The anticipation of taking my first European train tour since I was 18 years old sent tingles down my spine. After a torturous flat sale and move (back in with mum – come on, everyone’s doing it!) I was about to realise a long-held ambition. I had managed to shoehorn a trip through three countries at the end of May before a busy birthday month of June.
First stop Nice
With a modestly-packed backpack, mum saw me off the platform at Bletchley (I am 47!) and I arrived at Nice airport several hours later. The carefully researched bus routes to my accommodation were scuppered by a nicely timed French bus drivers’ strike, so I arrived at my accommodation by taxi much earlier, but 30€ lighter. It wasn’t a good start.
“I wondered where the owners were, probably in some fabulous restaurant somewhere drinking Cristal.”
I’d decided on a budget hotel for my first night, just to ease myself in, before my stays in other peoples’ houses courtesy of Airbnb for the next two stops. I stayed just outside the old town, and the following day, under a clear blue sky, I drifted through the huge flea market in the centre of town, and down towards the harbour. The yachts lined up, flaunting their wealth, and setting the tone for a number of wishful-thinking selfies. I wondered where the owners were, probably in some fabulous restaurant somewhere drinking Cristal. Meanwhile the crew mopped the decks, or sat looking bored, waiting, like the yachts, for some nautical action.
The following morning, I arrived nervously an hour early for my train to Milan, or Milano Centrale – how wonderfully glamorous that sounded! On board, I settled back with a good book, loving the rhythmic feel of the big, iron wheels against the tracks.
Begging seemed to have increased significantly since my last visit. Those who make a living from begging have become more proactive, making the train their places of work. Describing their plight on business-card size scraps of paper, they place these carefully on the seat next to you, or in front of you, and some even helpfully translated into English. Interesting marketing tactics. Could this take off in the UK? Well, they’d have a job finding an empty seat on some trains.
Milan is a full senses experience
Arriving in Milan, I made my way by underground to the nearest stop to my Airbnb room. It was only when I left a couple of days later that I realised that it was only 10 minutes’ walk from the station!
The room was in a 1930s apartment block, with stained glass window doors, and an original passenger lift car with brass, shuttered gates. I shared the apartment with a young couple whom I briefly glimpsed behind a sheer curtain as I walked past.
“I’d schlepped up in flip flops, an anorak and some very crumpled trousers. I tipped a bit extra and crept out.”
My host recommended a local pizzeria for dinner, so after many wrong turns in the pouring rain, I found it – an inauspicious looking place, but it would do. I ordered pumpkin ravioli followed by walnut and fig tart, delicious in every way. “This place is alright”, I thought, then I spied the list of awards it had won over the years, displayed on the window. I’d schlepped up in flip flops, an anorak and some very crumpled trousers. I tipped a bit extra and crept out.
The following day passed in a blur of high end shops, medieval castles, an enormous, green, tree-lined park, and the Arca della Pace – the Arch of Peace. Begging in the streets is legion and I lost count of the many times I turned down a selfie stick or bubble gun. I walked down a street with the most breath-taking displays of jewels, clothes and shoes, but what I found astonishing and hilarious was the guy brazenly selling knock-off designer bags, not two minutes from the real thing.
The trains don’t always run to schedule!
I earned my “junior” traveller’s stripes on my next journey. You’re not really a seasoned traveller until you’ve overcome a few obstacles on the way. My train stopped unexpectedly on the way to Bologna and with an Italian passenger translating into broken English, it turned out an accident in front of us had cancelled all trains. What about my connection to Bologna? A promised bus service didn’t materialise, but luckily my blank/gormless appearance attracted a couple of others, so we all clubbed together to book a taxi to Bologna station. With three of us in the back of the taxi, and one in the front, I hung onto the door handle and closed my eyes as the driver hurtled towards Bologna station, and my connection.
Venice is magical
Zhenya*, my next host, is a fragile, attractive lady in her early 50s, with a modern two-bed apartment in Venezia Mestre, the industrial side of Venice. She reminded me of a faded movie star, and her apartment was filled with back issues of Vogue, art prints and baroque furnishings. My room was the sitting room with a bed placed in the middle, and I wondered why, until she introduced me to her son, Stefan*, who obviously took the other bedroom. I wanted to find out more about Zhenya and why she stared reflectively out of the window every morning while I ate. I knew she’d studied fashion history and had lectured at the university in Venice, that much we shared but with no common language between our Russian, French, Italian and English, we were limited in our conversation.
Over the years I’ve heard so many different opinions of Venice, I really didn’t know what to expect. It smelled, it was too hot, too busy, too expensive and my favourite: “Once you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all!” It certainly didn’t disappoint me – it was like being winched down into the most delicious box of chocolates imaginable, and I was going to spend four days devouring. It was busy, no doubt about it, and hot, even early in the season, but nothing detracted from its sheer magnificence.
I walked from the train station at Venezia Centrale, following helpful signs all the way to St Mark’s Square. It was like walking round Ikea. To be honest, I preferred the journey to the destination. St Mark’s Square was overcome with tourists, and I had built it up to such a degree in my mind it now felt surreal. But the next day’s tour would reveal the city in its true beauty.
Being a lone traveller means that you can double the intensity of people watching. I love listening to other peoples’ conversations, from the petty to the passionate. Group dynamics are especially fascinating. Our tour of Venice included a group from the States. I watched a little boy of about 11 listening intently to our tour guide, taking a real interest in the history of the place. Unlike his mother, who took selfies in the Basilica and was asked to cover up because she was flashing too much flesh.
The tour took us to the more deserted alleys and campos of Venice, so we could appreciate the extraordinary engineering that kept Venice ‘afloat’, like the wellheads that appeared sporadically in quiet squares, designed to collect rainwater, which was then purified by filtering them through sand to provide clean water for the residents. The wellhead platforms also had small, bowl-like hollows for animals to drink from.
“while I cherished the renaissance architecture and grandeur of the palazzos … it was great fun seeing where George Clooney got married, where Daniel Craig tried to rescue his betrayer in Casino Royale, and the bridge where Madonna filmed Like a Virgin”
Our boat tour took me to more familiar ground, and while I cherished the renaissance architecture and grandeur of the palazzos we passed, it was great fun seeing where George Clooney got married, where Daniel Craig tried to rescue his betrayer in Casino Royale, and the bridge where Madonna filmed Like a Virgin.
I took in several exhibitions in Italy, and I was always struck by how empty they were. It was completely disproportionate to the number of tourists on the street. From the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in Milan which created scaled down models of his designs, to the Henri Rousseau collection at the Palazzo Ducale, Ca’Rezzonico (an 18th century palace), and the fashion museum at the Campo San Stae in Venice. I hoped they weren’t wasting their money on selfie sticks.
On my last day in Venice, I wished Zhenya well and kissed her on both cheeks. I dropped my increasingly heavy backpack off in left luggage at the station and headed off to the Jewish quarter for a recce. My father’s family had come to the UK as Austrian Jews in the late 1900s after the revolution, and I have long been interested in their story. The Jewish quarter was indistinguishable from the other sestieri, but its history revealed that even in Venice, which was a hub for emigres from the start, Jews were restricted in action and location. It’s where the word ghetto originated.
And then to Vienna
My last train journey was one of the highlights of my trip – a night train to Vienna. I arrived at Venice Mestre about an hour and a half early, to savour the anticipation of spending a night on a couchette and waking up in a new city in a different country.
My couchette mate was an Austrian girl in her late 20s who worked for an international charity in Vienna. She regularly spent her weekends in Venice with her grandparents and travelled back on Monday morning, straight into work. We were lucky enough to have the whole couchette to ourselves, so we made ourselves at home, and settled back in relative comfort.
At some ungodly hour in the morning the train stopped for border checks – we had previously handed our passports to the train manager – and we were then on our way again. At about 6.30am a knock at the door and we were handed our breakfast of hot coffee and bread rolls – b&b train style. I was bleary-eyed – I certainly couldn’t do a day’s work. This I remember from my previous journey - waking up in the same clothes, feeling raw-eyed. I couldn’t wait to hit the shower at my last place.
I’d totally miscalculated my trip to Vienna, so I ended up with only half a day before I flew home. Even so, I managed to peer in at the Spanish Riding School in its imposing surroundings, as well as visit the Jewish museum, with its obligatory guards outside. There is so much still to see in Vienna, but I couldn’t walk another step, so I limped back to the hotel for an early night.
The following day I reflected on my trip at the airport and decided I was hooked. Travelling by train felt so relaxed and unrestricted. It lacked the sterility of airport lounges, endless security checks and the feeling of being loaded onto a cattle truck. I would not leave it so long next time.
*names have been changed.