I only found out when someone mentioned it on Twitter a few hours ago, that today’s the anniversary of Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out on his epic foot journey to Constantinople. It’s rather pleasing, because I was thinking about PLF a lot when I was planning the journey on which I picked up this dragon.
My Grand Tour in 2018 was rather less epic than PLF’s journey. I only had three weeks to get it done in, though my budget was probably quite a bit more generous, courtesy of the Betty Trask Award. Going by train, I got some impressive mileage in. I didn’t get invited to stay in any castles, though I did end up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna.
But that’s by the by.
I loved Ljubljana, in much the same way as I loved Bratislava: they’re both capital cities that haven’t been capitals all that long; they’re easy to walk around, and hard to get lost in. Bratislava had the better food, and a cathedral with a wonderful eighteenth century St Martin in a pellisse. And trams.
But Ljubljana has dragons. They guard one of the famous bridges; there’s a legend about a dragon and Jason, of Argonauts fame. And actually there was some very good cake, too. And bendybuses. And a funicular.
I went to Ljubljana because two separate friends, both far more experienced than me in the art of adventure, recommended it. That was how I planned a lot of the journey: recommendations from people who knew what they were doing; places I’d always wanted to go to; things that looked good in Europe By Rail. A bit of wiggle room for emergencies, or just in case I wanted to change my mind. (I did, a couple of times.)
But all the time I was planning it I had to get around a voice in my head that was trying to tell me that this was the last fun thing, before… Before what? Well, before Brexit, before whatever horrors the next US election were going to inflict upon the world, before I lost my nerve.
And had Patrick Leigh Fermor, tramping across Europe and seeing the rise of Nazism on the ground, got into my head? Had Patrick Leigh Fermor, looking back on the adventures of his youth from the bitter experience of sixty-something (and a world war), managed to scare me, betwixt and between at the age of thirty-two, out of going? No: he was half the reason I wanted to go at all.
I can’t say that I saw a global pandemic coming. Sometimes the voice in my head tells me that it told me so.
But it wasn’t the last fun thing. It wasn’t even the last continental European holiday: we got to Lille the next year. It wasn’t the last public transport adventure: even this September we took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up the West Country on buses and trains.
The Grand Tour wasn’t the last fun thing. And actually, by the end of the trip it was feeling less like the end of something and more like the beginning of something. I’d learned a lot about travelling on my own, about not actually having to speak every language, about when to rewrite a plan and how absolutely anywhere looks better after you’ve had a shower. And I’d learned that very often it is just as simple as deciding that you want to go somewhere, and going there. Here be dragons. Let’s go and see them.
If you want to read about my Grand Tour adventures in more detail, perhaps excessive detail, start here.