In this blogposting....
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Fifth Day
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: FIFTH DAY
MUNICH TO REGENSBURG (AND BACK)
TUESDAY 23 MARCH
For me at least, much of the enjoyment of going on holiday lies in the planning and anticipation of it. You know the kind of thing; seeking out and booking accommodation and transport, investigating local sights and excursions, reading guidebooks and scraping the web (as I'm told it's called these days).
All my adult life I've got a terrific buzz of excitement from this pre-holiday activity - even to the extent that ( - and I'm loathe to admit this - ) on more than one occasion, I've actually enjoyed organising and looking forward to a holiday more than I've enjoyed the experience itself when it finally arrived.
That's how prone I am to planning a holiday to within an inch of its life. By the time I get to wherever I'm going, it's felt like I've been there already; I've anticipated it out of existence.
My Grand Tour, of course, lent itself particularly well to all this. After all, I had to find and book lodgings in lots of places, and then investigate train times and tickets to get me from one place to the next. But even before any of this, I had to make the most important decisions of all: which cities did I want to visit and could it all be done in the fifteen days I'd allotted?
And so the listing process began....
Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Rome, Barcelona, Venice, Budapest, Lisbon, Cologne, Florence, Vienna, Copenhagen, Berlin....
It didn’t take long for me to realise how incredibly badly-travelled I was. I lived on the world’s most historic, most culturally diverse and dramatic continent and yet, at the age of 61, I had not visited any of the cities on what was becoming an embarrassingly long list. Australian students on gap-years had seen more of Europe than I had. It just wasn’t good enough.
As you can imagine, it took several weeks of wholly enjoyable research to whittle the list down to a sequence which, I thought, could be managed in two weeks. This original schedule had me travelling south-eastwards from Cologne to Vienna - a nine-hour train trip.
After two nights there soaking up the waltzes and the schnapps, my timetable hurried me on to Venice, where I allowed myself another two nights of cultural immersion.
Then it was on to Florence (3 nights), Rome (3 nights), Milan and Paris (1 night each).
I must have been out of my mind. In fact, many of the people I showed my schedule to said so quite openly. I was told that I couldn’t possibly do any kind of justice to any of the cities on my list by organising such a whirlwind, if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium journey.
They also questioned whether I loved trains enough to spend quite that long travelling on them.
And they suggested I may well return home in a state of sightseeing- and travel-induced nervous exhaustion.
Faced with this barrage of justifiable scepticism - and the wry smiles of my friend Sue - I spent a weekend (with Sue) re-thinking the exercise. For a happy couple of days we pored over the Thomas Cook European Railways Map (a wonderful piece of kit) and re-drew my route in a way that made it humanly possible to achieve.
It was Sue’s idea to omit Vienna (too far east) and Rome (too far south) - neither of them near the top of my list of ‘desirables’ - and instead ‘drop-down’ through Europe to Italy via Munich and Verona, two cities not even on my original list. She also suggested that I use my ports of call as bases from which to make day trips.
Thus it was, on this fourth morning of my Grand Tour, that I made my way to the Hauptbahnhof - the central station - and boarded the train for Regensburg.
Regensburg had not been on my original list, either. Its inclusion on my schedule was entirely fortuitous - and wholly due to the BBC.
On Saturday mornings there is a travel programme on Radio 4 and, a few weekends before my Grand Tour was due to begin, I accidentally heard it. By chance, the programme’s subject was Germany. Why, it asked, was a country as scenic and as historic as Germany not more popular as a visitor destination?
Naturally, I listened intently to the two Germanophile guests extol the virtues of the country. It whetted my appetite for my upcoming Tour. Towards the programme’s end, the presenter asked them each to nominate a city that deserved more visitors than it got. One of them suggested Marburg - too awkward for me to reach from Munich. But the other guest sang the praises of Regensburg.
And I was delighted to find that my Thomas Cook European Railways Map showed that it was easily accessible from Munich. In fact, the journey took about an hour and believe me, it was worth every single second.
Because Regensburg is beautiful. I mean really beautiful. It is a perfectly preserved Renaissance German city.
Its beauty is not of the ‘monumental’ kind like, say, Bath or Oxford. Its charm lies instead in the narrowness and intimacy of its old streets; in the confused jumble of rooflines (like, say, Whitby); the lovely mixture of architectural styles and the accidental harmony of the many pastel colours used to paint the housefronts. There is no ‘town-planning’ in Regensburg; no one architect or designer has imprinted their ideas or image on the city; no committee has decided what should go where.
Instead, its tight, friendly streets jostled with each other for my attention. I wanted to wander up all of them - just to see where they went - and largely succeeded (because Regensburg is not a big city).
The Altstadtbus (‘old town bus’) deposited me in one of the three small squares that pass for ‘grand’ in such a tightly-packed city. I was gobsmacked; seriously. I gawped at how beautiful the buildings were. I gazed all around me at the street-cafes and the people wandering round eating ice-cream and smiling in the sunshine. Each narrow lane, lined with luscious cheese-shops, bakers, grocers and everyday emporia like estate-agents and record-shops, led to at least one other equally enticing street.
The city is easily walkable and sprinkled throughout are its historic stopping-places where a wide-eyed visitor like me can soak up its views and its atmosphere.
And, after a while, its atmosphere was making as much of an impression on me as its streets and buildings. Regensburg was the friendliest place I visited on my Grand Tour, up there with Cologne for the quiet, good-humoured and very genuine welcome it gave me.
In the Tourist Information Office (housed in the awesome mediaeval Old Town Hall - straight out of the Brothers Grimm) I was invited to take any literature I wanted, for free.
A baker gave me two apple cakes for nothing as long as I talked to him about the rivalry between Newcastle United and Sunderland - which I was quite happy to do, given that his apple cakes looked so delicious.
My glasses needed a small repair job and the optician I found fixed them for me for free - and also washed them for me and gave me two new glasses cases, cleaning fluids and cloths.
It was as if Regensburgers were saying ‘Welcome to our city - what’s taken you so long?’
I would have been stumped for an answer. Ich weiss nicht - ‘I don’t know’.
But I offered up prayers of thanks to that Radio 4 guest as I stood on the Steinerbruecke - the old ‘stone bridge’ across the Danube, guarded by the tower-house in the picture - and looked at the city’s waterfront; the jumble of warehouses, customs-houses, mansions and quays with the twin spires of the cathedral rising up majestically behind them.
(Twin west spires or towers was a popular design in mediaeval Germany; this was my third encounter, after Cologne and Munich. Many of the churches I passed in the train featured it, too.)
Almost nestling right under the bridge is a feature close to Regensburgers’ hearts; the best sausage-smokery in Germany (or so they reckon). I asked for - and got - the ‘sausage of the day’ in a thick, heavy bap and tried to eat it as I walked back up to the cathedral square.
It was awful.
Sitting at yet another street-cafe ( - Regensburg calls itself the most northerly city in Italy - ) I spent an uplifting - if raucous - hour or so with the four students you see in the picture: Derg, Thom, Peter and Krek ( - Regensburg is an important university city, too).
As for the wonderful Maria, whom you also see, and who allowed herself to be the subject of their ribaldry because of her appalling English.....
When children are asked to draw a house, they almost always draw the type of house that very, very few of them actually live in. It has a front door in the middle, four windows - two upstairs and two downstairs - and a chimney with smoke coming out of it. The vast majority of these children live in semi-detached or terraced houses or in flats and, presumably, what they draw are ‘aspirational’ houses; houses they dream of living in.
Regensburg is like that. If you were asked to imagine the perfect Germanic city, you would dream up Regensburg. It’s stunning - in a very aspirational and dreamlike way.
I felt genuinely sad when the time came to catch the Altstadtbus back to the station. On the train back to Munich, I opened Hildie’s notebook and wrote simply...
I’m in love.
I was genuinely surprised to discover that Regensburg stands by the River Danube, which I tend to think of as an east European river. A plaque in its honour by the bridge told me just how wrong I was. So, for the record.....
The Danube is 2,888km long, of which 2,415km is navigable, and is a lifeline for over 200m people.
It rises in Germany and flows through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine before entering the Black Sea in Moldova.
It is truly Europe’s Amazon or Nile.
I spent my third and final evening in Munich with Frank and his sister Thea. We went back to Der Pschorr, their favourite hostelry. Once again I was hopelessly over-indulged with wiener-schnitzel and a little too much local riesling.
By closing time, I was pleasantly squiffy and, despite meticulous directions, got completely lost on the way back to my hotel. Thus giving the lie to this blog’s tagline...
Not all those who wander are lost.
....will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. I’ve received a message from Mike and Pauline (who own and run the Coffee Van) saying how much they’re looking forward to it. So I think it’s true to say that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Be there or be nowhere.
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