Normally found making radio, often taking photographs, always in search of curious experiences, occasionally blogging.
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).
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
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
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 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.
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
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
Day 3 Geneva - Turin
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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.