Travel detox

It’s very peculiar. I’ve been back from The Trip for a couple of days now. I’ve started work on editing the photos. I’ve done a bunch of admin and letter-opening and a meeting or two to get things moving again.

And all the while I feel like my head is somewhere else entirely. Up a mountain, perhaps. Following a river from a train window. Drinking a beer in a Macedonian square.

I’ve not?travelled like I did in the last three weeks since before university. I’ve?holidayed and some of those holidays have been in far-flung places. But they’ve also been comfortable affairs, deliberately so. Holidays are opportunities to relax; to empty your head. Travelling feels the exact opposite. It’s all about filling your head. And what do you do with a full head when you need to use it for other stuff? Wait for it to empty again?

Darren, one of my travelmates for the Disorient Express, has written a beautifully poignant post about his feelings on return. He’s perfectly captured this feeling of disconnection. It’s like my mental batteries have gone from full-charge to imminent shutdown in less than 72 hours.

Perhaps this is a mental defence; perhaps this is only an emotional Ctrl-Alt-Del. But I haven’t been able to write a useable word of fiction in the last couple of days, nor have I made a start on a really big piece of work I need to get done. I keep opening documents and staring at them, and every now and again I imagine that the house is moving underneath me, rattling along a pre-war rail while mountains move past outside.

It’s like I’m haunted. It’s very, very peculiar.


Day 18: back to the island

We’re on a train from Hendaye to Paris, from where we’ll take the Eurostar home. Last night we took a hot, muggy sleeper from Lisbon and thanks to an overindulgence of beers in the restaurant car to toast our last night on the rails my head is thick and slow. We’re dirty, sweaty and tired. The journey’s almost over.

We’ve taken 47 trains, five buses, visited 23 capitals, taken 30 metro trips and one water taxi. We’ve covered 18,000 kilometres by rail. We’ve been to the Arctic Circle and the approach to the Black Sea. We’ve ridden alongside the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and dozens of lakes. We’ve crossed and sometimes recrossed the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Seine, the Elbe, the Vltava, the Rubicon, the Tiber and the Thames.

The obvious question is: why? I didn’t have an answer to that before we left, other than to say ‘because we can.’ But now I’ve done it, I do have something to say about the purpose of a trip like this. Obviously it’s not a conventional sightseeing exercise. There simply hasn’t been enough time to take in most of the sights we could have seen.

So, it must be something else. What this trip has given me is perspective. I’ve been reading Horatio Clare’s excellent book A Single Swallow on the train, among other things, and I found this very relevant passage:

At the height swallows fly, the world is a very different series of propositions, distinct from the way we understand it, composed and threaded in ways invisible to man. Villages are complete entities, towns are collections of districts, of kinds of roofs, a graph in which few structures intrude into the birds’ realm. The way the world joins up, the way the land undulates through its features and under our impositions, are all legible to a swallow.

I think that beautifully captures this kind of travel. It’s a shifted perspective, one that lets you experience the transitions between mountains and towns and rivers and valleys in a more direct way. Borders dissolve under the rail tracks, and you’re left with a very complete sense of Europe as a genuine cultural, historical and anthropological entity.

For me, this trip has recaptured Europe as something to aspire to. The word has become shabby and disrupted in the UK, beneath the hands of cynical newspapers and provincial politicians. We’re suspicious of Europe without being quite clear of what we’re suspicious. Is it Brussels, is it Paris, is it the French or the Germans or the Latins? We’re not at all clear where we fit into Europe, and where Europe even begins or ends.

After this trip, I’m perfectly clear that I am a European, and so are the Bosnians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians. We’re tied together by common histories and common aspirations, and more than anything we’re tied together with the iron cables we’ve threaded through the hills and valleys and towns. The only thing that’s really depressed me about this trip was the state of the railway in the poorer parts of Eastern Europe. If we lose those iron cables, a little bit of what holds Europe together will give way.

I’m going home with a tired brain and a rucksack filled with apocalyptically bad smells. I’m also going home a committed European in a way I was not three weeks ago. If Britain does have a referendum on EU membership, as it seems we must, it now matters to me enormously that we vote to stay in. Our future is with our friends in Bosnia and Belgrade and Bulgaria and Berlin: with the places we can still take the train to.

Day 17: a sense of an ending

It’s the last day, and the last capital. We’re in Lisbon, where all the statues face the sea (which means, I noticed, that the horses the statues are sitting on are showing their backsides to the land, which might say something about the rulers of Portugal, or it might not).

Yesterday we went from Barcelona to Madrid to here. In Barca we ate paella and drank white Rioja down by the seafront at Barceloneta, while the beach thrummed with locals soaking up rays. In Madrid we barely had time for some tapas and beers before getting on the sleeper to here. We had raced through an enormous thunderstorm on the plains north-west of Madrid, and while we ate it caught up with us, bringing rain which was so unfamiliar as to be distinctly odd.

The penultimate sleeper of our trip brought us here, to Lisbon, where I have spent most of the day alone. My father was cremated here in 2008 and at the time my head was a mess of grief and organisation and I had no time to take in the place, so today I honoured his memory by visiting the glorious Cemiterio de Alto San Jao where his funeral ceremony took place. It is high on the hill to the north-west of the town with views over the Tagus and out to sea, and it is a beautiful place. I sat for a while and wandered the magnificent mausoleums and felt a little elegiac, here at the end of our journey with the memory of Dad in the shadows of the trees. The funny thing is I can see myself telling him about this trip, and see him shaking his head with a serious smile and questioning the mental state of his eldest son.

After the cemetery I made it my business to get some hold on the topography of Lisbon, in the style of other cities we have visited on this trip. That meant a bus then a metro then a walk and then, wondrously, one of the old Lisbon trams which clattered me down narrow backstreets which showed, poignantly, the economic stress now being put on this ancient country. One other thing I noticed was how many women were doing municipal jobs here in the Portuguese capital: notably driving dustcarts and trams.

Now I am enjoying a final indulgence. I’ve booked myself into a cheap hotel for a few hours for a shower and a siesta and a blogpost. I’m writing this in reception, and tonight I’ll be on the final sleeper to Hendaye, followed by a train to Paris and then the Eurostar. Tomorrow night we’ll be back in London, brains too full to think and legs too tired to walk.

A final post tomorrow, I think. Until France, then.

Day 16: slingshot around Paris

Yesterday was in many ways ‘the day after the Alps.’ Any day after an experience like that is bound to be something of an aesthetic hangover. But Switzerland wasn’t quite finished with us. Taking the train from Zurich to Geneva, you pass through Bern – which looks like a clockwork toy of a city perched on a cliff – and then just when you think Switzerland must fall back into something approaching the topographically normal, Lake Geneva jumps out at you from around a rock and shouts “Surprise!”. Well, it doesn’t quite shout. It emerges, well-dressed and sophisticated and beautifully presented, and air-kisses you on both cheeks.

The train runs above the lake through vineyards, looking down on blue glass and the mountains on the French side. Somewhere over there Chris Froome was fighting his way up mountains while we basked in the visual splendour. A single cloud hung above the lake like a crown.

At Lausanne an old workmate of several of us joined the train to say hello and to bring us gifts of cheese, chocolate and wines, all of which were astonishing. The wine in particular was the local stuff, squeezed from grapes from trees which occupied every inch of ground between the mountain and the lake. On either side of us multimillion pound homes oozed with bankers and Formula One drivers. Finally, we reached Geneva.

The next leg of the journey was an essential diversion in our path, a moment of driving round the ring road rather than through the town. To get to Barcelona quickly, we needed to go via Paris, which meant going through Lyon. The train was astonishingly crowded, and in Lyon we had a three hour wait, which we spent in a French cafe eating steak and merguez sausages and watching the Tour de France where before we’d only be able to imagine it.

Lyon to France offered little culturally, but the railheads in the group cooed at the train, a twin-deck TGV which reached a top speed of 300 km/h. Paris was a quick meal in a brasserie, a switch of stations and then the Train Hotel to Brussels Barcelona (see, even we’re getting confused).

A gentle day, in lots of ways, like an intake of breath before the final ascent. As I write this, Chris Froome is about to be crowned in Paris, and there’s something about the mental exhaustion we all feel that has a whiff of a Pyrenean Col. We’re nearly there, and thoughts are turning towards home. Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon, and then we’re done. The crowds are gathering along the side of th road, and our bikes are beginning to wobble. But I think we’re actually going to make it.

Day 15: when only Wordsworth will do

My word, yesterday’s post was a bit whimsical, wasn’t it? I should explain why. My mind was dazed by mountains.

Reading back over these posts when I get home, I’m sure a consistent theme will be mountains. Mountains that I wasn’t expecting, mountains as boundaries, mountains as channels for implausible train lines with implausible views. But really all these mountain ranges, be they Carpathian or Julian or Balkan, were warm-up acts for the real thing. So yesterday we spent the entire day on the roof of Europe, in the Alps.

Specifically, the southeastern corner of the Swiss Alps, where the people speak a particularly beautiful tongue which is part German, part Italian and part Gypsy (which turns out to sound liltingly Hungarian). We rode eight different trains yesterday, including the sleeper which brought us into Milan’s dramatically Speeresque central station from Rome.

From Milan we took a train north along the edge of Lake Como. And at Tirano on the Swiss border, we stepped down from our northern Italian suburban train onto something rather special indeed.

The Rh?tische Bahn runs a train which climbs up into the Alps from Tirano, and some of its trains affix an open-air carriage to the rear. We had engineered most of the last few days of travelling to get to Tirano at this time for this train, which sounds preposterous. But it was so worth it.

The train pulled away from the station. Then it drove onto the road, and became a tram. Then it turned back onto the railway and became a sky carriage.

Up and up we climbed, leaving Tirano down beneath us. Viaducts and tunnels sped our ascent, and at one point a viaduct performed a complete spiral into the air to raise us a few hundred more feet. We took photos of lakes with green water in them, waterfalls cascading down from the glaciers which were (for now) above us. And then and then and then….

And then words ran out. Paul has, I am sure, taken some spectacular photographs of the Alps, but even the most exquisite two-dimensional plane can’t genuinely reflect the three-dimensional reality of those extraordinary mountains. All I will do here is point you to the Prelude and say that when we arrived in Zurich 12 hours later our minds were wrung out of their potential for awe. We were all used up. An amazing, incredible, indescribable day.

Now we’re approaching the very end of our journey. A dash to Paris, a sleeper to Barcelona, then two days in Iberia before the final journey north. A time to reflect and recharge. But I swear my retina now has jagged peaks burnt into it, because I’ve looked on the Alps, and they’ve looked into me.

Day 14: I have seen things

I have seen things you people can only dream of.

The sun setting over St Peter’s from a park high above the Tiber, where we drank red wine and ate cheese and cured meats.

A Roman delicatessen (Volpetti’s) production-designed by Terry Gilliam; full hams that swing into your head, cheese shaped like babies (why?), a glass bowl for mozzarella as big as a bath.

A new Roman station (Tiburtina) inside a vast four-storey building, three of its floors empty and its brand new tiled piazza already giving way beneath the feet of commuters. A monument to corruption or financial collapse, or both?

A Milanese station as big and as wide as a train-shed for giants, festooned with near-fascist imagery, with one cash-machine in the basement. It didn’t work.

A train which left the railway and joined the road and became a tram.

A train pulling an open carriage up an Alpine valley, all the way up and up and up, above 2,000 metres, so we were running alongside a glacier and had to descend to go past the bottom of the cable car.

A train that spiralled down and down a gulch between mountains, swapping stone viaducts for tiny tunnels, such that the viaduct we had just taken ran above us and the viaducts we were yet to take dropped away below.

Wonders beyond describing I have seen. And all from the train. And all in a day.

Day 13: very lucky for some

Here’s how to do Venice in a morning on a budget:

– wake up in the Domus Civica hostel which, in term time, is a hall of residence for female undergraduates. Cost: 30 euros for a twin room.

– get up at 8.30, walk to the vaporetto pier by the railway station. Buy a 7 euro one-way ticket and get on the number 2 boat via the Ponta di Roma.

– go anti-clockwise and see the back entrance to Venice. Watch the lorries unloading laundry and food and drink onto boats, and see how this place manages to function without any road traffic. Then join up those boats and trucks with the super-shouldered barrow men of Venice, who carry those same bags of clean linen and expensive wine into the well-appointed hotels of the Grand Canal. This is how you get to understand how this place actually functions.

– creep past the ferry terminal, where the gigantic cruise liners loom over the campaniles of Venezia. Imagine what the old merchants of the Republic would have made of it all. Think that they probably would have found it enormously pleasing. Trade is trade is trade.

– zig-zag between the main island and Giudecca. See the super-controversial inflatable version of the Alison Lapper statue on the corner of Giudecca, put there for the Biennale. Think how this water-borne old Republic is now umbilically linked to the grey harbours of London.

– get off at St Mark’s, but don’t go into St Mark’s unless you enjoy being squeezed by sweaty tourists.

– wander in and out of dead-end alleys, get lost, find a cheap-and-cheerful cafe in a square and eat a spaghetti lunch. Total cost with lemonade: 15 euros

– wander again, back towards the hostel. Arrive back there, pick up your bags and walk to the railway station

Total time: four hours. Total cost: 52 euros.

When we were planning this trip, we came up with the jokey concept of Tourisme Grande Vitesse. It was a response to the question of how you can possibly contemplate visiting somewhere like Venice and spending only a few hours there. Because this trip is primarily about trains and covering ground, it’s inevitable that we’re going to pass through some of the most interesting places on the planet with barely a glance. I’ve decided that the way to make sense of this is to think of it in terms of perspective. Astronauts can’t see political boundaries, only landmasses. We can’t see art galleries or museums or go shopping, but we’ve got a sense for mountain ranges and topography and political evolution which you don’t get from a deep dive into one place.

As a for instance: yesterday we took five trains (five trains!) from Zagreb through Llubljana and the Julian Alps down to Nova Gorica. Then we walked out of Nova Gorica station, across the Slovenian border, and into Italy. The border passes through the place in front of the station. In the 1980s, this was where the Iron Curtain was drawn. Now all that marks it is a steel plaque in the ground.

This, if you were wondering, is why the European Union is a Good Thing, of which more another time.

So yes, we’ve done Venice this morning, in our own fashion. And more than that: this evening, we’re doing Rome. Tourisme Very Grande Vitesse indeed.

Day 11-12: back in the EU

I’ve missed a day of the journey due to a combination of 02 price gouging on data roaming and lack of power in ancient Balkan carriages. I’m now sitting in an Austrian train carriage in Zagreb station on a train which ultimately goes to Vienna but which well jump off at Sevnica. Tonight we’ll be in Venice, and in tourist terms this trip goes supernova. Venice then Rome then the Swiss Alps then Barcelona and on and on and on.

On paper, we’ve just chiselled our way through the Balkans. That at least was how we thought about that leg when we were still in England. A complicated interlacing of ancient trains and private buses and obscure hostels appeared, before we left, to be an unenjoyable exercise in meeting deadlines and adopting Plans B when those deadlines were missed.

This, as it turned out, was a miserly undertelling of the Balkans. From the moment we pulled out of Sofia we’ve seen some of the most soaring scenery Europe has to offer, and this was a total surprise, at least to me. Bosnia in particular is astonishingly beautiful. Yesterday we took a train from Sarajevo to Ploce which climbed up through mountains which were as eye-melting as anything in the Alps. A blue-green river, dammed up in places, was our travelling companion, and in the places where reservoirs had been collected the locals had built pretty little floating houses. As our train passed I looked down on a rib making its way to one of these water-dwellings, its engine carving a great arc in the blue-green surface.

But there was always a disjunction between the splendour of the scenery and the poverty of the country. The carriage we were in was an old Swedish one, donated by the Swedes to the Bosnians, and it reminded me of an old cinema badly needing a bit of love.

Sarajevo was a busy and charming place, where we ate kebabs and mezze in a little square. Minarets were everywhere, and as we walked back to our hostel we passed hundreds of locals at prayer in front of a mosque, women to the left and men to the right. We raised our cameras and then brought them down again, oddly respectful of the ceremony.

Yesterday we reached Split via the train from Sarajevo and a coach ride up the Dalmatian coast from Ploce. The insane internal architecture of the western Balkans presented itself more powerfully than any map could have done. Bosnia stops at the last ridge of mountains before the coast, and the strip of land between these and the sea is Croatia. The only access Bosnia has to the sea is via that same river we’d followed through the mountains, now broad and flat and Bosnian out to the sea but lined with Croatian flags to remind anyone using this corridor by whose authority it was permitted.

We took a coach from Ploce north. This politically laughable ribbon of country can’t accommodate a railway line; all it can squeeze in between Ploce and Split is half-a-dozen holiday communities and astonishing views. This coast is Southern Europe’s equivalent to the Norwegian fjords – a landscape of drowned mountains, such that from the coastal road one looks west towards overlapping islands and dozens and dozens of yachts.

Those yachts demonstrate the other line you cross as you leave Bosnia, because this ribbon of land on the western side of the Bosnian mountains is of course in the European Union. Within only a mile or two the roads are smoother, the houses sharper-edged and whole-roofed, the cars shinier and the bellies rounder. Croatia, compared to the countries we’ve left behind us, is rich.

We had an afternoon in Split, at the point where the mountains dwindle into the hills in the north. We sat by the sea and went swimming and walked through the extraordinary skeleton of Diocletian’s palace, now rammed to the capitals with souvenir tat and beautiful nonetheless. Then we climbed onto a Croatian sleeper towards Zagreb: three couchettes to a room, hot-and-cold running water, firm mattresses. But the Balkans still had a last flavour of splendour for us: the sun set and the train pulled away and up into the bare hills above Split, and looking out of the window we could see the engine mazing its way through rocks, its light picking out caves and boulders, and for a moment we were riding through the old Wild West, anxiously waiting for Butch Cassidy to bring his gang down on top of us and steal our iPhones.

It’s now the morning after all that. We’re heading into the Julian Alps, and all being well we arrive tonight at the Doge of all tourist destinations: Venice.

Day 10: graves, trains and mountains

Every journey must have a low point even if the low is fairly high. For me this point was almost exactly halfway around, in Skopje station.

We had to take a bus from Sofia – a four hour journey notable only for the banal dance of the border guards between Bulgaria and Macedonia. On reaching Skopje we spent some time in the old Muslim quarter, and ate some astonishingly bad kebabs. Then the bus took us to Skopje station.

As a symbol of the decline of infrastructure in some of the places we’ve passed through, Skopje train station was pretty terrifying. There were no signs to suggest it was there at all, as if the city itself were ashamed of it. Ancient cracked stone steps led up to crumbling platforms. A train indicator showed perhaps four trains over the next 24 hours – none of them ours – and the toilets were encrusted with limescale and faeces.

You may think I exaggerate. I do not. The railways and stations south and east of Prague are horribly neglected – ancient Soviet engines pulling even more ancient Swiss and German carriages. Transport investment is obviously going into roads and not rail – the petrol stations are all gleamingly new. Only the poorest seem to take the train. The decline which began in Budapest reached its nadir in Skopje.

This is to say that the railways are worse than the towns. Skopje itself is obviously seeing investment though of a rather odd kind. There was highly sophisticated billboard advertising, but it was all for a single advertising company. Which is about as meta as capitalism gets.

Skopje feels right on the edge of Europe. It’s a town in a valley dotted with minarets watched over by an enormous cross on the hillside – a clenched fist (or two raised fingers) against the Islamic empires to the east.

Our train for Belgrade did indeed arrive, and departed on time, which is something that has constantly astonished me about this trip. However decrepit the infrastructure and however tense the international relations, European train officials still manage to get a carriage to arrive at a decaying platform in Skopje with the names of nine exhausted Brits attached to it. This is bureaucracy sufficiently rarified as to be magic.

All that was still day 9 – ie, yesterday was quite a day. I wrote most of this on the phone while waiting for the narrow-gauge Sargan 8 railway, a fragment of the old narrow gauge line which used to run from Belgrade to Sarajevo. It’s
more like a Blackpool Pleasure Beach attraction than a railway, but it travels through deep woods which i can’t help imagine bristling with guns when this part of the world exploded in the 1990s.

That thought was in part sparked by the sprinkling of very new cemeteries along the valley between Belgrade and Uzice. Were they the awful traces of an awful war? Or is that that the product of a rather tired imagination?

We reached the narrow gauge railway after a four-hour train journey from Belgrade – standing in the corridor all the way – and an insane taste of Serb taxi driving which has aged all of us at least a decade. This was followed by a massive taxi snarl-up between the bus we’d ordered from Sarajevo and the taxi drivers from Uzice, both of whom claimed us as their fare. It took a while to resolve and provided plenty of entertainment for the passerby.

Eventually we climbed on the bus to
Sarajevo. The border crossing into Bosnia was a good deal less edgy than we expected, and on the other side of the border we drove through a spectacular mountain range with a green river running through it. I don’t know which is more astonishing: Europe’s capacity to produce mountain ranges, or my capacity to be completely ignorant of them until I’m in them.

Reading through this post, it’s all a bit frantic, isn’t it? Well that’s how it’s been these last couple of days. From tomorrow, I hope things calm down.

Day 9: on William Gladstone Street

I’m sitting in the roof of a hostel on William Gladstone Street in Sofia. If ever there was a name to conjure up the tortured to-and-fro of this region, it’s William Gladstone Street. My history isn’t up to this, but I think I remember Gladstone being a proponent of a unified Bulgaria when half the country was still under the sway of Ottomans.

We arrived in Sofia an hour ago on a Russian train with Ukrainian carriages which we hauled ourselves onto in Bucharest. Patterned carpets lined the carriages, and there was a good deal of old wood and leatherette to lend more character than the plastic-and-nylon of Western European trains. The only other people on our carriage were fairly tough-looking Slavic men with close-cropped hair and a certain way of looking at you, who always turned out to be charming when you spoke to them.

In Bucharest we ate dinner and some of us went to a pub to watch the cricket. Others wandered around the place, which still has a good deal of dehumanising Ceaucescu scale to its boulevards, though the backstreets are slowly filling with restaurants and bars. In the early evening these places were empty but by the time we made our way to the station at 9.30pm the place was absolutely jammed solid with young men and women, almost all of them in couples, dressed to the teeth.

The journey from Sofia was interrupted twice by shouting border guards in the early hours, once in Romania and once in Bulgaria. One of them was carrying a great pile of Ukrainian passports. I wonder if these angry burly men on the borders ever hanker for the Communist era, when the power they wielded was so much the greater.

The train split apart and joined with others three or four times, shunting around on ancient rails which screamed in protest. When we woke in the morning we were passing through the mountains which give their name to the Balkans. The train went through a deep valley carved in the limestone by a rapid river. At every station, the stationmaster stood to attention as we passed in full uniform. Almost all of them were women. Stationmistresses?

There was real poverty on display in these mountain villages. Houses with caved-in roofs were everywhere. At the railside was the occasional ancient railway carriage adopted as a home, a satellite dish on the side giving away the presence of humans within. Or perhaps inside were the bodies of past travellers, lying in their couchettes waiting to be connected to trains arriving from Points North.

From Sofia we go, by bus, to Skopje where we hope to get on the sleeper to Belgrade. Our only reservation confirmation is an email with a name on it. For the next two days we will be outside the European Union, and I do not know whether battery life and mobile coverage will allow updates to this blog. We shall see.