Train rushing past
The moor’d disus’d canal narrow boat
Such is progress
The advent of railways in the early 19th century rendered Britain’s canal system largely redundant
Train rushing past
The moor’d disus’d canal narrow boat
Such is progress
The advent of railways in the early 19th century rendered Britain’s canal system largely redundant
IN 1971, I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT. That year, I made my first unaccompanied trip abroad. I was travelling by ferry and rail to Vienna and beyond. My late mother, who was very worried about how I would fare, wanted me to stay in a decent hotel for my first night on the Continent. That was to be in Cologne (Köln) in what was then West Germany. Back in 1971, there was no Internet to look up hotels in Cologne or anywhere else for that matter. The only guidebook to Germany in my possession was a pre-1914 Baedeker guide to The Rhine. Amongst the few hotels listed in the book in the entry for Cologne was a Dom Hotel. I rang the international telephone directory operator and asked if the place still existed. It did, and still does, and she supplied the number. I rang the Dom and booked a room for one night. My mother was happy about this, and said that as soon as I arrived, I was to ring her from the hotel.
I set off from London with my luggage in a metal framed canvas rucksack, kindly lent to me by my uncle Sven. I arrived in Cologne in the early evening and soon arrived at the very grand Dom Hotel, the ‘poshest’ in Cologne, in the late afternoon. It was a short distance from the Hauptbahnhof. I was greeted at the bottom of the steps leading up to its main entrance by a liveried doorman. He asked me for my luggage. So, I handed him my well-used rucksack. He held it gingerly as if it were a rat that had been dead for several days. At great expense, I telephoned my mother to assure her that I had survived the journey so far. From then on, she seemed to lose interest in my well-being during my adventure. I was not required to send progress reports back home.
After Cologne, I spent every night in a youth hostel or similar. From Cologne, I travelled by train to Würzburg, where I was planning to see the brilliant paintings by the Venetian painter Tiepolo inside the city’s Würzburger Residenz. Between Frankfurt and Würzburg, there was a middle-aged lady in my compartment. She wore what looked to me like very old-fashioned traditional German clothes including a hat with a feather stuck in its hat band. As the afternoon light began to fail, we began travelling through hilly country. I had just enough German to understand that the barely visible hills we were passing were the Spessart Hills. She told me that they were very beautiful. I have no idea why I remember her telling me about those hills. The next day, having spent a night in a comfortable youth hostel, I fulfilled my desire to view the Tiepolo wall and ceiling paintings.
At each of the German youth hostels in which I stayed, there was a different method employed to wake the guests in the morning. At Würzburg, A young man playing a flute wandered from dormitory to dormitory. At Munich, where I stayed one night, the morning call was someone shouting “Raus, Raus!”, which immediately conjured up thoughts about POW camps in Germany during WW2.
I decided to attend an opera performance on my first night in Munich. I bought the cheapest ticket for Berg’s “Wozzeck”. I note from the Internet that the opera was performed in Munich on March the 23rd 1971, which helps to date my trip. The ticket I bought allowed me to see the opera from the highest tier of the auditorium. When I arrived in my casual travelling clothes, I was the only man in the audience not dressed in formal evening wear. I enjoyed the opera from my eyrie near the ceiling of the theatre.
The following morning just after I had eaten a very modest breakfast, I met my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, at the famous Hofbrauhaus. We had arranged this sometime earlier when we were both in London. Each of us ordered a large stein of lager, probably a litre each. We chatted and drank in one of the establishment’s large noisy halls. Then, we went our own ways. I walked to the railway station with my rucksack on my back. It seemed to me that the hitherto flat pavements had become wavy. The alcohol had gone to my head.
My uncle Felix had recommended that I should make a stop at Linz in Austria in order to visit an interesting monastery nearby. I enjoyed the trip from Linz to Sankt Florian in what looked like an antique tram. The composer Anton Bruckner was associated musically with Sankt Florian.
From Linz, I travelled eastwards to another town with an important monastery. The monastery at Melk is perched on a hill overlooking the Rhine. I spent a night in the town’s youth hostel before continuing eastwards.
Deliberately, I overshot Vienna and continued from there by bus to the small town of Rust on Lake Neusiedl. The water of this shallow lake is shared between Austria and neighbouring Hungary. I was told that if the wind blows hard, the lake shifts position: more of it moves into Hungary or into Austria depending on the wind direction. From Rust, little could be seen of the lake apart from endless beds of reeds. I was the only guest at the youth hostel because it was so early in the year. At night, I was left alone in the hostel. As I lay waiting to be overcome by sleep, I could hear an incessant croaking of a multitude of frogs coming from the direction of the lake. This strange sound did not help me fall asleep.
The next day, I took a bus to Mörbisch am See, a village on the lake, close to Austria’s border with the then communist Hungary. I asked a village shopkeeper if I could leave my heavy rucksack in his shop so that I could take a stroll. My aim, which was fulfilled, was to see for myself the notorious ‘Iron Curtain’. I walked south of the village and soon spotted the tall watch towers overlooking the no man’s land between the two countries. I only crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time about ten years later. Then, I hurried back to the village because I knew that there was a bus about to leave for Vienna at noon. The bus was waiting. I asked the driver to delay departure while I collected my rucksack. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for its lunch break. The forbearing bus driver helped me find someone to unlock the shop. We set off for Vienna.
My father had an American secretary called Nancy Berg. She and her husband had very kindly torn out and given me the pages about Vienna from their copy of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day”. From this useful source of information, I discovered that there was an extremely cheap, centrally located hostel near Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. This was no ordinary hostel. It was subterranean. It had been a bomb-proof underground shelter built by the Nazi Germans. The rooms were somewhat spartan, but each was served by an air-conditioning system that had been installed by the Nazis. The hostel required guest to leave the premises between 8 am and 4 pm. This was not a problem because there was so much for me to explore in and around Vienna. The hostel was good value as was almost everything else in the city. In 1971, £1 Sterling was worth 80 Austrian Schilling. About ten years later, when I next passed through Austria, £1 only bought 20 Austrian Schilling.
I ate most meals at the popular Rathauskeller under the City Hall, which served good food at very reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed ‘Gulaschsuppe’. One memorably enjoyable meal was at Grinzing at one of its Heurige, or wine taverns. I was not alone there. My friend Michael Jacobs had arrived in Vienna, where he was about to study German for a few months. He joined me and some other people, friends of my Uncle Felix. They were a couple in Vienna, whom my uncle had met. He was very keen that I should meet them. They invited me to afternoon at their residence in the city. It was a fine day and we sat on their terrace. I remember being given a cup of tea and a warm soft-boiled egg in its shell at the same moment. I had never been given this combination before. I hoped that it was not the local habit to break the egg into the tea. Had it been, I am sure that I would have not been able to even sip the strange mixture that would have resulted. Fortunately for me, the egg was designed to be consumed separately. I introduced Michael to this pleasant couple, and they became good friends.
By the time I travelled to Vienna, I had become a fan of the Dreigroschen Oper (Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. I had a gramophone record of the main songs in this work, which I never tired of hearing. Most people will be familiar with one of its opening songs, “Mack the Knife”. Many years later, I discovered a recording one of Ella Fitzgerald’s renderings of this song to a ‘live’ audience, during which she forgets the words following the first half of it. As luck would have it, there was a performance of the opera while I was in Vienna. I sat spellbound, listening to it at the city’s Volksoper.
Amongst Vienna’s many attractions, there were several that I particularly enjoyed. One of these was the magnificent fairground at the Prater. This was on a scale I had never seen before. The Soviet War Memorial also sticks in my mind. I loved walking amongst the stalls in a street market that ran along the banks of a canal. Many of the stalls sold food from a part of Europe that I had not yet visited but wanted to: the Balkans and Communist Eastern Europe. Seeing road signs in Vienna pointing to places such as Bratislava and Budapest, both behind the Iron Curtain, thrilled me. I was also delighted by my visits to the Albertina art museum, Schönbrunn Palace on the edge of the city, and the Belvedere within the city.
It is curious that many details of my first ‘solo’ trip to mainland Europe remain in my mind but the return to London by train has left me no memories at all. I can only suppose that I travelled back without making any intermediate stops before reaching the English Channel. One thing that I regret is that I have mislaid the photographs, which I know that I took on this trip. I have an idea that they might be in a remote storage place that we rent on the outskirts of London. This is not accessible at present and even if it were, it might take hours or days sifting through what is being stored there to find them.
Photo: Melk Abbey from Wikimedia Commons
I USED TO VISIT HUNGARY regularly in the 1980s before the end of Communist rule in that country. Sometimes I drove, other trips I travelled by rail.
In 1985, I boarded a train at London’s Victoria Station. As I was settling down in my seat, a couple accompanying an older man asked me if I could look after on the journey to Hungary. He was their relative and only spoke Hungarian. My knowledge of that language was limited to a vocabulary of less than 100 words including ‘fogkrem’ meaning toothpaste and ‘meleg szendvics’ meaning heated (toasted) sandwich, and ‘menetrend’ meaning timetable and ‘kurva’, which you can look up yourself! I agreed to do my best to look after the gentleman.
After taking the ferry across the English Channel, we boarded an express train bound for Budapest. The gentleman and I were in the same couchette compartment along with some young people.
We stopped in Brussels early in the evening. A late middle-aged Belgian couple entered our compartment, and we set off eastwards. After nightfall, the Belgian couple left us. Several minutes later, they returned. They had changed their clothes. They had dressed in pyjamas and silk dressing gowns. Clearly, they were either unfamiliar with travel in 2nd class couchettes or had formery been used to travel in 1st class Wagon Lits sleeping cars.
We arrived at Hegyeshalom, a Hungarian border town close to Austria. As I was planning to visit southern Hungary, I disembarked there. So did the man who I was ‘looking after’. He was met by some of his family. Although they spoke no English, they expressed their gratitude for me, and kindly offered to drive me to Győr, where I wanted to catch another train.
At Győr, they helped me find my train. I boarded a basic looking local train bound for Keszthely on Lake Balaton. After a while, the train stopped in the middle of the countryside and everyone except me disembarked. I looked out of the train. We were not at a station. Someone saw me and signalked that I should also leave the train. We all boarded buses that had been laid on to substitute for the train that could not proceed further because of track repairs.
After a ride through flat agricultural terrain, we reached a small station, where we boarded another train, which carried us to Kesthely, arriving at about 4 to 5 pm.
I looked around the station at Kesthely and for some unaccountable reason I decided that I did not want to stay in the lakeside resort. I looked at a timetable and discovered that a train would be leaving soon, bound for Kaposvár, which was on the way to the southern city of Pécs.
A Hungarian couple with one child ‘got wind’ of my plan to join the train to Kaposvár, and took me into their care. I boarded the train with them and travelled in their company as the train followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton.
My ‘minders’ left the train at the lakeside station at or near Balatonlelle. Before they disembarked, they asked a man, a stranger to them, in our compartment to look after me. He spoke only Hungarian.
As the train wound its way inland through hills south if Lake Balaton, the sun set and it became too dark to see the countryside through which we were moving slowly. Although there were light fittings with light bulbs in our compartment, they were never turned on. The two of us travelled in total darkness. We tried conversing, but with little meaningful success.
We both left the train at Kaposvár station. Darkness reigned. I had no idea where or even whether there was a hotel (szálloda) in the town. However, my latest ‘minder’ led me to a large state run hotel, the Kapos.
The young receptionist spoke good English. She asked me if I had any books in English. I did. I gave her one that I had already finished. She was very happy.
After a heavy meal in the hotel’s large restaurant (etterem), I retired to my room. The hotel had poor sound insulation. There was a party somewhere in the building and my room seemed to be throbbing with the loud music.
After a while, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and found a waitress holding a plate with an enormous slice of watermelon. She muttered something about ‘recepció’. I realised that the watermelon was a thank you gift from the receptionist.
I took the watermelon into my room and stared at it. Then and still now, I cannot stand eating watermelon. I could not throw it away because it was bound to be discovered and that would have seemed very ungrateful on my part. So, after a bit of thought, I carried the slice of fruit downstairs to the receptionist to whom I had given the book. I thanked her, and then explained, telling a ‘white lie’, that I was allergic to watermelon. She seemed to believe me.
That night, I found it difficult to sleep partly because of trying to digest my heavy dinner and the noise from the party.
On the following day, I took another train to Pécs having stayed in a city I had never heard of before.
Picture of Hotel Kapos in Kaposvar in 1985
IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, I was on holiday in Greece. Our family and that of ‘K’, a good friend of mine were guests of an extremely wealthy Greek. We had been put up in luxury hotels. We stayed in the George V Hotel in Athens and K’s family were put up by the sea at a luxurious resort at Vouliagmeni. Before leaving England for our Greek holiday, K agreed to accompany me on an excursion north from Greece to a lake in southern Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, a body of water now shared by Northern Macedonia and Albania. I was curious to gaze at the then very mysterious Albania across the water from Yugoslavia and K was just being a ‘good sport’ in agreeing to join me.
One day in Athens, K and I left our very comfortable accommodation and arrived at the railway station from which northbound trains departed. The route between Athens and Thessalonika was long and slow, the train having had to wind its way across mountain ranges.
Every twenty minutes, an attendant arrived at our compartment carrying a tray with pork kebabs, lumps of cooked pork on thin wooden skewers. The barely warm meat was delicious. Each skewer seemed better than the previous one. We kept on buying them each time the attendant arrived.
After several hours and many skewers, K said that he had eaten enough of them and he was not feeling too well. My reaction to this was that being an inexperienced traveller compared to me, his stomach was weak compared to mine. I continued munching the delicious kebabs as the journey continued.
At a small place, which was probably Platy, in northern Greece, our train left the main route and headed along a branch line towards Edessa, where we disembarked. Before leaving the station, we had to have our tickets endorsed by a railway official so that we could continue our journey the following day. As soon as we disembarked, K thrust his ticket into my hand and rushed to evacuate his bowels in a field of ripe corn next to the railway.
We booked into a small hotel, the Olympus, in Edessa, where we paid the Drachma equivalent of £1 Sterling for a room with two beds. I gave K some of my anti-diarrhoea tablets, and he ate some plain yoghurt for supper. At this point, I was still thinking how sad it was that my friend’s stomach was so delicate. Surprised to be hungry after having devoured so many pork ‘souvlaki’ on the train, I ate a normal supper.
The beds in the hotel were very short. My feet projected beyond the bed end. I slept well. The next morning, K was feeling much healthier. However, I was not. I had a terrible pain in my stomach which made it difficult for me to stand up straight. I took some of my tablets and tried without much success to enjoy a bowl of plain yoghurt upon which there was a puddle of oil.
We returned to the railway station and boarded the train which took us westwards to the small town of Florina. We had a short stay, a few hours, in Florina, where I recall buying a roll of toilet paper. The daily train, a single motorised carriage, from Florina to the border with Yugoslavia departed in the early afternoon. K and I were the only passengers. At the border, the Greek carriage drew up next to a Yugoslav motorised train with several carriages on the neighbouring track. A Yugoslav soldier instructed us to move from the Greek to the Yugoslav train and then we set off northwards through southern Yugoslavia, crossing a flat plain with well-tended fields.
We disembarked at Bitola, once known as ‘Monastir’, and transferred to a long-distance bus. As the sun set, this carried us north westward over the mountains towards the historic city of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid.
It was dark by the time we arrived at the campsite on the lakeshore about a mile north of Ohrid city. Both of our stomachs had settled down. For the next few days, I explored the beautiful sights along the lake and enjoyed the local food, much of which was in the form of kebabs. K, having been made wary as a result of our experiences with the Greek railway ‘souvlaki’, avoided this kind of food, preferring to feed himself at our campsite.
Picture taken in 1977 shows the train in Yugoslavia between the Greek border and Bitola
My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.
Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.
We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.
The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.
The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.
The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.
The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.
Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.
Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.
Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.
A fleeting glimpse
In a train window pane:
The wide world passes us by
Totnes railway station
Rails of solid steel extend
From place to place
Past countryside we speed
Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.
Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:
“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.
Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.
About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.“
Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:
Amazon, bookfinder.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle
Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org
This is a true story told to me by the man who took the upper berth on a train in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
Our friend, who related this story, was boarding a sleeper car. He had reserved the lower berth in a compartment, but when he reached it, he found it occupied by a man who had not made a reservation. The man aggressively refused to budge from our friend’s berth. Our friend called the conductor. After a considerable and unpleasant argument, the miscreant relinquished the berth, which our friend then occupied.
Shortly after this, an old man, who had been given a reservation in the upper berth, entered the compartment. He was unable to climb into the upper berth. Out of kindness, our friend took the old man’s upper berth and gave him the lower one.
Next morning, our friend woke up. He climbed down from his upper bunk and was horrified to discover that the old man had been stabbed to death during the night. No doubt, the man who had been evicted by the conductor had exacted his revenge.
A pile of books, varied,
Which to read next?
Photograph of a peripatetic book vendor on a train between Mumbai and Vadodara in India.