The Grand Tour 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile (west)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

(Part 2: rise up so early in the morn: north and east)

(Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change: south)

25 April 2018

Vienna was the one city that had always been on the list. Vienna and Prague. Well, I’d done Prague, and found that actually I preferred Bratislava. Vienna was another hour on from there, a journey more or less unremarkable except for crossing the various iterations of the Danube as we entered the city.

The Hauptbahnhof was huge, new, and shiny. I went through the usual palaver with left luggage; then went up to the top level to get my bearings; then down as far as it went in search of an urban transit pass. I took the metro to the Stephansplatz and got distracted, before I’d even left the station, by a small museum which incorporated a subterranean chapel as well as archaeological finds set in the walls, and interactive display screens explaining the history of Vienna.

I came out into parching midday heat, which didn’t shift even inside the cathedral. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was meant to pay for admission, and, if so, where, so I skulked around at the west end for a bit and then gave it up as a bad job. Outside, ticket sellers dressed in long brocade waistcoats tried to flog tickets to concerts of music by Mozart. I drifted around a couple of souvenir shops looking for a badge that said ‘Wien’ rather than ‘Vienna’, bought an ice cream, ate it, wandered a bit, felt guilty about not being in the mood to visit any museums, and eventually cut my losses and went to retrieve my suitcase from the Hauptbahnhof and check in at my hotel, which was out in the direction of the Prater. I took a shower and then returned to my room to sulk.

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What, I asked myself, had sold me on Vienna? The New Year’s Day concert, and a boxed set of Die Fledermaus on LP, and BBC4 documentaries. And Eva Ibbotson. A confused impression of waltzes and chocolate and long gloves, just as ersatz as the Mozart ticket touts, I supposed.

I sulked. I read all the rest of Castle Hangnail, which was the closest thing that I had to Eva Ibbotson. Not Magic Flutes or Madensky Square, the Viennese romances, but Which Witch? or Not Just A Witch, which I adored when I was growing up. By the time I got to the end of it I was feeling more kindly disposed to the whole idea, and quite saw that I couldn’t expect to come to love Vienna madly on five hours’ acquaintance.

I did, however, need to eat, so I braved Vienna once more.

Once again I was afflicted by my fear of looking foolish, and walked past all manner of different eateries, at any one of which I would probably have been absolutely fine. I did manage to get my act together sufficiently to take a ride on the Prater wheel, even when it turned out to be cash only.

I’ve never quite forgiven the DVD case for spoiling me for The Third Man, and I don’t remember a huge amount of the film otherwise, but I couldn’t fail to think of it as the wheel turned and our little box rocked gently on its axis. The exuberant green canopy of chestnut trees beneath us in the park, the glittering glass of the city, the long smudge on the horizon that was the Wienerwald, and, on the other side, the lattice of bars and struts that kept the whole thing up. I was charmed to see that there were separate cars where one could be served a dinner by candlelight, with a new course served each revolution or so. I added it to my ‘to do if ever very rich’ list.

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Afterwards, I took a brief look at the various food stands, didn’t find anything that took my fancy, and decided that I really did need to see a bit more of Vienna. And the way to see more of it was from the tram.

I saw that route 1 and route 2 made a loop around the city. What I failed to note was that neither route 1 nor route 2 went all the way around the circle; and by the time I did, my tram (route 1) was already well off the circle and heading out towards the suburbs. I got off, tried to find something going back the other way, got myself lost in a knot of subways and platforms, and eventually found something that worked. By this time I was ravenously hungry, and I promised myself that when I saw somewhere to eat I’d get off the tram and go there.

‘There’ turned out to be a restaurant with tables outside, leather-covered benches inside, and a menu in German only. I managed to get myself seated (miraculously enough – I’m not coherent in any language when I’m hungry) and, while I waited, the place filled up around me. It filled up so much that I ended up sharing my table with another diner. We ordered our meals. I couldn’t tell you the name of what I ate that night – there was meat, there were potatoes, there was a sort of cabbagey salad – but it was delicious and very welcome. We chatted, of course. I asked what she did.

‘I’m an opera singer,’ she said.

Ah, I thought; yes, this is what’s meant to happen in Vienna. Meet interesting people, and have interesting conversations with them.

We hadn’t even got started.

She was Mexican, a concert soloist. She asked what I did.

‘I work for a trade union,’ I said. Oh, I could have said that I was a writer, spending the profits of my first major literary prize on a grand adventure, but it didn’t feel like the answer to the question that she’d asked.

In actual fact, she was very interested to learn about my trade union background, because she had what trade union jargon would call ‘a workplace issue’. The concert soloists of Vienna were ridiculously underpaid (a supply and demand problem, she said: all the musicians come to Vienna, because it’s the city of Mozart and Beethoven and and and…), particularly if they were performing at two concerts in one day, in which case they would earn as little as €30 for the second one. Tourists come to Vienna to hear music, and will pay as much as that and more for a concert ticket.

Consequently, she was very interested in how one might go about organising a strike. So I, who hadn’t been expecting this to be a busman’s holiday in quite this way, talked about identifying allies and assessing support and raising awareness. Though she seemed to be quite keen on going directly to strike.

That wasn’t all we talked about, of course: there were the more general working conditions in Vienna; what had brought her here, and what had brought me here; relationships, and religious differences within them; how was I enjoying adventuring on my own? what was going on with Brexit and why on earth did anyone think it was a good idea? At one point, she went off around the corner for ice cream. I rather regret not going for one myself. In the end, it was a really good night.

In a novel, of course – and it is a novel that I would certainly read, and probably write – this would have resulted in my staying on in Vienna, mobilising the singers, organising a massively successful strike, and returning home never to breathe a word of what I’d accomplished. In real life, I wished her luck, took the tram back towards the Prater, bought some rolls, cheese, and apples in a convenience store on my way back to my hotel, went to bed, and, the next morning, set off southwards towards Slovenia.

26 April 2018

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I was perhaps an hour out of Vienna when suddenly it all made sense. This was why I hadn’t made it to Budapest; this was why I’d come to Vienna even though Vienna wasn’t all that. I’d come to do the Semmering line.

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A glorious piece of nineteenth century engineering, it takes the main line from Vienna up over the mountains towards the sea. All morning we worked our way steadily along the sides of the valleys, climbing gradually from contour line to contour line, looking across empty space to where we’d been a few minutes before. The air was damp, and cloud hung over the tops of the mountains, but I didn’t mind. I had a compartment to myself. I spread out the map, and ordered a cup of coffee and drank it gazing out of the window.

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After the Semmering tunnel, the summit of the line, the landscape was less dramatic, but still worth looking at. Through the rest of the morning, we kept on south through Austria towards Villach.

The change at Villach was tight – barely enough time to haul myself and my suitcase off the train, look around frantically for the departure board, and haul myself and my suitcase on to the train standing at the other platform. I went for the compartment that was closest to the door. It was quite a bit smaller than those in the Semmering train, and the whole thing had an old-fashioned feel to it, with its blue curtains blowing in the breeze from the open window. There were already a couple there: when the man offered Werther’s Originals around we got chatting. They were Ted and Laura, from Canada; he’d recently retired and now they were seeing Europe. We compared routes: they were doing more or less the same thing as me, but anticlockwise, and in a much more leisurely fashion. They were only making a day trip to Ljubljana, though, and if they couldn’t make the reservations work it might not even be that.

None of us knew much about Slovenia or its history. They’d looked it up on Wikipedia. For me, that corner of Europe had been part of The News when I was growing up, but I knew no specifics. The News, of course, led us to Brexit. Like my opera singer in Vienna, they couldn’t understand it at all.

‘There’s always something interesting going on in Europe,’ I said, ‘and at the moment we happen to be it.’

We talked, too, about rail travel, about how one couldn’t do anything like this on the Canadian rail network, about how one of my friends is a huge Amtrak fan, about the lingering British resentment of Dr Beeching. (Writing up this adventure on my morning commute from Cambridge to London, a week after Govia Thameslink/Great Northern/Southern had been instructed to pull their socks up, I had to laugh. Bitterly.)

Outside the window, Austria and then Slovenia slipped by in abstract green brightness.

At Ljubljana I left them to sort out their reservations, if they could, and set off to find my hostel. A grid of unremarkable residential streets, sleepy in the warmth of the spring sun, gave way to a sudden lively pedestrianised zone. I trundled along it until I found the Hostel Tresor: located in a former bank, it was more right-on than I’d ever be. The décor was ‘white paint with anti-capitalist quotations’. I felt old and cynical. But not too old to share a dormitory with five other people, not that it was full when I got there. I went through my usual routine of showering, changing, and going out to explore.

On my way out of the station, I’d seen a poster for the Slovenian National Railway Museum. Now, unencumbered by baggage, I set out in search of it. My route to the hostel had taken me along two sides of a square; I went on along a third.

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I did not find the museum. The map that I’d picked up from the hostel reception didn’t help; it listed various different sorts of attraction using the same set of figures in different colours. Even after I’d worked that out I had no success. I actually called it a day in the car park of a light industrial complex. Anyway, it kept threatening to rain.

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After that I mostly confined my explorations to within one or two streets either side of the river. I sat at a high table under a parasol and consumed an exquisite cuboid of chocolate-cherry cake and a little cup of coffee. I’d have stayed there longer – perhaps ordered a cocktail – but I was getting cold. I did some more wandering, enjoying the sinuous Art Nouveau architecture, crossing the river back and forth, and climbing up to the castle in the last of the daylight. I decided that I liked Ljubljana.

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Descending again, I dithered as much as usual over choosing somewhere to eat, and eventually settled on an establishment opposite the river where I ordered a ‘selection of Slovenian cheese’, and a barley risotto with prosciutto and asparagus, which arrived before I’d finished with the cheese. At the table next to me, a man had a burger and chips and a pizza on the go simultaneously. He left some, but not much, of both. Then he tried to pay by card, which didn’t work, and then – I think – paid cash, but left very suddenly, and the waitress dashed after him – or maybe she was just clearing up outside… Accepting it as a mystery to which I’d never know the answer, I returned to my hostel, and drank a beer alone in the bar. Two conversations in two days was plenty, I decided.

27 April 2018

In the morning, I had a coffee in the café at the station before catching my train: two carriages, with huge, scratched windows. I was heading west. Europe By Rail talks about the karst as an ‘arid limestone plain’, but when I crossed it the landscape was green with young leaves.

The train proceeded westwards at a leisurely pace, stopping at small stations where no one boarded and no one left. It emptied quite suddenly at Postojna, presumably of people going to see the caves, and then kept on towards Italy, losing ten minutes or so along the way. At Sežana, there was a large, unexpected, collection of freight wagons, with writing in Italian, and signs on the platform informed me that it was vietato traversare il binario, which sounded uncomfortably close to much of the internet discourse around gender identity.

The frontier, considerably less significant than it would have been thirty-five years previously, was at Villa Opicina. So was the end of the line. I got off the train; so did a family with a micro-scooter.

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An A4 sheet of paper sellotaped to the station door explained that the tram into Trieste wasn’t running, but that I could get a bus instead. This was a blow. I walked along a lane that might have been the drive to someone’s house, turned left onto the main road, and followed it to what claimed to be the tram stop.

The tram was there, blue and beautiful in the sunlight, but it wasn’t going anywhere. With a distinct sense of anti-climax, I caught the bus instead.

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We descended into Trieste in a series of hairpin bends with a view of an emphatic blue sea. When we got into the city, the road straightened out into a steep downhill street. I was misled by the presence of another tram into thinking that we were nearly at the station, and got out of the bus. There followed a hot and dusty walk downhill, and a hot and dusty walk on the flat, during which I managed to go wrong several times despite the help of Google Maps. After all that I didn’t quite feel up to negotiating a menu, so restocked my tomato supply in the convenience shop inside the station, and got on the next train to Venice.

I was more than half expecting Venice to be awful, and I would have been so disappointed if it had been. And indeed, the broad piazza outside the station was a seething mass of souvenir stands and people who wanted to carry my bags. I did not need anyone to carry my bags; my hotel was just round the corner, down a narrow alley shaded by the tall buildings on each side.

I checked in. My room was, the receptionist said, out of this building and down the alley a little further and in at the next door but one and up some stairs. The stairs were a bit of a nasty surprise, after all that unnecessary walking in Trieste, but the room itself was perfect: big, and cool, with ample storage space and a smooth white bed. There was even a cooker and a sink. The en-suite bathroom would have met most accessibility standards, I suspected – if only someone with reduced mobility had been able to get up to the room in the first place.

After washing a bagful of laundry and taking a shower myself (I revised my estimate of the accessibility; it all got very slippery) I had a bit of a lie-down, then changed into a dress and set out to get thoroughly, deliberately, enjoyably lost. It wasn’t difficult. I crossed the Grande Canal via the Ponte degli Scalzi and kept going in a straight line – or, at least, as straight a line as I could manage. Over bridges, past churches, across piazzas, along quiet streams, and all of it alternately shadowed or sleepy in pink-gold afternoon sunlight. I ate ice cream studded with pieces of real cherry, bought postcards, and badges, and wandered.

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Eventually I found myself on a broad quayside that gave onto a wide, glittering channel of water, with yet more gracious, glowing buildings on the far side. I sat down with my back against a bollard, and stretched my legs out in front of me, and watched the boats chugging to and fro. There were little motor boats, water taxis, and one behemoth of a cruise ship brought in by tugs for and aft, like a blue whale escorted into a paddling pool by a pair of sardines.

It seemed to be graduation day: every now and again I was passed by little groups of students, of whom one or two would be decked with mortarboard and laurel wreath. Their companions would sing:

Dottore! Dottore!‘ Two notes the same, and the third a fourth below, like ‘Blackadder! Blackadder!’

After that I got lost again, less deliberately this time, finding my way back to the hotel, and was devoutly thankful for Google Maps.

I ate that evening at a trattoria called Il Vagone, because it seemed appropriate, and also it was three doors down from the hotel. (Which, of course, was itself very close to the railway station. Hence the name of the trattoria.) The food – salad, spaghetti alle vongole and tiramisù – was decent if nothing special, and the proprietor was very patient with my inadequate Italian. (A sixth form attempt to teach myself, even bolstered with the sort of Italian one picks up from an opera habit and hanging around in choral music circles, had been overlaid by Spanish, and I found myself identifying first the Spanish word for what I wanted to say, then the French, and drawing the perpendicular bisector between them to find the Italian.)

While I dined on Italian food, four or five mosquitoes dined on me, though I didn’t recognise the significance of the slight itching sensation on the back of my neck until the bites came up in bumps the next morning. I supposed it was only to be expected, with so much water around.

Afterwards I went out into the streets once more, and followed a thoroughfare a little way past lighted shop windows, and market stalls just closing up for the night, and sat for a little while on a flight of steps beside a bridge, and watched the lights moving on the gentle water.

28 April 2018

The next morning, after breakfast (cramped, confusing, and in a room that gave onto a patio with an uneven floor where I nearly turned my ankle) I set out to see if I couldn’t find St Mark’s after all. I’d been so devoted to getting lost the previous day that I’d paid very little attention to the acknowledged landmarks; even the Rialto bridge had featured only as a potential location of public lavatories. And Venice’s skyline was so full of towers and spires that I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen St Mark’s or not.

Now I followed the little signs painted on walls and bridges. There were two directions: Ferrovia (where I’d come from) and Piazza S. Marco (where I was headed). I’d looked at my watch before setting off, and, halving the difference between then and check-out time, reckoned I might just about make it. But I found that the bustling didn’t suit me, and anyway I wouldn’t have time to look at the church once I’d got there, so decided that I might as well take things slowly. I looked covetously through the window of a printmaker’s shop (just as I was making up my mind to go in, the shopkeeper came out, sticking up a note saying he’d be back in ten minutes – which I didn’t have to spare) – and bought some cheap Murano glass pendants in a souvenir shop. Then I ducked into a couple of churches, and found to my delight that the second one was dedicated to San Giacomo Maggiore, and made much of Santiago, Saint James of the pilgrimage – who is the other main inspiration for my European wanderings.

I walked back to the hotel at a more leisurely pace and still managed to check out with plenty of time to spare; then I trundled back to the station and checked and triple-checked the app to make sure that I was in fact allowed to board the train I wanted to board.

The train in question was a stopping service to Verona. Four or five other people got on along with me at Venezia Santa Lucia; at the next stop the train filled up entirely with teenage girls. I hauled my case into my lap; the girls sat on each other’s laps and chattered away, dozens of modern-day Juliets, as we worked our way across a landscape of fields and little rivers and dark, pointed, trees.

I could just about have made the connection at Verona, but the queue for the toilets put that out of the question. I wasn’t in any particular hurry: indeed, having abandoned the idea of going off to explore the city (too hot) I was a couple of hours to the good. The next train would do just as well.

There was no first class section on this train, either, but this time the carriage was empty enough for it not to matter. There were six bays of four seats, and three of us to take our pick. The windows were huge. They were also filthy, but they opened a long way. We headed north up the valley, the river narrowing and narrowing to the left of us, vineyards pulled up the slopes to the right, and limestone cliffs framing the view on both sides. Once, thrillingly, we went through a tunnel and the lights failed to come on; there was the dark, and the roar of the train, and the churning of the air, and the curtains flapping wildly. After that the lights stayed on, however, and, although there were a few more tunnels, they were not nearly so exciting. But we pressed on northwards, and I was beginning to see snow on the tops of the mountains.

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(Next part: I walked alone (west again))

4 thoughts on “The Grand Tour 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile (west)

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