In this blogposting....
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Sixth Day
....will take place this upcoming Wednesday, 7 July at 1100 at the wonderful Mike and Pauline’s Yellow Coffee Van at The Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. If you’re not totally sure where that is...it’s a few yards east of the Millennium Bridge, just past the Pitcher and Piano.
Your absence will be taken as permission for me to visit your home to exact revenge in whatever way I deem suitable.
So, if you know what’s good for you, you’d better attend. When all’s said and done, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: SIXTH DAY
MUNICH TO VERONA
WEDNESDAY 24 MARCH
Minds much cleverer than mine have written expansive theses on what exactly it is about trains that has enabled them to worm their way so seductively into the human psyche. All over the world, the departure and arrival of trains - and often, of course, the journey in between - tend to evoke the same responses. The sweet sadness of separation, the familiar stomach-turmoil of an impending greeting, the bystander’s wishful longing for involvement, the hook of the timetable on which it all depends, the babbling chaos and grandiose architecture of mainline stations, the sleekly and sexily streamed lines of the train itself, the authority of the locomotive....
I’ve loved trains ever since the day that I knew what a train was. Although by no means as obsessive a trainspotter as both of my brothers ( - a hobby which, at the time, I considered to be a cry for help - ) I was nevertheless perfectly happy to join them on the grassy bank below the battlements in Wharton Park (in Durham City).
From there, one of the best views in all of England was augmented by the endless succession of trains crossing the viaduct, north and south. I would sit happily working my way through my allocation of egg-and-tomato sandwiches (and start on theirs) as Barry and Deryck neatly underlined, in their Ian Allan trainspotters’ bibles, the number of each loco as it passed.
Naturally, special excitement was reserved for ‘blinkers’ and ‘streaks’. On those occasions, I even looked up from my repast to admire the effect.
And the wonder of trains has stayed with me ever since. It has bridged the change from steam to diesel to electric and from private to public and back again. In common with the rest of humanity, I’m sure, trains and stations have continued to exercise my mind and my imagination in ways Ian Allan couldn’t possibly make a checklist of.
But, until now, I had never actually indulged this affection. Like most people, I have ‘used’ trains to get me from place to place in a totally matter-of-fact, utilitarian way most of my life. And certainly they have also been a key part of many holidays - but again, purely as a way of reaching my destination, the place where the holiday began.
This time, though, the trains were the holiday. The tickets, the stations, the travellers there with me, the carriages, the engines, the lines, crossings and points. The destinations - as grand and as monumental as they were - were the dots on the page. It was the lines between them that would give this picture is shape and meaning.
I was particularly aware of this as the train slowly pulled southward out of Munich on this sunny Wednesday morning. Ahead of me, according to my Thomas Cook Map of European Railways, lay one of the most scenic railway journeys in all of Europe; a journey up, up, up into the Bavarian Alps, then through western Austria and up still further to the Brenner Pass and down into northern Italy.
Admit it - it even sounds awesome just to read it, doesn’t it?
At first, the mountains of southern Bavaria kept their distance. Frustrating glimpses of snowy peaks, at first rounded and humped but gradually more pointed and craggy, were all that could be seen through the gaps between the lineside trees. But, mile by mile, and as the comfortable urbanity of metropolitan Munich was left way behind, the mountains slowly closed in on the train. The flatness of the countryside immediately by the line gave way to forested and farmed foothills with mountains - real mountains - rising up behind and beyond them.
Alpine farmhouses with large-eaved wooden roofs and balconies, and surrounded by fields that looked as well-kempt as fine velvet, were perched in unlikely places halfway up the sides of these monsters. It was the much-loved scenery of The Sound of Music and Heidi. I half-expected to see groups of ringlet-haired, blonde girls singing The Happy Wanderer, accompanied on accordions and tubas by fat little boys in lederhosen. There go my prejudices and stereotypes again....
I did my best to take a picture or two - with mixed results (as you can see above). You just have to be there.
It was the most magnificent mountain scenery I had ever been anywhere near. And I was there, in amongst it. I must have smiled to myself particularly widely and stupidly because I was suddenly aware that the man sitting oppsite me was saying ‘Wundershoen, ja mein Freund?’ - ‘Isn’t it lovely, my friend’. In my broken down German, I agreed with him. Yes, it was; wundershoen.
At last, I thought, I was giving free rein to my love of trains. This was international travel as it was meant to be. This was passion and intimacy - and style! My Nana used to say that, if God had meant us to fly, He wouldn’t have given us trains. Little did she know how right she was.
On the one hand, you’re strapped inside a white box, you’re bored to death for a couple of hours and you’re deposited not in the city you want to see but in its soulless airport several expensive miles away. On the other, you board a sleek and sexy transcontinental train, sit back in roomy comfort, are whisked in ‘real-time’ through real and ever-changing scenery and are deposited in the very heart of your destination city with the feeling that you’ve really travelled - you’ve been somewhere.
I was still chatting to my German friend (Hans - seriously) when, completely unannounced and with no fanfare at all, the train passed from Germany into Austria. I was in the fourth country of my Tour.
If you think of Austria as a mass of dark, close-hemmed, tree-clad, snow peaked mountains laced with pretty, Alpine villages and stately cities with broad avenues and boulevards lined with expensive-looking shops and boutiques, you’d be absolutely right. My train wasn’t in Austria for long but it amazed me that they managed to build a railway there at all. On every side the mountains towered and folded into valleys and peaks. The line clung to whatever foothold it could find as it wove its way deeper into the range, towards what appeared, from where I was sitting, to be the only reasonably level valley anywhere in the vicinity.
It was the valley of the River Inn and the city that grew up by the bridge across it was, of course, Innsbrueck - 'Inn Bridge'.
The line crosses the city on an embankment so you get good views of the aforementioned avenues and boulevards. It was a lovely Spring morning, and the city sparkled with sunshine and people and traffic and trams. It looked prosperous and benign. And its setting is incomparable. The river rushes through the green centre of the city and the mountains of the Tyrol hem it in, picture-book style.
For some unfathomable reason, the train didn’t stop at Innsbrueck. Instead, it made its way slowly and carefully over the embankment and out of the city on its way south.
The train began to climb. Each time we rounded one of the many tight curves, the river was further below us. The line wound around the contours of the mountains as the train picked its way slowly higher and higher. It was strange to see farms and villages and whole towns above us, higher up the mountain slopes. Flimsy-looking bridges carried motorways across wide chasms far above our heads while a sheer slope led down through the pines to the river way, way below us.
The railway builders had no choice but to construct this precarious, mountain-hugging line if they wanted to get to Italy the most direct way. Across the Brenner Pass.
Mountain passes are always dramatic and exciting. Mountain passes that fight for a way between countries, even moreso. Add the Alps, the Tyrol and the Dolomites and you have a recipe for railway-borne drama of the highest order.
My heart was in my mouth as the train clung to the precipitous sides of several valleys and made its way slowly and gingerly to the summit of the Pass. The mountains were no longer a distant temptation. Instead, we were deep in their hearts. We were higher above sea-level than the top of Ben Nevis. (You can see some startling images of the Brenner Pass, and of the international motorway with which the railway line shares the Pass, if you Google.)
At Brenner station, the line crosses the border into Italy. Already, I was in country number five.
This is what the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy says about the Verona B&B I booked myself into for the next two nights....
‘Opera divas and fashionistas rest up in the heart of the action in this recently-restored 19-century townhouse, one block from the Arena off boutique-lined Via Mazzini. Spacious guestrooms have high wood-beamed ceilings, antique armoires for stashing purchases - and divans for swooning after shows’.
The Guide like the place so much that they make it their ‘pick of the town’, which is precisely why I decided to stay there.
Well, to be honest, there were two other reasons. Firstly, it wasn’t too expensive. And secondly, I wanted to know what an armoire was - not by looking in a dictionary but by going to the Anfitheatro B&B in Verona and finding out in person.
The B&B’s name - and the reference in the Guide’s review to the ‘Arena’ - indicates at once why so many people from all over the world come to Verona; for its breathtaking Roman amphitheatre, which was indeed a matter of mere yards from my accommodation. It’s been there since the Romans built it 2,000 years ago and, unlike the Colosseum, it’s still in use (though not, as far as I know, for gladiatorial combat).
And that’s not all. The Arena holds ( - wait for it - ) 30,000 people and every performance staged there during its summer season is a complete sell-out. Two friends of mine spent their honeymoon at nearby Lake Garda and, just for the hell of it, attended an opera performance at Verona’s Arena (despite not being fans of opera). They loved every minute of it; the music, the orchestra, the singing, the lights, the atmosphere - and the infectious passion for opera that was evident all round them.
And the Arena was just about the first thing I saw after my two-minute bus ride from the station. It forms one side of the green and fountained Piazza Bra - as you can see in the picture. Out of shot on the right is the Ente Libirico Arena, a grand 18th-century palace where indoor concerts are held in winter. Behind me were the ancient walls of the city, which still rise to their full height, and to my left lay an impressive - and very welcome - range of cafes and restaurants, housed in a splendid group of buildings known, mysteriously, as 'The Liston'.
My journey that day had been the longest of the Tour so far. I trundled my grip (as I still can’t help calling my hold-all) to the nearest one and flopped down to take in the view of the piazza. Fortunately, it was a gelateria that I’d chosen. I was thus able to enjoy my very first genuine Italian ice-cream. It was flavoured with real coffee and orange pulp, and had bits of scrunchy Italian almond biscuits in it.
It was scrumptious. I smiled inanely at passers-by and they smiled indulgently back at me. So indulgently, in fact, that it even looked as though some of them had heard about my Mad Adventure from their friends in Brussels, Cologne, Munich and Regensburg and had decided to humour me until I continued on my way.
(And OK - I admit it. I had two of those ice-creams.)
Verona is a World Heritage City and you don’t have to spend very long wandering up and down the narrow lanes of the city centre to realise why. The Arena and Piazza Bra tell only half the story - if that. The centre, which occupies an inner bend of the River Po, is a splendid warren of ancient streets punctuated here and there by small, open piazzas.
The best of these is the much-photographed Piazza del Herbe - see above. It lies at the top of Via Mazzini, the street on which I was staying. It was dusk by the time I reached it - and it looked absolutely magical. A long thin piazza lined with old-style street lamps and some of the best boutiques and restaurants in this part of Italy. Two magnificent mediaeval palaces also manage to squeeze in around its edge, and their tall, narrow, floodlit towers gave the square a splendour beyond its modest size.
I bought a pizza (naturally) and ate it sitting on the steps of the piazza’s ancient fountain. All around me was the night-time buzz of a Mediterranean city out enjoying itself. I was reminded - emphatically - that I had left behind all risk of frost; there would be no more severe alpine roofs for a while; no more Heidis and lederhosen. My northern European sensibilities would be no good to me here.
The train from Munich had brought me deep into my own dream. As I sat on the fountain steps, I realised that, unbelievably, I had travelled overland from Newcastle to Italy. I also realised - even more incredibly - that tomorrow another train would be taking me to the very heart of my dream.
Tomorrow I was due to visit one of the very, very few places on earth which, by common consent of all the people who go there, should be visited by everyone at least once in their lives.
Tomorrow I was going to Venice.
Not all those who wander are lost...
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