I like the idea of rail travel. In fact, I had considered booking a rail holiday from Chicago to Sacramento earlier this year. This being 2020, that didn’t happen. In fact, not very much of what I had planned actually took place this year. In fact, I ended up living in a country I had little desire to visit. But this is 2020 and one can’t change that.
I travelled by rail this summer. I travelled by rail a lot. Flights, while growing in frequency and reliability, are still sporadic and prone to cancellations. Carriers have taken full advantage of the chaos to continue offering flights only to cancel them at the last moment. The EU has relaxed regulations on the air industry in light of the chaos. This can mean only one thing: carriers hold onto money for as long as they possibly can before issuing refunds.
As such, travelling by train — while slower — is also more predictable and trains are running normally. I went to France twice in August. I first went to Paris. It was unusual. Paris was empty. There were no real queues. The hordes of tourists who’d normally be there weren’t there. It was almost a magical experience. I saw a few sites I had long wanted to see — la Basilique Royale de St Denis, le Panthéon, la Conciergerie and the banks of the Seine at night. I visited the remains of the Notre Dame. Things are moving and progress is being made, but I suspect it will never be the same because it simply can never be the same. A reconstruction is better than nothing and, mercifully, those who wanted to be “innovative” were shot down, but… Paris was gentle this time, showing me her beauty, but acknowledging her ugly sides.
I later travelled to Tours. I lacked that. Tours is so very different. It’s more human. Yet… It shows something else. Tours is a little run down in places. It isn’t a complete wreck like Portland or Fresno, but… There is a church in Tours that really captures it: St Gatien. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful church. It is blessed with most of its mediaeval stained glass windows. But… Whereas in Germany historical properties are kept in a high state of repair, St Gatien showed its age. It looked tired, it looked fatigued. France in many respects looked tired and fatigued. It’s beautiful, achingly so, in fact, but… I reached an understanding with my hostess in Tours. I would simply email her when I wished to visit and she’s accommodate me at a very reasonable rate. It’s a small flat to myself.
For the first time, I decided to take a holiday in Germany. I visited Erfurt, Berlin, Lubeck and Bremen. Erfurt was interesting. The greatest, lasting gift of the DDR to Germany wasn’t anything it did — but something it didn’t do. After the Second World War ended, West Germany rebuilt. The damage was done, but life had to carry on. This obsession carried on into the late 1970s. Beautiful historical properties were razed. Rows of Wilhelmine buildings were levelled to make way for brutalist “architecture”. Jugendstil made way for the ’70s. In the DDR, this was not really done. If a building was liveable, it was kept standing. When new buildings were needed, they were built. As such, cities like Erfurt are largely intact. But right away, I noticed lingering differences.
There are elements of life you don’t think about. They’re just part of life. They’re common reference points, points that show if you’re local or not, if you’re part of a community or not. There are also common reference points that show if you are part of a generation or not. It is why, for example, I can claim a greater stake to society in Trier than I could elsewhere. My grandfather worked for a major company. He was the overseer who helped train someone’s father when he was hired. When we talked about a former mayor of a suburb, that meant that I knew things that only someone with close knowledge of the community would know. Likewise, there are things like television series, building styles, paintings, fashions, fads that linger. The 1980s motifs in a shopping centre, the old Citroen or Mercedes. There are the murals — murals of Adenauer, mosaics of Kennedy or de Gaulle. There are streets named after Eisenhower, memorials dedicated to British/Commonwealth, American and French forces. But then… There is a Juri Gagarin Ring, mosaics of cosmonauts (CCCP), the odd Trabi parked in the corner, old pictures of a black Volga. The signs commemorate not some effort by Willy Brandt to build more social housing, but sing the praises of Erich Honecker. The language was different. The way people behaved was different. There was more reserve, a stone-facedness that is simply missing in the former West.
I was both impressed and disturbed by Erfurt. It was beautiful, but there are sinister undertones. In the shadow of its breathtaking cathedral, a stone’s throw from its world-class old town there is a former Stasi prison. There were also different patterns. There were more Chinese and Vietnamese, many who’d been there for some time, generations, even — but there were relatively few Italians or Turks. I visited the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It survived because people forgot what it had once been.
It was similar in Berlin. My bed and breakfast was in the heart of the former West Berlin, but the owners were Soviets who had been living there since the days of the Cold War. They simply stayed on after the USSR collapsed. Berlin disgusted me. That it was an open, anything goes city… Well, I knew that. But I’m a great believer in there being a limit to tolerance. People should be free to do as they please, but not if it undermines the quality of life for others. It was worth seeing some things — the Topography of Terror, for example. The ruins of the former Gestapo headquarters articulate with a remnant of the former Berlin Wall. The Bundestag stands majestically, but it betrays the horrors of German history. All around it are remnants, memories, of a brutal past. Potsdam was a nicer place, but it, too had its strange edge. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was eery. It was once beautiful, but it’s simply destroyed. Nothing but damage. What made me wonder about Berlin more than anything was the fact that my visit to Normannenstr. 1 — the former Stasi headquarters — was the least creepy part of my visit.
I was happy, overjoyed, even, to reach Lubeck. I liked Lubeck. The fresh air was easier to breathe. The city is well-preserved, clean and orderly. I nicknamed it”Aldi Denmark” because it reminds me so much of a much cheaper, off-brand version of southern Scandinavia. I enjoyed dozing off in the park, walking through the old churches, past the historic streets. I might well, in fact, move there next year should things not considerably improve elsewhere. Northern Germany is, of course, different. But it’s not bad. The people are dry, but perhaps not as inclined to the chav as is the case far too often in Trier. They’re reserved, but not stone-faced like so many in the former DDR are. Even better, it’s easy to travel to Scandinavia and the UK from Hamburg which is only 45 minutes away. Lubeck felt like a garden.
Denmark was Denmark. It was a pleasant, but rather dear, visit. It’s Denmark, after all. Nothing there is cheap. It was nice to see the streets of Copenhagen again, to eat cake at La Glace. It was nice to see the Karen Blixen estate. Walking along the garden paths, sitting, chatting on a bench, seeing where she lived, how she lived, seeing her style, hearing her voice. It was all in excellent taste. It was also interesting to see the free air museum — a collection of houses from around Denmark and the neighbouring regions. It’s all well and good to visit castles, mansions and villas but few lived like that. Seeing how farmers lived, how shoemakers lived, how fishermen lived… That is how life was for most people and it wasn’t that easy. On my last evening I baked an apple cake and had a small gathering (four people in total, the other three totally respectable) in a garden.
I returned to Germany via Bremen. Bremen… Parts of it were beautiful. Parts of it were horrific. Not horrific in the sense of Berlin, not the atmosphere of horrors and degeneracy mixed together to form a heady cocktail of wretchedness. It was simply… Depressing. The post-war construction. Necessary, but ugly. The poor state of so much of the city. The vandalism, the filth, the stupid, mindless politics. In Bremen, you could walk down blocks of exquisite Wilhelmine terraces only to stumble upon a slum within five minutes. In Bremen, you could be captured one minute by remarkably well-preserved, late mediaeval/Renaissance neighbourhoods only… Only to hear a man talking to someone who wasn’t there and relieving himself in his trousers a few minutes later. This far-left “I don’t care, anything goes unless you disagree with me” mindset.
I was only all too happy to be on a train away from it… Back to the tolerability of a mediocre, underwhelming Trier where the occasional moments of eccentricity are so memorable only because they’re so atypical.
6 thoughts on “Les Voyages en Train”
Unlike you Christopher, I have done very little in the way of travel, this year. My trip to the UK was postponed in April and despite the fact that Zimbabwe has announced that international flights will resume in October, my carrier, Emirates has still to confirm any dates. So I am in limbo. However my sister in London is anticipating my arrival with glee on account of the fact that I shall be forced to isolate for 2 weeks. She said I will be allowed the use of two rooms in the top floor as well as a bathroom. I will not be allowed into the living area. Meals will have to be brought to me. To be fair, it is her husband rather than her who is the nervous nelly. A lovely many, but terribly cautious. He once insisted on taking drinking water from Devon on a road trip to Italy because he had heard that the water there was not all that it should be. As it turned out, there had been a sewage leak in Devon and he was the only one of the family to get ill.
But I did get to visit a lodge on the Zambezi a few Kms upstream from the Falls. Very luxurious it was and entirely not my cup of tea. I despair when I see more white towels than I can shake a stick at. But the food was excellent and the location very pretty. As for the game, there was a lot of it, but even I had to admit, that one elephant looks pretty much like another. The same thing goes for buffalo, lion, sable, ….
I have never been to Berlin. Perhaps I would not like it, which is a pity. I think I mentioned to you before the writer and Times correspondent, Douglas Reed. Did you ever download his books Insanity Fair, Disgrace Abounding and A Prophet at Home? The first two discuss his time in Germany before the War and tell of his great love of the country and its people as well as the city of Berlin. It is a great shame that his warnings about the rise of Nazism were not heeded by his masters back in London.
Anyway, keep rebelling against the modern tyranny. ‘Every little helps.’
Sipu: You did not miss anything. The UK has utterly lost the plot over bat ‘flu. When I talk to friends in Blighty, I’m sometimes taken aback by what they’re telling me about the situation on the Continent. Whatever dross the British media spout doesn’t reflect reality here. They’re almost shocked when I simply shrug it off. What am I supposed to say? Life carries on here. Most things are largely back to normal. Some days are better, some days are worse. Cases continue to grow, but that’s largely among younger, healthier people who experience few complications. Moreover, more people are being tested than in the past which also catches more. If, of course, you believe the positive test results. Too many of those tests are incredibly dodgy and there are far too many false positives.
I envy your visit. I wanted so much to go to Africa this year. Obviously, that didn’t happen. It’s unlikely to happen next year, either. I’m committed to fly to California for a few weeks in summer and East Asia in autumn. It’s not so much for the wild life, but for the vastness that I’d like to go to Africa. Europe is so small, so cramped. It is, to be fair, so very underwhelming. Bruce Chatwin, I believe, was the one who described England as a chicken coop. It isn’t only England, it’s Europe generally. Neat, orderly, predictable — but utterly tedious, painfully domestic. One of my Spanish teachers (I’ve committed to improving my Spanish) lives in Bolivian Amazonia. We discuss life in Bolivia and Europe, compare attitudes and daily rituals. She finds northern Europe to be almost comically sedate. My little acts of rebellion and dissent would, in Bolivia, not raise even the most sensitive of eyes. That is, perhaps, why I have such mixed feelings about life here. There is reassurance in the order, but it can be remarkable soul-sapping. It’s a world not quite asleep, but certainly not awake.
Berlin was, even a few years ago, a far more interesting city. It was rougher, unfinished but creative, dynamic and youthful. It, like New York, San Francisco and London has become a victim of its own success. The people that made those cities remarkable, that made them special have been chased out by a moneyed elite that want the social cachet of living in those cities. I’ve been reliably informed that Leipzig is more what Berlin once was than Berlin now is. My B&B in Berlin was one of the few highlights. It’s in an old Wilhelmine terrace. The dining room was true to the turn of the 19th/20th centuries with original wood panelling, paintings and other details. Berlin, like Paris, is worth a single visit but…
Well writ, Christopher.
I’m quite fond of train travel myself, in spite of having commuted to work by rail for many years. I’m not thinking of the NYC subway (underground) system but rather of “proper” trains, especially those on the line I used, that had once-luxurious long-distance carriages mixed in with the newer, more crowded ones. If I wanted to take a trip to somewhere else in the USA or Canada (which I don’t), I’d choose train over plane nearly every time.
Cog: I had the fortune to find some good deals on tickets on the ICE. When travelling between Germany and France I went first class a couple of times. It was eminently worth it for the 10 euro difference. Having my own seat by the window without the threat of anyone else sitting next to me was worth it. Same thing with the TGV — although not up to the same standard as the German ICE, the roomy seats… Yes. Travelling by aeroplane is a bloody nuisance. Hard to get the measure of the scenery. The cattle car atmosphere doesn’t for a good time make.
I’m debating taking the train from San Diego to Simi Valley next year. It might well not happen, but it’s worth considering if I need to go to San Diego for work anyway.
Your trips sound very interesting Christopher and I do rather envy you being able to see so many places uncluttered by tourists. The problem is, of course, that when i get to these places I’m just another ‘damn tourist’ too.
My daughter and I had to cancel our trip to Europe earlier this year, and we thought to take the train up to Darwin. We weren’t sure how things would pan out and didn’t book. Just as well.
Boadicea: This summer, there were two things. The first was that there were relatively few crowds. In some places, like Versailles and Chenonceau there are still disgustingly large crowds, of course. But in general, even the banks of the Seine were largely free of hordes. The three main sources of visitors: Russia, China and the United States are prohibited entry into most of Europe. Say what you will about the three, those holidaymakers spend money. Those who did come — largely Europeans — spend less money and spend fewer days. Especially in, say, Tours I was one of the very few who wasn’t French. There were a handful of Dutch, a German or two, a few Brits, but that was really it. As a result, hotels were ridiculously cheap. I spent less money for an ensuite room in a good neighbourhood in Paris, on the weekend at peak season than I did a few years ago, mid-week in the depths of January — very much the trough of the trough and in a dodgier place. Likewise, my stay in Berlin was unusually cheap. In Lubeck it was only 25 euro a night and it was a really nice place.
The one thing that has amused me is that a lot of countries with bizarre travel regimes, such as Denmark and the UK, have fallen short of their own requirements. For example, for months Swedes were treated likes lepers by Denmark and the UK. Now, Sweden’s growth in new bat ‘flu cases are less than a fourth of those in the UK and about a tenth of those in Denmark. Bonkers and his insane clown posse won’t let me fly into the UK because they deem Luxembourg to be a “high risk” country (it isn’t, it’s simply that Luxembourg has tested pretty much everyone and Luxembourg tests those commuting from neighbouring countries as well which inflates their totals by an additional 20-25%) but Luxembourg has lower rates of growth than the UK.