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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.






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.




Exeter Novel Prize


It’s always good to have an excuse to go to Exeter – to stay with family, to catch up with friends, to see what’s changed since I was a student, and to take this shot of the west front of the cathedral, which was something that apparently I never managed to do in the three years I lived in the city.

And it was very good to attend the awards ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize, and to read out the first page of A Spoke In The Wheel. As always, I was struck by how happy everybody – shortlisted authors, guests, judges, and audience – was to be there. We were all genuinely pleased to have got on the shortlist, and pleased for the overall winner, Rebecca Kelly, who unfortunately wasn’t able to be present to collect her trophy.

After that, of course, there was the gentle joy of a train journey back through the lush green contours of the West Country, with the setting sun striking the landscape in front of me and turning everything gold. I spent most of it staring out of the window.

I’m calling that ‘research’ for the next Stancester book’.

The Grand Tour 3: I spent cities like a handful of change (south)

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

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

18 April 2018

My journey was the exact reverse of the one I’d taken forty-three hours before – but this time it was in broad, bright, day, a clear and gentle sunlight that suffused the landscape. We ran through pine forests, passed opaque blue lakes, and ponds still half-frozen over, wooden buildings painted red or yellow. First class meant free coffee, fruit, and chocolate truffles, for the mere trouble of getting up to collect them. From the window I saw two hares, and birds I’d never seen before. I took to Twitter for help identifying them. ‘Like a monochrome great crested grebe on stilts with a feather duster on its backside.’ The internet knew the answer. Cranes. It was, all in all, a beautiful afternoon.

At Malmö I went down the escalator to a subterranean platform. There I ate a roll and cheese and watched the virtual railway journey that was being projected onto the opposite wall, while I waited for my train to come in. This seemed to be more of an urban transit affair, though very soon it departed even suburbia and headed out along windswept, coastal hillocks towards Trelleborg.

The foot passenger terminal at Trelleborg was slightly more impressively appointed than, say, that of the Cowes floating bridge, but I couldn’t have said much more for it than that. By comparison with any of the Solent ferries it was paltry. It didn’t even have a building to itself; it occupied half of the bottom floor of a waterfront office building. And this was an international port.

There wasn’t anybody there, either. I followed the instructions to extract my boarding pass from the machine, but it gave me an error message. I concluded – or, at least, I hoped – that I was just too early and that I’d be able to make it work later in the evening. At the worst, the check-in hatch would be open. Probably.

Another part of the building was occupied by a hotel. I retreated to the bar of this establishment, and ordered a glass of white wine, which I drank while finishing Heavy Ice (I’d started this during March, as part of IndieAthon, but it’s very long) and watching the last stages of a large group meal. I felt a little jealous of the diners and their camaraderie. At the end of the glass of wine I got a cup of coffee. At the end of that, I gathered up my coat and my bag and strolled back across the foyer to the ferry terminal.

The machine gave me my pass. There were a couple of other people on the circle of benches. There still wasn’t anybody at the check-in hatch, but that was less of a concern now.

I waited. I read. I waited. The two other people got into a conversation about their respective families, and holiday houses. She was from Slovakia, I think; he was from Germany. I waited. I read. The benches filled up; a raucous dozen or so turned up together. We waited. The coffee wore off. We waited. The end of check-in time came and went. The boarding time came and went. At last, an official-looking man turned up and led us out into the dark. We boarded a bus. It trundled off into the unknown. When it had got there, we all got off again. The unknown turned out to be a little Portakabin where our passports were checked. This all took place in a language I was too tired to understand – almost certainly Swedish, which I had no hope of getting even when wide awake – but following the crowd seemed to work. At any rate, I ended up back on the bus and then, finally, blessedly, on the ferry.

I went straight to my cabin. A sign in the Portakabin had warned rather ominously that cabins on this crossing might have to be shared; I worried about this a little, ineffectually, placed my valuable belongings at the foot of my sleeping bag liner and my less valuable ones in my suitcase under my bunk, and went to bed. In the event, I was disturbed by nobody except the smokers outside my porthole.

19th April 2018

My alarm went off at five, which felt far too early for breakfast. I got a cup of coffee and sat in the lounge, watching the sun rise huge and red over the Baltic Sea, and texting Tony. He was awake, too, waiting in the departure lounge at Stansted Airport. We reported on the demeanour of our fellow travellers: his were tourists getting started on the holiday drinking already; mine were truckers, and partaking of a more solid breakfast. And coffee, of course.

I don’t know what happened to the group that got on the ferry with me. There were only a few of us foot passengers getting off at Rostock, and only one other girl who seemed to be trying to find the railway station. I followed her as she picked her way across the wasteland of vehicle lanes towards a bus stop.

It was good to be once more in a place where I could, with a bit of work, generally understand the signs. Understanding the spoken language was more of a challenge; still, I managed to get the idea that this bus did not go all the way to the station; that I should get a ticket, validate it, stay on the bus for several stops and then change to a tram. I thought that this really wasn’t bad going on five hours’ sleep.

I had assumed, when I was looking at the map of Rostock and planning my journey, that it would be dense dockland all the way into town. In actual fact the port gave way swiftly to scrubby farmland and then blocks of flats. Several advertisements on the ends of bus stops asked me why I wasn’t writing my book. I already had.

I’d hit rush hour, and stood all the way to the station – which was a study in contrasts: a stainless steel subterranean labyrinth below a light and airy superstructure. I decided it was now breakfast time and sat on a bench in the top level to eat my bread and cheese.

The train was a double-decker Deutsche Bahn Regio. I shared the top deck of my carriage with one other person. It was an unhurried, sunlit, progress south through gentle woodlands that were just beginning to acquire a dusting of green. South, into spring.

By the time I got to Berlin I seemed to have made it all the way into summer. It was hot. Tony had got there before me and met me at the Hauptbahnhof, from which we took the U-Bahn out to Unter den Linden to see the Brandenburg Gate, looking as if it had always been like that, and Pariser Platz, looking very new next to it, and eat currywurst for lunch before checking into our hotel, which had a window stretching the entire breadth and height of the front wall, and curtains featuring the faces of various celebrities associated with Berlin. My favourite was Marlene Dietrich. It also had an excellent view of the tram stop below, and the trams that frequented it – mostly yellow, although there was one in a stylish black paint job advertising Lego Star Wars.

In the evening it was cooler, and after wandering around for a while we ate at an Italian restaurant opposite the magnificent Friedrichstadtpalast, which grew ever more magnificent as dusk fell and the exterior was illuminated.


20th April 2018

Tony had prepared a fairly thorough itinerary. We looked at the Fernsehturm, but didn’t go up it. We visited the cathedral, which had an exhibition about Luther, Bach, and anti-semitism, via Mendelssohn. I had what I described in my diary as ‘predictably complicated feelings’ about it: my great-great-great-grandfather Sir Julius (born Isaac) Benedict followed a very similar trajectory to Mendelssohn.


Lunch was more currywurst, after which we went on a tourist river cruise, which was more than usually interesting and amusing as it was an independent outfit and the guide was allowed to have a personality. Also there was the opportunity to have drinks served at one’s seat; I had a Radler, which under its British name of ‘lager shandy’ I’d never tried, and found it exactly the thing for another very warm day.


I’m just too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, therefore, what things were like on either side of the Iron Curtain before it came down. And knowing the ending changes the way you understand the story. The DDR Museum, in a cellar in the riverbank opposite the cathedral, went some way to filling in the gaps. Afterwards, we went to see one of the remaining fragments of the wall, made gorgeous with street art.

21st April 2018

The next day we went to see Checkpoint Charlie, thinking that we really should, and discovered that it had become something to be seen – if possible – over other people’s shoulders, Trabi tours, and beer bikes. I was sorry, though, that we didn’t have time to visit the museum, which did look interesting.

Fifty hours in Berlin – and it was more than I’d spent or would be spending in most cities on this trip. We returned to the Hauptbahnhof, where there was no sign of the through train to Dresden that the InterRail app promised me existed. In the end I took a train to Leipzig instead. My InterRail ticket confused the guard on the Leipzig-Dresden train; she said, ‘Mein Gott!’ I suppose it’s not what you usually get on the commuter inter-city. I’d booked two nights in the Dresden youth hostel, thinking that I’d do a day trip to Leipzig. By the time I got to Dresden I was less enamoured of that idea. And I’d only just had a day without any trains. Perhaps I was getting soft.

The youth hostel at Dresden had more than a whiff of DDR worthiness about it; though it was equally reminiscent of some of the more tired university halls of residence I’d seen in my time. It was a long, tall, block with two sets of staircases, each floor with a straight corridor running its whole length. I had a single room almost at the southernmost end of the fourth floor, next door to the toilet. It had a washbasin and a little table and chair, and that’s about as luxurious as one can expect of a youth hostel.

I fretted a little over whether or not I was allowed to eat in my room and, finding nothing that proved that I wasn’t, got everything out of the coolbag. It whiffed a bit. The Swedish salami chips were sweaty and suspicious looking; some of the tomatoes were plain gone. I put myself a sandwich together out of what still seemed to be sound, and chased it down with an apple and some lemonade from the vending machine in the reception area.

Having eaten, I got out the Rail Map of Europe, and Europe By Rail, and the European Rail Timetable, and considered my options. Prague was booked, and after Prague I could go on to Budapest, perhaps, and then Ljubljana and then Vienna. Or I could go from Prague to Bratislava to Budapest to Ljubljana… I went to bed without having arranged much more in the way of firm plans, but with a better sense of the direction I wanted to take, when once I was done with Dresden.

22nd April 2018

The set-up for breakfast was a little confusing. There was one big room where the buffet was laid out, and several smaller dining rooms assigned to various groups. I wandered up and down the corridor, and looked lost enough for one of the kitchen staff to take it upon herself to guide me into the one given over to the unattached.

Coffee, juice, rolls, ham, cheese, jam, fruit salad. Youth hostel breakfasts – continental youth hostel breakfasts – varied only in the specifics. When I’d finished this one, I got a town plan from the reception desk and walked the few hundred metres into the centre.

The previous night I’d written of Berlin, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with such obvious signs of such recent trauma,’ which I think remains true. But the Second World War devastation of Dresden is visible still, whether in the quantity of flat, shiny, post-war buildings – or in the clean, yellow new stone blocks in among the old smoke-blackened ones of those that have been rebuilt. I started with the Zwinger, climbing up to the walkway at first floor level, and noted just how many of the nymphs and putti were replacements.


It was a bright, clear, Sunday morning, still cool, and for the first half hour or so I just wandered. I found a statue of Carl Maria von Weber. I have a soft spot for Weber, based less on his music than on the fact that he taught Julius Benedict. He stood opposite the opera house; I looked at the website to see if there were tickets for that evening, but they came in at about €140, which was considerably more than I had budgeted for an entire day’s survival.


I got some singing, though, very unexpectedly. It being Sunday morning, I decided that I really did want to go to church. The closest one was the Hofkirche, and the bells were ringing somewhere else, and the service started at half past ten. I smiled forgivingly at the sidesman who told me that the church was closed to visitors until twelve, and slid into a pew towards the back. I was still having complicated feelings about Judaism and family and Anglicanism, although for some reason mass made it better. I did wonder – no, I did think that others might wonder, if they knew – what on earth I was doing listening to preaching I couldn’t understand and watching a sacrament I wasn’t allowed to partake in, but being there was in fact enough, for the moment. And the choir was thrillingly good, and it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a choir at all: they were out of sight in the gallery.

After the service I looked on the town plan for public toilets, and found one in the art gallery at the Zwinger. Upon discovering that it was only public in the same sense that the art gallery was – i.e. that anybody was free to go in, but only if they had a ticket to the art gallery – I decided that I might as well look at the art. It was a very Grand Tourish thing to do, after all. So I spent a few hours wandering among Crucifixions and Adorations and Nativities, sinuous Saints Catherine and Barbara (Cranach), plaster casts of antiquities, and vast, cool, views of Dresden by Canaletto. My handbag was heavy and my back hurt; when at last I came to a room with huge canvases on the walls and a bank of seats in the centre, I sat, and couldn’t pay all that much attention to the paintings.

I emerged again well after two o’clock into a hot city. My back hurt; I was getting hungry. Too hungry, in fact, to make a sensible decision about where to eat. The correct answer would have been ‘anywhere’; as it was, I wandered up and down being shy and pernickety, and eventually settled for a sausage place. A glass of Radler (I was a convert now) a Schloßburger (four slim pale sausages in a bun, with sauerkraut and mustard), a seat at a tall table and twenty minutes writing postcards, and I found myself more ready to take on the afternoon.

Europe By Rail recommends seeing Dresden from the terraces overlooking the south bank of the Elbe, and a walk along the riverbank itself. I’d been intending to do both these things from the moment I left the youth hostel, but I’d kept getting sidetracked. Once more, I set off in the direction of the river. This time I was sidetracked by the idea of ice cream (I didn’t follow through on it, because the queue in the gelateria was too long) and by the transport museum. This contained a display of bicycles and cars, thoroughly explained in both German and English, and a less expansive selection of railway locomotives, labels in German only. Well, the two displays had an equal amount of floor space allotted to them, but railway stuff takes up more space. Nor could it be accommodated on a mezzanine floor, as a whole post-war traffic jam had been on the other side of the building. I wasn’t really in the mood to attempt a lot of German, so I did little more than look at the stock and nod in an intelligent fashion.


After this I really did manage to find my way up to the terraces, and to look out across the breadth of the Elbe, at the paddle steamers moored at the bank, and up at the gracious buildings, and to set out eastwards along the riverbank.

All of Dresden had had the same idea, and why not? It was a lovely afternoon for a picnic next the river. All along the wide grassy banks there were people sitting and sprawling on blankets, the odd bicycle lying on its side, children playing with balls and frisbees. It was too hot for walking, really, and I was uncomfortably conscious of my feet and back. The idea of ice cream returned to me, and when an ice cream van trundled along the path to come to a halt fifty yards ahead of me, I walked up to it and bought one. Heidelbeer. This, I learned some days later, was blueberry; the mauve colour and tiny seeds had given me to suspect as much. The transaction was completed in alternating German and Italian; thinking that I was equally deficient in both at this point, I followed the ice cream man’s lead. ‘Prego.’ ‘Grazie.’


I wandered down to the riverbank, ate my ice cream, and sat quietly for a little while before heading back, trying not to notice how much my feet hurt. Wandering aimlessly around the square on my return (I had meant to go into the Frauenkirche, but a service was starting) I discovered that the next session of a festival of short films was about to start, so I sat down in a deckchair and watched four somewhat depressing pieces on various social justice themes.


I gave up on the Frauenkirche by degrees: I was looking for a corner shop or similar to get cheese and bread for the trains, but I couldn’t find one, and eventually had gone far enough that it wasn’t worth turning back. A Camino de Santiago waymarking and information panel at the church behind the youth hostel was pleasing. So was the free dinner that I got when I asked about buying dinner. Apparently a group hadn’t turned up, so pork roulade, potatoes and vegetables were mine for the taking. It wasn’t quite on the level of Patrick Leigh Fermor scoring invitations to every castle in Europe, but it was good enough for me.

That night I booked rooms in Bratislava and Budapest.

23rd April 2018

From The Prisoner of Zenda to Song For A Tattered Flag, I’ve always had a weakness for the sort of story where a reasonably young, reasonably adventurous person goes off on holiday and finds themselves up to their ears in political intrigue. I had no intention of doing anything of the sort myself, and indeed thought it most unlikely. I’d stayed nowhere for longer than two nights – more usually moving on the next day – and had no conversation lengthier than a food order with anyone I wasn’t married to. Also, I’m essentially a wimp. Waiting on the platform at the station the next morning, I couldn’t help thinking of The Prisoner of Zenda. Dresden is the last place in the real world that’s mentioned in Rudolf Rassendyll’s itinerary: after that, he heads into Ruritania. I wasn’t going to Ruritania. I was going to the Czech Republic. (Bohemia, it would have been then.) And the train was a Czech train. It was called Carl Maria von Weber, which made me smile.


I sat, as Europe By Rail recommends, on the left hand side of the train, for the best view of the rugged grey cliffs of the Elbe gorge. And it was a good day for a good view, with the trees in bright young leaf, and the buildings on the banks looking cheerful in the sunshine. I rather pitied the girls across the aisle from me, who were sleeping through the whole thing.

On the other side of the border, the announcements dropped German – and gained a couple of bars of Dvořák’s Humoresque, which made me think of The House of the Four Winds. I admitted to myself that my next novel, once I’d finished the sequel to the one that had won me this prize in the first place, would be a Ruritanian caper. The Society of Authors weren’t actually expecting a novel to come out of this Betty Trask Award-funded adventure, but, if they had been, a Ruritanian caper was what it would end up being.

I was a bit nervous about navigating urban transit systems on my own, but I didn’t really have a choice here: my hotel was quite a long way from the station. I made a bit of a meal of it, walking out as far as the tram stop and then finding that I should have bought a ticket before leaving the station, so trundling my suitcase all the way back again… The tram was a delight, though, a duo of red-and-cream cars that bounced through the Art Nouveau streets before crossing the river and zig-zagging up the blossomy hill towards the castle.

I have a nasty habit of getting off buses and trams a stop too early, born of a nasty fear of being carried too far, perhaps into the wrong fare zone… I did it here; which was not such a bad thing. The stop before the one I should have got off was at the castle gate, and there was a pleasant little café with tables in the sun. I ordered a lemonade and a sandwich, and then some coffee and a piece of apple cake, while I caught up with my diary and waited for check-in time.

After that I got on another tram and got off again at the correct stop. The hotel was across the road, elevated a little way above it. I was fairly sure that I’d opted for a view of the castle; they gave me a view of the tram stop. I didn’t quarrel: as is probably obvious, I like trams, and it seemed pleasingly appropriate after Berlin. I certainly had no complaints about the room more generally: it had a huge bed, a well-appointed bathroom, and a chocolate on the pillow. I rather regretted the fact that I was barely going spend any time there.

Once unpacked, or as unpacked as I needed to be, I set off out again. I walked down the hill a little way: there was a stiff wind rattling around it, whipping up petals of blossom and sending them fluttering around me. The sky became dark; a few thick spots of rain fell. I decided that, after all, I would do better to take the tram down the hill.

The rain came in force a couple of minutes after I’d got off in Malostranské náměstí. I bought myself a town plan from a tourist information office, then sheltered under the arcades for a little while, together with an Asian – Korean, possibly – couple in wedding attire. The bride had an embroidered tracksuit jacket over her white dress.

The rain showed no signs of stopping, so eventually I dashed across the street to a souvenir shop where I bought, along with my customary postcards and fabric patches, an umbrella with Mucha ladies trailing vines across the width and depth of it. It was a little flimsy, but it kept me drier than I would otherwise have been as I wandered through the town.

My father had lent me a book of Czech baroque architecture to have a look through before I went away. Baroque tends to be a bit florid for my taste – I like Gothic and Romanesque better – but since there was plenty of baroque around it seemed a pity not to have a look at some of it.

The first church I found was St Nicholas’. There was little enough daylight outside to get in, and it was obscured still further by a great tower of scaffolding running the length of the nave. Whether it was also damp, or whether I had just brought my own impression of damp in with me from the street, I don’t know. It was a gloomy place, its wall paintings and curlicues all seeming rather subdued. In a gallery reached by a flight of stairs there was a series of paintings of the Stations of the Cross (again rather dark).



The sky cleared, and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering. I had a few sights in mind; most of them, when I got to them, turned out to be closed, but there was plenty else to see, and much of it was beautiful, lavish, sinuous: baroque in the churches; Art Nouveau in the streets. I wound up eventually in Wenceslas Square. I couldn’t see the famous astronomical clock, which was under repair; there was an animation projected onto the mesh that shrouded it, but I thought it wasn’t quite the same, really… Dinner was ham, cabbage, and potato dumplings, at one of the touristy establishments around the edge of the square.



Wandering a bit further, I came across a puppet theatre where W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was to be presented, and since it was a good deal cheaper than watching real singers in Dresden, I went in to watch. The puppets did not, of course, sing; but they mimed very entertainingly.

Afterwards I rode around the place on a selection of trams, letting the city lights pass me by in a pleasant glowing blur, paying attention to where I needed to change, but without much more sense of where I was than that, until eventually I decided that I probably ought to go to bed.

24th April 2018

In the morning I walked up to the castle and wandered around the courtyards. I’d intended to look into the cathedral, which stands within the castle grounds, but as opening time approached the queues got longer and longer, and I decided that I couldn’t be bothered. Instead, I walked down the hill to cross over the Charles Bridge before returning to my hotel to check out.



I spent most of the journey from Prague to Bratislava feeling discontent, unsettled. A chocolate pancake distracted me for a little while, but it only filled so much of the four hours. Then phoned me to tell me that the apartment I’d in Budapest was They offered to find me an alternative; while they did that, I took another look at the map and decided that perhaps I didn’t need to go to Budapest after all.

Bratislava’s main transport interchange was not an inspiring place. Hot, dusty, graffitied concrete. I couldn’t even bring myself to be enthusiastic about the trolleybuses. I went down an escalator to find the trams, then back up again to find a place to buy a ticket, then down again. Google Maps had shown me that my hostel was right next to a tram stop, ‘Vysoká, Tchibo Outlet’. I pictured a plate glass shopping mall gleaming harshly in this April sunshine.

The reality was rather different: a motley shopping street of the sort that you might find in any English market town. There seemed to be a few hostels on this stretch, but I found mine without too much trouble or embarrassment and hauled my suitcase up a narrow, twisty flight of stairs.

The landlady greeted me effusively and in English, gave me a set of three keys, showed me my room and my bathroom, and told me that the old town was down the road and to the left, and that the establishment opposite was good for food. I immediately felt better about everything. I liked the room: it was spacious, with a sofa as well as a wide, low, bed, and the bathroom was en-suite.

After a shower I went out into the evening sun and the old town. The air was cooling; the buildings – a delicious assortment of Gothic, baroque, and Art Nouveau – glowed golden. In the first square that I came to, two rows of souvenir booths were still open, just about. I sat for a little while in one church, observing respectfully if not reverently the remains of a saint, came out (charmed to see a couple of Franciscan monks in the street) and looked through the open door of another. Mass was being said, so I didn’t go in. Instead, I wandered along the square and read the educational signboards on the sides of the booths, which were all closed up now. A little further on, I found a decal on a wall, a stylised yellow scallop shell on a royal blue ground. I knew it well for a waymarking of the Camino de Santiago. I’d seen that one in Dresden, too.


I bought an ice cream flavoured with lavender, and then walked due south to eat it on the bank of the Danube. It was not particularly blue, but it was majestically broad. The sky was clear, except for a few gentle clouds over the opposite bank, shaped almost like birds.


I walked a little way eastward along the riverside, and then, when the light began to fade, turned north again and walked back through the old town.


I dined that night, as my landlady had recommended, at 1. Slovenská Krčma (‘No. 1 Slovak Pub’, as was helpfully painted on the wall), which held itself up as a paragon of typical Slovak cuisine. I ate tiny little dumplings in a sheep’s cheese sauce with crisp morsels of bacon on the top, and washed it down with a glass of white wine. In between eating, and writing postcards, I glanced around the room. The pub doubled as an informal heritage centre. I was in the ‘Poets’ Room’: quotations and portraits had been painted on the walls. I finished the night off with a Slovak whisky and made the short journey across the road to bed.

The next morning I was woken by screaming. I’d left the window open in the hope of cooling the room a little, and when the first tram of the day passed a few feet below and to the left of my left ear, the screeching was quite alarming. With more trams to follow that one, the prospect of going back to sleep was remote, so I read a Roan Parrish m/m romance (it didn’t do much for me; it was so focussed on the characters’ issues that I never got a sense of them as characters) until it seemed like a reasonable time to get up.


Even so, there weren’t many places open or serving breakfast. Eventually I found one that had tables on the pavement and a man finishing a cup of coffee at one of them. It was a happy chance. The menu (offered in both Slovakian and English editions) exhorted me, ‘If you can’t choose with your head, choose with your heart… MON AMOUR.’ I think it was probably my stomach that led me to the platter of poached eggs, roasted vegetables (cherry tomatoes, peppers, onions), green leaves, brown toast, and vivid paprika sausages; whichever part of my body was responsible, it was the best breakfast of the entire trip.

I went on to look at the cathedral, which had been closed by the time I’d got round to it the day before. It was a plain, friendly building, which felt larger than it really was because of its simplicity. It was dedicated to Saint Martin, and a magnificent eighteenth century sculpture of the saint on horseback, slicing his cloak in half to share it with the beggar on the floor, stood in the corner of the nave. What made it unusual was the fact that it was eighteenth century in dress as well as date: Saint Martin appeared as a hussar, and the cloak that he was dividing was a very fine pelisse. (The beggar had the customary loincloth.)



Back to the hostel to check out (waiting a while on the landing, not sure whether I’d managed to rouse my hosts or not, before knocking a second time) and then back on the tram to the station. Time to head west. From here, it was only an hour to Vienna.


(Next: Part 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile: west)

The Grand Tour 2: rise up so early in the morn (north and east)

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

14th April 2018

I walk through Saint Pancras every morning on the way to work, and often get a kick out of the signs – and, if I’m lucky, announcements – in French. It lifts the spirit to think that, if the prospect of continuing out the other side, crossing Midland Road and the piazza of the British Library, and joining the Euston Road, got too much for me, I could go to Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam instead. Assuming my credit card could cope, of course.

I never do. I head straight on through and go to work. It’s just nice to know that I’ve got the option.

This particular morning, however, I crossed Euston Road and sat down in Le Pain Quotidien with an espresso and a ham and cheese croissant. This was not a normal work day. It wasn’t a work day at all; it was a Saturday. And I’m never normally in London this early.

Nor do I usually step into the labyrinth of Tensabarriers, send my suitcase (I’m not usually trailing a suitcase) through the X-ray scanners, have my irises digitally compared with my passport, and end up in the closed off area under the Eurostar platforms. There are no windows. There are lifts and escalators that you’re not allowed to go up until you’re called, and loads of people sitting around on rows of seats. It’s like a portal fantasy. The Continent begins (at the time of writing) here.

I might have considered having a ceremonial glass of wine or beer to mark the official beginning of the trip, except it was a bit early in the morning, and anyway, I’d done that yesterday.

I left London on the first sunny day in weeks. It had been a depressing grey spring, punctuated by snowfall and chaos, and a dispiriting padding of cloud had been hanging around the place. This morning it had lifted and, though the trees were still bare, the tower blocks of London and the fields of Kent were washed in gold. Anyway, I was determined to like everything. I was delighted that my train would go on to Amsterdam, even though I wouldn’t. I was delighted by the fact that I could use the Internet underneath the English Channel. I was delighted by the dinky Eurostar coffee cups and the flat landscapes of northern France, and the sense of a beginning.

At Bruxelles-Midi, it all became a little terrifying. I spent some time wandering the station shops in search of a luggage label, buying some provisions in the Carrefour, and checking repeatedly to make sure that my Interrail pass and my passport were where I thought they were. Then to make sure that I’d written what I was meant to write in the pass…

If you’re trying to travel by train across Belgium into Germany without having made a reservation, you have to change at Welkenraedt and then Aachen. (Once you’re into Germany, you can stop worrying.) So what I wrote was 14/04, 1256, BRUXELLES, and WELKENRAEDT.

Eventually I had to stop fretting and get on my train. I appreciated for the first time that first class meant that there would be loads of space. I amused myself by alternately looking out of the window, reading the bilingual signs about being a considerate traveller, and anticipating the arrival of the conductor. The conductor punched my pass in the slot next to where I’d written WELKENRAEDT, and told a trio of young British men that the trick for recognising first class carriages (for which they didn’t have tickets) was to look for the stripe of yellow over the door. I hadn’t known this, and it was to save me a lot of looking over the next three weeks.


Europe By Rail had recommended watching out for Liège Guillemins station. It’s foreshadowed by a similarly elegant white-painted bridge, but even so it’s a lovely shock, part greenhouse, part palace. After Liège, the train dawdled through tunnels and valleys in the Ardennes, and there were suddenly bright young green leaves on the trees, and the sky was blue.

The train from Welkenraedt to Aachen was a scruffy local affair with only a couple of coaches; it deposited me at the German border without fanfare. I decided that if I was going to be at all spontaneous on this trip, I might as well start now and go and look at where Charlemagne was crowned. I managed to speak (and understand) enough German to find out where the left luggage lockers were, and I shoved my bags and coat into one of them and walked very fast across the city.

If I had any doubt about spring having arrived here, the exuberant full-blossomed magnolia tree outside the cathedral dispelled it. The cathedral itself was surprisingly small, and very full of people. The walls and ceilings were covered in glittering mosaics, mostly blue and gold, and in the choir there was rich stained glass. It felt like being in one of those very superior kaleidoscopes.


Germany would form a sort of hub on this adventure. I would spend several nights there, one way or another, and pass through it in various different directions. Part of that is the geography; part of it the freedom from mandatory reservations. But it was very appropriate. A little over ten years previously I’d been an au pair for my aunt in Frankfurt, and had spent some time hanging around the Hauptbahnhof looking at the departure boards, at all the places I might one day go to. My first international train journey had begun in Frankfurt, when I returned briefly to the UK to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding in Leighton Buzzard. The Eurostar came into Waterloo in those days: that’s how long ago it was. But Germany is still a good place to take a train.


I took one from Aachen to Düsseldorf, and took the brief glimpse of a hot air balloon through the window as a vindication of all my life choices. At Düsseldorf I joined a train with an observation carriage whose panoramic windows stretched all the way up into its roof. There wouldn’t be much to see overhead on the way to Hamburg in the gathering dusk, but it had come from Switzerland that morning. Once more I was reminded of how far the mainland European rail network could take me. The evening drew in and the landscape got less interesting, and I turned to Barchester Towers.

I rolled off the train at Hamburg at half past nine with no other desire than to go to bed. Thirteen hours on the rails was quite enough for one day. I wasn’t remotely interested in Hamburg’s nightlife, anyway. I suspected it of being full of British stag parties.

I turned the wrong way out of the station, which was annoying but meant nothing worse than a walk that was slightly longer than it needed have been. After a little while I looked at Google Maps and retraced my steps. My hotel was possibly the tattiest one I’ve ever stayed in. The floor was imperfectly covered with two ragged-edged pieces of carpet; the washbasin was cracked, and the furniture was battered. Still, I didn’t need to look at it when I was asleep, and, other than washing a few items of clothing in the sink, that was all that I intended to do there.

15th April 2018

I put my suitcase into left luggage and then ate breakfast at a café a short distance from the station – a substantial array of rolls, ham, cheese, and a boiled egg. After that glorious sunny journey the day before, the weather had returned to grey drizzle, but it didn’t seem so depressing now I was on holiday. I watched the umbrellas go by outside the window (red, orange, pink, purple with a frill) and listened to the church bells. I thought about going to see the cathedral, but didn’t want to crash a service. It kept drizzling. I ordered a mint tea (real mint leaves!) and waited for it to stop drizzling. It didn’t.


There was one thing that I really did want to do in Hamburg, and that was visit Miniatur Wunderland. It might be the best train set in the world. It’s certainly the biggest. When I’d finished my mint tea, I set out to walk to it.

For me, some cities remind me irresistibly of others; some quirk of geography or architecture draws a line between places hundreds or thousands of miles apart. I suppose it’s the same impulse that gives us the Athens of the North or all those Little Venices. For me, Hamburg had a sense of Reading about it, for no good reason beyond the watercourses and the wide, pedestrianised, shopping streets, and being there at the beginning of an adventure.


I loved Miniatur Wunderland. Hundreds of model trains; thousands of little people; the cosiness of artificial nightfall, and all the little lights coming on. The only thing was, there was so much of it, and I had so little time there. Already I had an inkling that the whole thing was going to be like this: moving at varying speeds through different landscapes, knowing that I didn’t have a hope of seeing all the detail. In two hours I’d travelled through North America, the Arctic, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Night had fallen and day had broken seven or eight times. Really, though (I wrote in my diary) it’s all about the trains going in and out of mountain tunnels and over bridges – so I liked the Switzerland display best.



A brisk walk back across the city, keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat, took me back to the station, where I ordered pork schnitzel and chips in one of the restaurants. I had to wolf it down, having got ‘half past two’ into my head, when my train in fact left at 1423. And I still had to get my suitcase back. And, because I was leaving Germany, I had a reservation on this one.


I made it with about half a minute to spare and crammed myself into the vestibule along with a dozen other people. Once I’d got my breath back, I began to proceed along the train in what I hoped was the direction of first class. This was a Danish train, and even the standard class sections looked pretty comfortable; on the downside, I couldn’t work out the numbering of the carriages or the seats. I got to mine in the end, and was rewarded by being invited to complete a survey by a very pleasant chap. I don’t think the survey was particularly interested in foreign tourists, though, because it didn’t take very long.

We headed north. I looked out for the Kiel ship canal with some interest, having read The Riddle of the Sands fairly recently. The hulking cranes were about as close as I was going to get to Erskine Childers’ shifting islands and treacherous tides. The train stopped for a passport check at the Danish border. A quick change at Fredericia, and now I headed east.

I arrived in Copenhagen as twilight was falling. The railway station faces onto the back of the Tivoli garden. (‘Dead tacky,’ my manager, who had just been to Copenhagen, had told me, ‘but go in the evening because the lights are pretty.’) My hostel was on Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, which runs parallel to the street where I now stood. I walked around one and a half sides of the Tivoli and then, inevitably, went the wrong way down Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. Most of the buildings were plate glass slabs with nothing as helpful as numbers on them, so I had to go quite a long way before I could be sure that I needed to turn back.

Danhostel Copenhagen City was tall, and gleamingly white inside and out. Well, the reception area was grey-brown wood-effect, and the lifts (which recognised your keycard and then directed the appropriate lift to you, and you to it) were the usual stainless steel, but mostly it was white. Reading my key holder, I discovered that the building which was now the hostel had once been the headquarters of a major Danish trade union. Talk about a busman’s holiday. I was allocated a bunk in a dormitory on the thirteenth floor, and was very happy to take advice from the lifts. Out of the window I could see the whirling lights of the Tivoli, a long, long way down.

I went and had a closer look: I paid to get into the gardens and then wandered around, not going on any of the rides but just exploring, following illuminated paths, gazing up at lanterns in the trees and brilliant carriages whirling and corkscrewing above me.


After a while, when I’d got thirsty and tired, I went back to the youth hostel and had a beer in the bar. I tried to order breakfast for the next day; some vital bit of the system wasn’t working, so the night receptionist wrote me a note to instruct the morning receptionist that I was entitled to buy breakfast at the discounted, preordered rate.

16th April 2018

The next day was, as it happened, Queen Margarethe’s birthday. The first sign of this was a pair of flags on each bus. It was still rush hour when I left the hostel; aside from the buses, there were vast flocks of cyclists making their way down the broad, segregated, cycle lanes either side of Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. I was jealous: I live in Cambridge, which has as significant a cycling population as anywhere in the UK, and we have nothing so good.


Hans Christian Andersen himself – at least, his statue – sat at the corner of a square adjoining his boulevard. I crossed it. My manager’s other recommendations had been the Round Tower and the boat trip (‘and don’t bother with the Little Mermaid because the walk takes ages and you see the back of it from the boat’). I set off through the morning mist towards the Round Tower. Along the way I found the cathedral, whose understated, austere, lightness I liked a lot. I liked the Round Tower, too: a former observatory, with a church, an art gallery, and a historical exhibition to look at on the way up, and a theoretical view from the top (it really was quite misty), it combined a lot of the things I’d usually visit in a city. Then there was the novelty of the fact that it has a spiral ramp, rather than stairs, almost all the way to the top. I resolved to report on it to my best friend, who uses a wheelchair, and my husband, who doesn’t like spiral staircases.


I didn’t have time to look at everything, however; at least, not then. I was making my way back down the spiral to go into the church when I heard the sound of a brass band.

I knew it was the Queen’s birthday. The shop assistant in the art gallery had told me so, too, when I’d bought postcards. And she’d told me that the Queen would appear on the balcony at the Amalienborg palace at noon.

In London I would not be seen dead waiting outside Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth to show. But here I was a tourist, and the guards were passing right there in front of me, and really it seemed like a waste not to. The guards looked strangely familiar, in their black bearskins and scarlet tunics. I followed them and the crowd, to faintly unlikely music including The British Grenadiers and Dixie (but not very much of either), along shopping streets and across squares, down gracious avenues; then followed the crowd past embassies and fountains, and into a sea of red, white-crossed, flags under the palace windows.

There were palace windows on every side of the square, and I wasn’t sure where to look until I noticed the open door at one of the balconies. We waited. It wasn’t quite noon. The square filled up some more. We waited a little longer. The Queen appeared: a pleasant-looking old lady with glasses, and grey hair in a bun, wearing a black coat. There was much waving of Danish flags and a cheer that went ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’


The royal family left after a little while, and the crowd dispersed. I found my way to the harbourside and booked myself onto a boat tour. Because I did want to see the Little Mermaid. I’d been thinking of her story (the Andersen version, not the Disney film, which in fact I’ve never watched all the way to the end, having had to be removed from a screening when it first came out) a lot while I’d been wandering around Copenhagen, finding the tragedy of her ongoing self-destruction both moving and infuriating.

She was smaller than I’d expected. But it was clearly easier to see her from the water than from the land: she had a good couple of dozen tourists clustered around her. From the boat, we also saw the royal yacht, the opera house, some delicate lovely bridges and a whimsical assortment of spires, the latter plentifully decked out in Danish flags. The sun came out half way around.




Back at the harbour, I ate a lateish lunch of various different sorts of fish (pickled herring; smoked salmon; shrimps; fried plaice) with rye bread and white bread at a restaurant across the water from two separate houses where Andersen had once lived. Then I ambled back across the city, looking in at an art exhibition in a church on the way, took another look at the Round Tower, collected my luggage from the youth hostel, and was at the station with plenty of time to buy some apples and still catch my train.

The journey to Malmö was significant largely because it took us across the Øresund bridge. A former housemate was a great fan of The Bridge, in which a corpse is discovered half-way along, making it the problem of both Denmark and Sweden. Nobody was murdered on this journey, however; there was a passport check on the Swedish side and then we proceeded to Malmö.

My sleeper to Stockholm was not due to leave until after half past ten, so I left the station and spent an hour or so wandering around Malmö in the evening sunlight, admiring its art nouveau architecture. I stopped at a coffee shop called ‘Condeco’ purely because the name amused me (it’s a deeply unpopular room booking system used in my workplace), and then drank a cup of coffee before returning to the station. There was still a while before I could board my train; I passed the time by eating some bread and cheese and finishing Barchester Towers.



The sleeper was a new experience for me. I had been allocated the top bunk of three, which made it a bit of a scramble, and I couldn’t haul my suitcase up there with me. I did not sleep fantastically well, at least in part because of remembering about the Taunton sleeper fire in the early hours of the morning. I gave up on trying to sleep and turned to writing (my diary) and reading (The Secret of the Tower, a very obscure Anthony Hope novel) instead. We arrived in Stockholm – a little delayed – at about seven in the morning.


17th April 2018

I was conscious of being very warm, very tired, and further north than I’d ever been before in my life. I shoved my case into a left luggage locker and got myself breakfast at one of the coffee shops in the station. It’s a lovely station, very light, with murals depicting the four seasons as they appear in Sweden. The coffee shop spoke English and didn’t take cash, which turned out to be the case in most places I went in Stockholm.

Before I went into any other places, though, I went for a wander. I’d helped myself to a city plan from the tourist information stand, and seen that a) most of the old town was spread over an island to the south of where I was now; and b) my hotel (which was actually a boat) was on the shore of another island to the south of that.

So I crossed the bridge into the old town. It was not yet eight o’clock, and almost everything was still shut. This didn’t particularly bother me (at least, once I’d worked out where the public lavatories were): I’d had breakfast, after all. I just wandered around and enjoyed the sight of the sun on the spires and the water, and regretted how cobbly the streets were. When I got tired of wandering I sat on a bench looking across the bay, and wondered which of the boats on the far shore was my hotel, and read a couple of excerpts of Lesbian Pulp Fiction. (This was an interesting anthology but, since the editor had understandably chosen the most exciting parts of each book, it was rather like eating pudding over and over again and never bothering with a main course. After a while I was craving a more balanced diet.)

The next time I passed through the old town the shops were beginning to open. I wandered some more, mostly following my nose. I’d asked a friend what to do in Stockholm. ‘Wander around,’ she said, ‘and eat cake.’ Well, I was managing half of that. The streets were narrow, and quite steep. A church with an open door turned out to be the cathedral; I went in. At the cash desk I was pleased to find Frälsarkransen for sale – ‘Pearls of Life’, the nearest thing to a rosary this very middle-of-the-road Anglican feels comfortable with. I’ve made a couple of sets in my time, but I did not pass up the chance to buy the official version, so to speak.

Then I passed into the cathedral, and found it deep, and light, with an appealing higgledy-piggledy feel to it. In the north aisle there was a series of sculptures depicting the Easter story, rather naïve; at the east end a huge, magnificent, George and the Dragon; in front of the altar, a display of the trappings from Queen Kristina’s coronation (missing the hundreds of gold crowns which had once adorned her cloak); next the exit door in the south aisle, a seventeenth century painting of sun dogs over Stockholm. It struck the balance between civic space and place of worship as well as many churches I’ve been in, and better than most.

After that, I found a café and drank a cup of coffee, and then set out over the next bridge to the next island. This one was much less touristy than the old town; it had charity shops and greengrocers and an awful lot of building works. My feet hurt, and my back hurt, and I was tired, and there was still a good three hours before I could check into my hotel. I had seen signs to Fotografiska, the museum of photography, on the way over; I decided to go and look at that, and then find some lunch, and then it would be two o’clock and I’d be able to check in.

Fotografiska was further than I’d hoped, and the path alongside the road around the edge of the island was subject to the building works. As far as I could make out, it was something to do with upgrading the harbour. I got there in the end, however, left my coat in the cloakroom, and plunged into the exhibition.

It felt rather liberating, being on my own in a foreign country, knowing that I didn’t have to report back, feeling free of the perceived obligation to pass judgement, to approve or disapprove, that weighs so heavy on me at home. Instead I could just look, liking things or disliking them, being attracted or repelled, responding with something closer to what I really felt than with what I felt I ought to feel, and not worry about whether Ellen van Unwerth’s photographs of women were too male gaze-y. Besides van Unwerth there was Christian Tagliavini, whose very staged portraits recalled Jules Verne (astronauts and aquanauts, all very steampunk) and Ankaret Wells (it was the 3D-printed hats on Renaissance characters that did it) and Hans Strand with some rather depressing landscapes showing the influence of exploitation by humans.

After all that what I was really feeling was hungry, so I went up to the restaurant on the top floor and, after a little dithering, ordered the hot special of the day, which was a delicious piece of aniseedy pork with red cabbage and crisp shredded potatoes. I ate it looking out over the water, and felt generally satisfied with life, although still tired.

After this I ambled back in the direction of the station. I went around the edge of the old town this time, not through the middle. I didn’t hurry. Of course, the sooner I got checked in, the sooner I could have a nap, but hurrying was just so energetic… I even sat down on a bench and finished The Secret of the Tower (not really anything special, but I liked the main character, a woman doctor in the early post WW1 years, a lot). But there was another island across the water, crying out to be explored. I followed the path around the edge of the harbour (noting en route that I was rather relieved that the National Museum turned out to be closed, so nobody could possibly have expected me to visit it) and crossed the bridge. I liked this little island a lot: I climbed to the top and could see out across all the islands and channels and harbours, and I had it more or less to myself.


Eventually I got back to the station and retrieved my case. I didn’t feel quite equal to the metro, so walked all the way across the two islands and two bridges, a choice that I regretted particularly during the cobbled section. I wasn’t massively impressed to find that the harbour works had blocked off much of the pedestrian footway, either, forcing me onto the cyclepath.

But I got there in the end, along with the case, and found the correct boat, and checked in, and was then directed to another boat which was where my room – or cabin, I suppose – was. It was like a white Portakabin on the water, function (in the form of as much sleeping space as physically possible) having taken precedence over form. I wasn’t too bothered. I plugged my phone in to charge, took a shower, and then, finally, lay down for the nap I’d been wanting all day.

I spent the rest of the afternoon dozing, reading, and watching the sunlight on the water. The evening, too. I didn’t want to go far from the boat, and I knew from my exploring earlier in the day that there wasn’t much that was close. So I dined on a surreptitious roll with brie, and opened the window to let the smell out. I did go across to the other boat, thinking that I wouldn’t mind a beer, but the bar was deserted, and music was pumping out too loudly for me to think that I’d be able to enjoy my quiet drink. I returned to my own boat and watched the sun setting, and the moon rising, and the evening star.


18th April 2018

The next morning the bar was full of people, and breakfast, and the view across the water was still lovely. I checked out, trundled my suitcase across town to the station, and set out to enjoy a last few hours in Stockholm. In a café in the old town I at last managed to fulfil the ‘eat cake’ part of my friend’s advice (a fabulous green marzipanny chocolatey thing), writing postcards in between tiny luxurious bites; then I looked around the dance museum, with half an eye on my watch all the time.

But there was plenty of time: time to see the museum, and time to get back to the station, and time to buy a salad for lunch and restock my supplies of rolls and apples and cheese, and time to retrieve my suitcase and get on my train, and still I had almost all of my journey still to come.


Next: Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change

The Grand Tour 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?


In 2017, my novel Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, for the best debut by an author under the age of 35. I was the first self-published author ever shortlisted, which was pretty cool. And it was a great prize to be shortlisted for, because everybody on the shortlist won a Betty Trask Award and three thousand pounds.

So what do you do when you’ve got three thousand pounds that you’re pretty sure you’re meant to be spending on travel? Go to that place you always meant to, of course. Do that thing you always meant to do. In my case, that was loads of places. That was InterRailing.

I asked my friends for suggestions of where to go, and what to do when I’d got there. They obliged. Stockholm. Nuremberg. I knew I wanted to see Prague and Vienna. I wanted to visit the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg and look up family history in Stuttgart. I went to Stanford’s in Covent Garden and spent a happy lunchtime looking at maps and books and ingenious gadgets designed to improve the life of the traveller. I came away with a Rail Map of Europe and a book called Europe By Rail. Taking this home and reading through it, I immediately discovered several more places that I suddenly really wanted to visit.

I asked advice of a friend who does this sort of thing all the time. Travel first class and skimp on the accommodation, she said. Take a Tupperware box and a knife that you’re allowed to take through Eurostar security. Download the InterRail and Deutsche Bahn apps. And wear comfortable knickers.

Gradually, the outline of a plan began to emerge in my head. Scandinavia first, because it’s the most expensive. Then south. Prague, Vienna, maybe Budapest. A week that might or might not be spent messing around in Switzerland. That felt like enough planning, given the fact that it wasn’t even Christmas yet.

I bought my InterRail pass in the December 15% off sale, and spent the next few months feeling that I ought to be booking other things. By the beginning of April, I had worked out what the first week should look like, and had booked:

– three weeks of annual leave

– a night in the youth hostel across the road from Saint Pancras

– Eurostar tickets out to Brussels and back to London

– accommodation in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Berlin

– reservations on trains in Denmark and Sweden

– a berth on a sleeper train from Malmö to Stockholm

– a berth on an overnight ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock

It didn’t feel as if I’d booked nearly enough; on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly spontaneous. I told myself that I’d found a nice balance, and left it at that.

A colleague lent me a wheelie suitcase. It had cute little cartoon animals all over it – not at all my usual style, but it was in all other respects exactly what I wanted (lightweight, with carrying handles on both the long and the short sides) and even the cute little cartoon animals would serve to distinguish it from all the other travellers’ baggage.

My friend had advised me to book the Eurostar leg via the Belgian railway operator’s website, because they give a discount to InterRail pass holders. I did this. My only regret was that I had to phone them up to rebook the outward journey when SNCF strikes led to the cancellation of my train. It was a relief to discover that the call centre offered me the option to speak to someone in English. I could have done it in French, but it was much nicer not to have to.

After that, all that I had left to do was pack.

There’s a youth hostel opposite Saint Pancras station, and a pub next the youth hostel. I summoned such of my internet acquaintances as might be in London, and at a loose end, to come and see me off, and we drank white wine and ate nachos and talked about books we’d read and people we knew and places we’d been to.

When they’d all gone I went next door to the youth hostel, and checked myself in, and took myself up to the third floor, and bagged a top bunk. I bumbled around a little bit finding my pyjamas and sponge bag and phone charger, double-checked my morning alarm, and went to bed. It had begun. I hadn’t got very far yet, but it had begun.

Next: The Grand Tour 2: rise up so early in the morn (north and east)

December Reflections 30: thank you for…


… a successful book launch

… a trip to the opera

… a week on the Book Bus

… a weekend in the country

… new friends and old friends

… reading whatever I felt like

… learning to teach, and enjoying it

expanded horizons (internal)

(finding space in my faith for the fullness of myself)

… railways that got better and better

expanded horizons (external)

I came into this year, and in particular I went into the InterRail trip, thinking of it as the last chance to have fun before things got terrible. And who knows, it may still turn out to be that. I’ve been scared of 2019 for… well, two years. And so I was thinking of Patrick Leigh Fermor, hiking from the Netherlands to Constantinople during the rise of Nazism; I was thinking, do it now, in case you don’t have a chance later.

But about two days in I knew that I was going to have to go back. I was going to have to go back to Hamburg; I was going to have to go back to Copenhagen. I was going to have to bring other people to see them. I was going to have to go back to mainland Europe and see things I hadn’t got round to this time round.

I wrote, on the way home,

This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.

Maybe I won’t be able to. Maybe politics or money will get in the way. Maybe I’ll be doing other things. There are many things that might stop me – but it’s less likely, now, that I’ll be one of them.

So. It sounds ridiculous now, and goodness knows what it’ll sound like in a year’s time, but thank you, 2018, for hope.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…


… this charming lizard in the botanical gardens at Innsbruck. Actually, I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that I was very pleased to see it. I am very fond of lizards; one sees them in Ventnor sometimes.

I met all sorts of people when I was InterRailing. I’m not massively outgoing, and I got half way through the trip without having a conversation (beyond the basics required for checking in/ordering food/buying tickets) with anybody I wasn’t married to. I had long ago come to the conclusion that I was not like Paul Theroux or a Buchan hero, and that I was  not likely to get talking with interesting people.

Then after a series of mishaps with trams I ended up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna, and the next day I met a Canadian couple on the train to Ljubljana. And in Innsbruck, the night before I met the lizard, I got adopted by a group of friendly Austrians who ordered schnitzel and fries for me when I was too tired and hungry to look after myself properly, and then we managed to have quite an extensive chat even in my limited German.

So maybe it’s just something that happens if you travel far enough, for long enough, on your own.