Tuesday, October 20, 2015


Brighton to Albania by Train, Days 1-5 Dijon - Geneva - Turin - Bologna - Bari

Day 1 Eurostar - Paris - Dijon

Weds 3rd June

You can’t beat train travel. Sure, it’s slower and waaay more expensive than flying, but the stress levels are lower, there’s no hanging around at carousels when your bag is invariably the last to be spat out onto the conveyor belt, it’s friendlier and you have the experience of the shifts in landscape, architecture and people.

Another part of train travel that I love is the planning involved: how long it will take to reach a destination in time to camp down in the hotel then go out to explore, changing trains and planning an arrival over days rather than hours.

I planned to travel to Albania over six days, stopping in France, Switzerland and Italy, followed by a ferry to Albania, then a week in the capital, Tirana and on by bus to Montenegro and Croatia, flying back from Dubrovnik (OK, I cheated in that last bit by flying back).

Cinema, Dijon
And it was farewell to the miserable English summer with the joys of the Eurostar to Paris. An efficient Metro change from Gare Du Nord to Gare de Lyon in 20 minutes then two and a half hours down to Dijon, with a curious arrangement of allocating seating for all the people with reservations next to each other, while the rest of the carriage was empty. Maybe they thought we'd all become jolly good travelling companions, rather than juggling elbow room and being careful not to encroach further than your "own" quarter of the table.

To see more pictures go to my Flickr site.

Creepy in Dijon
Hotel le Jacquemart is proper old-school French: a 17th-century building with rickety wooden stairs, threadbare carpets and a room in the garret up three flights with a shared loo and shower, but it was great - location and price both perfect, in the heart of the old town with a view over the rooftops.

The Beaux-Arts Museum in the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy dominates the Place de a Liberation, a semi-circular open space in front of the town hall, and I found a great people-watching eaterie just off the beaten track where a carafe of red wine went down a treat and I bonded with the righteously stroppy waitress over the rude behaviour of two Italian diners.

Day 2 Dijon - Geneva

Thursday 4th

Up early and out to the market to stock up on lunch, and parked down at the market coffee stall with an espresso admiring the lush array of produce on offer. Why are British markets so poor quality? The strawberries were carefully individually arranged, there were huge tasty beef toms, fantastic fresh veg, the sweetest cherries, seafood and cheeses, and all at a good price.


I had plenty of time for a visit to the Beaux-Arts although it took me about 15 minutes to find the right entrance. Although it’s free, you can’t just go in any old where as you will be shooed back, but finding the correct door proved a bit of a challenge. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of starting  on the ground floor which is largely 17th and 18th-century monstrosities of flabby cherubs, naked musclemen adorned by wisps of gauze, the endless rape of Sabine women in overwrought gilded frames, the saving graces being the medieval works including fascinating portraits of the Dukes of Burgundy. It wasn’t til I got to the top floor that I found the far more interesting 20th century works but bizarrely it was chucking out time at 11.37am which was a little mysterious.

Train delays meant I missed my connection in Lausanne on the way to Geneva though I only arrived 45 minutes later than intended. I must remember never to trust Google maps (I always seem to forget this) as I fannied around for ages outside Geneva station trying to find the street of the hotel, only to find Google maps had the name wrong.

“Hotel” Gervais is actually more like a hostel than a hotel: very basic, cheaply furnished small room with shared loo and shower (that’s fine) but plagued by the sound of air conditioning units across the street and the rattle and clang of trams at the nearby main road, but as it was so hot the windows had to stay open.

Geneva station

Strolled up Lake Geneva in the 33 degree heat to the water spout and up the jetty where you are finely sprayed when the light wind changes direction, which was welcome in the heat. The one bonus of the hotel was a free transport ticket so I hopped on a bus up to the gardens which were cool, tranquil and beautiful with tall pines, water features and shaded pathways.

Checked out some eating places which were wildly expensive and was beginning to despair of finding anything other than bars where the entire clientele looked like they'd walked out the pages of American Psycho, all shiny suits, shoulder pads and designer handbags.
Water spout

However, experience dictates that backs of stations are often a good bet to explore for the more rough-and-ready end of life, and I struck lucky. Place Des Grottes is a rowdy crowded square where everyone was enthusiastically drinking and eating local cheese and meats from huge sharing platters, happily sitting in the road and being served wine from barrels. You could never imagine such a scene in Britain other than it being accompanied by the watchful eyes of police and moaning neighbours. I had a glass of wine, paid in Euros, received change back in Swiss Francs and thought I was being ripped off for not getting Euros. Whoops. I felt such a berk not to be aware that Switzerland’s not in the Euro!

After the food and drink vendors packed up and the square cleared, 
I followed my nose and came upon my holy grail of drinking: 
La Galerie is the perfect old men's bar where geezers argued loudly with wild gesticulations and knocked each other's drinks over, one appeared in army fatigues and bellowed 'vive la revolution!' at every lull in the conversation, and another shirtless man bore a Kalashnikov tattooed diagonally across his back. It was like a more extreme version of Brighton's Evening Star, except with biere Blanche and an evening hot enough to sit outside.

Day 3 Geneva - Turin

Friday 5th

Hopped on a tram and spent the morning exploring Geneva old town, then took a lunchtime train to Turin. I’d chosen to stop in Geneva for the spectacular views on the train line down to Italy and they didn’t disappoint. Past lakes, through snow-capped mountains and lush green valleys with a great collapsing warehouse on the riverside at Bellegarde, on a slightly more convoluted journey than I’d originally planned, changing via Chambery and Oulx, arriving at Turin Porta Nueva late afternoon.

Walked the bank of the Po in Turin which lives up to its name aromatically. And is there any city in Italy which doesn't have swathes of town planning and architecture designed to glorify Mussolini? The restaurants along the Piazza Vittorio Veneto are touristically priced so I cut into a side street and came upon a quiet square with tables sheltered under broad trees and enjoyed a triple shot of Campari with a prosecco top up which set me up rather nicely. Feeling very smug about speaking pidgin Italian, which I'd picked up from three weeks reading a teach yourself book, but the basics seemed to work well enough.
For a full picture set, go to my Flickr site

Candle lit demo
Needless to say there followed an evening of bar hopping, taking in Bar Blah, a lively rock bar, then in a darkened back street chancing upon a semi-derelict warehouse with a dance floor and a group of Angolan capoeira performers, encountering a loud and lively street demo of candle-holding marchers protesting about what appeared to be education cuts and ending at a likely-looking bar with an array of dozens of beers in the fridge where you simply helped yourself and paid at the counter. Most of the clientele were students, all drinking out in the street, but nobody pinched any drinks, nobody acted like an arse, and nobody called the police to complain about the noise. Yet another refreshing change to the drinking environment we’re used to. Guess our lack of tradition of street culture means nobody knows how to do it properly. That and the curse of Fosters and vodka with Red Bull.

Bologna by night

Day 4 Turin - Bologna

Saturday 6th

Breakfast of double espresso and freshly squeezed orange juice at a pavement cafe then hopped on a tram (trams are so civilised!) to Piazza San Giovanni with a terrific exhibition of Tamara de Lempicka at the Palazzo Chiablese, contextualised by extensive photos and film.

Quick beer - a molto piccolo of 2cl with a somewhat “generous” head hence very quick indeed - then failed in my plan to pick up the No.7 historic tram which trundles through the gardens and down to Porta Susa station. I waited almost an hour getting irritable at the tram stop just to find it was re-routed so I huffily walked instead. A temperature sign informed me it was 40 degrees so that called for another beer by the station.

Dull train ride through semi-industrial hinterlands of sheds and suburbs, but arriving in Bologna was a delight. I was welcomed effusively by the host at the place I was staying, AB Studios, which I was delighted to find  was decorated like a tart’s boudoir and just two minutes’ walk to the Old Town.

Le Stanze
Colonnade, Bologna
I loved Bologna - definitely a must to come back and spend more time exploring its twisty back streets, historic colonnades, tiny bars and very lively atmosphere. Thanks to a tip from a friend I went to Le Stanze, a church-like bar with walls painted to look like frescoes. The aperitivo buffet is a staple feature of early evening life, where you pay a Euro and help yourself, though to my eyes there wasn’t a Euro's worth of anything veggie there anyway. Next stop a lively pizzeria in a buzzing square where I had a most curious “white pizza” - essentially a pizza base with salad chucked on it. The added “piquante” sauce I liberally splashed around was a bit of an error though, as combined with the heat of the evening, it left my head sweating profusely. 

Backstreet Bologna

What are the chances of bumping into people from Hurstpierpoint and also finding you have a mutual acquaintance though? After a very pleasant conversation and exchange of Facebook contacts I went for a wander to see the leaning tower of Bologna and found half a bottle of Bacardi special reserve in the street (who mentioned hepatitis? Fie!) So that was nice.

Street life in Bologna is lively, to say the least: hundreds of people gathered in the square, chatting, drinking, playing music, a couple of cops hanging around nonchalantly but nobody causing trouble, being moved on or complaining about the noise. The old town is car-free at weekends too apparently, so I must return as there’s definitely much more to experience.

Day 5 Bologna - Bari

Sunday 7th

Sunday was a leisurely morning spent wandering down to the station for  a seven hour journey to Bari on the east coast and an overnight ferry to Albania. The carriage was almost unbearably sweltering. I fell into conversation with another passenger, Terezia, and when the guard announced that there were actually some air-conditioned carriages, we ensconced ourselves in a cool compartment for the remainder of the journey, managing to make myself understood reasonably well in Italian, combined with plentiful hand gestures.

Terrific journey trundling down the Adriatic coast, and one of the real pleasures of train travel as the scenery and architecture changes. Bari is on the “heel” of Italy, and consists of little more than the port and a bus depot, though actually getting to the ferry seems an unnecessarily complicated process.

Bari port

You have to take the 20/ bus - the “/” is important as the plain old No.20 goes somewhere altogether different - then I made the mistake of getting off somewhere looking remarkably port-like with a couple of other people, just to find it closed (OK, I should have asked) and then had to walk fifteen minutes to the pedestrian terminal, the wheels on my suitcase now decidedly wonky after the beating of the past few days on hot cobbles.

Once at the terminal a minibus appears to take you to yet another terminal, where you convert your paper ticket into a proper one. I asked the woman in the kiosk where to go next and she waved a vague hand toward the road. I waited thirty minutes not knowing exactly what I should be looking for, asked again where I should go, and this time she directed me back to the minibuses which then take you back to the place they initially picked you up, which turned out to be the actual ferry terminal. Quite why it involves so much to-ing and fro-ing is a bit of a mystery.

Ferry 'cross the Adriatic
Anyway, I was finally ensconced on the ferry and had a “luxury” room with a loo and shower, which was very welcome after the long train journey.

I appeared to be the only non-Albanian on board, with families camped down on blankets in the stairways, truck drivers snoozing in chairs in the bar and men smoking furiously on deck while the women stayed inside guarding bags and children. 

Next post: Albania

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