark, visiting several campsites on the way, we began to laugh at the thought of poor Patrick, sitting in the bar with JP, while I was cruising around in his sports car with his girl and his credit card. To put his mind at rest, we called his mobile… which began to ring quietly in his jacket in the boot of the car. We turned into yet another darkened campsite. The fuel began to run out. Fortunately, after some furious backtracking, we made it back to the correct site, to find JP entertaining the (now off-duty) waiter with his comic book while Patrick desperately searched the tents for spare change. All in all we were too exhausted to stay for the live band, and crept, embarrassed, to bed.
The next day we decided to take the famous Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse into Italy, but before we got anywhere near it, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to the ski rental store on the Kaprun glacier. It was blazing hot in the middle of summer, and the surface of the glacier was awash with slush, but it was simply such a ridiculous idea that we just had to go skiing.
By lunchtime, though, the glacier was so wet that it was like skiing a blancmange, so we handed back our ski equipment and set off once again for the Grossglockner.
Weirdly, although the toll booths accepted just about any form of cash, they didn’t take credit cards, so we had to part with almost all of our notes and coins in a medley of different currencies just to get onto the pass. However, it was well worth it; the road was great fun and the views excellent. We stopped for nothing, not even photographs, and coming down the other side, Patrick and I just let go and rode completely balls-out.
About half way down the switchback mountain road, I became aware of the smell of burning rubber. As I overtook the next half-dozen cars and slammed into yet another hairpin, I noticed that the smell was getting stronger and I began to wonder just how hot my brakes were getting. A couple more cars dropped by, and suddenly I could see smoke, and then began to grin because now I could see the flames, too. Id tucked in behind a large German family packed into an elderly Opel, and I crept forward to knock on the window. What? shouted the children in the back as neck and neck we negotiated the next curve. Your wheel’s on fire! I yelled, in German. And it was, too.
Much later, the mountains spat us out onto a beautiful section of freshly made road, running through forested foothills and valleys, rolling us eventually into the pretty Italian town of Cortina.
There’s a wonderful system in Holland where if you buy a weekend train ticket to a major European city, they throw in a hotel more or less for free. Thus it was that, seeing a slow weekend coming up, Maria and I more or less randomly decided to go to Berlin. It meant getting to Amsterdam station ridiculously early on Friday morning, but that was no great hardship because it was the start of Sail 2000, and all the tall ships were in. As we strolled past amongst the other early onlookers, the flower-covered tugs were being warmed up, and dozens of ferries and tour boats were loading up with passengers. The tall ships themselves sat serenely aloof; these were creatures of the high seas, and looked uncomfortable crammed together in Amsterdam harbour amongst the hoi poloi.
Some hours later we poked our noses into our Berlin hotel just long enough to dump our bags, and then headed straight out for the Kurfurstendam. As it happened, there was a big street festival in progress, with hundreds of stalls selling food, beer, jewellery, beer, that sort of thing. At regular intervals along the street were positioned local DJs, including one rather bizarre area where both performers and audience danced in synchronisation on exercise bikes.
Another stall had the traditional fairground test your strength sledgehammer-and-bell apparatus, and we watched as two youths battled it out to get the maximum prize. Vying with one another, they shelled out piles of Deutschmarks, winning armfuls of small toys but always not quite succeeding with the big one, until finally amid much banter and in front of a huge crowd of cheering onlookers, they finally won the big blue teddy bear. Honour satisfied, they randomly picked a pretty girl from the crowd and loaded her up with toys before continuing on their way.
The hotel brochure claimed that they had twenty metres of food at their breakfast bar, and I must say I found no reason to disagree. The breakfast was incredible, and it set us up for the long walk through the Tiergarten (the central park), passing through the Brandenburger Tor into East Berlin and along Unter den Linden. I knew that the Wall used to come through here, but there was absolutely no sign of it; it had been completely erased. The most astounding thing about the Tor these days is the incredible number of tourist buses, parked nose-to-tail for at least a kilometre behind the Gate.
Once in the East, we headed for the Gendarmemarkt, billed as the most beautiful square in Europe, but although the Academy of Music is a good solid piece of architecture, I’m not sure that it is even in the running. Nevertheless, it is a fine place to sit in the sun with a heverweiss beer.
A short step from the Gendarmemarkt is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, monument to the Wall years, which is truly engrossing. There is an incredibly harrowing display of escape methods, stories and documentation, vividly highlighting the sheer ingenuity of the human mind. There are beautifully engineered hiding places under cars, in petrol tanks, inside the passenger seat of a mini, inside welding gear. There are also home-made microlights, submarines, and an inflatable canoe powered by a sail constructed from a bed sheet and a couple of hockey sticks. And then there were the tunnellers, aided by helpers, mainly students from the west who were often themselves imprisoned, or shot and killed. The latter reaches of the museum are given over to other struggles around the world, but they don’t begin to approach the sheer desperation and dare-devilry that characterised the years of the Wall.
Outside the museum, we found that much of what used to be East Berlin was closed for repairs, as the authorities make up for years of neglect. Even the Fernsehturm (TV tower), which I was sure would be able to provide us with a panoramic restaurant meal, was being refurbished, and we were getting quite hungry before we discovered a little bierkeller in the twin shadows of the Nikolaskirk towers.
Inside the church itself, there happened to be an exhibition of Russian gold- and silver-work, which I just couldn’t resist. There were some beautiful engravings, and some truly fantastic pieces (described as “biscuit plates”) that gave the impression of gold baskets with silver napkins carelessly draped across them: but all crafted in stunningly lifelike detail from precious metals. The star of the show, though, was the jewellery. I’m not generally a huge fan of glittering rocks, but these delicate traceries of gold and silver, studded with diamonds, emeralds and amethyst, which could so easily have been gaudy, were so beautifully crafted and so finely worked that they were utterly breathtaking.
Outside again, much of the rest of East Berlin was less attractive. Much of it is taken up with ugly post-war tower blocks, the occasional architectural antiquity looking less like a scattered gem than a lost relic hunkering down under the lowering tonnes of concrete. Even the River Spree conspires against picturesqueness, hemmed in as it is on each side by stark concrete banks, with the occasional reconstruction of a mediaeval wooden bridge only serving to accentuate the problem. Mind you, until recently the Spree was armoured, spiked and alarmed, so it has a lot of past to live down.
The Charlottenschloss, a bijou pad of a hundred rooms or so knocked up for one of the queens, sits in spacious grounds scattered with the odd folly and lake, and sitting in a semi-forgotten corner is a tiny little mausoleum to the long-dead knight and his lady. Each tomb is topped by a figure of the occupant, and although the kings is pretty ordinary, the sculpting on the queen is breathtaking. The way she is lying, draped by a thin silken sheet, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is but resting and in a moment will open her white marble eyes and get on with pruning the roses.
The Berliner Dom (cathedral) is dominated by its enormous dome, squatting centrally over the cross-shaped building. Inside, the whole thing is one vast open space, and everything that isn’t heavily gilded and painted is carved in relief. There was an organist showing off on the huge organ; particularly impressive was the thunderous James Bond villain piece which brought applause from the slightly stunned crowd. In fact, the whole atmosphere was very touristy, with guides strolling around carrying placards, cameras flashing and people talking.
Much of the cathedral was being restored, repaired or rearranged, so we had a little trouble working out how to get from one end of the building to the other, but eventually we discovered the stairway up to the cupola. It was lined with numerous photographs of the building in various stages of disrepair; the dome has burnt down and been rebuilt at least three times since the 1880s. On the way up there are all sorts of nooks and doorways to explore, and in one place it is possible to emerge onto a narrow ledge clinging to the inside of the dome. Hidden as it is from below, the top of the ledge is scattered with spotlights, microphones and loose knee cushions. I’m not normally bothered by heights, but even I would have had real problems making my way along that tiny strip of stone to change a light bulb, not because of the fearsome drop down to the pews, but because of the curious but overwhelming feeling of vertigo induced by the roof closing in overhead.
A few more tunnels and stairways led us onto the outside of the dome, where the whole of Berlin was spread out before us. The lights twinkled all over the city as the sun edged slowly toward the horizon, the calm of the evening disturbed only by thousands of swooping starlings, and the distant wail of sirens around a small apartment fire in the distance.
It all started so innocently when, after several years of living and working in the Netherlands, I finally tired of relying on the Dutch public transport system. Although the network of trams, buses and trains is undeniably good value and very efficient, I prefer not to be tied to somebody else’s timetable, and wanted to find some more flexible way of getting to work. To this end, I resolved to buy a motorcycle.
There are fundamental differences between the most similar of cultures. Even when you’ve lived abroad for years and really think that you’re coming to terms with your new home, basic assumptions built-in from your mother culture can still rear up and bite you in reminder of the fact that you are, after all, an alien. Although it is probably true that, deep down, people are all the same, the way that they run their countries most certainly is not. The laws and people of the Netherlands are among the most easy-going and permissive in the world. You can do pretty much anything you like, anywhere you like, and unless you are actually causing pain then it is unlikely that anybody else will try to interfere. The police tend to joviality, the general public are friendly, and the working conditions are second to none. However, in all this clear-sightedness, there is one enormous blind spot: As a nation, the Dutch are utterly addicted to bureaucracy. Filling in forms and dealing with officialdom are national sports. It was, then, with some trepidation that I began my quest.
Locating a bike
In England, of course, it is all rather simple. You decide on your preferred bike, find somebody who is selling one, and then buy it. I had however already decided against importing my English motorcycle because of colleagues’ horror stories of impounded vehicles and endless import fees, so I was determined to buy a local machine.
Having made my decision to buy a bike, I had already planned its first a trip to the UK some four weeks hence, and after a week of diligent searching I eventually located a two-year old but unused XJR1200 in an out-of-town showroom for a reasonable 18,500 guilders. I grabbed a passing sales assistant. Could they supply that motorcycle there by the end of the week? No, they couldn’t. But surely it was second-hand, and therefore had a licence plate and all the necessary paperwork? Certainly it did, but it was a rule that all re-sold motorcycles had to have the new Euro plates, identical to the old plates but with a blue ‘NL’ in the corner. This would take three weeks to arrange.
The timescale did not greatly surprise me. The smallest unit of time for any piece of work in Holland is always one week. Shoe repairs, puncture repairs, anything, it all takes at least a week, and if there is any paperwork involved, additional weeks are inevitably required. However, I had a ferry to catch in exactly three weeks, so I was a little concerned that everything should be arranged up front.
What, I demanded, does an Englishman need in order to buy a Dutch motorcycle? Just pay us the money and it’s yours, came the answer. However, I’ve lived in the Netherlands for too long to accept such an unlikely statement at face value. I tried rephrasing the question. What, as an Englishman, do I need in order for you to allow me to ride my new motorcycle out of the showroom?
Aaah, now then. A Dutchman would need to show his driving licence. However, a foreign licence doesn’t count. I began to protest that all EC licences are the same, but that wasn’t the point. Whether you actually had a licence to ride a motorcycle was irrelevant. The point was that in order to fill in the registration form, the shop had to tick the box that said they had seen your Dutch driving licence. That was the rule. No tick, no registration.
After a number of phone calls and a bit of hand-waving it emerged that there was a special rule for foreigners, and that I could get by with a letter from the local council saying that I lived at my registered address, and a copy of my passport. Glad that I d asked so early, I hiked thoughtfully back from the shop to Amsterdam. My problem, you see, was that I didn’t have a registered address. If you live in Holland, you are expected to register your home address with the local council. However, you are not allowed to register hotels or no fixed abode, so if you’re flitting about doing contract work then often it is not possible. You are technically allowed to register at a friends house, but in doing so you have to be careful that you don’t infringe on their rights. A large proportion of the Dutch population live in what we in England would call Council Houses (though the system is different and the properties are, on the whole, well-kept and desirable places to live, rather than the rather run-down unfashionable areas that are increasingly common in the UK). The style of house that you can live in, and the price that you pay for it, are determined by, among other things, your salary, your age, and the size of your household. Registering at a friend’s place would increase the size of their household, and might therefore change their eligibility for that property at that price.
I really needed to register somewhere if I was to get this motorcycle. I asked a few home-owning friends, but surprisingly in such a red-taped country most people frown on anything that might be construed as bending the rules, and I found people to be generally reluctant. Luckily I did eventually find a volunteer to write the official letter granting me permission to live in their home, and sent off my application. A phone call to the council revealed that they would be sending me a registration letter in a week or so, but if I wanted one more urgently then I had to go into the office in Amsterdam personally. However, since the office was only open on weekday mornings, I thought I’d wait and, incredibly, with one week still to go, the official letter turned up on my friend’s doormat. Hurrah!
Unbelievably, I seemed to have all the paperwork to hand. It was Thursday, and I needed to pick the bike up on the following Thursday evening if I was to meet my ferry to England. Since all I needed now was the money already sitting in my current account, I could justifiably have rested on my laurels, but drawing on past experience, I decided to not only deliver the papers but to pay the shop in advance that very afternoon.
The pain of payment
This was a decision born of experience. For a country that is in so many ways more enlightened and advanced than England, personal finance is still way back in the dark ages. For instance, cash paid into a bank can take three working days to clear (that’s right: cash), and an electronic fund transfer to somewhere like the US can take as long as three weeks. Add to this the fact that credit cards are virtually unknown, cheques don’t seem to exist, and large denomination notes are regarded with suspicion if they are accepted at all, and you soon find that making a major purchase is a considerable problem.
Two local electronic payment systems do exist. ‘Pin’ is analogous to a debit card, and ‘Chip’ is a smart-card electronic cash system. Both are widely accepted in Holland, but the Chip is only for small purchases, and you cant Pin more than 5000 guilders, regardless of the size of your bank balance.
I checked with the bike shop. No, it was against the rules to Pin several times for the same purchase. I could pay by credit card (wow!) or by bank transfer, but it would take three whole weeks for the funds to clear. The only payment method that was feasible in my timescale was cash.
Did they have to wait for cash to clear? They didn’t (one up on my bank, then). Did they accept large-denomination notes? They did. Even thousand-guilder notes? Yes. I checked around with Dutch friends, who all said that I could merely present my Pin card at my bank (Any branch? Yes. Really? Yes) and withdraw as much cash as I liked without any further messing about.
Where’s the cash?
To tell the truth, I didn’t really believe them. There’s a branch of my bank right by Amsterdam Central Station. It’s a dodgy area, and it was difficult not to feel furtive as I sneaked up to the teller, checked nobody was in earshot, slid my card under the partition and quietly asked for 19,000 guilders in cash. I’m sorry, he said, but we don’t have that much money. I looked around, slightly desperately, to see if I had inadvertently walked into a greengrocers instead of a bank. No, it all looked reassuringly like a financial institution. Perhaps I had phrased the question incorrectly. Errrm. Look. I would like to withdraw 19,000 guilders from my account please. The teller continued to look dubious. We don’t have that many large notes… apparently he saw some mad desperate glint appearing in my eye …but maybe we have it in small change?
I nodded eagerly, not trusting myself to speak. There will be rather a lot of it? he quavered, before scuttling nervously off. After a short wait he was back, now secure in the certainty of his knowledge. No, we don’t have it.
In a daze, I wandered out onto the streets of Amsterdam. Surely this was no great sum of money for one of the major financial centres of Europe, especially in a country where everybody is forced, through lack of other options, to use cash? I decided to try another bank, and went right into the central Dam Square and the biggest bank that I could find. Here, finally, a smiling cashier handed over a small pile of large-denomination notes. Thankyou very, very much. I said, and legged it for the bike shop before she could change her mind.
The showroom is a train ride and then an expensive taxi trip from Amsterdam, but I was determined that nothing should go wrong. Armed with a copy of my passport, the letter from the council, a wad of cash and my driving licence (just in case), I arrived and triumphantly presented them with my stash. They gravely accepted the money, even the thousand-guilder notes, but they shook their heads over the rest of it.
They suddenly discovered that they needed my real passport, not just a copy. And the letter from the council was the wrong kind of letter. On Friday morning I took a long detour on the way to work, and after a little trouble found the Registration office. It opened at 08:30 to a tide of people all clamouring for the same kind of letter; a few minutes wait and a small payment and it was mine.
Hurriedly, I returned to work. I was out of town for the weekend, but on Monday morning I once again set off for the bike shop, now with (hopefully) the correct letter and my real passport tucked firmly into my pocket. The taxi driver was a crazy German who thought that sliding broadside around the front end of a fast-moving truck was an acceptable means of turning across a dual carriageway, and when we got to the showroom I was in two minds to pay him off and walk the hour back, but I really couldn’t afford the time, so I asked him to wait and ran up to the door. In common with many other Dutch businesses, it was closed all day Monday.
Cursing, I went back to work. The taxi driver didn’t have any change and so got an inadvertent tip. The next morning I was up early again and queuing in the rain outside the post office. Rather than spend what remained of the week running back and forth, I’d decided to courier the documents instead. The helpful lady behind the desk told me that express mail would get my envelope to the bike shop by 10:30 tomorrow, Wednesday morning. I knew that the bike shop did their daily run to the vehicle licensing office at around 09:00, so there would just be time for them to arrange the licence on Thursday before I picked the bike up that evening.
Relieved, I handed her my package. She refused to take it. But that’s twenty-five guilders, she wailed. This is a common problem in the Netherlands. The typical Dutch person is proud of the care that they take over their money. They will laugh and joke about it with foreigners, but will still travel from one end of the city to the other in order to save a couple of guilders. It is a national trait, but since it is coupled with warm-hearted generosity, it never degenerates into meanness. However, it does mean that shopping can be an unusual experience. The concept of selling up is completely alien. If there are two thingamajigs and you pick the more expensive one, the sales assistant will persuasively argue you into buying the cheaper one unless you firmly stand your ground. It is almost worth picking up a really expensive item just to hear the hiss of indrawn breath and to see the forlorn shaking of heads.
And so it was with my package. Any normal person would pay one guilder for regular post and hope that the package arrived in time. To squander a whole twenty-five guilders for a mere guarantee of delivery was to invite divine retribution. We argued back and forth, each becoming increasingly desperate, until finally she hit upon a happy compromise. If she arranged for a third-party carrier, a company unrelated to the post office, to take it rather than their own driver, then it would only cost twenty-two guilders. She smiled triumphantly and I meekly paid up.
Wednesday morning, eleven o’clock. I called the showroom to see if my package had arrived. It hadn’t. I called the courier, who phoned their driver. Apparently he had delivered it to somebody who signed himself as Ron. I called the bike shop. They didn’t employ anybody called Ron. Did they have anybody whose name might look like Ron if it was scribbled in a hurry? Had anybody seen a big orange delivery van that morning? They would check and get back to me.
I hung up and sat and stared at the phone, playing back every second of the last two weeks, wondering if I could have done anything differently. The phone rang. They had found Ron, who was an under-mechanic in the workshop. Rather than handing the package in to the shiny manned reception desk in the entrance hall, the courier had seen fit to pass it to a pair of legs stuck out from under a bench in the workshop. Understandably, Ron had quickly smeared his name on the clipboard and lobbed my precious documents as far away from his oily rebuild as possible, promptly forgetting about them.
But was it the correct kind of letter? A rustle at the end of the phone indicated opening noises, and then the welcome words “This is perfect. You can come and pick up your bike tomorrow.”
I had some official forms to fill in, so I popped in to the central police station. From the outside, the large purpose-built edifice in the centre of Utrecht is certainly impressive in a public building sort of way, but inside it is quite a surprise. Once through the huge automated revolving door – complete with encased items of clothing advertising local shops – I found myself in a large airy glass atrium with scattered wooden benches and display stands, a bit like the entrance to a modern museum, an impression heightened by the exhibition of photographs on a police theme by a local photographer. The police themselves moved through this space in pairs, courteous and jovial, looking relaxed and content. The tiny policewoman behind the desk, dwarfed by a belt full of regulation handcuffs, folding knife, gun and other accoutrements, is pleasant and helpful. There is even a visitors toilet, which after a while I decided to visit.
As I entered the large unisex cubicle, the door swung shut behind me and I automatically reached for the light pull, hanging dimly-seen by my side. As I pull it, everything goes pitch black, and I realise that the lights had actually already been on. Another tug reveals a room in almost complete darkness, with a select few objects glowing a fluorescent yellowish non-colour. I’ve seen UV in public toilets before, fitted because heroin addicts can’t find their veins under it, but who the heck shoots up in a police station? This was also the dimmest light that I have ever encountered. Hanging close to my hand is the mildly glowing plastic knob of the light cord. Over to one side, the end of a tissue projects brightly from its otherwise invisible hand-towel dispenser. In front of me, two ghostly toilet rolls hang unsupported in space, and there to the side of them, glowing very faintly and identified only by a fluorescent sticker on the flush handle, is the incorporeal image of a lavatory bowl.
One sunny weekend, Adam and I decided to take advantage of the excellent Dutch railway system, and expand on our usual bar crawl around Utrecht by going on a bar crawl around Holland.
Equipped only with a couple of pocketfuls of cash and the clothes we stood in, we had one for the road in the Firkin in Utrecht, and then headed out by train and bus to the beach at Scheveningen.
Famous for at least two things, one of which is that its name used to be used in the war to spot German spies (if they couldn’t satisfactorily pronounce the difficult “Sch”, then they were obviously not Dutch and were shot), Scheveningen has a fine beach and is the site of many events and exhibitions, such as the fabulous annual kite festival. When we arrived, we hit the tail end of a sand-sculpting exhibition, with some pretty impressive stuff from artists who had flown in from around the world to take part.
One of the advantages that Scheveningen beach has over many others is that the strand is lined with pleasant bars, so after checking out the sandcastles we had a beer or two before tackling the pier, a recently rescued structure that appears to be cobbled together from old oil platforms, although the renovations should be impressive when they’re finished.
As the sun set in the English Channel, we headed out to Rotterdam. Most of this city was flattened in the war, but what little is left of the old town is gathered around the old harbour, a backwater of the main shipping port which is home to a fleet of beautifully kept Dutch barge houseboat conversions. On one side is the new suspension bridge, and on the other, the weird cube houses.
We paused for a beer on the quayside, enjoying the enormous Laetitia Casta peering down at us from the side of a nearby office block (not content with building some of the most imaginative office buildings in Europe, the Dutch go to great lengths to decorate them as well), and then we moved to a convenient Belgian bar.
Looking around, we noticed two spare tables, one rickety one squashed into a corner by a bevy of young ladies on a hen night, and the other up against the window. Deeming it too obviously lecherous to squeeze in with the girls, we chose the window seat. However, not long into our first beer, another girl came over who wanted to use our table, and she bribed us with free beer if we would only move to that little table in the corner…
Eventually we left and went for a walk around the harbour, on a vague quest to find an all-night bar that somebody had told us about. The waterfront at Rotterdam is very pretty at night, all the bridges are brightly lit and reflected in the inky black water. However, the bar, when we finally found it, was firmly closed.
Heading back into town, we found a club called the Blue Fish that was still letting people in. It was long and thin with a long thin dance floor partway along, populated by an interesting selection of people. We were far too tired and hungry to pay much attention, but luckily they served the best cheese and ham tostis we had ever seen, as well as a small selection of bottled Belgian beers. Eventually dawn came up outside, and we tottered to the railway station to see if there were any trains going to Maastricht.
After a couple of hours well-earned kip on the train, we awoke to find ourselves somewhere completely different; Roermund, I think.
We stumbled around a bit looking surprised, narrowly avoided being thrown out of the station as vagrants, and got on a train to Valkenburg, home to Holland’s only hill.
It was substantially hollowed out by the Romans, who built 70km of tunnels as they excavated building stone. Since then, its been turned into a sort of museum-cum-art-gallery, where any event in the towns history has been commemorated by either a charcoal drawing or a sculpture somewhere in the depths. It was also at one point turned into the towns nuclear fall-out shelter, although for all the impressiveness of the enormous steel doors, the sheltering townspeople still seemed to be dependent on air shafts and water from the (presumably contaminated) outside world.
Out from the bowels of the earth, we decided to climb the mountain, spurred on by the signs to a Roman spa at the top. Sadly, the spa turned out to be a hotel, but luckily there was a ruined castle so we poked around in that instead. Conveniently it had a bar, and we were able to have a restorative beer before heading back down to the town and the train to Maastricht, where we intended to book a hotel room – if only to have a shower.
Maastricht itself seemed quite fun, although the ugly modern bridges over the river were a disappointment… as was the fact that, due to some festival or other, all the hotels were completely full. So, after a short wander about and the purchase of some clean clothing, we headed back to the station, where a particularly lovely girl was selling coffee and waffles. Neither of us really like the really sweet Dutch waffles, but we bought some anyway, and I was delighted to be told that my Dutch accent was very aristocratic. And now, fuelled by coffee, we boarded the train to Venlo.
Thanks goodness there was a hotel by the station. We spent some time relaxing in our rooms and standing under the shower, before putting on our new clothes and heading into town.
Venlo is a curious place that caters almost entirely for German shoppers. Bar staff and shop assistants assume without thinking that you are German, and address you in that language, something I didn’t really notice until I caught Adams baffled expression and realised that I wasn’t speaking Dutch any more.
In the market square we found a convenient bar with the unlikely name of The Thirsty Chicken, and sat and watched the world (or to be more accurate, the girls) go by. A huge storm brew up, but although we were outside, we were sitting under a canopy and had a grandstand view of the lightning as the clouds swooped and boiled around us. Marvelous.
Later that night we headed for The Splinter, a rather off-the-wall neo-punk club near to the hotel, where I met up with Helga and Naardje for a night’s dancing and drinking, while Adam wandered back into town for a quieter session. Actually, I think he just fancied the barmaids more.
After a few hours of welcome sleep, we emerged blinking into Sunday morning. The last time wed done something like this, in Groningen in the north of Holland, we’d inadvertently continued drinking all night again and had been forced to return home on the Monday morning, amongst all the suited commuters. This time we determined to hit only one more city before putting our tails between our legs, so we plumped for Nijmegen.
It was a good choice. The sun was blazing and the town picturesquely mediaeval. In the park we messed about climbing on rooves and taking pictures of the castle.
At a bar outside the town hall we discussed the architecture and watched a roadside five-a-side football match, while on the riverside we quaffed ale and watched and discussed the barmaids.
Eventually, however, we had to drag ourselves away, and after a walk along the riverfront we made our way, tired and happy, back to the station.
It was late at night, and I was sitting in Utrecht in the Netherlands, poring over the internet’s meteorological sites trying to determine the best place to see the upcoming total eclipse of the sun. It didn’t look good, with a band of rain sweeping over Germany, closely followed by another rolling in from the Atlantic over the UK and France. I needed to get between the two weather systems, in the hope that the intervening skies would be clear. According to my calculations this meant any town between Reims and Luxembourg. On the basis that Luxembourg is my favourite European city, and that it had onward train connections to England and to a festival that I wanted to go to, the choice was not difficult.
The 03:00 train from Utrecht to Rotterdam contained the usual dribble of partygoers and the first wave of people going home from the bars. In Rotterdam at 05:00, an appreciable number of eclipse-chasers were on the platform, and I was lucky to get a seat. Well, it wasn’t luck really. While everybody clustered around the passenger doors I got in through the goods van and beat them to the seats; product of a mis-spent youth on Interrail.
The 07:30 train from Brussels was always going to a problem. I had tried to reserve a seat on it but had been told that the train had been removed from the reservations system. The clerk seemed puzzled but I had a good idea what that meant. Sure enough, the train was packed to overflowing with eclipse-watchers. I only just managed to wedge myself in through one of the doors, and a fat guy behind me had to give up. There was no room for him at all, and the train set off without him.
I was crammed in with a load of other people in the tiny corridor outside the toilet. Two large jolly ladies decided that they were going to co-opt the toilet, which made more room for the rest of us, and we were able to arrange it so that nearly everybody could sit cross-legged if nobody moved. Occasionally some outsider would fight through the morass of bodies to the lavatory, and we and the two ladies then had to perform an intricate dance to let them in. It was all quite amusing, and served to take our minds off the three-hour journey and the fact that the sky was still grey and overcast.
Just as we came into Luxembourg city, patches of blue appeared and a couple of times we actually saw the sun’s disk murkily through the fug. On one occasion, it even cast a small shadow, and we all cheered. Once in town, an hour late presumably because of the huge weight the train was carrying, we thankfully clambered off, cracking stiffened muscles and stretching our aching bodies. I expect that the few innocent passengers continuing on their way to Milan were quite relieved too.
I tried to buy a slice of pizza for breakfast, but they wouldn’t take Dutch Guilders, only Deutschmarks. I couldn’t remember the exchange rate for Luxembourg Francs, so at the cash machine I just pressed the lowest number displayed, working on he principle that in most countries this is the cost of a few beers, or around ten English Pounds. When I got my change back from the pizza lady, I realised that the machine had given me about seven times that amount.
All the major bridges were already lined with people, optimistically having their photos taken wearing their Eclipse glasses, and streams of bodies were for some reason heading for higher ground. Looking down from one bridge, I spotted an unoccupied bench far down in the valley, perfectly positioned on one of the tiny paths that wind up and down the valley walls. I happened to know that the route to this particular bench was intricate and not at all obvious, so I set off against the crowd, fairly secure in the knowledge that nobody was going to stumble on it by accident. Sure enough, when I got there the only competition was a local lad setting up a camera tripod a little distance away; perfect peace.
The only problem was that the weather was closing in. It looked like I’d judged it wrong after all, as you couldn’t even tell the general direction of the sun above the thick grey cloud layer. As the minutes ticked away to totality, the photographer suddenly picked up his carefully positioned tripod and began snapping the eclipse-watchers on the bridge above. There was no way that we were going to see the sun again today.
Nevertheless, the moment of eclipse was still impressive. With no cues to warn us, twilight suddenly fell as if someone had turned down a huge rheostat. A few automatic lights came on, the birds went silent, and some crickets began to chirp hesitantly in the trees behind me. A ragged cheer went up from the bridge, echoed by another from across the valley. We had a few moments to experience the almost-darkness, and then the invisible hand once more switched the lights back on.
It was all over, but what had we actually experienced? A momentary darkness at midday. Worth travelling all this way for? I think so. I had undertaken a long and difficult journey in the company of a disparate and international crowd, all fully aware that we had only a limited chance of seeing what we had come all this way to see. When it came to the moment of totality, the awe was inherent not in the sights and sounds, but in the huge implacability of the event, in the inevitability of the enormous forces at work. Definitely a moment to remember.
The taxi arrived at five in the morning, but most of us had been partying all night so we were already awake. Showing few signs of life, and in some cases far from sober, six smelly blokes were decanted onto the Boeing 767 to Barcelona, and three hours later were shambling down La Rambla, Barcelona’s main drag, in search of beer.
After a fairly extensive bar crawl into the late afternoon, we grabbed a couple of hours kip and then headed out for the evening’s entertainment. It was, we discovered, fiesta time in Barcelona. La Rambla was packed, not only with tourists and locals but also with musicians, buskers and street performers. Most impressive were the various sets of stilt dancers, performing complex rhythmic manoeuvres while dressed in outrageously coloured costumes. Followed by cunningly contrived mobile music machines (imagine a cross between a stage sound system and a bicycle), they swept through the crowd, terrorising passers-by with their demonic appearance and scattering firecrackers and confetti with gay abandon.
At the seaward end of La Rambla is a pontoon that leads out to an artificial island in the harbour, a colourful line of bars and clubs known as La Moll d’Espanya. Entry is free, the atmosphere is friendly, and you are practically encouraged to wander from club to club, in an extension of the traditional evening perambulation. However, I wasn’t in the mood for dance music, so I left the others to it and headed off down to the quayside, where live bands were gearing up for the evening. After a little wandering, I settled on one band that interspersed creditable renditions of rock classics with traditional Spanish flamenco songs. An unusual mixture, but it really got us dancing.
Much later, I grabbed a few hours of sleep at the hotel, and then was awoken by the others returning from their raving at around 6:30am. I took the opportunity to get up, grab a coffee , and head out on foot to the Sagrada Familia.
For those who have never been there, this is Gaudi’s crowning masterpiece. They have been building this weirdly organic cathedral to his original plans for around a century, and it is the most truly impressive piece of modern construction that I have ever seen. Each individually shaped stone is hand-moulded on site from concrete, and then winched into place. The first seven towers already grace the skyline like the arms of a stone octopus, and millions of tourists regularly clamber up the labyrinthine stone staircases, emerging onto trick balconies and buttress bridges high above the city.
It had been five years since my last visit, and a fair amount had been achieved. The central space in what had previously been a bare shell now contained many floors of construction, an extra crane, and more scaffolding than I have ever seen in my life. At two points they had built high enough to incorporate what looked like the first supports for the central dome. For the first time, I began to believe that the cathedral may be finished in my lifetime.
From the central Cyprus Tower my eyes once more followed the tree-lined Avenue Gaudi to the impressive building standing at the end. Usually it has been mid-summer and I’ve been wearing bike leathers, and so I’ve never actually walked up the avenue to see what it was, but this time it was below 30C and I was equipped with T-shirt and shorts, so once back at ground level I set off to find out. It was well worth it. The Hospital de Sant Pau is a genuine working example of Catalan architecture, beautifully embellished with multicoloured mosaics. There was something immensely pleasing about the juxtaposition of gothic architecture and modern ambulance equipment.
I was now in a mood for walking. Clear across town is Gaudi’s last civil project, the apartment block called La Perdera. I had never been inside, so I spent a happy couple of hours exploring the apartments and clambering round on the roof before repairing to the building’s coffee lounge for a restorative sandwich. As I paid my bill, I heard firecrackers outside, a sure sign of a fiesta parade. Hurrying outside, I came across a huge construction like a hamster-wheel with a brightly dressed gnome inside. Various parts of the structure were wired to a drum machine, which he played by jumping around and hitting them. Two more gnomes high up on one of the Perdera balconies acted out a play about Father Time, and a band of black-clad men pushed oil drums in wheelbarrows while their partners beat enthusiastic percussion with hammers. They were the vanguard for another gnome standing in an enormous head constructed of white polypropylene bottles, pushed along at the top of a small crane by a group of struggling men. As if this wasn’t enough, a silver-clad girl floated by suspended from a big white helium balloon. When they do a parade in Spain, they do it in style.
Having crossed half the city, I decided to finish the job and go to the park which sits on a hill overlooking the south-western suburbs. I had heard that there was another Gaudi church there, and this was as good as an excuse as any. When I arrived in the Place d’Espanya, it was clear that something was going to happen. All the way up the long series of steps leading to the palatial National Catalan Art Museum, engineers were scurrying around preparing thousands of fireworks. Halfway up the avenue, the concert speakers hanging from every lamppost emitted an ear-shattering crash and then launched into mind-numbing rock music. This was a sound-check as sound-checks are meant to be. There were a couple of dozen passers-by strolling along the enormous avenue, and none of us could resist a bit of a dance as the music swept irresistibly through our small frail bodies. After establishing that they were laying the groundwork for a son et lumiere spectacular the following evening, I continued my search for La Poblo Espanya, which turned out to be an artificial mountain village.
For the 1929 Expo, copies of buildings from all the different regions of Spain had been crammed together into one place. Each region had shops selling crafts local to its area, and although it was all a bit Disney it wasn’t a bad rendition of a genuine Spanish village. The Gaudi church was nice too.
From La Poblo Espanya there is a path that runs along the hillside to a cable car down to the seafront, but as I was ambling along I bumped into a couple of lost American ladies who gave me the return half of their ticket on the funicular, an alternative route down which I took with an Australian couple who were on month three of a two-year round-the-world trip.
Once back on La Rambla, I was suddenly at a bit of a loss. I sat in a pavement bar for a while, waiting for something interesting to happen, but eventually decided that what I really needed was a good meal. After some searching I found a decent restaurant in a large square, and ordered myself a good feast washed down by some Faustino 1.
Another lone guy sat down at the next table. He turned out to be a German called Ralf, an oil-worker in Aberdeen on his way back from an off-road motorcycle tour of Andorra. We got on pretty well, so after dinner we set off together to check out the quayside bands and bars, finally ending up outside one of the bars on the Moll d’Espanya drinking half-pints of whiskey and watching the girls go by.
Unfortunately, at 2am I realised that my bag had disappeared from beneath our feet, containing my camera, phone and, worst of all, the last two rolls of exposed film. A trip to the police station revealed that the English-speakers didn’t work nights, so I headed back to the hotel for a few hours of bed. The others rolled in again at 6am, so I got up and after a much-needed coffee returned to the police station to give my statement. The waiting room was full of people who’d had their bags and cameras stolen at the same time and the same place; so there must have been a gang of streamers operating on the parade that night.
Back at the hotel, the others were just getting up, and since they’d spent the previous day shopping rather than sightseeing I took them on the metro to the Sagrada Familia, borrowing a camera to re-take some of the shots that I’d lost. We then moved on to the Park Guell and spent a pleasant sunny afternoon ambling around Gaudi’s structures before heading back to the hotel for a change of clothing.
It was now that we discovered that the lock had jammed on our room’s safe. Sealed inside were our passports and plane tickets, and since it was now Sunday night and we were due to check out at 8am Monday morning, we were understandably perturbed. However, with a little effort I managed to get reception to arrange for a locksmith to turn up at 7am, hopefully giving us enough time to catch our plane, and we set off for the Place d’Espanya and the promised firework display.
The square and the avenue were packed with people. The music began, and the large fountain complex in front of the museum, bottom-lit by coloured lights, began to dance. Music of many different styles was mixed together higgledy-piggledy, perfectly traced by the finely controlled fountains. This was all rather impressive, but it was only a taster for the main event. After a long pause to sort out some technical problems, the music began once again. Starting with early classical tunes, the show moved through the years with medleys of musical styles from each period, concentrating on a Catalan theme, while the fountains danced and above them the fireworks flamed and exploded in time to the music. It was a huge spectacle, with all sorts of unusual fireworks, and enough different styles of music to keep everybody happy.
Marshalls had been moving through the crowd giving out sparklers to all and sundry, and round about the nineteen-sixties a Catalan anthem began, and everybody lit up. Unfortunately, my sparkler turned out to be defective, and exploded into an eighteen-inch fireball. No sooner had it started then it was over, leaving me with two naked sticks and a hand that looked like a barbecued trout. I made a beeline for the ambulance. The packed crowds magically parted before me; clearly the expression on my face brooked no argument. It felt like the charring had gone deep, but there was no pain as yet and I wanted to get treatment before it started.
The paramedics smothered everything in cream and bandages as the fireworks climaxed and the next victims began to arrive. Clearly there was a bad batch of sparklers out there. I was sent off to find the hospital, trailing the rest of our group behind me; walking fast to take my mind off the pain.
The surgeon poked about, removed the worst bits of charred flesh, and after pronouncing that I would live, I was back on the street with an enormous bandage.
Two fingers were badly blistered, the end of my thumb was charred, and my middle finger had a big hole stretching for a couple of joints but on the whole I was in one piece. I had got off more lightly than one other guy, whose entire hand looked like a piece of flame-grilled chicken. I desperately wanted a beer, and would have been happy with the nearest bar (it was after all 2am) but the other guys had been sitting in a hospital waiting room for an hour and a half and wanted to head back down to La Rambla. Suddenly tired, I took some cans to my room and drank them in bed, noting with relief that the locksmith had already been, and that our passports were all intact. Eventually I dozed off until the guys came back, and then within hours we were back on a plane, heading for the office and a bright new day.
A mid-morning start on a beautiful day. We were embarking on what would turn out to be an eleven hour motorcycle ride from Utrecht in Holland to Angers in France, to meet up with the rest of that loose group of bikers, the Lemmings, for a weekend touring the Loire Valley.
Breakfast in Mons
To break up the journey, we stopped in the Belgian town of Mons for lunch in the picturesque central square, where they were setting up a music festival. The sun was shining and the populace were gearing up for a party, and it was tempting to stay, but we forced ourselves to finish our meal and continue on our way.
By the time we hit Paris it was the rush-hour, and the Periphique was a marvel to behold. Above and beyond the normal scalectrix free-for-all, hundreds of motorbikes were hammering conga-fashion between every lane of cars. Loaded with a full pannier system, we were a little bit wider than average, so I kept pulling over into the main traffic streams to let the slimmer bikes behind me past; about half a dozen at a time, and on on occasion at least six police motorcycles. At one time I snuck in behind an ambulance that was doing its own filter between the lanes, sirens blazing, and I was quite stunned when it pulled over into traffic to let me past…
We finally met up with the others at their Angers hotel at 9pm. There was little time to do anything but drink lots of beer and fall asleep.
Sneezing in Angers
On the next morning we rode into Angers itself to have a look around the town. It is situated at one end of a mediaeval stone bridge over the Loire, and mostly sits inside a fortress, packed with tiny cobbled streets arranged around a central castle. Those buildings that were not timber-framed were constructed from tufa, a light-coloured stone that is popular with stone-carvers, and which also accounts for the warm honey-colour of the bridges and chateaux in this region. The castle had a functioning drawbridge over the moat with an Audi parked on it, draped with a wedding couple and orbited by a photographer who was trying to fit pictures in between the tourists streaming through the gateway.
I couldn’t even get close to the castle – or more particularly to its gardens – because there was something in the air that day and my nose was streaming. I couldn’t even approach the entrance portcullis without collapsing into paroxysms of sneezing, so we gave it a miss and headed upriver to nearby Saumur.
Mushrooms in Saumur
Saumur is dominated by a chateau that looks down on the town and its bridge, but we were headed for the outskirts and a mushroom museum. This was part of an underground mushroom farm situated in a tufa-rock mine, and was not only fascinating but also blessedly cool. For the benefit of tourists, they were growing mushrooms in the traditional heaps as well as the more modern beds and bags, and the workers delayed picking until the evening so that the maximum number of fruiting bodies were showing during the day.
The whole thing was fascinating, and topped off by a beautifully presented museum that must have contained samples of every mushroom in Europe, each preserved in a perspex block and mounted in a niche hollowed from the tufa wall.
On to Orleans
It was well past lunchtime and we had a hundred miles to go to the next hotel, so we made a start by cruising up the river toward Tours. The road was superb, built on top of a levee with broad sweeping bends that followed the sinuous path of the beautiful green-shrouded Loire, offering views across the rivers many islands and out across the surrounding vineyards. By the time we got to Tours it was well past five, so we hammered down to motorway to our destination just south of Orleans and a well-earned meal.
Another sunny day dawned. As well as wine, this region is also famed as the home of the French perfume industry, so our first call was a perfume museum on the outskirts of Orleans. This was set in the Chateau Chamerolles, and arranged sequentially through a series of rooms each decorated in the style of a particular century, with the history of perfume interwoven with the history of France. It was very well done, and terminated in a darkened room containing examples of many kinds of glass perfume bottle, each set upon a tiny black uplighter so that it appeared to hang suspended and glowing from within in the darkness.
In Orleans itself, the centre of town had been cordoned off and laid out as a karting track. Other stalls had been set up in the locality, and I got hoisted up at the end of a crane to look down on the cathedral and the city, before wandering through the old quarter and down to paddle our feet in the river by the inevitable mediaeval bridge. The river was immensely wide here, but still flowed very fiercely indeed.
The old quarter came alive at night, and all the restaurants and bars spilled out onto the pavement. The food came and the alcohol flowed, and then before we knew it, it was morning and we were back on the bike for the eleven hours of riding back to Utrecht.
Luckily the beautiful weather held, and we stopped here and there to eat, drink and rest. Just over the Belgian border we happened to turn off into the town of Dour, which managed to live up perfectly to its name, completely failed to provide us with any food, and whose main attraction, as far as we could see, was the immense queue of people waiting for the bus out of town. However, we knew that Mons was nearby, so we decided to try our luck there again.
Back to Mons
The music festival appeared to be over, but the townspeople of Mons were having yet another party, this one related to dragons. The main square was packed with impromptu bars where they sold wicked-looking Belgian beer in huge flagons, and we ended up back at the same restaurant, as it was the only place that hadn’t foregone food preparation in preference to the sale of rivers of alcohol.
Still, we were looking forward to sitting in the square watching the world bustle by, chased by friendly street-sellers with fistfuls of hats, balloons and dragons. Everyone was having a great time, but we had some more mileage to cover, so regretfully we passed up on the local beer, bought a passing dragon-on-a-stick and pointed the bike toward Holland and home.
I got on my motorbike one sunny Thursday and headed for Oostende, a couple of hours’ ride from den Haag in Holland. The theory was that I’d meet up with Lisa who was bringing her bike over from England on the SeaCat, and we’d camp up in nearby Brugge and meet a dozen or so other bikers on Friday morning. We would all then head off for the annual MAG Eurodemo, which this year was to be held in Bonn.
I arrived in Oostende (severely sore: the road from Antwerp to Brugge is probably the worst piece of tarmac in Christendom) and parked up outside the ferry terminal, noting the serendipitous proximity of an al fresco alehouse complete with electric heaters to take the chill off the evening. Settled into a comfortable chair, glass in hand, I switched on my phone and received no less than four urgent messages from Lisa. Apparently the SeaCat had broken down (again; it does this with monotonous regularity) and the best that P&O could do was to put Lisa and all the other motorbikes onto a hovercraft which was bound for Calais, in another country and about an hour’s ride away.
By the time Lisa arrived in Oostende, the night was well advanced, but we managed to blag the last food from the kitchen, and discovered that the bar (the oldest in Oostende, so it claimed), had rooms to rent, so we settled in with a vengeance, deliberately ordering glasses of Kriek and Kwak because it sounded good when the waitress shouted it across the bar.
A Nut Loose in Bitburg
The next morning we completed a leisurely breakfast and then discovered that the SeaCat was still broken, so we abandoned the wait for our friends and set off for the Eurodemo campsite. This was only three hours away so we took it easy, but after looking around the town of Bitburg (which I wanted to visit simply because it made the beer that is named after it), I found that the front sprocket nut had vanished from my bike and the actual sprocket had fallen off, instantly turning the whole machine from a useful means of transportation into just so many motionless parts. It was getting on for closing time so I left Lisa to look after the pile of bits and rode her bike in search of repairs, on the basis that I speak German and she doesn’t.
A Mercedes garage pointed me in the direction of a Toyota garage (on the basis that they were as Japanese as the Yamaha and therefore probably had non-metric nuts), but on the way I stopped at a Suzuki Jeep garage where a bemused lady receptionist – the only person there – let me in to the workshops to see if I could find anything that looked useful, but sadly to no avail.
At the Toyota garage I met their mechanic, who was just going home, but after discovering that he didn’t have anything remotely like the sprocket nut that I was looking for he borrowed a car from the showroom and took me to a nearby Honda dealer. Sadly, no dice (Hondas don’t have sprocket nuts), but the Honda people reckoned that there was a motorcycle shop in a nearby town that might have one.
A phone call revealed that (a) they had one but (b) they were going home, but if I could be there in fifteen minutes then it was mine. Swiftly we returned to the Toyota garage, where I put Lisa’s bike back together (I’d taken it apart to show the mechanic what I needed) and headed out. It was about 20 miles and I had good directions, but sadly they did not include the roadworks diversion, so I didn’t get there in time. However, stuck to the door was a post-it directing me to the owner’s house, but he’d been looking out for me and showed up waving happily, and soon I was back on the road, complete with a new set of directions and a nice shiny new sprocket nut in my pocket.
Back at my own bike there was no sign of Lisa, but I got on with fitting the new nut, only to find that the spindle thread was too knackered to tighten the nut by hand. At about this time, Lisa emerged from a nearby pub with a large number of Germans who had discovered her asleep by the bike and, discovering our predicament, were ringing around their friends trying to find us a suitable nut. Finding that I now had a nut but no 32mm spanner (after all, who does?) they then phoned all their friends again and amazingly produced one with the requisite tool.
Sadly, however, the thread was too knackered even with the correct instrument, so Lisa went back to her beers and I scratched my head. At some point in the foregoing, Lisa had managed to get into telephone contact with our friends who had now arrived in Germany and were strangely enough just entering Bitburg themselves. Soon they all turned up too and scratched their collective head in the time-honoured manner until I gave up and did what I always do, to whit, cobbled something together out of a beer can and bits scavenged from the nearest bin. I figured that it would get me to the camp site, and I’d worry about sorting the thread out in the morning.
Off we set, following our friends who knew exactly where they were going. The Road to… Bonn? Time passed, and the roads became curiously mountainous with interesting hairpins. The altitude increased and we passed a road sign that looked suspiciously like a border sign for Luxembourg, and the guy we were following finally stopped and admitted that he’d been reading the map upside down and we were 180 degrees out of phase with our intended route…
My sorely abused chain had been getting slightly irritable on all these mountain curves, so I enquired of a passing local (who was attempting to pass rather quickly; it was after dark in a small village and there were lots of large rumbling motorcycles with large foreigners rumbling angrily to each other…) and discovered that there were no less than three camp sites within 500 metres, and two garages. Leaving the others to make their own way to Paris, Lisa and I stopped for the night and were so exhausted that we slept ’til midday.
Emerging to greet the day, we discovered that it was half-day closing and all the garages were shut. Enquiries pinned down a couple of open garages, especially a Hyundai garage in the next town. Again I caught the mechanic just as he was intending to go home, but he was happy to tighten up my new nut for me. Ten minutes later, after ever so carefully easing it on with the absolute minimum of force, we sat looking at yet another ruined nut. The thread on the spindle was just too knackered. The mechanic thought for a bit, then said that he was hungry and needed some lunch, but after that he would nip round his friend’s house and borrow a thread-cutter and meet me back at the garage (which had now closed for the weekend).
An hour later he returned, sans thread-cutter but with a hardened steel file, with which he proceeded to laboriously cut a new thread for me, by hand, using the in-gear, running, hoisted-up back wheel as a lathe. Well, I was impressed. Another hour, and I was back on the road again, leaving behind a considerable amount of gratitude and a fistful of beer money.
That night we discovered that the village that we were in was actually the outlying part of a town called Vianden, right in the heart of the Deutsch-Luxembergischer Naturpark and surely the most beautiful town in Luxembourg, set in a dammed gorge and overlooked by an impressive castle on an outcrop projecting from the tree line.
A pleasant walk up and down the main cobbled street soon revealed a plethora of flower-bedecked restaurants. Eventually we chose one of them (no mean feat!) and had an excellent meal, eventually weaving our somewhat inebriated way back over the river to the camp site. We stayed for another day too, taking the chairlift up the sides of the valley to look down on the castle, and going for madcap burns around the mountain roads, most of which seemed to be named after Victor Hugo, to whom memorials are ubiquitous, and one of which lead mysteriously through a large field of cannabis plants.
The following day, having fond memories of our last visit to the capital, we set off for Luxembourg city, which was every bit as beautiful as we remembered it. We spent an extremely pleasant day wandering around the warrens of switchback paths and tunnels that climb up and down the sides of the lush green gorge that splits the city. Definitely my favourite European city.
Almost a Full Meal in Hellenthal
After the success of our stay in one national park, we headed for another, the Deutsch-Belgischer. However, even though this too was quite beautiful, it did have a serious lack of camp sites. The only ones that we could find were rather dire caravan parks on the outskirts of unattractive modern towns, and we were looking for another Vianden. Later and later into the night we rode, until eventually, after a couple more caravan parks (all of whom had closed their gates at dusk) we encountered a tiny camp site on the outskirts of Hellenthal which was mysteriously deserted of staff and customers, but which sported a small green field and a clean and functioning toilet block.
We had spotted glimpses of a beautiful mediaeval village high above us as we descended into the valley, so after pitching the tent we climbed wearily back onto our bikes and set off again, desperate for something to eat. Luckily for us there was a small restaurant at the base of the town, so we climbed out of our waterproofs and stumbled in, to be greeted by an extremely friendly staff who gave the impression that they’d been sitting waiting all evening just for the pleasure of serving us.
About half way through the second course, when we had taken the edge off the worst of our hunger and were beginning to think in terms of making a night of it, it began to percolate through to our awareness that we hadn’t seen a single Visa symbol anywhere in the restaurant. Discreet enquiries revealed that they didn’t accept plastic of any sort, and although we had Belgian francs aplenty we were pretty low on Deutschmarks; we hadn’t intended to camp on this side of the border but had accidentally wandered across while searching for somewhere to stay. Luckily we had exactly enough German cash to pay for what we had already eaten plus a small tip, so we halted our meal, handed over everything we had, and departed rather abruptly into the night.
The next morning, after a pleasant night’s sleep, we still couldn’t find anybody to pay so we packed up and headed back up to the village, whose name I have forgotten but which began with an R.
All The Best Things Start With R
It turned out to be an ancient fortified town from the 1700s, virtually untouched since mediaeval times and extremely well kempt. All the houses were spotlessly white, all the graves in the graveyard were beautifully tended with burning candles, the church bells rang out merrily across the valley, and a hushed aura of history pervaded the air. We stayed for a long time, poking around behind houses and in the dungeons of the ruined castle, which curiously enough was being rebuilt by two cheerful men on a scaffold tower. They had built up to around thirty feet from the original foundations and showed no signs of stopping, and why would they? Perched on top of the world in the sunshine, the whole of Germany laid out in a patchwork below, they carefully laid stone upon ancient stone and rebuilt the past.
We fairly randomly rang our travel agent for destinations available on short notice, and were presented with a list of all the usual (warm island in the Mediterranean) suspects, and one odd one out, 100km north of the Arctic Circle in Finland.
A Finnair Welcome
Very shortly after that we were on board a Finnair flight for Helsinki, where we were to transfer to an inland plane for the last 1000 miles or so to Kittila.
Flying with Finnair was a pleasant experience, albeit a blurred one. We were greeted by the normal complementary drink, but this was swiftly followed by the meal which included a bottle of wine. Barely had we coped with this when the stewardesses were back asking if we wanted coffee with our after-dinner brandy.
The landing took place in a haze and then we were on the connecting flight, and would sir like a drink from the bar?
The first part of the flight took us over the Finnish Lake District, which looked more like an inland sea overlain with a thin doily of land than genuine solid ground. By degrees this gave way to the northern tundra, and the first suspicions of snow in the low hollows that are really this landscape’s only feature, and finally taiga with its thick stands of stunted trees rooted forever in permafrost.
I’ve been to some small airports, but Kittila was the first one I’ve seen constructed entirely from wood, including the control tower.
Wood seemed to define the Finnish experience. There is nothing that cannot be constructed from it, given ample supplies and a bucketful of ingenuity. Not only the churches but the gravestones, not only the factories but the pipelines between them, not only railway sleepers but entire kilometres-long embankments are made from this amazing stuff. It can also be burned for warmth and fermented into fuel, and given the tiny number of Finns that live in the huge area north of Helsinki, there is an almost infinite supply.
The airport was deserted, and as the locals faded quickly away we realised that the single visible employee was from Avis and his single task for the day was to hand us the keys to our car. That done, he too disappeared, leaving us standing in the sunshine in a deserted airport, with only a single car waiting patiently for us in the car park.
A Lodge in Akaslompolo
It was a fair way to our rented lodge, but there was only one road and we amused ourselves by trying to spot fleeting glimpses of reindeer amongst the trees. Look, there’s one! No, that’s a tree stump No, it moved!
Of course, several days later we had acclimatised, and realised that the trouble with reindeer is to avoid running them over, as they seem to proliferate like rabbits, presumably an evolutionary compensation for their habit of standing still in the middle of the road.
The lodge, when we found it, was a log cabin set in woodland, furnished with modern conveniences and our very own sauna. It only took a moment to unpack, and then we set off to see what there was in Akoslompolo. There were a number of restaurants, a supermarket and an activity hire shop centred around a frozen lake. Pretty well perfect, except that nearly everything was firmly shut. The only thing that was open was one of the restaurants, and over an excellent meal of reindeer steak and wild berries we discovered that we had arrived in the off-season, a period of three weeks when the snow is no longer deep enough for skis and snowmobiles, but the ground is still too wet for walking or for wheeled traffic.
In fact, in those three short weeks a country of frozen ice is reborn violently as a country of lakes and woodland. Its all such an upheaval that the Finns, whose main income is tourism (in the skiing season) and tourism (in the walking season), all choose this time to seal up their houses and go on holiday.
It was certainly a time of changes. Every morning the scenery outside the lodge had altered, and each day driving along the same road was like exploring new territory. A snow covered woodland that we stamped about in throwing snowballs on one day, was a boiling torrent on the next, and a placid lake a couple of days later.
A Trip to the Arctic Ice Pack
All this put an idea into my head. I wondered if the Barents Sea was still frozen, and if the sea-ice was also breaking up. When asked, various Finns scratched their heads and deliberated, and some were of the opinion that it had already melted, while others thought that you could probably still see the ice pack from the northern Norwegian shore. The only real way of finding out was to go and look, which in any case was inevitable as I’d always wanted to go to Kirkenes on the Norwegian / Russian border, ever since discovering that it was the last stopping point of the famous Norwegian Hurtigrute postal steamer.
The fact that we were going to be driving for twelve hours didn’t put us off, because of course this was the land of the midnight sun, and we had already adjusted to the pattern of sleeping when tired and emerging when awake regardless of the hour of the day.
Five hours of driving took us to the Norwegian border, where we realised that we hadn’t brought our passports, but of course nobody was there to check them. We were now seriously far north, where the coast of Norway curves around the tip of Finland to gently poke against the vastness of Russia.
For some time, we had been following a large frozen river, scattered with tree trunks and the debris of winter. Occasionally it expanded into a huge lake, criss-crossed by a season’s worth of fossilised snowmobile tracks. Apart from these tracks and the road itself, we had seen few signs of human habitation for hundreds of kilometres, and then suddenly there was a lay-by with half a dozen cars and a scattering of warmly clad families.
Intrigued, we pulled over to see what the fuss was about. The river was melting. The lay-by overlooked a gorge that channelled a fierce torrent of icy melt water. While the families peered timorously over the edge, we clambered down to what could loosely be called the waterline to get a closer look. The river roared with the speed of a train through a cut several hundred meters across. The water was laden with blocks of ice the size of snooker tables all moving at the same breakneck speed, rolling over and smashing into each other as they went. Where rocks obstructed their progress, massive chunks of ice reared inexorably out of the water, quivering with the warring forces, until the next one smashed them free or rode up over the top of them to form a huge unstable pile the size of several cars. We took some photos which we knew would never do justice to the scale or to the power, but we also realised that we were most unlikely ever to forget it.
Back on the road, we had run out of trees, and were driving through kilometres of scoured rock, tortured by volcanic stresses into brightly coloured reds and greens squeezed as if from a careless artist’s tube, and then flattened and shattered by the onslaught of water and ice. Sparsely scattered homesteads clung to the rock or projected out into lake and fjord on wooden stilts. This must be a truly harsh place to live.
Finally we rounded Hardanger Fjord, and the cold grey Barings Sea stretched out before us. Although it was free of ice, it had fulfilled its purpose; the excuse for a journey that otherwise we may never have made. We sat and watched it for a while, and then turned back to the south.
We re-entered Finland by a different route, and before we reached the tree line we puzzled over the strangeness of the landscape. It was hard to put your finger on it, but there was something offbeat about the scattered rocks, and then suddenly it clicked into place. The predominant weathering here was repeated freezing and thawing. More normal weathering, such as rain, wind and sun, was completely eclipsed here in the farthest reaches of Europe. The flat ice-scoured terrain bore strange collections of carefully graded rocks and pebbles, arranged into neat geometric patterns, usually circles a few feet across. The shores of the frozen lakes appeared manicured, so precise was the arrangement of the stones on the beach, sorted by size as if by some autistic child of the gods.
This was the effect of the permafrost layer, repeatedly pushing to the surface and then retreating, slowly but surely reorganising the rocks in the soil. Back in the tree line we found that things had changed again in the day we’d been away. The snow was melting with a vengeance, and many of the trees which had previously in deep snow were now standing up to their knees in melt water. Also emerging from the drift was a lakeside hut, built from split logs in the shape of a tepee and kitted out with a fire pit and pans.
Walking on Water
A few days later we returned to the tepee with firewood and food and Finnish beer for a lakeside meal. In the middle of the lake was a volcanic island, and to enable tourists to view the lava, a raised plank-way had been built over the boggy bits. However, this was intended for summer use, and just now the lake covered everything, boggy bits and all, with icy melt water. The planks had worked their way loose from their trestles over the winter, and were now floating in a surreal curve on the surface of the water, bobbing for a couple of hundred metres and only attached at each end to the shore and to the island.
It was impossible to resist. We built a big fire in the hut to dry us out on our return, and then set off walking on water, shuffling along with one foot on each of the thin planks. Amazingly, we made it to the island relatively unscathed, but the planks were only joined end-to-end by luck and inertia, so when we turned round to look the way we had come it was to see several of the planks floating off into the distance.
Still, for most of the path there was still at least one plank still in place, and its amazing how the thought of glacial water improves your balance so we made it back only wet to the calves, apart from one of Lisa’s knees that got wet when the two planks she was standing on started floating in different directions…
This wasn’t the only day we spent with cold feet. On one occasion we were many kilometres up a flooded and frozen road that was technically still closed for winter, and stopped the car at the lip of a valley full of snow. We spent some time stomping around in it trying to work out if a front-wheel drive estate car would get through (we decided it wouldn’t). Another time was on our mountain bike excursion up, well, a mountain, during which I attempted to jump my bike over a snow-topped drainage ditch, with predictable results.
The Bear Hunt
One area of woodland was noted for its visiting bears, and in fact there was a path called The Bear Trail that wound around through six kilometres of pleasant birch forest. At least, it did in the summer season. When we tried it, the snow varied from ankle to waist deep and was undercut by varying depths of freezing melt water. It was only because the trail was marked by head-high paint marks on the trees that we could find it at all, and it took us most of the day, building bridges over the bad bits with fallen trees, jumping from rock to hidden rock, and of course keeping a wary eye out for bears.
We never saw any, which was probably best all round, but we did see lots of bear tracks, some of them made by a bear apparently dragging something, and we found ample evidence to finally resolve the age old question; yes, bears really do, there in the woods. I guess that makes the Pope a Catholic.
The time had come for me to leave my home country of England, and seek my fortune overseas. I secured a work contract in the mediaeval Dutch city of Utrecht, and – having no further ties – swung my leg over my motorcycle and headed for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone.
The Channel Tunnel
The Chunnel train looked very French, big corrugated metal slab-sided carriages with tiny windows. I am the only biker in a queue of cars, and an official in a bright yellow jacket waved me to one side and continued to guide each car into one of two doors set into the side of the train, one leading to an upper deck and one to a lower. Every now and then he made twisting motions with both hands to indicate that a motorist should turn their lights off, but I can’t see why.
Evidently I will be the last vehicle to board. The official grins sympathetically as I put my feet up on the handlebars and lie back, watching the rain dripping off my visor. At the last moment another bike appears, a two-up British Kwak Harley-a-like, all chrome and leather. The official drags an orange trolley out of hiding and places it on the floor of the last carriage. It has widely spread arms that lie flat on either side to stop it from falling over, and two swivel-mounted cups that are meant to hold the tyre. The cruiser noses its front wheel into the first cup, and the official guides the other into place, neatly holding the entire bike upright. Within moments my own bike is similarly secured, and I look at it curiously, wondering how they are going to get it out again.
A pretty French blonde appears, similarly encased in bright yellow, and checks that we have left the bikes in gear. I wander off to find a toilet – the doors between the carriages have electronic locks controlled by illuminated orange buttons which take several seconds to unlock the manually-pushed doors – and before I know it we are moving. A number of public announcements are made in French and English, repeated in both languages on overhead illuminated scrolling signs. I strike up a conversation with the other bikers, who are travelling to Antwerp and thus in my direction. He was originally Flemish but now lives in England; his partner, a tiny dark girl with a big smile and curious marks on each cheek, was originally from South America. They warn me that there is no petrol for 60 miles after you get off the train, but I have ample in the tank. They plan to stop and eat at their usual place just outside Brugge, and I think that it might be worth staying with them for the company on the road.
Now in France, all the connecting doors between the carriages are opened and the vehicles roll out along the body of the train and out the front (where did the engine go?) into the drizzle. Unloading the bikes is very straightforward, as the trolleys just spit us out when they are rolled away. Nice design, top marks.
Riding through Belgium in the rain
Up the familiar coast road, following the Kwak, which puts on a good 130kph pace, about what I would have chosen myself, though it can’t have been much fun for them with their open-face helmets. At the border with Belgium, the rain began in earnest, and I was glad to have plastic gloves on underneath my leather ones. An hour later and my boots started to fill up with water, absorbed through the leather and goretex by the onslaught of the weather.The Brugge services eventually appear, and just as we are about to cut across the four lanes leading to the exit, there is a huge bang from the Kwak and orange flames shoot toward me from their exhaust. They have run out of petrol, and I slow quickly to push if need be, but by weaving from side to side they find some vapour in the pipes and make it into a service station.
We sit and chew steak and talk about this and that, and I muse that it doesn’t really matter which country I’m in, I dont even have to know or care because everybody takes Visa. But then I want to go to the toilet, and sheepishly have to borrow BFr10 because I havent got any change to placate the large dragon lady guarding the entrance.
Outside the windows of the cafe, the rain gets heavier. We fill up with fuel and say our goodbyes, because even though I’ll be following them for another hour to Antwerp, they will be turning off at their journeys end and I’ll still have another hour to go to get to Utrecht.
Riding through Holland in the rain
As I leave Belgium and pass the signs for the Netherlands, the rain eases off a little. I smile to myself, although my shoulders are now stiff and the rain has made its way through my silk scarf and it is chafing my neck. Just out of Utrecht I stop, ostensibly for petrol but in actual fact to consult the map, because I really haven’t a clue where I’m going. Once stopped, though, I realise that I’m really cold, and sit for several minutes just staring at the petrol pumps revelling in the lack of motion and the protection afforded by the canopy overhead. Presumably I am on camera somewhere because a puzzled-looking blond beard appears at the window of the kiosk, but a look of understanding crosses his face when I wave vaguely in a gesture indicating the heavens, the bike, and the general condition of the world in general.
Inside, I forced my crabbed fingers to forge some resemblance to my Visa signature, and the bearded angel asked, “Would you like a coffee?” Would I! A nice steaming freshly brewed black coffee to wrap my hands around while I consult the map. I didn’t have a street map of Utrecht, just a fuzzy aerial view downloaded from the Web and a Michelin map of the local area purchased on the way over. My only clue for orientation is a distinctively shaped spaghetti junction which I hope I can recognise from the ground, in the rain, in the dark.
As usual I find that trusting to luck and not getting worried about the fact that I don’t even have the phone number of the hotel pays off, and before long I’m chugging up Donderstraat to the converted apartment building that is the Hotel Ouwi.
First night in Utrecht
I stand for a while in a scalding shower and then wander into town at 8pm, marvelling at all the canals. The streets are full of young couples, and despite the somewhat labyrinthine nature of the dark alleyways that criss-cross the centre, I feel perfectly safe. The only place that makes me a little uneasy is a big shopping centre called Hoog Catherijne next to the train station, where there seem to be some unsavoury characters hanging out, although nobody bothers me. Eventually I find a cash machine and get some Guilders. On the way back to the hotel I look in through the windows of lots of bars and restaurants, and everybody seems to be having a good time, though I’m starting to feel lonely and don’t feel much like sitting on my own. However, the last one that I pass is a Firkin pub, complete with English-style beer pumps, and I can’t resist it and go in.The staff are friendly and I stay for a couple of pints, just watching people and listening to music (apparently the bitter is brewed in den Haag), until I get up for a final pee.
In the gents I meet a New Zealander called Brett, and one thing leads to another and I find myself wandering from bar to bar with him and his four Dutch friends, finally rolling into bed at about half past one. Breakfast comes with the room and is a nice mixture of continental breads, ham, cheese, a boiled egg and a yoghurt. The toast is curious because it has Good Morning branded into it, presumably by the toaster. After several hours of walking I discover the whereabouts of my new office, a mere 15 minutes walk away along tow-paths and through a little nature reserve. Everybody else is either cycling or jogging; from the looks that I get from passersby and car passengers, walking is a suspicious activity and people who indulge in it are probably up to no good. Note to self: must buy a bicycle.
A printing error in a sailing brochure price list, some fast footwork on the phone, and suddenly nine members of that loose collection of bikers sometimes known as The Lemmings were flying out to Greece to pick up our 50-foot yacht for a holiday in the sun.
After some initial confusion at Kalamaki harbour, the gear was soon installed on our boat, and after an evening’s jollity and some kip we were out on the ocean wave.
Today would be the longest haul, all day heading southward around the mainland, with lots of nice open space in which to get used to our new craft, and some time to waste drifting gently in the sun and swimming in the clear blue sea.
Remembering an earlier escapade, however, this time we left somebody on board when we went swimming, and thus avoided a repeat of the sight of our yacht, sails set but helmless, heading off into the sunset. But that is another story, and finally, tired and hungry, we arrived at the little island of Kea.
We were the only boat at the harbour, and the taverna was waiting for the fishing boat to get in, so we mooched about until it arrived. I knew that the Greek sea had been grievously over-fished, and I’d already been surprised by the desert-like nature of the sea bottom on my snorkel excursions, but I was still stunned at the tiny catch that the three-man crew carried ashore when they finally docked; two large fish and some scallops. Sure enough, once in the taverna, we discovered that the piscine menu was limited to “leetle feesh” or “beeg feesh”.
It was all remarkably cheap too, but next day when we came ashore for breakfast the owner was in a terrible state, because he had forgotten to charge us the £20 for the “beeg feesh”. The meal had been excellent and of course we were happy to oblige, and he was so grateful that breakfast was on the house. What a knife-edge some of these tavernas must live on.
After breakfast we pottered about getting supplies, and then I happened to notice one of those ubiquitous moped-hire stalls at one end of the sea-front. A few drachma later, we were heading out into the hills.
It was a glorious day, and we were just riding for the hell of it, bouncing down little goat tracks to admire the beaches, caroming off the inside of immense potholes and generally having a great time. The terraces were lush and green, the flowers were bright and cheerful, and the villages shone whitely in the noonday sun. We managed not to fall off, too.
That night we walked round the coast to a taverna in the next village, on the way climbing up to a tiny little chapel in the dark and admiring the huge millipedes that swarmed all over it. Much later, after another enjoyable meal, we staggered back again.
A Hike Across Kithnos
The next day, as we were setting out to sea, dark clouds built up and it started to rain, but we did well under sail and by the time we hit the island of Kithnos for lunch the weather was clearing up, and rather than messing about with the dinghy we just anchored up in a convenient bay and swam to the nearest taverna.
Engine, who had carefully been watching Cap’n Steve’s every move, and who was himself studying for the necessary qualifications, wanted to have a go at skippering the boat, so leaving him a skeleton crew the rest of us set off on foot across the island, intending to meet up with them that evening on the other side.
The town, Loutra, is built over a hot spring, and steaming russet-coloured water runs everywhere in channels down to the sea. There was a derelict roman-style bath at one end of the town, but a major health spa was under construction so I doubt the town is so sleepy any more.
The walk across the island was beautiful, and although we only had a fag-packet map copied from the pilot’s almanac we were confident that we wouldn’t have too much trouble finding our way. We didn’t in fact get lost as such (although sometimes we thought that we were), but the island slanted higher and higher toward the western end, until we stood on a high cliff staring down into the harbour far, far below.
Was that tiny blob our boat? Or was it another, similar looking one? If it was ours, then why were the sails lying on the deck? Eventually, with some difficulty we scrambled down the cliff and managed to attract their attention.
After some messing about with the dinghy we were re-united, to discover that the crew weren’t exactly unstressed, having managed to soak the genoa half way round, but apart from that the experiment had been a success. Since there was plenty of firewood lying around, a beach picnic followed, with copious quantities of alcohol and a lot of rowing back and forth with food and, later, drunken people.
Back to Kea
The next day we set off back toward Kea Island, and on the way it blew up a force 7 which soon had most of us feeling distinctly green. We lived, however, to reach the port town of Kavia, where we anchored up in the accredited visitor’s mooring and then watched from the shore in some trepidation as an immense passenger ferry squeezed past us to its own quay, luckily without incident.
A Cultural Interlude
On the following day we found ourselves heading back up the mainland coast toward Kalamaki and home. On our way south, we had noticed a classical temple standing on a bluff at Sounion, so this time we dropped in to have a look. It was pleasantly, well, classical, but it was somewhat of a surprise to climb up the cliff from the deserted bay and to suddenly encounter a tarmac road packed with tourist buses. We ignored them, and they ignored us, and after a look around we went back to our boat, upped anchor, and left.
Bareboat Flotilla Antics at Fokaia
At Fokaia we anchored up once more, but just as we were preparing to row to the shore we noticed the sails of a flotilla rounding the head. Seasoned veterans that we were, we soon noticed that these were enthusiastic amateurs, and that a dozen or so forty-five footers were racing dangerously quickly into the bay, spinnakers flying.
Swiftly we upped anchor from our exposed central position, and motored gently in toward the beach. From my regular snorkel surveys of the anchor chain and the bottom of the boat I knew that we had big flat wings on the end of our keel, so we chugged ever so slowly up the sloping sandbar until the wings kissed the bottom, and then re-anchored, hopefully safely out of ramming distance from the incoming hordes.
The lead boat came in fast, making a botch of getting the spinnaker down, but they were pointing at us and shouting to each other and too late we realised they must have been saying, “Look, there’s a fifty-footer safely anchored inshore so there must be plenty of depth, whatever the pilot’s manual says ”.
Then there was an interesting crunch and everybody on board fell over. The rest of the flotilla came in very very fast and tried to raft up with the first boat, and for a while it all got quite amusing.
Salty sea dogs of several days’ experience, we smiled quietly and climbed into the dinghy and rowed ashore to the taverna, although we could probably have waded.
Back to Athens
On the last day, with the wind behind us and the ugly outskirts of Athens appearing on the horizon, we encountered a school of dolphins which played around in our wake for a while before heading out to sea. We did try to get pictures, but they moved very fast so the few that I got were just bits of tail and flipper, and we will never know whether Mark got any good pictures because shortly after that he dropped his camera overboard. It didn’t float very well.
After a pleasant few days motorcycling around the Black Forest, we headed down to the German/Austrian border for a week in a hotel in Oberstaufen. Heading into Singen we took the coast road around the Bodensee, which was beautiful but plagued by terrible traffic. The local road planners didn’t seem to have understood the concept of linked traffic lights, as they were scattered around on apparently random timing patterns. People spend so much time there waiting at red lights that there are signs asking you to switch your engine off to prevent pollution. However, eventually we made it through and got back onto the minor roads all the way to the hotel that was to be our home for the following week.
From Oberstaufen it is a short step to Oberstdorf, where we climbed up the highest ski-jump in the world with a view to bungee-jumping off the top, but the jump was far too expensive, although the climb was worth it because the views from the top were incredible.
Another day we rode through dreadful traffic to the fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein (as seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and thought that a romantic-sounding horse-drawn carriage up from Schwangau would be a nice idea. The reality was far from romantic, as after a lot of loud wrangling with rude German tourists about who had and who hadn’t pushed in to the queue, about fifteen of us crammed into a very small buggy and were pulled very slowly up the mountain by a very smelly horse.
Once at the castle, we spent an hour queing for a ticket (the ticket clerks thought that it would be a good idea to go for lunch at the busiest period), and then we had to wait for another half hour for our guide. I think that if I hadn’t been there before I would have given up before we got in, but I knew that it would all be worthwhile in the end, and it was just as crazy as I remembered it, commissioned by Mad King Ludwig whose personal style could best be described as Big, Colourful, and Gothic.
Rather than face the crowds again on the way down, we hiked across country, following a stream bed that cut down the wooded mountain side back to Schwangau. We did look up at the twin castle of Hohenschwangau, and thought about visiting, but we’d really had enough of queuing for one day, and left it for another time.
Cheese and farming
Another morning we spent an agreeable if rather smelly time at a traditional cheese-makers, where huge rounds of cheese were hand-crafted by jolly German craftsmen.
One afternoon we spent a long time trying to find a local museum of traditional farmhouses at a place called Illerbeule. We nearly failed, but by considerable luck we managed to find it, although since we arrived at 16:00, which is closing time for most places in the area, we thought it had all been to no avail, but for some reason this one place still had another couple of hours of opening time.
It really was a fascinating place, consisting of a complete farm built from cottages and barns from different eras and from different parts of Germany. The thing that struck me most compared with similar structures in the UK, was the amazing amount of living space that these farmers seemed to have. In Britain, in most historical ages, everybody hunkered down in a tiny room with all the animals. Here, if a farmer decided to go in for instance for cheesemaking, then he just built a whole new cheesemaking room on the end of his farmhouse. The barns were enormous too, and beautifully finished in boldly painted designs.
On yet another beautiful day of blazing sunshine, we caught a cable car to the top of the 1833m Hochgrat ridge which marks the border between Germany and Austria, and set off westward along the top. Some 5km and several hard hours later we decided to leave the crumbly conglomerate of the main path and continue along the spine of the ridge, but somehow we went a little astray, and after an interesting 1500m descent through an almost vertical forest we arrived at somebody’s farm.
The amused farmer explained to us that the reason that we couldn’t work out where we were on our map was that we’d walked right off the edge and were now in Austria, so there was nothing for it but to climb all the way back to the top and then back down into Germany.
Once more at sea level, and thoroughly footsore, we were extremely grateful to discover a small bus waiting to take us to civilisation, Jacuzzi, and beer.
Breitachklamm and Sturmanns Höhle
We also spent a day visiting a couple of local geological features. The first was Sturmanns Höhle, a 300 metre meltwater shaft and tunnel bored over 600,000 years ago through a mountain near Obermaiselstein. There is quite a climb up to the entrance, and then, once inside, a long long descent into the heart of the mountain, at first along a crack or crevice, but then down the actual vertical shaft itself by means of a series of metal steps. It’s dark and drippy, but fun to be that far underground without benefit of ropes or a mineshaft.
From the Höhle we headed for the Breitachklamm, rightfully hailed as Germanys most beautiful gorge. It is really impressive, a deep fissure scoured by a fast-flowing river, with sides so high that they appeared to close in at the top and blot out the daylight. Judging by the mangled and twisted steel handrails along the way, the river must get pretty tempestuous at times, and there were also entire pine trees jammed crosswise across the valley some twenty or thirty feet above the current water level. It must be an incredible place in a storm.
White-water rafting in Switzerland
Finally, we nipped over into Switzerland to go white-water rafting with a German fire brigade, which wasn’t as scary as I expected but was still great fun.
And then it was time to get back on the bikes and go home, visiting a few more campsites along the way. On the border between Switzerland and France we passed a long queue of steam-powered cars, which was strange, and in the tiny French village of Freland we ate at a museum that doubled as a restaurant in the evenings, but on the whole we just rode, tired and happy, home to England and to bed.
Motorcycling through Germany, we were headed for the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. Rain threatened and we put on our waterproofs, but the promised precipitation never came, although the hills of the Schwarzwald faded into cloud ahead. On a small side-road near Baden-Baden we branched off into the woods and set up camp in a small glade. Since the midges were active, we set up a spare flysheet as an insect-proof porch and picnicked on pickled herrings and bratwurst, washed down with olives, gherkins, Mosel wine, and beer. It was a very comfortable night, despite the rather lumpy ground. There’s a lot to be said for camping by a babbling brook.
Baden-Baden appeared to have turned itself into a tourist trap. There was a bewildering array of signs pointing to hotels and car parks, but none pointing to useful things such as the Roman baths after which the town is named, so we escaped along a tourist road invitingly called the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the Black Forest High Road.
It got colder as we gained altitude, and the forest got very thick and dark (surprise surprise!). We took a short walk in the gloom to a nice little waterfall and back, and then after a series of winding roads with vistas over blue-shrouded hills, stopped for lunch at a crowded little cafe on the outskirts of Freudenstadt. Bypassing Freudenstadt we took another minor road into Triberg, full of tourists and cuckoo clocks. We couldn’t resist experiencing the immense roadside shop ‘The House of 1000 Clocks’, which as well as an incredible number of over-carved tourist timepieces also sold what looked like quality Vienna clocks at what seemed to be reasonable prices. It must be all the competition.
We had some trouble finding a campsite, but eventually struck lucky in the tourist resort of Titisee. While contemplating the enormous list of rules and regulations (“From your selected pitch you should be able to see only the number of your own pitch; Motor vehicles must be parked at right angles to the slope; We would not hesitate to remove lines attached to trees; Vehicular movement is prohibited between 13:00 and 14:30”), we met up with a group of four other bikers, and after a shower and some friendly beers we all set off into town for an evening’s entertainment.
After the restaurants had closed, we found our way into a nearby bierkeller, where I started on Diebel Altbier (Devil dark beer, which is supposed to be drunk in moderation) and the other guys got into the pils with schnapps chasers. The ladies were a little more circumspect, but it turned into a riot of an evening, and next morning I suffered for every drop of alcohol that I’d consumed.
We spent a slow morning rehydrating in Titisee, and then took a nice leisurely pedalo out across the lake followed by a medicinal Black Forest gateau.
That afternoon we headed up the Feldburg for some dramatic views across the brightly lit but incredibly dark forest, but the traffic was getting heavy again so we consulted our National Geographic tourist map and found that it recommended a minor road through Schonau toward Mullheim. This was excellent advice, as we were the only things moving on it, and it was a fantastic scratching road through often breathtaking scenery.
Eventually we looped back around through Freiburg (where we didn’t stop, although the latticework cathedral steeple looked interesting) and back to Titisee, planning to head south to the lake at Schluchsee, since we had noticed that where there’s a lake, there’s a campsite.
Indeed there was, but the tent part was packed so we kept on going until we found a hillside site with no lake but lots of space. As a sort of money-saving exercise (more from guilt than because we were actually short), and because we couldn’t cope with any more rich restaurant food, we fried up some sausages, apples, onions, gherkins, and spatzle (a local pasta). No beer for me, as my head was still hurting.
The back roads to Bonndorf and Singen were fantastic for biking, with loads of sweeping forest curves and hairpins, beautiful weather, and a lot of motorbikes. It must be pretty popular around here, as some villages had signs up banning motorcycles between 22:00 and 06:00.
We rolled off the boat at Calais into a beautiful sunny morning, and instantly turned northward intending a late breakfast in Brugge. However, the 130kph E40 soon got boring, so we turned off to take the parallel the coast road through De Panne and Nieuwpoort. At first it seemed like a good idea, and a much better way of starting a tour than hammering up the motorway. Even though the Belgian polders were as flat as ever, at least there were interesting dykes and canals to look at, and I was just congratulating myself on another successful long cut when we suddenly ran into Grockleville B.V., packed wall to wall with cars carrying tourists to enjoy a day sandwiched on the beach.
Rather than struggle up the beach zone, we turned back toward the E40, but almost immediately Lisa’s CBR dwindled in my rear-view mirrors and rolled to a stop by the roadside. Only one of the four cylinders was firing, which didn’t provide enough power to ride, so after checking for the usual faults I left Lisa with her bike and went off to find help. First I met a policeman, who directed me to an Audi garage, who directed me to a bicycle shop in Nieuwpoort, who directed me to a Honda dealer in Veurne. Miraculously, this shop was still open on a Saturday afternoon, but their tow-truck was ‘en panne’.
They were talking about ringing around some friends to see if they could find anybody with a trailer, but instead I borrowed a tow-rope and went back to the CBR, where Lisa was getting happily sunburnt by the roadside. My TDM towed her CBR without any problems, and the hard shoulder was wide and clear so we didn’t have to worry about traffic.
A few miles up the road, a police van did a U-turn to check us out, but they couldn’t work out whether what we were doing was illegal or not so, realising that we probably knew more about what we were doing than they did, they left us to it.
Fifteen minutes later we were installed in the bike shop in Veurne, where the nice man soon spotted that the fuel pump had failed. He didn’t have any new ones in stock, but he did have a lot of customers bikes in for repair, and we spent a merry time poking around in a load of crash-damaged frames looking for something that would fit. None of the CBRs had the right pump, and one off a Revere was the right design but had far smaller bores which suggested that we wouldn’t get a high enough flow rate for the CBR. Not to be defeated, the salesman opened up the showroom and pulled the pump out of a brand new Transalp that was standing in the window. A few minutes later, we were off.
Finally we rolled into the Brugge campsite, had a much-needed beer, and then set out on foot to have a look at the city. It is an attractive town, packed with narrow streets lined with gable-ended houses, and dominated by the clop-clop of horse-driven taxis and by the huge cathedral in the centre. The cathedral did not seem to be open to the public, but from the outside it had a vast presence, sprawling over a surprisingly wide area, an imposing brick-built edifice reminiscent of the monastery in ‘The Name of the Rose’. We sat in its shadow in a terrace cafe and ate an expensive but excellent dinner of ‘kroketten’, ‘moules’, and a local dish made from a mixture of fish in a creamy spinach sauce. All, of course, washed down with lashings of Belgian beer.
The following day, after a leisurely start, we whipped around the Brussels ring-road and then, rather than stay on the boring motorway, took the quieter N4 toward Luxembourg. It was another beautiful day, and at a petrol stop we spent our few remaining francs on chocolate milkshakes and sat at the side of a cornfield to drink them. The corn had been recently cut, and the hay was lying in golden rows under the blazing sun. We sat and admired the scene, and then something strange started happening in the air in front of us. and swiftly a little dust-devil built itself up into a straw-filled whirlwind some twenty feet high. It had a footprint about four feet in diameter and acted like a big hoover, sucking up circles of hay and then moving on with the stalks whirling around inside the cone. It bumbled around the field at walking pace for a while, pausing now and again to leave mysterious crop circles in its wake, before heading up the bank onto the main road. A car passed through it without any noticeable effect, and then it was across the road and into some shrubbery, where it dropped its load of hay but we could still make out its progress by the swaying of the bushes on this otherwise still day.
Bemused, we got back onto the road, and for a while enjoyed a leisurely ride past the little high-gabled houses that formed the occasional village, punctuating the long flat plains of cabbages and potatoes that stretched to the flat horizon. Soon, however, the road degenerated into just another motorway, and I was glad when we were overtaken by a dozen Belgian bikers out on a run. They were really tanking it, but I snuck in behind the rear machine and we stayed with them all the way to Luxembourg.
As soon as we crossed the border, the nature of the countryside altered dramatically from flat crop land to tree-lined hillsides. About 25 miles from the city we turned off down a random side road, sat on a bridge for a while watching damselflies, and then drove along the small hilly lanes until we found a small camp site.
It was a tree-lined field with no visible signs of authority, but some French campers told us to pitch up and then go to a certain house in the village at 18:30 to book in. A kindly elderly lady in a small house stuffed with antiques accepted a small amount of French francs in lieu of the Belgian ones that we didn’t have, and told us that although there weren’t any restaurants locally, tonight was the night of the local village fete and we might be able to pick up something to eat there. We were starving, so we made our way up to the tented area where everybody seemed to be having a fun time, although we felt very much like outsiders intruding on somebody’s private party. Nevertheless, we stood and drooled by a family-run hot-dog stand while they animatedly discussed exactly how much ten French francs was in Belgian currency, which was all pretty academic as all we had were ten-franc pieces and we’d have happily given away everything we had for a chance at those succulent sausages.
Finally everybody was happy, and we were ceremoniously presented with our food, which we wolfed hurriedly while debating going through the whole thing again at the beer stand. Cowardice prevailed, and we returned to our bikes to see if we could find a restaurant that accepted Visa. A few miles up the road was ‘Le Martin Pecheur’, dominated by an impressive stained-glass window of its namesake, where we washed down an excellent meal with a terrific Mosel wine, very tasty and a far cry indeed from the sugar water sold to teenage girls in England.
Feeling that our wine trip had now truly begun, we finished off with an interesting variation on Liqueur Coffee, with the coffee sandwiched between a layer of cream above and a clear layer of spirit below, served in a tall glass and drunk through a straw. Very potent.
Another late start, a leisurely coffee, another beautiful morning. A gorgeous run through rolling forested hills dotted with small sculpted villages and friendly people, ending in the fantastic city of Luxembourg itself.
Based around an AD 693 fortress almost surrounded by a deep hairpin chasm, the city is intermingled with rich parkland and vertical cliffs. Many of the buildings are impressively spired, most are intricately moulded. Walking along the old fortress wall, we discovered the Bock Casements, the remnants of the original castle which was voluntarily destroyed by the city itself in an attempt to establish their neutrality. They had comprehensively razed the castle itself, but there wasn’t much they could do about the subterranean tunnels, so they just blocked them off. Now they were open to the public, and stuffed full of history.
During the last war, 35,000 people sheltered during air-raids, and prior to that many of the caverns had been used for imprisoning this or that Duke, or provided a home for this or that exiled monarch. Most of the main tunnels were sign-posted, but many were not only unsigned but also unlit, and with a torch you could meander deep underground. In fact, the whole underside of the city is riddled with tunnels, and it is easy to see how it gets its name of The Gibraltar of the North. We completed our circuit of the city wall, grabbed some supplies from a handy supermarket, and headed for Germany, the Mosel Valley, and the start of our holiday proper.
The Mosel Valley
Suddenly we had arrived, and were confronted with more grape vines than I had ever seen in my life. My first impression was of the sheer mono-crop dedication that characterises Spanish olive groves. My second was that all the camp sites were heavily commercial and packed with caravans. Camping areas must be at a premium where every other square inch of land, even down to the roadside verges, is cultivated with grape vines. However, along a quieter stretch of road and a little away from the river itself we came across a little camp site that consisted of a small field ringed with permanent caravans. No sooner had we set up the tent when strings of people wandered up and introduced themselves, tut-tutting at our equipment and lending us tables and chairs, until very shortly we got involved in a Mosel wine-drinking session from the camp site’s own cellars. The world seemed to be entirely populated with friendly fat retired Germans slowly drinking the summer nights away, and as the sun set into the haze over the vineyards, I reflected that there was very little wrong with that.
The next morning we returned all the furniture, said our goodbyes, and headed off once more into the sunshine. The villages and towns along the Mosel valley were a riot of colour, skilfully painted and gilded and carved and hung about with flower boxes stuffed with colourful blooms. In Traban Trarbach a storm blew up out of nowhere and we sheltered under a bridge until the worst of it had passed. The rest of the afternoon was duller weather-wise, but geographically beautiful. The storm appeared to be trapped in the valley, but the villages continued to be picturesque, linear populations facing each other across the broad expanse of the river, dotted with far more thin-steepled and onion-towered churches than can possibly be required, and backed by a quilted patchwork of vineyards studded with religious shrines, huge rock sundials, and hundreds of tiny figures lovingly tending the vines.
Eventually we entered Koblenz, and headed into the city intent on finding the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine. We found it at a place called Deutsches Ecke, parked up and caught the sightseeing boat. The trip took an hour and travelled up each of the three arms of the t-shape where the rivers meet, surprisingly placidly, at a monument to the Kaiser. I say surprisingly, because the Rhine was flowing very fast indeed. The bow waves of the ubiquitous hundreds-of-feet-long Rhine barges threatened continually to swamp them as they forged their way upstream, and those coming downstream were greased lightning. These barges were immense, carrying all sorts of cargoes including coal, scrap metal and petroleum products, and sported mobile-home sized living accommodation fore and aft, with enough parking on board for a couple of cars too.
The Mosel had been occasionally punctuated by immense river locks for these craft, and often while one was coming through there would be another holding perfect station against the current below, waiting patiently for its turn, surrounded by a myriad tiny pleasure cruisers struggling against the fierce current, trying to stay close enough to nip in after the colossus when the locks opened.
The Rhine Valley
Once more on dry land, we were presented with a choice of two B-roads, one on either side, that headed south with the river. The B42 on the eastern bank ran through national parkland, so on the grounds that it might be less busy we took the western B9. The heavy traffic had become a bit of an issue for us, as even in the countryside it felt like we were driving through town, and as a side-effect it meant that the camp sites were literally packed tent-to-tent and caravan-to-caravan, not to mention satellite-dish-to-satellite-dish. So far, by judicious choice, we had been lucky with camp sites, and we wanted to keep it that way. The Rhine valley south of Koblenz sprouted more castles than we could shake a stick at, most of them apparently occupied, and although many of them were splendidly photogenic the roads were too narrow and busy to stop.
We only rode a short distance, just far enough to get fully clear of Koblenz, and then started looking for camp site signs that pointed away from, rather than toward the popular riverside locations, on the basis that these would probably be smaller and quieter. We ended up on a tiny strip of grass hacked out of a forested gully, with a little restaurant bar at one end. After a good meal, some beer, a walk in the woods and some more of yesterdays Mosel wine, we went to bed.
After a preprandial coffee at the camp site, we had a light breakfast in the picturesque town of St Goar, before continuing up the Rhine valley as far as Bingen. Here you enter the huge industrial complex of Mainz, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Ludwigshafen and Mannheim, so we cheated and took the motorway to Heidelberg. Although it strictly isn’t in the Rhine valley at all, I had always wanted to go there and this seemed like a good excuse.
The old town was pretty enough, and after lunch we set off up the hill to see the castle. This proved to be particularly impressive, all pink stone, heraldic emblems and gilding, and had obviously been extensively restored, with work continuing apace. In the Great Hall beneath the castle were two enormous wine barrels, called Klein and Gross Fass; the latter at 220,000 litres is allegedly the biggest in the world. Certainly it is the only barrel that I have ever seen with steps leading up to a balcony on top, on which you could hold a fair-sized dinner party. We supped a commemorative glass of Heidelberg wine, and then hit the road for the Black Forest.
The hail storm eased off, leaving a thick white layer of marbles that crunched into powder between the fat tyres and the cobblestones. It was early on Boxing day morning, and as I carefully eased my motorcycle over the slippery surface, cosy lights glimmered from the snug breakfast warmth of the Yorkshire cottages.
My pillion, Iain, and I were heading for the North Yorkshire moors. Once we got there, we intended to spend the few days between Christmas and the New Year crossing England from east to west in time for our annual New Years booze-up in the Lake District. We were, of course, fully aware that the Pennine passes are usually closed at that time of year, but if you’re trying to find adventure in your own country you may as well make it interesting.
The temperature dropped steadily as we approached the loom of Sutton Bank, westernmost outpost of the Hambletons, a range of hills between us and our chosen starting point of Whitby. A sudden squall of snow obliterated my vision, forming a thick veneer of ice on my helmet. Unable to open my visor for fear of getting snow on my glasses, I had to be content with riding one-handed while continuously scrubbing with my left hand. It was already cold enough for the snow to settle even on the wet road, and a succession of sharp bends between high hedgerows began to make life slightly interesting.
We made it as far as the base of Sutton Bank before I decided that not all of the frantically flashing and hooting oncoming car drivers could be delinquent hooligans, so I pulled over into a convenient snowdrift to take stock.
It was clearly snowing up on the Bank, but the clouds parted occasionally to reveal that something else was also going on up there. Short jigsaw visions of frantically flashing brake and hazard lights added up to the realisation that cars were getting about halfway up the Bank and then slowly sliding down backwards until they could get enough purchase to turn round and come back down.
We consulted the map, and pointed the Honda Revere back at the village. The new heading was a wide sweep around the southern flank of the Hambletons, and above us the weak midday sun picked metallic highlights from the dark cloud that had now settled permanently over Sutton Bank and its luckless motorists.
We turned east under Wass Bank, and considered our options. We could either continue our sensible lowland detour, which would not take us far out of our way and which would avoid the Hambletons altogether, or we could chance the louring bulk of Wass Bank.
The gradient was fairly fierce, but clear of snow until the final thirty feet, where it became a steep ramp coated with a couple of inches of fresh powder. We rolled to a halt just below the snowline and squinted into the glare. Traffic signs indicated that there was a crossroads on the brow, but the thick woods on either side obscured our view of oncoming traffic.
I left Iain by the roadside and took a run-up, only at the last second deciding to stop at the top instead of barrelling blindly across the crossroads. Fighting to keep the steeply inclined machine level with the Give Way sign, my heart skipped as two Volvos scrunched past. Had I been alone I would have had to stay there until the snow melted. Fortunately, Iain was wearing hiking boots, and so once he had struggled up the slope himself, he was able to get enough traction to give me some sort of a push. Half way across the junction, the back wheel attempted to overtake the front, and I put my own foot down to steady the bike. Unfortunately, I was wearing flat-soled motorcycle boots, and on that slippery surface I may as well not have bothered.
With a nasty crunching sound, the Revere toppled over in the snow. Cursing the vagaries of the manufacturers of motorcycle clothing, we righted the now slightly battered bike and surveyed the damage. The hard plastic of the right hand pannier had cracked like an eggshell and a piece about four inches long was missing, but the box had maintained its integrity and nothing seemed to have fallen out. Iain went back to try and locate a white piece of plastic in the white snow, while I stood by the equally white bike trying to pretend to motorists that it was bright red and bore absolutely no resemblance to the snowbank against which it stood.
A couple of miles down the road was the town of Helmsley, so we stopped to buy some food cans, a can opener (my fifteenth, I think. Where do they all go?) and a black plastic bin liner to wrap around the pannier and stop our luggage from getting too wet, just in case it started to snow again.
And snow it did. As we rode down out of the hills and headed northward across the flat exposed moorland toward Whitby, a storm came up out of the west and threw everything it had. I had to lean the bike right over into the gale, virtually scraping the footpegs just to travel the dead straight road over Goathland Moor. The snow drove horizontally across the darkening landscape, my hands were going numb even protected by two pairs of gloves, and I was back to continually wiping my visor in order to snatch brief glimpses of the road. One day, I swore, I would buy a set of heated handlebar grips.
Strange Happenings in Whitby
Then as dusk finally fell, we entered Whitby, and the snow stopped. The town was, not surprisingly, deserted. We parked up in the shelter of some public toilets by a children’s paddling pool, and considered our next move. This was obviously just a lull in a storm that looked set to blow all night, so for the first time that day we used the logic that raises us above the apes. To shelter from a westerly storm, we reasoned, camp in the lee of an east-facing cliff.
Whitby sits on the east coast, separated from the sea by a vertical drop of some hundred feet or so, with a small tarmac footpath winding in a series of hairpins down to the beach. The path is exactly the same width as a fully laden Revere. We parked about a third of the way down, and erected the tent a few yards away vertically upwards on a convenient flat grassy shelf. Soon, some hot food and cold beer later, we drifted off to sleep.
Nobody knew where we were, apart from a vague “on the bike north of Coventry”, and we certainly hadn’t planned to camp above the beach at Whitby; it had just turned out that way. So for me to be woken up a few hours later by someone standing outside my tent calling my name was utterly ridiculous. In bewilderment I poked my head out, to meet the eyes of an embarrassed policeman looking most uncomfortable balanced on the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm.
Mr.Reading?, he said. I tried my best to act cool. “Is there a problem, officer? No sir. Or at least, there wasn’t, but I think we’ve caused you one…”
Apparently, someone out for a midnight stroll down the beach in the rain had seen the white Honda perched on the path, and had reported it to the police. A constable was sent down, took the registration, failed to notice my camouflaged tent in the darkness, and rang Fenella in the small wee hours. “We don’t want to bother you, they’d said, but w’eve just found your boyfriend’s bike halfway down a cliff…”
After the hysterics had passed, they admitted that it was in fact parked and locked rather than crumpled and smouldering, and, with her teeth firmly clenched around a brandy bottle, she ordered them back to look for the tent, and then ring her back, or else.
The rest of the night was uneventful, and next morning we got up with the dawn (not as early as it sounds in late December), road into town and wandered up to the Abbey. The cold soon drove us back down, and a different policeman directed us toward a cafe and a fried breakfast, and after a suitable amount of huddling against a radiator we set off westwards over the North Yorkshire Moors.
Across the Moors
We had decided to take the plethora of minor roads that accompany the railway on its journey toward Middlesborough, and had chosen two potential routes, one that wandered out over the high moors, and another that stayed safely in the valley with the trains. We planned to go high in good weather, and stay low in bad, and there was plenty of scope for switching between the two as circumstances altered.
The morning was glorious, the roads dry and the bends evil: in short, perfect riding conditions. We admired the scenery around Egton, and paused at Glaisdale where road, rail and water routes cross in a picturesque crosshatching of bridges. We were just about to take our high road when the rain started up, so amazingly we took the sensible option and made our way down through the mass of roads around Castleton, pausing briefly at a vandalised sign before continuing westwards.
Almost immediately I was presented with a torrential ford crossing. Iain got off, and I tentatively selected low gear and eased gently out into the torrent. The water came over the hubs but I was delighted to find that the bike showed no tendency to float like a car, but just ploughed along the bottom and up the other side. Rather than stop on the immensely steep valley side I ran up to the top and waited for Iain, who had crossed over the footbridge.
The hill should have made me think, but I was extremely chuffed about the ford and the weather was clearing again. Five minutes later we were riding blind through a cloud under a deluge of icy water. Visibility was down to a few yards and the road was littered with soggy sheep. We werent as miserable as the sheep, for we knew from our map that we had only to cross this small ridge of high ground before the descent into Kildale. But the ridge went on, and on, and on, until we fetched up against a road junction that just had no right to be there.
There was a road sign, but it was unlit and we had to get off and trace the letters with our frozen fingers, and then huddle over the dull yellow glow of a headlamp that I was sure used to be a fiercely burning halogen. There was nothing wrong with the electrics, just a thick coating of ice particles that no amount of rubbing would shift. That page in my Ordnance Survey atlas is now warped beyond recognition, but we found out where we were, neatly sandwiched between two symbols that mean ‘viewpoint’, balanced right on the highest point of the moor.
It was time, once more, to turn around. I successfully negotiated the sodden sheep and then, out of the cloud and full of new-found confidence, burned down the hill toward the ford, braking at the last minute and contemptuously hitting it at about 20mph. At the other side I stopped and thoughtfully emptied the water out of my boots.
Once off the moors we stopped at a village called Stokesley for a pub lunch and to dry my socks. They had good beer, good food, and lots of drinkers who watched in polite amazement as we peeled off layers of damp clothing and stacked them in front of the fire. Inevitably, there was the man who used to ride a Vincent, and he reckoned that the A66 through the Pennines was now open. We lingered as long as we could, but we wanted to camp somewhere closer to the pass to give us time to get over as early as possible the next morning. We donned our gear and went back out into the rain.
Richmond, situated in the lowlands to the east of the Pennine passes, fitted the bill perfectly. All that remained was to find a place to sleep, and a few minutes drive soon revealed a wide grassy verge next to a quiet lay-by.
The next morning was unbelievably cold. The alloy of the tent-pegs was cold enough to burn, but we couldn’t grasp them through our gloves, so we ended up leaving the bike engine idling, pulling the pegs out barehanded, and returning to the bike every few minutes to jam our frozen fingers up the exhaust pipe. The stuff all fitted back in, but as I was locking the last pannier the key snapped off in the lock. It was that cold.
A welcome hot breakfast in Richmond, and some more radiator-huddling, saw us setting off on foot to explore the town. There was a lot to see, but we spent most time at the castle around which Richmond is built. The restored tower commands tremendous views, and the lady who sold us our tickets used to be a biker herself, and allowed us to bring the bike up from its two-hour parking zone and leave it in the castle grounds. Below the ruin is a wide brown river that tumbles over a small cataract of falls. I commented on its suitability for kayaking, and the local standing next to me responded, “Oh yes, its very popular. We lose one or two canoeists a year!”
Through the Pennine pass
And then we were off once more on a swift blast toward the Pennines and the infamous A66. The pass was, in fact, open, but the dales were deeply buried in snow and the traffic slowly moved nose to tail in one another’s tyre tracks. We passed the hotel where, until very recently, a group of guests and motorists had been trapped for a week without food, and then thankfully dropped down the other side to the tea shops of Appleby, and the fast winding run through Windermere and Ambleside to the warm welcome and hot showers of our hotel under the Langdale Pikes. The guest ales were settling in their barrels and the first arrivals were trickling in for the annual celebration of the end of the old year’s tales, and the beginning of the new.
We needed to stock up with supplies in Bergen, for the long two-day haul up the coast of Norway to Trondheim and then past the Arctic Circle to Bodø and beyond. We found a small shop called Makka that billed itself as the “cheapest supermarket in town”, containing a wild jumble of all kinds of useful items. We stocked up with enough food for several days, as we would be on the train for a long time without access to shops.
We have been pooling our food and cooking together, which is nice, but the others eat like birds and I found myself permanently hungry on my share, so I also stocked up a separate bag of my own supplies.
We had run out of fuel for our Trangia stoves, which run on purple-stained methylated spirit. It took us til the shop was almost closed before Julia discovered that the Scandinavian equivalent rødsprit is stained red instead instead of purple.
Oslo to Trondheim
One feature of Scandinavian trains is that it is really difficult to avoid seat reservations if you want to travel any distance at all. Before boarding the Trondheim train in Oslo, I attempted to buy reservations for Julia and myself, but the office was closed. We could still use our tickets, but the problem is that there is no way of telling, once on the train, which seats are reserved and which not.
In the event, Dave and Sammy got lucky and happened to choose seats that remained un-reserved for the entire journey, but the rest of us kept getting bumped by the conductor, as passengers with reservations boarded throughout the day. Eventually, as night fell and the train rumbled on, we gave up on seats altogether and lay down in the corridor by the toilets.
Just as we drifted off into sleep, there was a loud clunking noise as some extra carriages were added to the front of the train. No sooner had we drifted off again, snug in our sleeping bags, when the conductor woke us up and took us to some unoccupied seats in the new section. I’m sure that he thought he was doing us a favour, but these weren’t comfortable long-distance compartment seats, they were very hard and fixed and intended for commuting. The upholstery was thick with dust, and smelled strongly of cigarette smoke.
Things were made worse by the sunlight streaming in through the windows most of the night, because we were closing in now on the Arctic Circle. I wrapped a headband around my eyes, and tried to settle.
When I awoke and removed the headband, Julia and Conway had disappeared. We were approaching Trondheim, so I collected our things, and looked around for Julia’s boots, which she had left next to mine under a seat. They weren’t there. I got up and searched, eventually finding them on a floor-level rack next to some luggage. I bent to pick them up, and was very surprised when the luggage sat up and wished me a good morning. Julia had found a cosy dark burrow to sleep in.
Conway was on the next rack down, his only complaint being that a lady kept trying to wake him up in order to put her luggage away.
Trondheim emerged in a light drizzle of rain, and we disembarked and took shelter in the station cafe, drinking coffee and tea out of tiny cups while we waited for our connection. From what we had seen from the train, the town appeared to be largely a trading gateway for rail, road and sea. Certainly the people that we saw hurrying back and forth along the platforms seemed determined to get somewhere else.
Across the Arctic Circle
As I climbed aboard the train from Trondheim to Bodø, I became aware of an unmistakeable aroma, so my first step was to hole up in one of the toilet cubicles and have a wash and a shave. Opening my wash-bag, I mused that I would henceforth be in no danger from sepsis if I cut myself shaving, brushing my teeth, or even wiping my bottom, because all of my bathroom supplies were liberally coated with antiseptic ointment which had exploded from its tube.
Once more seated, smelling considerably more fragrant and without a hint of bacterial activity, I broke my fast on sausage-and-cheese sandwiches washed down with full-cream milk. This latter caused some amusement among us, because as we compared cartons it became clear that the symbol for “full cream milk” was a stylised strawberry (or, Dave insisted, a red clover), whereas the symbol for “skimmed milk” appeared to be a purple buttercup (which Dave averred to be a pink, or possibly a carnation).
And so we passed the time, because the journey was long, and even when we emerged from the rain, there wasn’t much to look at beyond pastures and lakes, a few trees, and – occasionally in the distance – the glimpse of some mountains. On the other hand, I couldn’t help reflecting that although this long-haul was a little dull, it was nothing compared with my recent experience of another long-haul, the infamous Belgrade-Athens Express. Today we had nothing to complain about; ample provisions, functioning toilets, and nobody was vomiting in the corridors. A very civilised country, is Norway.
Musing happily, I drifted off to sleep for a few hours, and when I awoke I found that the landscape had changed dramatically. The trees – both deciduous and coniferous – had shrunk markedly, and were spaced out, separated by expanses of exposed bed-rock. On the horizon, treeless mountain-tops loomed. We got into a discussion about whether the strongly demarcated tree-line that we could see was caused more by the latitude or by the altitude. It passed the time.
The tracks detoured inland around a fjord at Mo i Rana, but then continued North until a line of pyramidal cairns came into view, marching across the countryside, each topped by a spheroidal metal frame. At 17:38 on July 9th, we crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time.
Detraining in Bodø on a Sunday afternoon when all the shops and cafes were closed, we wasted little time in hoisting our back-packs and hiking out of town, looking for somewhere to sleep. We pitched our tents in the first available spot, a little square of marshland that – it soon became clear – was directly under the flight path for Bodø airport.
We dined on bolognese and rice pudding, and woke to a beautiful morning disturbed only by the thunder of aero engines.
Close to our campsite was a little wooden church with an onion tower, which we explored before striking camp. From the outside, Bodin Church is a simple brick and wood construction with a leaded spire. Most of the interior is starkly plain, painted white with a pine planking barrel vault ceiling, but there were also a highly decorated pulpit covered with oil paintings, an incredible carved and gilded wooden altar, and enormous brass candelabras.
At the time, we couldn’t work out if it had been designed that way or if it had been formed from the relics of older buildings, but I later discovered that the interior genuinely derives from the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a beautiful find to begin our day.
The Rallarvegen, the Rallar Road or Navvy Road, was constructed in 1904 to provide access for materials and workers arriving by sea, to the mountain-top site of the Oslo to Bergen railway. There are a number of different stretches, but the most famous extends more or less vertically down from Myrdal at the top of the mountain, to Flåm at the bottom.
Myrdal to Flåm
Conway, who had been feeling poorly for most of the trip, was thankfully starting to feel a bit better, so we all disembarked the Oslo-Bergen train at Myrdal, shouldered our back-packs, and began the hike down to sea level.
The first part of the switchback descent is very steep, and it immediately became obvious that – whatever else was going to happen – we were not going to run short of water, for there was a new waterfall at every turn.
We quickly descended below the snow-line, and found ourselves surrounded by a wonderful variety of wild flowers; monks-hood, fritillary, orchid, white campion, forget-me-not, and several that we could not identify.
The scenery is simply stunning. There are no words to describe the sheer size of the landscape; terms such as ‘enormous’, ‘huge’, ‘vast’, are just too everyday to describe the incredible feeling of immense craggy age and power of the peaks around us.
The fact that trees have found a toe-hold in every nook and cranny adds to the appalling sense of scale. An unadorned rock may be impressive, but it is difficult to appreciate how big it is. Here, you look up, and up, and up, and in the vertical distance you can just make out the tiny little matchsticks of full-sized ash trees perched on the ridge-top.
Every time I looked up, I could feel my heart swell with the magnificence of the view. I noted in my diary that the Romantic artist John Martin must surely have come here for inspiration.
As we descended the Rallar Road, the path became less precipitous, and the waterfalls that had hitherto launched in great rainbow arcs from the sky, became cascading rapids that raged alongside us.
It was by now getting late and a little cold, and the midges were starting to bite, so we put up our tents on a convenient flat spot.
We woke to a world that was dull, cold and grey. It was well into the morning, but the steep sides of the valley kept us in the shadow. Then, suddenly, the sun crested the mountains and the heat hit the tents like a bombshell; we all tumbled out as it was far too hot to stay inside.
I froze my scalp and fingers washing in the nearby meltwater stream, but dried off instantly in the sunshine. We breakfasted on locally sourced “hot fruit soup”, and lazed around while leisurely striking camp. There was no hurry, it was a beautiful place to be.
Later in the day, now largely on the level and approaching the town of Old Flam, we had become spread out along the trail as we looked at the scenery and investigated caves behind the waterfalls. Even though the path was reasonably flat, the surrounding landscape was still vertical, but wherever humanly possible, grass had been cut and hung out to dry for winter fodder.
Dave, Conway and Sam found some firewood and lit a fire to cook lunch. Julia encountered a goat, and got involved in a head-butting competition with its kid.
I became fascinated by the water pipeline that now ran along the trail beside us, which was constructed from wood, with about the same diameter as a wine barrel. It leaked dramatically, but I suppose there’s never any chance of running out of water here, and repairs simply involved nailing a plank across the larger holes.
At last, footsore and weary, we arrived in the village of Old Flåm. The town looked exactly as if wandering explorers had hiked up from the fjord, dropped their packs, and erected a church and widely separated houses wherever they fancied the view. It was quite lovely.
We had intended to walk all the way down to Flåm harbour on the fjord, but we were hot and tired, and couldn’t resist resting on the wooden platform by the train tracks at Lunden, a stop for the famous Flåmsbana, the steepest standard-gauge railway in the world. One came past heading in our direction, so we flagged it down and rode it to the Flåm station terminus.
Flåm to Voss
After stocking up on chocolate bars, we rode the Flåmsbana back up to Myrdal. The train doesn’t follow the path of the Rallar Road, instead carving its own route through a series of very impressive tunnels, but it was fascinating to catch the occasional glimpse of the path that we’d taken.
There’s a crowd-pleasing stop near the top, where you can clamber out onto a very wet platform and gape at a waterfall as it thunders underneath the train, and then we were back where we’d started, waiting at Myrdal for the train to Voss.
At Voss, we needed somewhere to stay. There was an official camp site, but for budgetary reasons we needed to free camp, and it quickly became clear that although the town of Voss was nominally small, it is spread out with houses as far as the eye can see; we weren’t going to able to hike out to the edge in any reasonable time frame.
By dint of some judicious clambering through building sites and over fences, we managed to get to a piece of greenery around the back of the official camp site, where we quietly set up camp, planning to leave early next morning in the hope that nobody would notice us.
The Oslo to Bergen railway is widely billed as one of the best train trips in the world. It climbs up from sea level, and runs along the mountain tops before dropping back down to the fjords of Bergen. It is made doubly special by the station half-way along at Myrdal, where you can hike from the top of the mountains down to sea level at Flåm, and then catch the cog train back up to rejoin the main railway.
Julia and I paid for reserved seats so that we could get an unrestricted view from an opening window, while the others opted to search for unreserved seats wherever they could find them. Having reserved seats also meant that we could nip into the toilet cubicle and wash some clothes, without losing our place.
Words fail me to describe the first part of the trip up to Myrdal. There are only so many ways of describing huge vistas of wild conifers, deep blue glacial lakes, and looming craggy mountains. The trees are immense, and I have never seen so many different shades of green in the riotous growth of uncultivated softwood forest.
Just when I thought that I’d seen everything, the train climbed above the tree-line, and the character of the land changed abruptly. It was 35 degrees in the shade, and the sun beat down on pristine white snowfields, relieved only by the smashed remains of last year’s snow-fences, and the early construction of next year’s.
Occasionally a lonely cluster of wooden shingle-rooted homes would spring into view, nestling against a river or lake.
When not trundling along knife-edge cliff edges, the train was diving in and out of tunnels carved through the rock. At each end of the tunnel, the train passed through a snow-barrier in the form of a long wooden house, to protect it from avalanches. As we climbed higher, these wooden tunnels became more prevalent, and sometimes entirely free-standing.
Eventually it had to end, and the train dropped down to the sleepy hamlet of Myrdal, protected by massive snow-fences and completely ringed by the high rock walls of the valley.
It was time to disembark, because we wanted to hike the famous Rallar Road down to Flåm, but we would return later to enjoy the final part of the trip to Bergen.
We disembarked the ferry from Denmark, grabbed a coffee and a croissant, and caught the local train into Oslo. Dave had visited before, and remembered an interesting sculpture garden in the centre which was our ultimate destination, but we stopped on the way to visit the grounds of the Royal Palace. Conway had had a rough night trying to sleep on the ferry and was feeling unwell, so we all relaxed in the pleasant grounds of the Palace and watched the birds so that he could have a snooze. Later it became clear that he wasn’t up to moving any further that morning, so we left him sleeping in the sunshine, and made our way into the city.
Vigeland Park, Oslo (Norway)
Frogner Park in central Oslo is dedicated to the works of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. There are hundreds of life-like human figures, in bronze and in stone, engaged in all kinds of activities, both mundane and bizarre; juggling babies and fighting dragons as well as some beautiful thoughtful pieces.
The centrepiece of the park is a huge tower, carved (by seven sculptors over 11 years) from a single stone, and consisting entirely of human bodies; the bottom layers crushed and dead, getting younger as you move up the pile, to babies dancing on the top. This amazing piece is surrounded by twenty-odd additional sculptures of pairs of humans engaged in various acts depicting the path from birth to death.
Words cannot really describe this magical place.
On the way back to the Palace to check on Conway, we wandered through the streets of Oslo itself, and found that here, too, there were sculptures on every corner. I described the architecture in my diary as “quiet baroque interspersed with brutal concrete”, and noted that most of the young ladies had tinted their hair away from the ubiquitous Scandinavian blonde.
The temperature was now up in the low thirties, and Conway was very sick. We picked him up from the Palace and headed out on a local train to find somewhere to sleep, stopping on the way at a roadside shack for fish-burgers and ice-cream, where the kindly proprietor filled up a gallon water jug so that Conway could stay hydrated.
Later that evening, we tumbled out of the train on the shores of a likely looking lake, clambered over the rails, and found ourselves in some abandoned station buildings, the former Eidsvoll Station. We settled down nearby in a clearing in the trees, sending Conway to bed with a large tea and a dry crust, then set about preparing a meal. We had some packaged chow-mein that had been donated to us by some Chinese girls at the Copenhagen Interrail Centre, and a Vesta curry, and some macaroni soup. Not exactly gourmet stuff, but it was filling and washed down well with lots of tea.
We had intended an early start in the morning, to take the famous Oslo-Bergen line (widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world), but I’d forgotten to set my alarm, and we were all awoken at the last minute by Dave bashing a billy with a spoon. We quickly struck camp and then, with only eleven minutes to catch our connection, took the fastest route to the station which was to run along the rails to the platform. Boarding with two minutes to spare, we spent the short trip to Oslo washing up in the toilets.
We only really had time to breakfast in the Oslo station cafe. Conway was feeling a bit better, but was only able to force down some cornflakes. The rest of us examined the eye-watering prices for filled rolls, before realising to our delight that the cheapest option was to order tea with cream cakes, so that’s what we did.
The Interrail journeys previously enumerated in the blogs “Three Men on a Train” were a resounding success, but I was keenly aware that – due to time constraints – we’d missed out the whole of the Scandinavian peninsula. A few years later, with only slightly better funding, I arranged a second month-long Interrail trip to remedy the situation, accompanied by a different group of friends.
And so it was, that in the Summer of 1989, Dave, Conway and I disembarked the MV “Pride of Dover” in Calais, and met up with Julia and Sammy who had been travelling in Morocco.
The girls looked tanned and healthy, but were short of cash. The boys were pasty and unhealthy, but hadn’t yet spent any of our holiday funds. After swapping tales over a coffee, we boarded the next train out of Calais, which happened to go to Paris. Our first requirement was to get some sleep, and since the Interrail system allowed us to take any train to any destination, we chose the next long-distance train, which happened to go to Amsterdam, and hunkered down in the corridor to sleep.
When the train pulled into Amsterdam Central, we found ourselves with only 35 minutes to explore before our connection to Hamburg. Our main concern was provisions; once we left Amsterdam we would be spending at least the rest of the day traversing Germany, and we had no Deutschmarks. The girls had some Camembert cheese and some horse-meat sausage in their packs, and Conway found a 25-guilder note in his pocket. We sprinted out into the city, got a swift impression of bars and coffee shops, scored coffee and baguettes, and legged it back to the station.
Although our Interrail card was valid for travel the length and breadth of the continent, many of the trains in Northern Europe at that time had extra supplements for this and that; extra for a sleeping compartment, extra for an intercity express, and so on. In order to conserve funds, it was necessary for us to carefully pick our route so as to board only the supplement-free trains.
We got a local connection from the Netherlands into Germany, and then switched to a local train to Hamburg. Once it pulled out of the station, we found that the service had been upgraded to an “Intercity” service, and so we had to find a supplemental fare or be put off the train. Since we didn’t have any Deutschmarks, this presented a problem until we offered the conductor a ten-pound note, and he went away happy. From Hamburg it was but a short step to Fredericia, and our first Scandinavian country of Denmark. We had arrived!
There is a convenient law which applies throughout Scandinavia, which states that you are allowed to camp anywhere you like for up to two nights, anywhere at all, as long as the site is not overlooked by somebody’s window. This is extremely handy for the budget traveller, and because of this we were well equipped with camping gear, in contrast with my previous Interrail trip, where we had tried as much as we could to sleep aboard the trains.
After a close look at a local map, we took a local train to the town of Struer, on the banks of the Veno Bugt fjord to the North West of Denmark. Strolling out of town, we found ourselves a roadside picnic spot with views across the fjord, and even a small toilet block with water, dryers, and a shaver point.
After a long luxurious night’s sleep, we awoke to find a family of cygnets poking around outside the tents, and a horde of picnicking tourists who completely ignored a bunch of hippies emerging blinking into the daylight.
We lounged around drinking coffee and waiting for the dew to dry off the tents, before packing up and heading to the station.
In the local hub of Fredericia on a Monday morning, we discovered that the connection to Copenhagen only runs on Sundays and Thursdays. There were some other, more roundabout routes available; we deliberately skipped the next one in order to save the “Intercity supplement”, then finally boarded the slow train, where the conductor hit us with a “Seat Reservation supplement”.
We were still glad we’d caught it, though, for the experience as the entire train drove onto the ferry at Nyborg, and we were taken across the fjord to Korsør without ever leaving our seats.
One of my teeth was becoming increasingly painful. Julia had a poke around and found a large cavity in the side of a molar, which was full of foreign matter which she managed to clean out with a needle and thread, but which clearly needed medical attention.
In Copenhagen there’s a legendary facility, the Interrailer’s Centre, which provides an information desk, showers and kitchen facilities to anybody with a valid Interrail ticket. The receptionist was incredibly helpful in finding me a list of emergency dentists, and after a fair bit of legwork I found one who would treat me the following evening. I suggested that the others move on to Oslo while I got fixed up, but they were content to wait for me, so after cooking and eating at the Centre, we caught a local train to the nearby town of Næstved. This “local” turned out to be the lovely Ostsee Express to Moscow, every carriage embellished with Russian crests. We only went a couple of stops, though, and set up camp in a clearing in a local park, surrounded by beeches, mountain ash, and wild raspberries. Beautiful.
In Copenhagen the following day, I wasn’t really able to focus on much beyond my toothache, but did manage some minor forays into the city. Perhaps it was the pain, but I found it all a bit dull, despite some interesting architecture and sculptures.
I did note a few things in my diary, such as the handy gutter up the side of all staircases for the wheeling of bicycles, and the fact that cars will always stop for pedestrians or cyclists wherever they may be, and that bicycles stop for nothing and seem to rule the road as long as they remain in their bespoke cycle lane.
That evening, the dentist was superb. She found a piece of steak lodged inside a small cavity, which led to a very large cavity filling most of the tooth almost down to the nerve. After scraping me off the ceiling a few times, she managed a temporary fix by pumping in about a kilo of heavy metals. The tooth is now a thin shell of enamel wrapped around a lump of amalgam, which means I should avoid chewing on that side, and she made me promise to get it fixed as soon as I got home. [Of course I didn’t, and this amazing temporary repair remained in place for over a decade before I split it on a stray olive pit]
There was just time to grab a Danish Pastry before heading to the station. My mouth was completely numb but we couldn’t waste the opportunity. We bought two, each almost a foot long and packed with fruit, surmounted by chocolate.
The train decanted us onto a ferry, where we found some unoccupied reclining seats and settled down to sleep. Tomorrow, we would dock in Norway!
We had chosen to spend the last few days of our month-long European tour in Paris. On the first morning, we disembarked the express train from Switzerland and climbed up the steps of the Sacre Couer for an early breakfast.
Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down, we were plagued by endless streams of apparently healthy and well-dressed tramps, who assured us in English that they were “starving”. Going through our back-packs, we palmed them off with ageing bread and sausage from goodness only knows where, and then settled down round the corner to enjoy our soft cheese sandwiches in peace and quiet.
We had a very pleasant day of more-or-less aimless wandering, popping up underneath the Arc de Triomphe for views down the Champs Elysee (obscured by mist!), and then on down to the Place de la Concorde, where we ran into a great number of rifle-carrying gendarmes, apparently waiting for something. We hung around to see what was happening, but they all packed themselves into armoured vans and went away.
We did have a particularly fine time in the Louvre, where we had to cherry-pick of course, but packed in a good number of famous and fantastic pieces of art. It was great to see some of the standards in the flesh, memorably the Mona Lisa (small!) and the Venus de Milo (beautiful).
After an afternoon of classic art, we hung out at the chemical-factory weirdness of the Pompidou Centre, which famously has all its physical infrastructure, pipes and so on, mounted outside the walls. Outside are some quite weird moving fountains, Heath-Robinson-like contraptions constructed apparently from fire hoses and topped by psychedelic art, and on the Inside were some really interesting photographic exhibitions, with the additional advantage of being completely free.
There was also a great view of sunset over the Eiffel Tower from the roof, but then it was time to move on, because naturally we couldn’t afford to stay in the city. After poring over the timetable, we worked out that we could board the train to Angers, sleep for half the night, disembark, and sleep the other half of the night on the train back.
Overnight to Angers and back
Unfortunately we only had forty minutes to run from the Pompidou Centre to Gare du Nord, get our packs out of storage, negotiate the Metro clear across Paris to Montparnasse, and board our chosen train. We set off at a pedestrian-scattering pace, rucksacks bouncing, heroically sprinting across multi-lane roads, and generally bathing ourselves in sweat, to arrive at the correct platform which was disconcertingly bare of any kind of train. There was a similar-looking train on a neighbouring platform, so we rushed aboard, discovering that all the compartments were packed solid.
There was a bit of space in the corridor, so we hunkered down and dined on baguettes and cheese before lying down to sleep on the floor.
The corridor was nice and warm, and it was a bit of a shock to stumble out in the small wee hours onto the cold of the Angers platform. Our connection back to Paris wasn’t due for several hours, but we were hungry and thirsty and searched for something to eat. We found a chocolate vending machine, which was useful but which made us more thirsty, but there didn’t seem to be any potable water. Eventually, David discovered a workmen’s drinks vending machine on a construction site, but it required coins and we’d used all of ours up in the chocolate machine. Andrew went out on the streets and found a taxi driver who changed a bank note, and then we drank the machine dry.
Back on the Paris train, we scored an empty compartment and stretched out on the seats for a comfortable and warm sleep back to our starting point.
Andrew and I wanted to visit Versailles, and the Paris-Angers train stops there, so by now we had already passed through the town a couple of times when it was closed for the night. On our arrival in Paris, Andrew and I checked the timetable and boarded the Versailles train once again, while David went off to hang out at the Pompidou Centre.
When the conductor came to check our tickets, it emerged that the train – even though we had boarded it at a regular platform – was technically a Metro and thus our Interrail tickets were not valid, but he just waved us on. I guess it must happen all the time.
One disadvantage of it being a Metro was that it had no toilets, so first order of the day in Versailles was to locate a loo, which we found in a nearby cafeteria. We also figured that since it was a Sunday, we should track down something to eat, so grabbed some baguette and Camembert from a local shop. The food in France is so cheap!
Andrew and I couldn’t afford the ticket to get into the Palace itself, but for ten francs we had a lovely relaxing morning wandering through the parks and gardens. They are beautifully planted with well-spaced trees and decorative flower-beds, interspersed with a great many lakes and ponds, each sporting their own sculptures and fountains.
We repeated the overnight sleepover on the train to Angers and back, and arrived back in Paris suitably refreshed for the final day of our trip. Dropping our rucksacks at Left Luggage, we breakfasted on tinned rice and then made our way to the Eiffel Tower. Impressive from afar (especially at sunset!), it was a disappointingly rusted mess close-up, which is probably why the lower levels were shrouded in scaffolding.
Moving on to the cathedral of Notre Dame, we found ourselves in a stunning and heavily gothic interior, whose powerful atmosphere was not even slightly dented by the big yellow fork-lift truck that was rooting around inside.
I was particularly impressed by the carvings and frescoes, which tended to emphasise the macabre and gory parts of Catholic history.
We had a little time to spare before our final train journey, and we needed to confirm the trip because our printed Thomas Cook timetable had just expired. It was just as well that we did, because the direct train to the port of Calais wasn’t running any more, but we discovered a great overnight route to Strasbourg and back which would enable us to get a good night’s sleep before disembarking in Calais in time for the crossing.
For our final hours in Paris, we watched a busker by the Pompidou centre, an American raising the money for his air-fare home. He was an exceptional guitarist, and played mainly acoustic favourites until the gendarmes arrived to move him on. He obviously recognised them, because he asked if he could play just one more; they nodded, and he launched into a beautiful rendition of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
The song over, he swiftly packed up his equipment and disappeared into the surrounding crowds. Taking his cue, we hefted our backpacks for the last time, and made our way to the waiting train.
Our journey thus far has mainly taken us around the warmer parts of Europe. During our initial planning, we had realised that none of us had ever seen a glacier, a deficiency that we were keen to remedy. Research showed that there was one accessible from the Swiss town of Grindelwald that was itself reachable by rail, so we boarded a train in the sunny Italian coastal town of Genoa, and rattled up into the snow-capped Alps.
The heating in the train climbed higher in step with our increasing altitude, and by the time we reached Lucerne, our compartment felt like a furnace. I took advantage of the situation to wash all my underwear in the lavatory basin. It was wasteful of washing powder because there was no plug in the sink, but I’d bought a whole packet in Hungary for only 15 pence so I wasn’t complaining. I even managed to (shock horror) wash my feet.
We changed to the local service to Interlaken, and I was contentedly contemplating the view out of the window, and musing quietly on how each Swiss village seemed to be comprised of a mixture of affluent houses interspersed with poor shacks, when a group of American ladies joined the compartment. As we had discovered was usual for tourists from that country, they immediately started talking very loudly and all at once. It was difficult to avoid hearing that they had only just been talking to some random people on the platform, and that it was for some reason very important to discuss interminably and at full volume where each of those strangers had come from, where they had been going, and who was related to whom. When we escaped them at Interlaken, they were still going at it hammer and tongs.
The route up to Grindelwald from Interlaken begins with a trip on one of the famous Swiss cog trains, which have a third toothed rail that is engaged by a driving cog underneath the engine. This enables the train to climb steep gradients even if the rails are slippery with ice. Cog trains are run by private companies and they do not form part of the network covered by our Interrail pass. Andrew and I forked out the four quid for the return journey, but David chose instead to save the money, and to seek out a restaurant that sold fondue.
At Grindelwald station, we stored our rucksacks in lockers, and then sat outside a supermarket until it opened for the afternoon. We needed to stock up on food and supplies for our upcoming trek.
For another two pounds, Andrew and I took the cable-car one-way up to Pfingstegg, and then set off to walk the mountain trail to Stieregg.
There were a fair few hikers on the trail, but they were swiftly forgotten when we realised that the valley below contained our first glacier. It was an impressive beast, rugged ice covered with gravel and large boulders, split haphazardly by crevasses and underlain by the roar of the sub-glacial river. As we hiked closer, we could see the cirque at the top, giving birth to a huge tongue of glacier spilling out to fall in frozen time vertically down the mountain. We continued on in awed silence, the jingle of sheep bells only broken by the occasional crack of ice, or a roar as an icy avalanche cascaded down the face of the cirque above.
At the end of the trail is a little oasis of green, the Bergrestaurant Stierreg, where we sat with a restorative hot chocolate and watched the ice fall down the mountain. Editor’s note – don’t go looking for the restaurant now, it was destroyed in 2005 when hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of the permafrost moraine on which was built, melted and fell into the valley.
We set off back down the glacier, and then branched off onto the trail that would take us back down to Grindelwald. The path was long and tortuous and led over many small bridges, large gorges, and steep tracks. It descended below the tree-line, giving us fantastic glimpses of the Eiger and other Alpine peaks, and became so steep that at times it was more comfortable to run than to walk.
We had a fantastic walk, and finished up with a gentle stroll through the spacious town of Grindelwald to the lower Grund station, where we sat on a bench and dined on canned ravioli.
Just as our train came in, we suddenly remembered that we’d left our backpacks at the main station on the other side of town, so we trotted off uphill again as the sunset turned the snow-caps pink above us, the Wetterhorn to the East glowing quietly orange over the steeply sloping eaves.
Reunited with our packs, we caught the next cog train down to Interlaken and met up with David, who had found several purveyors of fondue, but none at a price that he could afford.
It was getting late in the day, Switzerland is the most expensive country in Europe, we had already spent our entire budget for the day, and we needed somewhere to sleep. During his perambulations around the town, David had been keeping an eye open for opportunities, and had discovered an empty goods wagon shunted onto a siding at the rear of the station.
We quietly sneaked aboard and settled down for the night. In retrospect, we might have thought more carefully about the effect of an icy alpine wind blowing beneath the unsealed rough wooden floor of the goods wagon. At first I was comfortable enough rolled up in the outside of my survival bag, but I was awoken at 2 am when something triggered the security lights in the goods yard. I was pretty cold so I climbed inside. Since the survival bag is plastic, I would usually have set up one corner as a condensation trap, but it was dark and manipulating the bag is very noisy, so rather than wake the others, I just climbed inside.
I should have risked the noise, because a few hours later I woke up frozen and wet, stumbling around in the pitch dark, fumbling for my waterproofs, hat, and any other clothing that I could find, because I had lost my only warm jumper while running for a train back in Germany. Rolled up once more in the dry exterior of the bag, I managed a fitful sleep until dawn, when we caught the heavenly warm train to Lucerne.
After a morning of messing about on Swiss trains, and some very close connections (lots of running!), we arrived in Buchs, which is as close as you can get by rail to the little independent principality of Liechtenstein. There was a wash-room at the station, and a cold wash and shave and a change of clothes made me feel much better after the uncomfortable night and stressful morning.
From Buchs, we took a brisk stroll from Switzerland through Schaan to Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein. We could not locate a physical border between the two countries, but decided in the end that the change in the colour of the striped road sign poles from black-and-white to black-and-yellow marked the boundary.
The walk in the countryside was quite beautiful, with swallows above and hawks skimming the hedges. The other walkers were friendly, the weather was sunny and warm.
Vaduz itself did not announce itself with any signage, and in fact we only figured out that we had arrived by means of the names of some of the stores along the street. It seemed a pleasant town, and although almost all the shops were stamp dealers, we did locate a supermarket at which we stocked up on supplies.
After an eclectic yet filling lunch of tinned pie-filling accompanied by Italian grapes and Swiss bread and chocolate, washed down with German apple juice, we strolled back to Buchs and caught the next train out. We struck lucky with a DB fully convertible carriage with comfortable furry seats, which we rode all the way to Zurich.
What next after Rome? The three of us had been travelling together for several weeks, and had different ideas about what we wanted to do next: Andrew fancied a bit of sunbathing, David wanted to catch up with a girl friend, and I wanted to see Florence and Pisa. We decided to go our separate ways for the day, and to meet up in Genoa that evening.
I boarded the night train from Rome to Florence, but planned to deliberately overshot and remain on board until Milan, so that I could get some sleep before back-tracking from Milan to Florence to arrive at a reasonable hour.
One of the decisions I’d made after our shake-down trip to Loch Ness was to ditch my heavy quilted sleeping bag and instead to carry a lightweight plastic orange survival bag. This was big enough that I could climb inside fully clothed along with my rucksack. It was warm and weather-proof, and the only downside had been that it crinkled loudly in the night when I moved, and I had to be careful to leave a low-point at one of the corners to allow for condensation inside the bag.
This was all very well outside in the weather, but aboard the train it was easiest to lay it flat and then roll up like a sausage on the seat. This had the triple benefit of easy ingress and egress, quieter sleeping, and I could leave my boots on while simultaneously avoiding the wrath of the ticket inspector who was always checking that any seats used as foot-rests were suitably protected by plastic.
The upshot was that I had a comfortable and undisturbed sleep on the train to the satellite station Milano Lambrate where I disembarked in the early hours of the morning, with the intention of boarding the next train back to Bologna. Strangely, none of the timetabled trains turned up, so I breakfasted on a tin of ravioli from my backpack, and hopped on a local to try my luck at Milan’s Central Station.
I had a few hours to kill at Centrale, but that was no great shame because the building is an imposing stone edifice adorned with statues and fountains, backed by a Victorian-style glass-and-ironwork platform complex. I had a good look around, and then, with about an hour to spare, I lay down and closed my eyes for a few seconds… to be woken by the train arriving at the platform.
Hurrying aboard, I found myself sharing my compartment with a silent nun, and with a friendly Italian gentleman. Notwithstanding the limited overlap between his English and my Italian (precisely none), we contrived to have a very enjoyable conversation that saw us to Bologna, where he disembarked.
Florence / Firenze (Italy)
Arriving in Florence a couple of hours later than I had intended, I hurried straight to the Duomo, where I was blown away by this splendid multicoloured pink-white-green confection of a cathedral.
My only problem was that I had great difficulty fitting any but the smallest fragments of it into my camera’s viewfinder. I noted in my diary that this was a general problem in the narrow and winding streets of Florence, a problem which went away when the battery in my camera died.
I found a camera shop, and I suppose the proprietor knew he could charge whatever he wanted, because the price was double what I had expected. There’s nothing worse than being a photographer without a working camera! The transaction cleaned me out of today’s budget and half of tomorrow’s, leaving me with only 1500 lire (68p) for food. I began to wonder whether I would ever make it to Paris before my cash ran out.
Still, here I was in Florence, it was a beautiful day, and I could surely subsist on water from the drinking fountains that we had discovered to be plentiful in Italy. The temperature rose, and as I ambled southward, I discovered that Florence didn’t have any water fountains. I got thirstier and hotter, resolved to buy a refreshing drink with my remaining money, and found that all the shops had closed for the daily siesta.
“South” mumbled my dehydrated brain, as I stumbled along the streets of shuttered shops, until I reached the river. “North” said my subconscious, and I swayed approximately in that direction, keeping the merciless sun at my back, passing the Duomo once again before almost literally crashing into a cold drinks stall. A half-litre can of cola set me back exactly 1500 lire…
After drinking the cola and eating half of a stale loaf of bread and some frankfurters from my backpack, I slowly returned to sanity, sitting in the town square with pigeons pecking around my boots.
Then I sat in bemused wonder as a high-speed police chase began in the square around me. Shoppers dived into doorways and civilian cars bounced onto walkways, as two police Alfa Giulietas roared around the square, four-wheel-drifting on the corners, and disappeared up a side-street. The civilian cars slowly backed out of shop doorways and down from the kerb, and then scattered again in panic as the police cars came screaming back out, this time in high-speed reverse. I stared, mouth agape, as a police van and a third Giulieta entered the fray, people running for cover. The vehicles screeched off in separate directions, leaving the square in utter chaos, including a gesticulating general in a staff car. The sirens faded, but as pedestrians and drivers began to untangle themselves, there was another screech of tyres and one of the Giuliettas came back, re-entering the square at high speed.
A hitherto unnoticed uniformed traffic policeman had clearly had enough. He stepped out in front of the speeding car, brandishing a red stick. The police car locked up, shedding rubber, and came to rest in a cloud of smoke with the front bumper actually touching the unshaken policeman’s legs.
Not completely certain that I was not hallucinating, I quietly got up and left.
What with my late arrival in Florence and recovering from heat stress, I didn’t board the train to Pisa until 17:00. The train promptly broke down. By the time I arrived in Pisa, I was running short on time if I was to meet up with the others today, so I rushed out of the station and followed tourist signs until – somewhat winded – I reached the famous leaning tower, clear across on the far side of town.
I did enjoy my brief look around, but soon I had to hustle back. I attempted a sprint, but with the weight of my rucksack it was more a sort of a lope, and I made it to the station platform three minutes late.
Soaked in sweat, I made my way to the gabinetto to get changed (gabinetti are squat toilets, cheaper than a sit-upon toilette) but then realised that I had left my other pair of trousers in Rome and that all the t-shirts in my backpack were dirty. Pulling on the least blackened shirt and a pair of shorts, I headed back out onto the platform and onto the rear of a waiting train. To my dismay, it seemed to be comprised entirely of sleeper cars, for which my Interrail ticket was not valid. I squeezed my way from car to car down endless corridors until, just as the brakes were released, I jumped across the gap to a second-class smoking carriage to Genoa.
We all met up more or less as planned, for a discussion about budgets over a tin of chicken and rice. We were concerned about the financial viability of continuing our trip all the way to the ticket’s validity at the end of the month. Realising that we were geographically several days ahead of our plan, we decided to finish a few days early while maintaining our itinerary, thus in one master-stroke increasing our daily spend to an astounding seven pounds each per day. The show would go on!
The Vatican, the very small independent state that houses the Pope and the machinery of the Catholic church, is visible down just about every sight-line of central Rome.
In honour of our impending visit, we first had a (cold) shave in the Rome station bathroom, and then visited a launderette and put on some clean clothes. The launderette conveniently had left-luggage lockers for our back-packs, because we knew that these would be frowned upon in the Vatican.
Tickets were relatively expensive, and we needed to cash some traveller’s cheques. This was always a bit of a trial, and on this occasion we found ourselves having to navigate an airlock-style door to the bank. It would only admit one person at a time, then both doors would lock while you were scanned, before the interior door allowed you into the bank proper. On the way out, the process was repeated, although the exit door could accommodate two whole people at a time. At busy times, this made the simple task of entering and exiting the bank a very long drawn-out process. Presumably in order to pay for this marvel of technology, this bank’s surcharges were horrendous.
The Vatican has an interesting tourist layout; you pick the amount of time that you intend to spend, and then follow the associated coloured arrow. We chose 3.5 hours, the second-longest, and set off to explore.
The interior of the Vatican is truly amazing. I had never before been in a building so thoroughly painted, and to my mind it rivalled the nearby Basilica Di San Giovanni, even if the ceilings were slightly less ornate.
We were blown away by Michaelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel, although I did note in my diary that it was looking a bit faded. This was a few years before the ceiling was restored in the late eighties.
The Map Rooms are simply wonderful, with ancient hangings depicting the known world as seen from Rome. The Raphael rooms consist of wall after wall of enormous biblical scenes, but his preoccupation with death got me down after a while, not to mention the three huge tapestries dedicated to the Massacre of the Innocents.
As an impressionable teenager, I was fascinated by the considerable collection of parts of old saints; fingers still wearing rings, gilded splinters of bone, and even entire bodies on display. It seems that, once you have been declared a martyr, nothing is sacred.
In the end, it was the incredible riches to be found in the Vatican Museums that formed my most lasting memory. Walking through room after room of impossibly gilded and bejewelled artefacts, the gifts from rulers and pontiffs down through the centuries, where even the intervening stone pillars are painted with gold, I found it impossible to reconcile the obvious and flaunted wealth of the home of the Catholic church with the air of humility that they try to project. As I write this over thirty years later, I look back and see that this one visit forever coloured my view of the religious world.
Back on the train, we settled down happily in an empty compartment and indulged in our usual territorial tactics; boots off, wave a bottle of alcohol around, sprawl out apparently unconscious on sheets and sleeping bags. Sadly it emerged that all the seats in ‘our’ compartment were fully reserved, so we changed carriages and crashed in with a couple of Italian lads who were trying the same trick. In the end, David moved out to sleep in the corridor, leaving the four remaining backpackers with a very comfortable night on the four convertible seats.
Our system of yo-yo-ing between cities worked particularly well because the toilet facilities at Rome Station were free, albeit only with cold water which made shaving a bit of a chore. They also provided toilet paper with each sheet imprinted “ferrovie dello stato”, of which I still have an example.
We thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of the sights of the city, and were very impressed by the Basilica St Giovanni. The ceiling is deeply wrought and gilded, everything standing out in high relief. The walls are either painted on gold leaf or occupied by enormous marble statues. The altar, even tough flanked by full-sized architectural pillars, is dwarfed by the size of the cathedral. An unbelievable experience, vying with the Basilica in Venice for its awesome beauty.
The Coliseum was interesting, but not exactly what we’d expected. The floor of the arena had eroded away, but this exposed an extensive network of tunnels, access and quarters for the fighting slaves and animals. We were curious to get up above ground level and have a look, but there was an extra fee which we chose not to afford, and anyway the historical power of the underground section was quite absorbing.
We agreed that the Pantheon would have been more impressive if not crowded in by modern buildings, and the Bridge of Angels more so if it had not been covered in scaffolding.
We were however very impressed by the enormous palace on the Piazza Venezia, which turned out to be not a palace at all, but an extravagant tomb to an unknown soldier.
For lunch, we stopped at an outdoor restaurant just as a large group were leaving. David convinced the amused waiter that it would be much easier for him to simply move all their left-overs to our table rather than to clear them away, where they went very well with our one small plain pizza to share.
On our way back to the station for our nightly commute to Venice, we started looking for a loo, and eventually discovered a pavement urinal, held up by (rather than obscured by) a skeletal frame of bricks.
Suitably refreshed, we took in the Fountains of Trevi, which are actually a series of short waterfalls running over a sculptured landscape carved from the stone walls of the neighbouring building. A lovely place to sit on a Summer’s evening.
Back at the station, I thought to avail myself of the Bureau de Change, which had separate windows for traveller’s cheques and cash. I got out my passport and cheques and stood in line, but after a while I noticed that while my queue was not moving at all, the queue for cash exchange was moving swiftly. Eventually I searched my pockets, found some left-over French francs, and switched queues. I quickly reached the counter and swapped my francs for lire. While the lady was counting my change, I asked her why the other queue was moving so slowly. She explained that whereas cash sales were instant, cheques took fifteen minutes to process. When I pointed out that in other offices the tellers had simply written down the cheque numbers in a ledger and that the process only took a minute, she agreed but shrugged and said, “Perhaps in the other offices they write faster”.
We had some hours to kill before the train left for Venice. It occurred to us that the sights that we had already seen, the Coliseum, the Vatican and the Trevi Fountains, might look quite picturesque when illuminated at night, so we set off for an evening wander around the city.
We caught the Forum in the last rays of sunlight. This is one of the more extensive set of ruins from the days of Empire, although we could not afford to go in but had to content ourselves with looking down from the streets above.
Once darkness fell, however, the historical sites were all disappointingly dark. Never mind, we stopped for another small pizza, and finished the day on time and, importantly, on budget.
In an effort to conserve money on accommodation, we had spent most of our nights thus far under canvas. Venice and Rome were next on our itinerary, and were unlikely to offer either camp sites or inexpensive hotels. Examining our Thomas Cook timetables, we noticed that the two cities were separated by an overnight train, so we hatched a plan to spend a total of two days in each city, but alternating each night in order to get a free sleep on the train as we travelled back and forth.
We were going to begin right away by taking a day train from Naples to Rome, and then immediately boarding the night train to Venice. That meant that we needed to stock up on provisions, so we popped into a local supermarket to get some bread and meat.
Much of our short experience of Italian life had been bewildering, and the meat counter was no less so. All the prices were marked in lire per pound of meat. We asked for a quarter of a pound, but were given quarter of a kilo, which was substantially larger and thus more expensive. Luckily David spoke enough Italian to sort that one out, but apparently it was no mistake, that was simply the way things were done. Meat is priced by the pound, but sold by the kilo.
Once in Rome, we hung around on the platform waiting for the overnight to Venice. To our surprise, we bumped into Keith and Lee, friends from our school days, who were also heading to Venice but they were travelling in style and had stumped up for a couchette on a sleeper train.
We waited for our own regular train, but it never showed up. Seeing that the sleeper train hadn’t departed, we ambled over for a chat with Keith and Lee, who kindly offered to share their reserved compartment with us. The train was cramped and crowded, and sleep came with difficulty, but we were on the way to Venice.
We could not fail to be impressed by Venice. The back streets and back waters were fantastically peaceful and quiet, with not a car engine to be heard. Highly polished wooden taxi-boats skimmed beneath the stone-arched bridges, or dodged around gleaming black gondolas.
The winding cobbled ‘roads’, only ten feet across, were lined with colourful shops selling the fine local glassware and beautiful pastries. We were surprised to find that the prices were the cheapest that we had encountered in Italy, and we lounged on the banks of the Grand Canal eating luxuriously soft crusty rolls, cheese and salami, watching the life of the city pass by on the water.
The city had a strangely magical air. Squinting my eyes and looking carefully at each building in isolation, I could clearly see that they were rotting and crumbling away, but as soon as I stepped back and viewed them in the context of the wider city, they were magically transformed into beautiful avenues.
We queued briefly to get in to the Basilica on St Marks Square, which was very impressive indeed. Every inch of its structure seemed to be painted with gold leaf. The nearby Doge’s Palace was also marvellous, I joked that it was a bit like the Basilica converted to living quarters.
The Palace was not all about the gilded ceilings; the dungeons were particularly atmospheric, with a feeling of hopelessness and despair that could not even be dispelled by noisy American tourists.
During our travels, we had become slowly accustomed to the strange European practice of paying to go to the toilet. In Venice, though, they had taken the concept to a whole new level. At the station, instead of a cleaner sitting by a saucer of coins, I encountered a man with a cash register. There was a menu of price options according to the intended nature of the visit, and after paying I received a paper receipt. Once inside, my receipt was taken by a girl who led me to a freshly cleaned cubicle. When I had done my business, she led me to an exit door which opened out onto a softly furnished waiting area, complete with daily newspapers, where my friends were waiting.
With several days to explore, we tended to split up and go wandering. Venice is made for that kind of exploratory ambling, and there was a kind of natural gravitation to the steps of the main station, where those travellers who cannot afford to do the tourist thing in St Marks Square sit and smoke or picnic.
Slightly tanned and completely relaxed from our idyllic week on the Greek island of Zakynthos, we caught the leisurely ferry across to Italy. The boat decanted us onto the dock, from which it was a straightforward walk up the main street to the train station. Unfortunately, this is the only possible route and the locals are fully aware of it; the road was a frantic, seething and expensive tourist trap. We paid the exorbitant price for bottled water, because we were hot and needed the fluid, but reckoned that we had enough left-over solid food in our backpacks to see us through to a less money-grabbing town.
It was much quieter inside the station, where we sat on a deserted platform and put together a meal of sorts from the remnants that we had left over from our ferry trip. We were sitting quietly, sipping our luxury water, when a train pulled in.
Everything went crazy. From nowhere, the platform suddenly filled with Italians, all running around shouting at each other, at staff, at passengers, and at random passers-by. Nobody got on or off the train apart from a handful of bewildered Interrailers who fought their way through the crowds to the exit. The train departed, everybody vanished, and suddenly it was all quiet again. The platform was deserted, apart from three baffled young Englishmen, chewing slowly on two-day old bread rolls.
Our own train wasn’t due for some hours, so I took a deep breath and popped out to see what the town was like at night. I stepped out into a street packed with yelling, screaming, snogging locals, their bodies packed across the entire width of the road, driving their motorcycles down the pavement and generally having a wild time. I’d just spent several days bimbling around in the wilderness and swimming in deserted seas, so it was all rather a shock. I forced myself to conform to the snails-pace push-and-shove just long enough to buy an extortionate can of lemonade and some chocolate, and then meekly retraced my steps to the station.
On my return, I found Andrew and David chatting to Mike and Jez, a couple of Interrailers heading in the same direction, who had found that beer from a supermarket was far cheaper than my soft drink, and indeed any soft drink, including water.
Five men in Pompeii
After a good sleep on the overnighter to Naples, we caught the local underground train to the ruins of Pompeii, only to find that we had arrived several hours too early. Mike and Jez were still with us, so we hung about and drank beer in the sun until the site finally opened.
After baulking a little at the entrance price, we all found ourselves delighted. Even though much of the area originally excavated in the 1960s is now closed to the public for conservation reasons, the remaining area to explore is still enormous.
Despite (or because of) having been inundated by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the town is marvellously well-preserved. We stared in wonder at the original paintings, frescoes and shop signs, as well as the occasional shadow of a body, preserved by injecting plaster into the person-shaped hole left in the volcanic ash after the original had rotted away (although most of these had been spirited away to other museums).
There was plenty of room to wander. Most of the buildings had been truncated at just over head-height, giving the feeling of a Romanesque tiled maze, punctuated by ponds, fountains, baths and weirs. Every now and then I would turn a corner and find myself walking down an avenue of stone columns dotted with vibrant palm trees.
I completely fell in love with the civil engineering. The stone roadways are rutted by the passage of cart wheels, and at the end of each street there are holes drilled through the kerb stones where you can hitch your animals. It had never occurred to me before how messy a horse-based economy must be, but the roads run 18″ below the pavement to give space for the ordure. Pedestrian crossings are achieved by the placement of large stepping stones to keep feet out of the mire, with the stones separated by gaps to allow the passage of cart wheels. I am sure that on warm days, you could cut the air with a knife.
The sun was getting pretty fierce, and the site began to quiet down for siesta time. We decided that we needed to go and see the volcano that had caused the whole disaster, so we climbed back down into the cool dark of the underground train system.
Three men up a Volcano
The train dropped us deep in the slums of Naples, with no obvious sign posts or even street markings. We didn’t need directions, though, because the volcano rose impressively out of the smog in front of us, and so we hid our cameras and money-belts and set off confidently toward it.
The city seemed to consist entirely of decaying buildings and rotting garbage. In the violent midday heat, we clambered up through layers of foetid odours, trying our best to avoid the indescribable streams that ran down the cobbled streets. I had pondered earlier on the possible smells of Pompeii in its heyday, and I suspect that these modern streets came close.
Finally we emerged from the indescribably foul city and onto the flanks of the volcano itself. Sweat pouring off our bodies in streams, we managed to hitch a ride up to the base of the chairlift.
The chair was very expensive, even more so than entry to Pompeii, but we were so hot and sweaty that we couldn’t face humping our backpacks any further.
The chairlift was magical. Apart from the slight hum of the tower wheels and the distant click of cameras, the journey to the summit was silent and very peaceful, revealing a breathtaking panorama. As we rose higher, the whole of Naples came into view, the squalor masked by distance, against a back-drop of mountain-tops poking up ethereally through the cloud.
At the top, we were met by a guide who apparently came with our chairlift ticket. His English was almost incomprehensibly accented, but he did rather amusingly demonstrate the echo across the crater. We were able to wander around the caldera a bit, but there had been some recent rumbles and a lot of the path was fragmented and inaccessible. That said, to our eighteen-year old eyes there was disappointingly little overt activity, just a few small fumaroles, but the size of the volcano was impressive and the views more than compensated.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that we rather lost track of the time. Suddenly we realised that we only had three and a half hours to make the four-hour journey back to Naples Central station, so we set off down the volcano at a run. The road had recently been distorted by recent volcanic activity, and now the first part of the journey down was actually uphill. Eventually we crested the rise and began swiftly to descend.
Following the success of our previous hitch up to the base of the chairlift, we decided to see if we could get a lift from one of the occasional passing cars. We didn’t having too much joy, because after all, who has room for three large men with backpacks?
A bus rumbled past. David optimistically stuck his thumb out. “Don’t be stupid,” I said, “you can’t hitch a ride on a bus”. There was a whistle of air-brakes and it came to a stop, the doors opening invitingly. David shouted something in Italian, and we climbed aboard.
It was quite a swanky bus, but all the seats were full so we stood in the central aisle, reeking of sweat and banging people with our backpacks. At least some of the paying passengers appeared to share my opinion about the logic of hitching on buses, and a voluble argument broke out. The driver shrugged, closed the doors, and took off like a bat out of hell.
We were assailed from all sides by the stony glares of the tourists, but soon all we cared about was hanging on to the ceiling straps as we tore down the small, winding road only inches from the precipitous drop. Perhaps in direct response to his passengers’ complaints, the driver took an unscheduled detour to drop us at the only train station for which we had valid tickets.
The island of Zakynthos loomed out of the sea mist ahead, surrounded on all sides by seas of the most incredible shade of blue. As our ferry drew closer, we could make out the harbour of Zakynthos town, crouching down against the water front, nestled under the vertical craggy inland terrain.
We had no idea what to expect. As this was the half-way point of our Grand Tour, we had decided to rest for a week on one of the half-dozen Ionian islands, and had more or less randomly picked this one according to the timetables of the trains and ferries available to us.
We knew that the island was about ten miles across, and we had a vague plan of hiking over the centre to the other side, to see what adventures awaited us. We were footloose and fancy-free, and the world was our oyster.
Within seconds of disembarking, we were approached by a man who wanted to rent us a moped. A few yards later, somebody else asked us the same question. Behind him, several more salesmen were queueing up. Shaking our heads – we had barely set off on our hike, and none of us had ever ridden a motorcycle anyway – we made our way past the clamouring touts, our backpacks weighing heavily as the sun beat down on our heads. About a hundred yards further on, we gave in and rented three mopeds for the rest of the week.
The search for the perfect beach
The concept of twist-and-go was simple enough, but the little 50cc machines weren’t really designed to handle a strapping teenager with an enormous backpack. We’d only travelled a short distance up the road before I discovered that pushing mine to 28mph resulted in a loud “bang” and the ejection of a fair bit of oil. I stopped to have a look but couldn’t see any obvious damage and anyway it was still running, so I decided to ignore it. However, while we paused to examine it, Andrew’s moped stalled and wouldn’t start again.
A friendly man came out of his house and pointed knowledgeably at Andrew’s carburettor, then went indoors to phone our hire shop. While we sat on the road and waited to be rescued, the his whole family emerged and sat down with us. We couldn’t understand a word they said, and vice-versa, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
After a while, the rental man showed up with a replacement machine, and we said goodbye to our new friends and putt-putted away to find a beach to sleep on. The first one wasn’t really what we were looking for, and then we got lost in the enjoyment of buzzing along deserted, winding country lanes, learning how to ride the little machines and occasionally “racing” the locals.
By now it was fully dark, and we found that the pitiful light from the tiny glow-worm lamps completely failed to allow us to distinguish between the sandy road surface and the sandy verges. While we paused to sort out a minor crash where Andrew had thought that the road went one way, and I had thought that it went another, an English couple showed up and gave us directions to a good camping beach. Straightening out our handlebars, we set off along a tortuously winding road resembling a quarry track bent into the shape of a stack of paper-clips.
Higher and higher we climbed, wondering why we were going up when surely a beach should be down, until the road degenerated into a pile of rocks on a hill crest. It seemed that it was indeed a quarry after all.
We turned around, and tried a different direction. The evening wore on, and we were getting saddle-sore and tired. Eventually, in a village called Orthonies, Andrew met some children who said that we could camp in the grounds of their school. Since it was all concrete, we couldn’t pitch a tent, so we simply lay down on the ground.
In the interests of saving weight, we had all three of us made some personal compromises when we packed for the trip. David, for instance, had left his boots at home and wore only trainers, something that he had regretted when tramping around Vienna. My concession had been to leave my big heavy sleeping bag at home, instead opting for an orange plastic survival bag. This was all very well on the floor of a train, but desperately cold on plain concrete, and I woke next morning frozen and soaked with condensation.
I lay in quiet dampness, thinking about nice warming Hungarian Cherry Brandy, until the local church started broadcasting its service over a loudspeaker, which woke the others and we had a second try at finding the perfect beach. To cut a long story short, we did eventually discover a perfect little cove near Askos, and went for a welcome cleansing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.
The kindness of strangers
The scenery on the island was beautiful and varied, ranging from terrace-farmed olives groves clambering up the sides of the blue-tinted mountains, to wide flat vineyards, ever-changing vistas against the backdrop of an azure sea.
But it wasn’t the physical beauty that impressed us most. Everywhere we went on this fabulous island, we were welcomed with friendliness, humour, and unthinking generosity. At one small shop, we put our meagre drachmas together and bought mackerel, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. An elderly customer came into the shop, saw our haul, and handed each of us a thick crust of sweet bread. Thanking her, and not wanting it to go stale, we decided to sit down outside the shop and eat our lunch there and then. We settled down in the road and realised that we needed some fruit, so popped back into the shop to get some grapes. The shopkeeper quietly and without fuss popped an extra loaf of bread into my bag.
We returned a few days later to get the deposit on our fizzy drink bottles and to stock up on biscuits, chocolates, and more drinks. The kindly shopkeeper once again donated a fresh loaf of bread to the cause, refusing any payment.
On another occasion, David had run out of fuel, so I headed off to Askos to get some. There was no fuel station in the usual sense, but by pointing at things I was directed to a private house where they gravely mixed oil and petrol in my empty orange-juice container and then waved their hands around excitedly when I tried to pay.
I returned to the others, we redistributed the available fuel, and then once all the bikes were running, we went back to the same house to fill our tanks. David – who speaks Italian – heard somebody conversing in that language and asked if there was somewhere that we could change English money into drachmas. It turned out that we’d have to go back to Zakynthos Town for that kind of service, but we were invited in for a coke and our Italian-speaking friend sketched out a deal where he gave us the bank exchange rate for our tenner, less a pound for his expenses, which made everybody happy.
And then there was the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a kebab, and somehow ended up with pork, salad, chips and wine. When we had paid our bill, and got our map out to plan our nightly search for a beach to sleep on, the kindly owner insisted that we camp for the night inside the restaurant.
Fire on the mountain
After an enjoyable day hacking around in the mountains and swimming in the sea, we found ourselves running low on petrol high up on a pass. Partly to conserve fuel, and partly just for the fun of it, we freewheeled down the mountain with the engines off for about six miles. Half way down, we noticed that a bush fire had started and was blazing fiercely along the hillside, so we made a note to report it if we ever saw anyone, because this was in the deserted southern end of the island and we hadn’t seen another soul all day. We rolled to a stop outside a small dark cafe, and I went inside to see if I could sound the alert. There were a number of men drinking in the dark cave of the interior, and none of them understood what I was trying to tell them. Eventually I dragged the owner outside and pointed up at the thickening pall of smoke and the flicker of red flame that was advancing closer with every passing minute.
Now he got excited and rapped on the open door of the cafe, shouting at his customers, who came tumbling out blinking in the evening sun. After a swift discussion they tumbled back in, and then emerged once more carrying tables, chairs, table cloths, glasses, and finally a large carafe of retsina, and we all sat and drank and watched as the sun set behind the flames.
It was here that I drank my very first ouzo. I instantly became a fan, which the proprietors found entertaining. One thing led to another, and it seemed but an eye-blink before it was full dark and we started preparing to set up our tent on the nearby village green. Our new friends the cafe owners pointed out that they already had a tent pitched permanently there, and offered to lend it to us for the night. Thanking them profusely, we moved in and found that it was a trailer with double beds; complete luxury!
David has a thing about insects, and a particular hatred of wasps, against which no reasoned logic will prevail. While exploring the southern end of the island, we stopped at a waterfront cafe in Ormos Korioy where, sitting at an outside table, we ordered three large pork chops with trimmings.
It wasn’t long before a curious wasp appeared. It buzzed in a desultory fashion around our plates and was about to continue on its way to look for more waspy fare, when David started shouting and swatting at it. This made it more curious about what he was defending, and it became more insistent. By the time Andrew and I had finished our meals in unmolested comfort – apart from choking with laughter – David’s plate was surrounded by fifteen excited insects, with the man himself cursing loudly and bashing away at them with napkins and cutlery. In the end, he had to abandon his lunch to a sea of yellow bodies.
When it became time to pay, Andrew suddenly realised that he had left his money belt at our last swimming beach, so he and I rode off to retrieve it while David held the fort at the restaurant. Luckily the belt was still jammed into a rock crevice where he had left it. Andrew decided to celebrate with another swim, so I returned to a rather hungry David, who had calmed down somewhat now that his crawling plate had been cleared away by the bemused staff.
We ordered fizzy pop to pass the time until Andrew returned. As soon as David opened his bottle, a wasp arrived at full speed and with incredible precision dived straight down the neck. Giggling as David cursed, I managed to extricate it from the bottle with a straw. It walked around looking stunned, then shook off the sugary nectar and launched itself straight at David, who took off at a run. When Andrew arrived, I was speechless with laughter and David and his pursuer were starting their third circumnavigation of the restaurant.
Lumps, bumps, and pointy things
All of the bikes were by now looking a bit worse for wear. Mine had a soggy chain-tensioner and a tendency to rattle and spit oil. Andrew’s was difficult to start and so he tended to leave it running all day. David’s sucked fuel at an alarming rate, so that on three separate occasions he ran out and one of us had to go in search of supplies. Each of the machines also showed signs of being dropped, from bent controls to scratches to a smashed headlamp.
The damage was not just restricted to the machines. We were all new to motorcycling, and we were wearing oversized backpacks and riding underpowered mopeds in shorts and T-shirts on gravel roads. It’s not surprising that we endured a number of minor bumps and scrapes, and between us we sported a good selection of minor gravel rash on hands, arms and legs.
Having thoroughly explored the northern and southern corners of this triangular island, we proceeded eastward to the more populated areas near to Zakynthos Town. It was on a blind hairpin near Port Zorro that Andrew performed his most spectacular dismount, propelled face-first through the gravel by the full weight of his backpack.
Some friendly locals brought a bowl of water so that we could clean up his rather ugly gravel rash, but Andrew was not seriously injured and it was all a bit of a joke and a lucky escape until we found that he had forgotten to get inoculated for tetanus. We got directions to the nearest hospital, but when we got there we were told that we should have brought the serum with us, as they didn’t keep stocks on site. We could buy them at a chemist, but of course the chemists were now closed, so we headed up the mountain for the night.
In the morning we returned to Zakynthos Town, and Andrew popped into a chemist for some antibiotics and his tetanus jab. He came out carrying a small package and looking a bit perturbed, and it transpired that the assistant had given him a loaded syringe and mimed that he had to find somewhere quiet and stick it in his backside. Perhaps wisely declining all offers of help, Andrew disappeared behind some bushes and emerged a little later, slightly pale and shaky but with the job done.
A bit of spit and polish
It was just as well that we had returned to Zakynthos Town for Andrew’s medication, because my bike was now running very rough indeed and wouldn’t go faster than 12mph, and I reckoned there was very little life left in it. We parked as quietly as possible around the corner from the hire place, and strolled innocently past to sneak a look at the gleaming machines lined up outside the shop. Then we returned to our battered, dust-coated wrecks, with their fractured headlamps and bent pedals, leaking oil and petrol, and gave up wondering if anybody would notice the difference.
Andrew and David started hammering out some of their bent metal with rocks, while I went round wiping off the encrusted dirt and fluids with a pack of paper hankies that David had found in his backpack. Once we’d got the poor things looking as clean and straight as possible, Andrew – whose machine had fared the worst – gave his an extra shine with sun-tan oil, and we putt-putted gently around the corner to the rental shop.
The guy barely batted and eyelid, merely charging Andrew an extra fiver for his busted headlamp and bent pedal. We counted this as a favourable result, and went off to celebrate in town before the ferry office opened.
After somehow escaping the worst horrors of the infamous Belgrade Express, we finally emerged onto Greek soil and stood blinking in the hot sun of Athens.
As had become customary on this trip, Andrew and David wanted to buy souvenirs, so we took a subway to the Flea Market, where I hung around on a street corner with our packs while the others went shopping. The market was a deafening mixture of large motorcycles and shouting men selling just about any possible item that you could imagine. The hot sun was wonderful, although by the time others came back, the sweat was pouring out from beneath my hat and down my back.
Shopping duties done, we visited the Acropolis, the ancient citadel high above the city. Perhaps the most famous building there is the Parthenon, an ancient temple which was being rebuilt when we arrived (I noted in my diary that it would be impressive when the work was complete, but when I returned 15 years later, the scaffolding was still up).
From the Acropolis is was a hot hike in the midday sun to the Agora, once the civic centre of ancient Athens. Now it is a wide area of ruins with an interesting museum of salvaged statues and columns at one end, and the almost complete Temple of Hephaestus at the other. We caught the temple just as the sun was setting, and prevailed upon a friendly tourist to take a picture of us.
Patras, Kyllini and beyond
We realised that we had given ourselves far too little time to explore Athens, but it was getting late and we needed somewhere cheap – or preferably, free – to sleep, so we caught a train to Patras. We arrived after midnight, and the whole platform was lined with the sleeping forms of other interrailers, all waiting for the morning train. We set up our sleeping bags and set about preparing our dinner. Although Greece wasn’t as expensive as northern Europe, it was still much more expensive than the Eastern bloc, so rather than try to dine locally we laid out the last of our Hungarian provisions. Our knowledge of written Hungarian was shaky at best, so we weren’t entirely sure what was in the cans that we had brought from Budapest. In the event, we feasted on sardine sandwiches and chicken-flavoured baby food. Well, it could have been worse.
We had a pleasant sleep on the platform and then I was grateful for a wash in the station bathroom. From my diary, I see that this was also my first encounter with squat toilets, which I found simple enough to deal with, especially when wearing a backpack because I could rest it against the wall behind me to take the weight off my calves.
Although we were up and about at first light, some of the other interrailers were still asleep when the station opened. These unfortunates were unceremoniously and vigorously woken by the station master, who was clearly used to finding comatose bodies when he came to work, but who didn’t want his station to look like a doss-house when the first train arrived.
While waiting for our train to Kyllini where we intended to catch a ferry to Zakynthos, we were accosted by one of those travelling Americans that you bump into from time to time. His story was that he had retired at 40 and made his living buying and selling yachts, and had spent most of his time since travelling from country to country and (if he was to be believed) picking up girls. Before he left, he introduced us to a group of three girls travelling together, which caused much embarrassed eye-rolling among the six of us.
The Kyllini train was wonderful. The tracks ran straight down to the sea and just sort of petered out into the sand, at which point we climbed down directly onto the beach. The sun was high in a perfect blue sky over golden sand, and we felt that we had truly arrived in the Greece of picture postcards.
It was lunch time, we had skipped breakfast, and there was a restaurant close at hand. Of course we spoke no Greek, but Andrew and David hatched a plan to use some of the phonetic translations in the Interrail Bible. They proudly pronounced their syllables, and were escorted into the kitchen where they were invited to select the raw ingredients for our meal. When they returned to our table, they still had no idea what they had ordered, but when it arrived it was a very tasty dish of grilled purple squid with a tomato salad. Unfortunately it was also extremely expensive, blowing our budget for the day.
Later that afternoon, we secured tickets on the MV Martha (costing a mere third of the price of our lunch), and climbed onto the rooftop deck as she set sail for the Ionian island of Zakynthos.
Our Hungarian visas were expiring, and we were not keen to have another encounter with Alien Control officials, so we hoisted our backpacks and boarded the train for Athens. The route passed through communist Yugoslavia, which in 1983 was in crisis after president-for-life Tito’s death and well on its way to civil war, and it was not permitted to disembark although foreigners were allowed to travel straight through. On the other hand, we already knew that this particular train was going to terminate early in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, where we hoped that we could get a connection through to Athens without officially crossing the border into Yugoslavia, but the immediate problem was to get out of Budapest. Concerning our route further South, all we knew for sure was that the Belgrade-Athens run was infamous for being the worst train journey in Europe.
From Hungary to Yugoslavia on the Pushkin-Athens “Express”
The Belgrade train pulled out of Budapest, and we dropped into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by the ticket inspector wanting to see our reservations. In the early hours of the morning, it was the turn of a suspicious Hungarian Passport Control officer who compared and re-compared our faces with our photographs, before grudgingly returning our passports and leaving, but not before a final check under our seats for stowaways.
Shortly after that we were awoken once again, this time by a Yugoslav ticket collector, who merely glanced at our tickets and said “ock”, which we inferred to be a phonetic rendering of “OK”, and thus marked our passing from one communist country to the next.
Our next visitor, a laconic uniformed official of some kind, woke us up for no readily apparent reason and then moved on to the next compartment. We were just drifting back into dreamland when the Yugoslav Passport Control officer arrived. For reasons known only to himself, he stamped my currency control page and David’s US visa before continuing on his way.
We were jolted out of our slumber once again when the train made an apparently unscheduled stop to let what sounded like four hundred excited locals aboard. Fortunately the tide of humanity flowed past our little compartment to another part of the train, leaving only a thick fug of cigarette smoke.
When we finally awoke naturally, it was cold and foggy outside and we had no idea where we were, except that the train was clearly running several hours late. The carriage was bucking violently from side to side, and we inferred that at least some of the delay was down to badly laid tracks. Be that as it may, we did eventually rumble haltingly into Belgrade Central Station.
From Yugoslavia to Greece on the Belgrade-Athens “Express”
The Athens Express should have left an hour before we arrived, but it was still standing at the platform so we jumped aboard. It was comprised of two parts, the forward carriages going all the way to Athens and the rear carriages stopping short in Thessaloniki. The Athens end was crowded and the Thessaloniki end was not, so bearing in mind that we would be on this train for the next 24 hours and didn’t fancy sitting in the already packed Athens-bound corridor, we joined some other Interrailers in a relatively empty compartment to the rear.
The scenery passing our window was picturesque and somewhat bucolic. The train was passing through small farms, apparently worked by couples, who got around in WWII trucks, bicycles, horse-traps and ox-carts. I tried to take some pictures but the light was bad and the train was shaking around a lot.
Yugoslavian soldiers were patrolling the corridors, and one saw my camera and came into the compartment and indicated that taking photos was forbidden. He then stood on guard to make sure that I didn’t do it again. Presumably these were secret cabbages, unsuitable for decadent capitalist eyes.
At lunch, we discovered that the litre bottle of apple juice that we had bought in Budapest was in fact apple wine. Since it had a crown top, once it was opened we had to drink the whole thing there and then, which took our mind off our silent guard who was still carefully watching our every move.
The day wore on. The scenery became more hilly and scrubby. So far, despite a certain amount of tedium, and the fact that all the toilets were blocked and there was no tap water, the train thankfully seemed not to be living up to its bad reputation, and our journey was reasonably pleasant. Perhaps the ticket inspectors hadn’t bothered us because our travelling companions were genuinely stopping in Thessaloniki, but at any rate they did not ask us to move from the compartment. We did take it in turns to wander down toward the Athens end, just to see what was going on, but it was difficult to get into even the first carriage as it was stuffy and crowded.
At some time in the late evening we crossed the border into Greece, and the Yugoslavian soldiers were replaced by Greek Customs officials, who gave us some forms and stamped us in. Just before midnight, Andrew found three seats available in one of the Athens carriages, so we hurried down there and installed ourselves before anybody else discovered them. It was a relief to know that we were now at the right end of the train, and, blocked toilets notwithstanding, conditions didn’t seem as bad as we had expected.
A few minutes later we stopped at a station. The ticket inspector shook his head and ejected us onto the platform, because this part of the train wasn’t going to Athens after all. We had a few moments before the train left the station, so we ran up and down until we located a genuine Athens carriage, and climbed aboard.
It was at this point that we realised just how lucky we had been. The floors and seats of the compartments were completely packed with travellers and their luggage, and we only just managed to squeeze our way into the corridor, where every inch of floor space was already taken up by bodies and sleeping bags. The toilets here were not just blocked, they had backed up and effluent was slopping out of the doorway and down the corridor. The odour competed with the thick fug of Russian tobacco, and at least one person was quietly throwing up.
We wrapped towels around our heads and curled up into the tiny space left to us, and thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t been stuck on this carriage for the whole of the previous day.
We had dropped off into an uneasy sleep, when at some time in the small wee hours, the train jolted and stopped. There were some muffled bangs – presumably the disconnecting Thessaloniki carriages – and the train started to move again. We started to drift off again, but were disturbed by some guards who came trampling through our prone bodies, demanding that we all stand up and follow them. We did, and like rats following the pied piper, trooped through the rattling carriages, collecting ever more suffering souls along the way.
At the end of the train, as if by magic, there was a fresh new empty coach with working toilets. We all piled in, got comfortable, and finally fell into a proper sleep. The train was by now running two hours late, but nobody cared.
We were in the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a place to stay and with permits to move about (in a limited fashion). We had cash in our pockets, and food in our bellies. A tram ticket to anywhere cost only pennies. We were wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds in an Eastern bloc communist country and it was time to go out and see what the city had to offer.
Actually no. Andrew and David were keen to buy souvenirs, so we spent a goodly amount of the day wandering around the tourist shops until their lust for t-shirts and whips had been sated. I amused myself by looking at the architecture, which had been described as “the most picturesque of the eastern cities”, but which thus far had been largely brutalist and monolithic, immense sooty-walled five-story blocks sat upon street-level shops. I hoped that things would improve when we left the shopping district.
Citadella on Gellért Hill, Budapest
As usual, I wanted to climb to the highest point in the city, which in the case of Budapest is Gellért Hill on the Western banks of the Danube. We set off across the dirty waters of the river by means of a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. We marvelled at the way it bounced with the passage of each successive vehicle, and turned to watch the effect of a passing truck. As it passed us, one of the steel sheets that it was carrying fell off and skittered past, narrowly missing us on the pavement. We hurried on, and then began the long climb up the extensive and picturesque stairway to the Citadella.
This fortress was built by the Hapsburgs when they gained control of the country, and was supposed to be destroyed when there was later reconciliation with Austria, but somehow that never happened and it is now a tourist attraction on the basis of its views over Budapest, and the sculptures and monuments that have since been placed there.
The fortress was reasonably interesting and the views were nice enough, improving greatly once night fell. We had a beautiful purple sunset, and then the buildings in the old town came alive with light, especially the castle and parliament building which stare at each other across the water, so we headed down towards the old town to have a look.
On our way, we got distracted by the sound of dance music and, by following our ears, ended up at a bar with a large open-air dance floor. The dances were complex in their footwork but were performed by linking arms to form a scattered ring formation. We watched from a terrace, and Andrew and David practised the foot movements on the table before going down to join the fray. I elected to look after our cameras and bags, and anyway I was quite happy to sit quietly with my beer.
From my elevated position, I could just make out the fact that two of the bodies were moving contrary to the general flow, although occasionally I must admit that they did seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.
After leaving the dance venue, we scoured the streets for a restaurant, and eventually caught one that was just opening. There were white table cloths, chandeliers, a live band, and a dance floor, and we felt a little out of place in our t-shirts, shorts and hiking boots. However, the waiter welcomed us in and suggested the three-course speciality with wine. Since it was easily within our budget, we gratefully tucked in to stacks of meat and vegetables, washed down with Bulls Blood wine.
After a really enjoyable meal, we found a tram heading in the right direction and climbed aboard. We already had tickets, which was necessary because you couldn’t buy them from the driver, you had to get wads of them in advance from old men who lurked in the subways under the streets. On the tram, we stamped our ticket with the hole-punch provided, which allowed us to stay aboard for as long as we liked.
We were heading for the tram interchange at Keleti Station, and in that we were successful. However, the last connecting tram home to Rákospatak Park had long since gone, so we hailed a taxi. We were low on local currency, but the driver cheerfully accepted Sterling, so we were treated to an exhilarating high-speed ride in a little Russian car over twenty minutes of cobblestones and tram lines; it should have been quicker, but he got lost.
Dining on the Danube
We slept in fairly late, and then I went in search of a cafe that sold Hungarian Goulash (gulyás). It was more watery than I was expecting, but with a pleasant slightly spicy taste. A passing wasp touched my plate momentarily, and instantly died. Shortly after leaving the cafe, my stomach started to rumble alarmingly and I had to find a discreet place to squat.
During a day of wandering, I realised that the beauty of the city lies not in its architecture (although Buda has its nice touches), but in the atmosphere. We were already beginning to feel right at home, and the fact that the exchange rate made us relatively wealthy did not harm our view at all. Local goods were all marvellously cheap, although imported items were likely to command vastly inflated prices. All in all we did not see many overt signs of the police state, and found young Hungarians to be helpful and friendly, older people wary at first but thawing quickly, although curiously all seemed to regard England as the epitome of freedom.
In the late afternoon, we purchased tickets for a dinner cruise along the Danube. We got aboard and ordered the first course, and then stopped to consider the scene: Three penniless students on a bread-line European tour, cruising down the Danube over the beginning of a three-course meal, washed down with creamy mocha coffee and fiercely rough Bulls Blood wine. It was so silly that we got somebody to take a photograph.
Having ordered our hors d’oeuvre (a Hungarian omelette in a spicy sauce), we ordered an inter-course second coffee, only to find that we had taken too long to order the second course because the kitchen was closing. Not to be dismayed, we decided to board the next cruise and finish the meal, if only to see the reaction of the rather pretty but confused Hungarian waitress.
Unfortunately the next sailing was already fully booked, so we decided to continue our meal in a restaurant ashore. We found one complete with a local band and wandering violin soloist, and did our best to continue our interrupted meal. Shortly after beginning my main course, the waiter smashed a glass next to my plate, covering both myself and my food in glass splinters. By the time I had removed all the shards from my bleeding knuckles, he had escaped and seemed unlikely to return to replace my meal, so I strode through the now quite crowded restaurant with my plate and buttonholed him at another table.
He eventually snatched it out of my hands and scuttled away, returning with a replacement and a nasty sneer. Thenceforth his behaviour degenerated to the downright rude, culminating in an overcharged bill, so we left with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths.
Three Men in a Sauna
It was our last day in Budapest, so we said goodbye to our landlord and shouldered our packs for the first time in three days. We were intending to leave from the impressive Nyugati station, and we’d heard that there was a sauna nearby. None of us had ever been to a sauna, and the thought of a relaxing bath was very attractive after a week on the road, so we bought some food for the evening and went to rent a station left-luggage locker.
Unfortunately all the lockers were in use, so we re-shouldered both the packs and the shopping, and headed for the sauna. The sauna was closed.
According to our Interrail Bible, there was another one at the Hotel Gellért, back up the highest hill again. Our route took us through the Budapest Forest, a fairly attractive space in the middle of town, but to our mind nowhere near as nice as the well-planted Margit (Margaret) Island which is reached by means of a pair of curious T-shaped bridges.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was already half past three, but we bought tickets anyway for a sauna and massage. We were handed three small squares of cloth and were directed to the luggage store and changing rooms.
Once stripped down, we carefully examined the handkerchief-sized cloths, each of which had long tapes at two of the corners. After some puzzled discussion, we eventually decided that the best use was to tie it around the waist so that the tiny square hung down in front. Thus equipped, we boldly entered the sauna.
Once through the showers, a doorway led through a foot bath and into a large vault supported by stone columns and containing a shallow pool, a little over a metre deep, which was signposted as 36℃ at one end, and 38℃ at the other. A hurried glance at a couple of lounging gentlemen revealed that our handkerchiefs were being correctly worn, so after a brief swim we moved on through to the sauna proper.
The first room said 35-50℃ and held four wooden chairs. The second room said 50-60℃ and the smell of ammonia was more noticeable than the heat. I walked into the third and last room (60-70℃) and plonked myself down on a seat. It was only a little later that I noticed that other guests were tiptoeing around as if the tiles were hot coals, scrabbling for rubber foot mats, and perching gingerly on the arms and backs of the chairs. Actually it was pleasantly comfortable, and I sat back and relaxed. After a while I realised that there were two gentlemen seated at the back of the room, apparently reading newspapers. Closer investigation revealed that all the newsprint had run illegibly down the page, but I gave them ten out of ten for style.
We had been given numbered tickets for our massage, and every fifteen minutes or so the burly bald gentleman by the slab in the corner shouted out a number, and a customer made their way over. The only problem was that we didn’t understand Hungarian, so every time he called out, we had to check to see if anybody else was moving. Eventually there was a lull where he repeated a number several times, so figuring that it was probably our turn, we made our way over.
After a gentle, relaxing, soapy massage which took all the ache out of back-pack weary shoulders, we discovered the cold pool and the steam room. The cold pool was more of a circular well, and I dove straight in before realising just how cold it was. Frozen in shock, I forgot all about coming out of the dive until I hit the bottom hard enough to graze my knuckles. Lying on the bottom of the pool, I turned slowly onto my back and peered up at the faraway circle of light, before eventually getting enough sense together to start stroking for the surface.
After that, it was a case of alternating the steam room and sauna with the cold well and bath-temperature pool until we sadly had to drag ourselves away. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and I have been a confirmed lover of sauna ever since.
Back on the Rails
We’d run out of tram tickets, so we had to run for the station, where we discovered that the train timetabled for Greece was only going as far as Jugoslavia, a communist country that we knew to be completely closed to us. Never mind, we clambered aboard, and by using our usual tactics managed to commandeer a compartment to ourselves. To mark our departure from slightly wealthy to more normal Interrail living, we dined on bread and sausage, albeit washed down with a little locally-brewed cherry brandy.
We had heard rumours about the trip ahead of us, and needed to be prepared.
There was only one carriage on the train that was going to Vienna, and it was jam-packed with people. We rushed on early and all three of us managed to squeeze into a compartment but there wasn’t room for all our rucksacks, so I padlocked mine to the window outside in the corridor, between the less lucky latecomers who were squashed together out there on the floor.
We spent a fairly wretched night sat bolt upright in our cramped and stuffy compartment, although at Salzburg the corridor emptied enough to become navigable and I spent some time sitting on my rucksack in the breeze from the window. Then as we entered the final three hours of the journey, the passenger on the seat opposite to mine left the compartment , and I wasted no time reclaiming my seat and putting my feet up on his, dropping instantly into a deep and comfortable slumber.
All too soon, we found ourselves decamping somewhat dishevelled and bleary-eyed onto the platform in Vienna. An attempt to spruce ourselves up found us scalped in the station toilets and in the cafeteria; we hadn’t realised just how expensive Austria could be. We spent even more attempting to use the telephone to find a hotel, and then once again when we checked our backpacks into the left-luggage office. We hadn’t even left the station, and we had already blown a fifth of our daily budget.
We did however now have a destination in mind, a “student annexe” to a proper hotel in the centre of the city. Glad to have left our backpacks behind us, we sprinted across five-lane intersections without any understanding of how the traffic worked, found the hotel, and reserved our rooms with a handful of notes. It was so early in the morning that no rooms were yet available, but the concierge amiably agreed to let us use some showers around the corner.
Suitably refreshed, Andrew volunteered to guide us on a whistle-stop tour of the attractions of Vienna. He did a great job and we enjoyed a whirlwind of largely Gothic splendour, a pot-pourri of cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.
The city was photogenically beautiful, and everything was conveniently situated close to the central Cathedral. The prices, however, wore us down. A combination of entrance fees and our lunch in a tourist cafe wiped us out, and we began to consider our escape to less expensive climes. The Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable, arguably one of the most amazing books ever published, showed that if we ran we could still catch a train to Hungary, which was importantly and famously inexpensive.
We made a hasty (and expensive) phone call to the hotel to cancel our reservation and, thankful that we had left our packs at the station and not at the hotel, ran for the train.
The Orient Express
Almost everybody has heard of the famous Orient Express, with its art-deco rolling stock and white-tablecloth service, subject of books and films throughout the twentieth century. However, none of those trains (for there have been a number of them) were in fact “The Orient Express”, although they did use those words as part of their name. The “true” Orient Express was from 1883 to 2009 the more prosaic everyday train that ran between Paris and Vienna, with sections going on to Budapest and Bucharest. The version that we caught in 1983 lacked in every way the glamour and history of the drama phenomenon.
We managed to secure a compartment to ourselves by the now standard practice of hanging up our washing and dirty socks to make it seem less palatable to other travellers, and stretched out to enjoy the ride.
As the designated accountant for the trip, I spent some of the time totting up our IOUs and calculated that we had spent an average of £5 per person per day which, Vienna notwithstanding, meant that we were still £1 per day under budget, and we were now heading for some cheaper nations.
At the time of our visit, Hungary was still solidly behind the iron curtain. This meant that we had five separate visits from green-uniformed officials who checked for stowaways under our seats, guarded the exits at every station, and re-counted the passengers after every stop.
As soon as we disembarked at Budapest Central, we were accosted on the platform by a man in a suit and umbrella who offered us all a room to sleep in for £9 per night. Andrew bartered him down to £6, slightly below the suggested rate in Katie Woods’ wonderful Europe By Train, which we had been using as our bible.
Our new friend Leslie led us to a money exchange where we got hold of some florints, waited while we scoffed down a welcome schnitzel and chips at the station cafe, and then took us home on the tram.
We crowded into the tiny lift of his apartment block, arrived creakily at the seventh floor, and were led into the living room of his flat. The room was packed with furniture and mats, the walls a mosaic of insulating carpet tiles, and dominating it all were a 26″ television (tuned to a single channel) and an old bakelite radiogram. Leslie gave us a soft drink, some milk, and a bowl of slightly battered pears, and we settled down to sleep wherever we could find some space.
We woke up after a good night’s sleep, and asked for some hot water to make coffee. Apparently coffee is a scarce resource here, because Leslie was very shocked when we offered to make him one, and even more shocked when Andrew left some dregs in the bottom of his cup.
Suitably refreshed, we tackled the first order of the day, which was to register our new address with the Alien Control Centre. We got back on the tram, which cost only pennies per ride, and gawked out of the windows as we traversed the ugly concrete streets, alongside tiny scurrying Lada and Skoda cars, to get to the central police station.
Leslie handled the registration process, which involved a lot of arm-waving and discussion, while the three of us perspired freely while hemmed in and hustled about by machine-gun toting henchmen. It seemed to end well, though, because we left with papers that entitled us to stay for three days as long as we did not leave the capital city.
There used to be a tradition among a certain class of English gentlemen that when the firstborn son came of age, he set off on a “Grand Tour” around the cities of Europe. Ostensibly this was to educate him in the classics of art and architecture, but it was also his first and only chance to spread his wings and do some growing up on his own. On his return, he was expected to rejoin Society as a fully formed and well-adjusted individual who had had his fun (and, possibly, sown some wild oats) far from the critical eyes of Polite Society, before taking up the serious business of marriage, children and the family estate.
That era is of course long gone, and I certainly didn’t belong to the titled or monied class, but as an eighteen-year old who had just left home to start out at university, the idea had a rather splendid appeal. I got together with David and Andrew, my closest friends from school, and bought an ‘Interrail’ ticket, available to anyone under the age of 26 and valid for 30 days on any train in the whole of Europe.
It was our first taste of independent travel, and for me it was the trigger for a lifetime of flitting from place to place, never quite settled, always moving on. This is the tale of that first trip, when, wide-eyed and naive and wet behind the ears, we set out with empty wallets, ridiculously heavy backpacks, and a wide-eyed wonder at the world beyond our borders.
Free train to Loch Ness (Scotland)
Interrail were doing a deal whereby if we purchased the ticket early enough, we received a ‘free ticket to anywhere’. Having never travelled together before, or indeed done any long distance train travel, we decided to do a trial run on the longest train journey available to us over the Easter weekend. After careful perusal of the timetables, we figured out that we just had time to take the train from London in South East England to Inverness in North East Scotland, hike to the famous Loch Ness, camp overnight on its shores, and then turn back around and go home again.
We had a fine old time, and took the opportunity to shake down our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.
London to Dover (England)
September soon arrived. Since our Interrail ticket was not valid in the country of purchase, David and I chose the cheap option of a bus to Dover to catch our ferry to France, where we could start our rail journey with an overnight train to Paris. For reasons that remain obscure, Andrew chose not to travel with us, but instead took a train. David and I arrived at the port without any problems, but the ferry to Calais began to board with no sign of Andrew. We already had tickets so we got on the boat anyway. After a look around the decks, we tried to page him on the intercom, but with no result so we had to assume that he was not on board.
Arriving in Calais with an hour to kill before the next ferry arrived – hopefully with Andrew aboard – we went for a wander. We established that there seemed to be two “cathedrals”, but one was derelict and the other was the town hall, which I later described in my diary as “a technicolor version of Big Ben”
We were particularly enamoured by the local treatment of railway crossings. If the barriers were down across the road, it simply meant that the drivers needed to slalom around them without slowing. Pedestrians just ambled across whether the barriers were up or down. On one occasion, there was actually a train parked across the road, presumably waiting for a signal, but the first pedestrian to reach it simply opened a door, stepped into the carriage and out of the door on the other side, the rest of us trooping after.
Andrew wasn’t on the second ferry either.
Remember that this was 1983, well before the invention of mobile phones. We had previously arranged for a relative to act as a message depot if we ever got separated while travelling, so after spending some time trying to understand the labyrinthine French public telephone system, we finally received a message that Andrew was going to be on the second ferry after ours. Apparently he had got on a London bus to the railway station, but the bus had crashed, resulting in him catching the wrong train which went to the wrong side of Dover. When he finally arrived at the ferry port, out of breath from running across the town, they told him that his ticket wasn’t valid until the third ferry.
The problem with this was that he would arrive after the last train had left Calais for the night. We had booked no accommodation because we had intended to sleep on the train to Paris, but the next departure after the ferry was due to arrive didn’t leave until 05:30 the following morning. In fact, once his ferry docked at 20:00 there weren’t any trains leaving for anywhere.
We suddenly recognised Andrew standing at the ferry port. His boat had come in early, and so we all sprinted with our 35lb backpacks to the station and boarded the only remaining train. Apparently it was going to Italy via Switzerland.
Andrew and David curled up on their seats, and I chose to stretch out on the floor, which was comfortable enough albeit a little bone-shaking over the points. We had come up with a new itinerary, intending to sleep until our early morning arrival in Basel, and then change for Munich, ultimately bound for the fabled fairy-tale castles of Fűssen. David and I were up and ready and hopped off when the train stopped, but Andrew had found a hot-water basin in a carriage further up and decided that he just had time to have a quick shave.
There were no open borders back in 1983. David and I headed for Customs, where our shiny blue-and-silver passports got us waved through without any attention. From behind the barrier, we noticed that Andrew’s carriage had been disconnected and was being shunted out of the station. Some distance from the platform, he suddenly appeared at a doorway, leaped out and headed back for the station, waving his passport in the air as he ran.
We repaired to the station buffet and broke our fast with coffee and a sausage roll, congratulating ourselves on having finally arrived somewhere more or less as planned and more or less together. As we lingered over coffee and made smug notes in our diaries, our Munich train rolled out of the station.
According to the timetable, it was theoretically possible to catch another Munich train from Basel’s other station, a tram ride away. “Streetcar Number 2” said a helpful uniformed gentleman, but that tram left without us while we were still trying to understand the ticket machine. Eventually Andrew managed to organise the correct change, and we purchased 60 minutes of travel time. A Number 6 passed, then another Number 6, but no Number 2. Suddenly we realised that the Number 6 also went to Badischer Bahnhof, climbed aboard the third one, leaped out at the station and sprinted across a busy street and onto the deserted platform. We’d missed the Munich train by three minutes.
It was still before 09:00 on our first day in Europe. A close perusal of the timetable revealed that, with a couple of changes, we could get to Munich by 17:00. The first train didn’t leave for a while, so we headed to the station bathroom for a wash and, for Andrew, for the second half of his shave.
After a snack of chocolate bars and iced tea, we climbed aboard the 08:36 to Singen. We’d already noticed that some trains were made up of a mixture of rolling stock from different countries, and this was our first Deutsche Bahn carriage, with compartments which boasted seats that converted into couchettes. We resolved to look out for more of these carriages in future.
We arrived in Singen with 6 minutes to transfer to the Lindau train, and made it with time to spare. We even managed to score another DB carriage, although when David pulled the seat out to form a couchette, the whole thing fell off the wall. As we were trying to quietly put it back together again, we congratulated one another on having, nevertheless, executed a flawless train connection for the first time. Then the ticket inspector arrived and told us that we were in the wrong carriage, and that the train was being split in two and we were at the wrong end of it. We sprinted up the corridor and just managed to jump the gap before our carriage moved off.
Finally, for the first time on this trip, we had a chance to sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train was zig-zagging back and forth between Germany and Switzerland, allowing us to admire the picturesque Swiss villages, partially obscured by low-lying clouds.
In Lindau, we wound our way between groups of souvenir-buying tourists and found a cafe with views across Bodensee (Lake Constance). The lake was very attractive, and although it was warm and sunny, there were thunderous cloud formations rising above the Swiss Alps.
The cafe prices were rather high for our shallow pockets, but as we sipped our coffee we discovered that they were happy to sell us individual slices of bread, which we could then load up with sliced German sausage that we had purchased earlier from a butcher.
Having bought some more supplies, we boarded the correct train at the correct time, and even got a DB carriage. There was nobody else in our six-seater compartment, so we converted all the seats to give ourselves a big flat space to lounge around in, and then – for the first time since leaving England – we dared to take off our boots.
Fűssen / Neuschwanstein (Germany)
Several changes later, including one missed connection and the wrong end of another splitting train, we arrived in the town of Fűssen. I ruefully tallied our record of correctly executed train connections in my diary: a grand total of One. Obviously there was more to this Interrail business than met the eye, but at least we could only improve.
We’d bumped into another pair of Interrailers on the train who already knew the lie of the land, so they took us on a night-time hike to a viewpoint where we could catch a glimpse of the famous castles. There are two of them, one white and one yellow, and we stared up at them spotlit against the pitch-black mountainsides, hanging up there in the stars. This was new, this was different, this was the sort of thing that we wanted to experience. We resolved to climb up to at least one of them in the morning.
While our guides returned to their hostel, we found a flat piece of grass and pitched our tent in pitch darkness, cooking tinned chicken and rice before falling into a deep and satisfied sleep.
We woke and struck camp early; necessarily so, because we had pitched our tent in the grounds of a local hotel, within view of the breakfast room, and we thought it politic to be gone before anybody noticed. We washed up and performed our ablutions down the road in the surprisingly warm waters of the Alpensee, which stands at the very foot of the Alps in a glaciated basin, and began the long climb up to the fairy-tale white castle above.
The path lead through dark and dripping pine forests, hewn out of the mud and edged with railway sleepers, with each step an awkward one-and-a-half strides. Humping metal-framed 16kg rucksacks was a bit of a chore, but finally we reached the top.
Schloss Neuschwanstein (then called Neu Hohenschwangau) was built and inhabited by “Mad King Ludwig” in the late 19th Century. He had spent the happiest days of his youth in his father’s refurbished castle, the gothic yellow Hohenschwangau that we had seen at a distance the night before. Although still rich and powerful, Ludwig’s sovereignty of the kingdom of Bavaria had been removed during a deal with Prussia, so he had it in his mind to create a small private “kingdom” which was more true to his vision of romantic Bavarian tradition. As his power dwindled, he began tinkering with the plans, focussing on the legends of the Knights Templar of the Holy Grail as his model.
The result is a candied confection of Gothic splendour mixed with the very latest in 1860s convenience and technology. The walls are painted with spectacular friezes from German legends, separated by buttresses painted in a crazy clash of red, blue, green and yellow. The Gothic carvings in the master bedroom are superb (apparently taking 14 master carvers 4 years to complete), and the chandeliers throughout are modelled on Byzantine crowns in gilt brass with coloured glass gems. The kitchens are massive, and filled with labour-saving devices such as rotisseries driven by smoke turbines.
The difficult but picturesque building site was originally chosen because it could be viewed dramatically from a suspended foot-bridge, the Marienbrűcke, that Ludwig’s father Maximillian had had built as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort, Marie. It was a hard climb up to the bridge, but worth it for the views.
Rain had begun to fall as we began our descent, this time running with our backpacks crashing around us at that wretched step-and-a-half, step-and-a-half cadence, but regardless of our efforts, we were soaked to the skin by the time we reached Fűssen. We were out of cash, but one of us had a credit card, so we treated ourselves to a decent Bavarian meal in the touristy Restaurant am Park.
On the way to Munich, we met a girl from Chicago who recommended the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl for its “ethnic atmosphere”, so we dropped in to see if we could get a spot of dinner.
The enormous underground cavern was awash with music and song, packed with beer-mug thumping locals in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. We fought our way through to an opening on a long trestle table, and tried to attract the eye of one of the impatient serving girls. Even though I spoke reasonable schoolboy German and was theoretically able to communicate effectively, everything had to be shouted over the deafening music and laughter, and the serving system proved incomprehensible. The waitresses, bulging enticingly in our teenage eyes from their traditional dirndls, seemed overwhelmed and somewhat grumpy. Some girls seemed to serve only food, and others only litres of beer, but it was never clear which we were going to get. We did, however, end up with three steins of amber nectar and a single meal of sausage and sauerkraut and sweet pastries, which we shared. Then a nearby party moved away, leaving unfinished beers, so we commandeered them, at which point the waitresses got the idea and kept bringing steins to us, whether we had specifically ordered them or not.
When we eventually staggered out into a riotous evening of street entertainers performing in the Gothic shadows of central Munich, we were perhaps a little tipsy, and somehow managed to lose Andrew on the way back to the station. Luckily we had arranged a meeting point at Platform 15, where we decanted ourselves aboard the night train to Vienna.