Like an aging rock band, we decided to do a Grand Tour of Europe, to visit old friends and beloved places. At the top of our list we placed Barry Stapley and Pedro Villalaz, two favorite fellow grad students at Imperial College from 1968 to 72; and our hideaway in southern Italy where I wrote most of my thesis. For extra thrills I threw in Berlin and Prague, cities I had never visited, plus a cruise on the Danube, something Yoshiko always wanted to do. And at the last minute a rendezvous with a high school buddy who has spent the last 50 years in Brno, near Prague. Ambitious, but I worked the pieces into a 22-day schedule optimizing 7day rail passes.
The original schedule
It took most of April to get all the planes and trains and hotel rooms in place. Being perhaps the last people on the planet without smart phones made the trip difficult, operationally: things like train passes, hotel bookings, boarding passes etc. are all designed to function on cell phones. For a brief period we did have Yoshiko’s relatively intelligent phone, but we did not organize roaming; and besides that phone got left in a castle in YYBS (actual name of a place in Austria). So we made do with all the crucial info on my ipad, with photo capture of documents as back up. Largely successful, though hazardous.
Once the plan was set, we had three months of nervousness as Covid-19 and airline crises threatened the whole shebang. I began to regret picking the cheapest flight to Berlin because it started us flying backwards to Toronto, the site of the worst delays and baggage foul-ups, where we would have optimally three hours to make a connexion but possibly miss it or lose baggage. Further, there was a second plane-change in Munich, designed I’m sure to give faltering Lufthansa some action.
However, we finally got started on 26 August. The delay to TO was an hour- an omen of things to come. And when we got to Berlin our luggage was late, because the MTL check-in desk would not allow Y to carry on 4 oversize bags. But it came on the next flight and we headed for town. At the Berlin metro ticket machine we received our first stroke of good luck: a girl standing there wearing the same colours as the ticket machine told us we could buy a 9-euro ticket and use it anywhere on German trains and subways for the rest of the month. An interesting person dealing with a dull job by reading a giant book on philosophy: welcome to Deutschland! We took her advice.
The Berlin metro system is wonderfully comprehensive and the most user-friendly one we encountered (Paris in last place). We quickly got to our hotel, strategically located in Potsdammer Platz, a once derelict area abandoned by the Soviets but recently intensively developed with fantastic architecture and museums and embassies (including Canada’s).
The major places of interest- the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten were within easy walking distance (says he, famous forced-march kommandant) and so we did them all, ending up in the collection of really modern buildings on the edge of Potsdammer square.
I really liked our hotel, Motel One Potsdammer- superior simple design, great location good price as part of a very large modern mall. For our first evening we tromped around the Mitte area behind the hotel, deeper into the old Soviet neighborhoods, now full of fancy restaurants and shops. We were into authentic German cuisine, a sort of oxymoron. On the patio of a typical venue we gorged on pig’s knuckle and beer. Gross!
In the first minutes of this feast, I had one of my hurricane-force sneezes, which blew a lens out of my glasses. Fortunately Y packed scotch tape so we stuck the lens back in. This fix lasted til I got fed up with further failures and bought some krazy glue.
One of many examples of one of us compensating for the other’s flaws; Y calls it ‘Two for One’ but for me its ‘Two half wits make One’.
On our second night we opted for a Turkish variant in the Neukolln area, an older neighborhood now buzzing with ethnic action: men, old and young gathered around small tables on the street, smoking stuff; myriad small street food niches serving Turkish fast-food. We sought a place, Azzam, where ‘people flock’ according to in our guidebook. I imagined a quiet, upscale hideaway. Instead, ten rough tables attached to a bustling open kitchen, no service, no cutlery: hummus, Mediterranean sausage, veggies pita bread. Earthy, pretty good, but except for the lively atmosphere not unlike what we get here in the souvlaki chains. In any case, we managed to stuff ourselves again…
On our return trip we flew back to Berlin from London, and stayed in the Mitte area at the famous Checkpoint Charlie endeared to American tourists, in another modest, modern hotel and experienced Turkish culture more intimately in a small bar full of Turks with Friday Night Fever, this time with lamb in stew and shisha format. Here again, hummus not as rich as the Lebanese version.
I love Berlin. Very modern, colourful, civilized, diverse. Reminds me of Tokyo, a great place to be.
Then on to Prague, normally a 5 or 6 hour trip. Unbeknownst, we were entering the early stages of a pervasive trend: train trajectory interrupted by construction work, delay exacerbated by German tourism policy allowing anyone to travel anywhere on German transit network thru July and August for only 9 euros ( 12 bucks!). Everyone did just that. Our train stopped about halfway to Prague in Dresden where we had to follow some cryptic instructions to walk 8 mins and get on a bus. The bus drove for about an hour to a hilly Czech town where we got another train. Delay an hour or two.
In Prague around rush hour we easily got a tram across the river to the famously historic Charles Bridge area. Our hotel somewhere here. I had a rough map. We walked among glorious medieval buildings…ah, there it is, the Three Storks Hotel. A guy rushed out to greet us, dragged us into a charming lobby. ‘Make yourself comfortable. A glass of Prosecco?’ Great. “ Let me see your reservation…hmmm don’t see it on our books…Ha, you’re in the wrong place, you’re looking for the Three Ostriches Hotel”.
How could we miss that? Fortunately the Three Ostriches was, were, nearby, at the foot of the Charles Bridge. A really old building, maybe medieval, rugs a bit frayed, but a good room, very pleasant staff. We decided to patronize its restaurant, outside in the busy square. Ostrich on the menu…I declined in favour of goulash, why not? Y tried spaghetti, which turned up as plasticised worms. The goulash was odd, not a heavy stew, just a strangely flavoured gravy. Not like my Mom’s!
Next day Y decided to explore on her own while I met my old high school mate, Don Sparling, who travelled in from Brno where he taught English language and literature since leaving grad school. At Nepean High in Ottawa he and two other guys and I formed the infamous nerd group, always at odds with the pop trends, lounging around reading poetry and drinking green tea. Formative years.
Don and I had a great time, as if we had not been separated by 50 years and 8000 km. Though he claimed otherwise, he knew Prague very well. We lunched by the river (I tried goulash again, confirming that the Prague version is odd) and then ambled all around the old city, on both sides of the river. Quite illuminating.
And Don had a fascinating personal tale. Toward the end of the Soviet regime people were allowed to view the file generated about them by the secret police. His was full of imagined events and spurious claims. It turns out the ‘secret’ agents were inclined to enrich their targets’ files in order to please their bosses. Don said he was beginning a novel where his real self encounters his secret police self. On the plane home I watched a hilarious German film, The Stasi Report, which follows a similar theme.
We concluded a fine day with tea in a marvelously domed room above the trains station. Don went home and I joined Y who had miraculously not gone missing.
Second night in the heart of the old town we sampled another version of gross out: roast pig leg. Equally gross but not so fatty. Then we went to a charming concert in the Cathedral St. Clement featuring Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Later we learned this sort of summer concert with holidaying musicians is a common tradition in Europe.
Prague lives up to its reputation as a beautifully preserved mediaeval city.
Down the Danube
Travel on the next day was crucial: we had to travel to Deggendorf on the edge of the Danube, about 2 hours east of Munich, to board our cruise boat by 17:00 at the latest. At the last moment, because of low water levels on the river, the meeting place was changed to Vilshofen on the other side of the Danube…… I had to figure out how to get there. Then there was another change: we were to meet at Munich train station by 15:00, two hours earlier, to board a chartered bus for the boat. Better for us, we could take an express train directly to Munich. So we thought.
We began about ten. Since we had a 7 day pass but 8 days of travel, I had paid for the Berlin- Prague leg, so this was our first day to use the pass, details happily stored off line on my iPad. Happily we were early for the train so I showed the train guy the pass details. I thought we should have a QR type ID thing- so did he. Not there. He madly pushed buttons for about 5 minutes. Aha! There it is. Saved.
Partially. We were on an express train. Good- until it stopped at nowhere and we were told there was a technical problem, and we were to transfer to a local train for a bit then transfer to another local train for Munich. Good grief! Boot express passengers onto milk trains that barely moved. The minutes dragged by. Our express train was supposed to get us to Munich with an hour and a half to find the bus. We crept forward at ever decreasing speed. I imagined $7500 in boat tickets slowly burning…
[Aside: the big problem with train delays is that the delayed train loses its place in the queue for track space, so the delays snowball into longer and longer durations].
Finally, the platform at Munich. We had 4 minutes to find the bus. The added glitch was that the boat guys had no idea how we would arrive at the meeting place. Their plan was devised for people coming on organized flights to Munich. So the boat guys would assume anyone missing at 15:00 got to the boat by other means.
First off the train, I bounded to the platform. Ooops, giant stumble, ripped a hole in the knee of my pants which I bore as a mark of heroism for the rest of the trip. We rushed into the station, asking a policeman where we might find the hotel where the bus was parked. Rushed thru the magnificent Sofitel hotel lobby. A sign for the boat tour- but nobody there. Pant, pant.
A casual American appeared. “ah, just in time for the second bus. We’ll wait a while to see if there are any stragglers.”
These moments of despair were soon to turn into absolute delight as we boarded the Avalon Artistry II on the Danube.
Our boat, The Artistry II
The Artistry II was not the boat in our original schedule. It apparently had a smaller draft than the other, so better suited to the low water levels. The good thing about the change was the Artistry II was a smaller boat, only 120 passengers max. The even better thing was that only 86 people got on board.
BTW the Danube was not as expected, not a broad river like say the Ottawa even- more like a wide creek.
In short order we met the fellow travelers, on board. They appeared to be mostly mid-western Americans, probably in the 50-70 range. After a warm-up from the captain, German I think, and tour director, a Serb maybe, we got our cabin, deliberately chosen at the rear of the top deck, adjacent to the aft lounge and poop deck. Great for its expresso machine and viewing the scene. Then we cemented our love affair with the boat: the first of many excellent meals. Don’t recall what we had this time. From buffet breakfast thru hot lunch to luxury dinner, every meal was excellent, roast lamb, beef, grilled fish.
And to make the meals doubly enjoyable, we were joined that first night by Janice and John, Janice a Hong Kong expatriate, and John claiming to be a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan, from suburban NJ. Together we formed the exclusive Asian ethnic clique.
Actually before Janice and John we met a garrulous Australian widow from a farm near Perth. Deeply political her first question was ‘does everyone hate Trudeau?’ A real ‘boat fly’ she made it a point to meet and interrogate every social group onboard. She claimed the Americans on board were largely Trumpists. Did not confirm.
Anyway that first dinner was exquisite and things only got better.
Overnight we were on our way downriver from Vilshofen to Linz, in Austria, where we did our first onshore activity. I was skeptical that the onshore activities would be anything more than some tourist platitudes and souvenir-buying opportunities. Wrong Again! The guide was really knowledgeable, maybe a university lecturer who spared no details about the Austrian collaboration with Hitler. In this discussion she asked ‘what makes ordinary good citizens join the likes of Hitler?’ I was tempted to say ‘look at Trump’ but thought better as our group might well have included those Trumpists.
Linz is a charming medieval town, with its castles, old Town, a stunning museum high above, and the world’s oldest cake, the Linzer Torte. Any time I tried it there was no doubt it was the world’s oldest cake…
After lunch on board we sailed to Mauthausen where we had an opportunity to tour the infamous concentration camp there. No thanks. We did one of our typical impromptu hikes- up the mountain side and down, the highlight being a stop in a Spar co-op grocery where Y bought about 4 packages of gendarmes that were on sale. Gendarmes, the standby staple: Y claims I allowed us only one per day during our 1972 tour of Europe. We were going out in luxury!
YBBS and Krems
Next morning we reached the ancient village of YBBS (yes that is its name) in the rich Wachau Valley, centre of Austrian wine-making. We did a brief tour of the old town, important at one time for its role in river commerce which involved extracting tolls from boats and their cargoes, like wine and salt.
Later we sailed briefly to Krems, the so-called gateway to the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Here we opted for the Arstetten Castle excursion. We bussed across the valley and up into a heavily forested mountain to one of the principal palaces of the Habsburg empire. It was the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, most famous for being killed thus precipitating the First World War. Costly claim to fame.
Now the impressive castle is a Hohenberg museum run by the current head of the family, an equally impressive woman. Really interesting displays of Hohenberg stuff. By a stroke of good luck, the head of the family- Elizabeth Herzogin von Hohenberg, Prinzessin von Luxemburg, von Bourbon, von Parma und von Nassau-was there and spoke to us at great length about her role in first, convincing European governments to let the family retain its extensive income-properties in return for renouncing their titles; and secondly, managing this commercial empire.
Other interesting detail: our somewhat eccentric leder-hosen clad guide was himself a Hohenberg. Quite entertaining guy, tho inbreeding almost visible.
Good luck ran out shortly thereafter: Y left her iPhone in the castle toilet.
Overnight cruising again, to Vienna. One thing I did not like was travelling so much at night. Maybe necessary, especially on a short cruise; probably desired by the great unwashed masses. But a big loss for a river-rat like me. Somewhat compensated for later by a long afternoon sail into Budapest.
Last of my several visits to Vienna was on the way to Istanbul in 2004. Loved it then. Loved it again. We did a long walking tour within the Ringstrasse, to the Opera, through the Imperial Palace to St. Stephan’s Cathedral. Excellent young guide again. After we continued with our own walk through the shops and alleyways. One of our neighbours runs a cigar shop somewhere here. Did not run into him…
At night we returned for a concert by the Original Vienna Salon Orchestra in an ancient chamber concert hall. Lots of Strauss and Leher, Mozart, some fine singing and play-acting. It turns out this sort of semi-pro concert is common in European cities, typically in churches, with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Einekleinenachmusik- a way of creating an income for musicians during the off season. It was fun, even with the guy in the next row silently farting.
On a couple of other nights, we had another form of concert: a rusty Australian singing oldies with guitar, and a small band of equally colourful seniors- I think touring musicians who were friends of the tour director.
Next on our list, Bratislava in Slovakia, and the most pleasant surprise of the whole tour. Another very competent guide, a perky young woman, possibly a student. She provided interesting insights into the character of Slovakia- for example that the separation from the Czechs was a case of political opportunism by guys who became the respective prime ministers rather a difference between very similar peoples. A highlight was the town’s oldest store, with a free sample of a sort of donut and local wine. There was a major festival in progress, with dozens of handicraft booths, a stage being set up for some musical performance I suppose, lots of beer and wine. I was so impressed with the city I bought a souvenir. Now I’m the only kid here with a Bratislava hat!
After lunch we began a long cruise to Budapest, last stop. Here the river took on new character, more like the Bow River flowing into Calgary: pastel green, fast flowing, banks lined with forest and an occasional castle. People were out enjoying a day of fishing or swimming or boating. At one point the river broadened into a great lake behind a massive dam. During the trip we went thru many locks, sometimes dropping as much as 50 feet.
Morning brought an end to our boat tour. Only 6 days but so packed with beauty of many different kinds that it seemed like a month. Our new friends Janica and John and many others had booked the tour extension which took them on a bus tour of Budapest ending at the Intercontinental Hotel. We figured out how to do our own tour on an On-and-Off bus.
On the tour director’s advice we did a full circuit of the city, about an hour, to decide where to get off to explore further. Like most days, it was very hot, so on the second circuit we decided to get off at the city centre and look for a cool drink. After a bit of wandering we ran across ‘the California Cool’ bar. I ordered smoothies while Y sought the loo. I turned to sit down, and behold: Janice and John! Their bus stopped at the same place for the same reason. Millions of people in Budapest, yet we run into our only two friends again. Must be some significant meaning in this…
Eventually we went back to the boat to collect our luggage and figure out how to get to the correct train station. Most European cities have several of them. Got to get it right. We took a taxi, pretty long ride for ten euros. Station very linear. We finally located our track for Vienna, and bought some lunch material for the trip. We were leaving at 15:55 for a change to the sleeper train in Vienna. We arrived at Vienna station in time for the connexion, crucial because we had reservations for the sleeper. But the sleeper was coming from somewhere else and arrived ninety minutes late. A frequent happening.
A really efficient young train lady, probably raised throwing cattle around in the Austrian countryside, got us into our cubicle, built for three people with beds that folded down from the wall. Later the train lady came back and muscled the beds into place.
OK for now but we had a problem. We were supposed to change trains for Milano Central station very early in the morning in Brescia- but we would not be in Brescia in time. No problem said the train lady. “This train is now going all the way to Milano, to Porta Garibaldi station. Good, but it would arrive after our reserved train from Milano Central to Pisciotta had left.
So in Porta Garibaldi, around 8:10, we had to find a later train, without having reservations. The station was absolutely packed with travelers whose trains were late. Really long queue at ticket wicket. Fortunately there was a train around 9:00. We found the correct platform, assigned at the very last moment (another frequent happening). A train came. We got on. Fortunately again, a train man came along and checked our ticket: we were on a train going in the wrong direction, the result of that last-minute assignment of tracks. He put us on a very slow-moving commuter train back to Garibaldi. Another visit to the ticket office. Another long queue. Perhaps by way of compensation the kind ticket lady took us by hand to the proper track and put us on the next train to Napoli- with minutes to spare.
We were now 2 hours further behind our schedule. And of course our train, a Red Express, began growing progressively later- it was Red but not Express- until we were 20 minutes too late to make the next connection. So we had to improvise again from Napoli to take a regional to Salerno then another express to Pisciotta, arriving three hours behind plan.
Late would not have mattered to us retirees, except our curious hotel, Agriturismo Valle di Marco, had registration hours from 2 to 4, and I had assured the owner that we would arrive by 3. At Pisciotta station the bar guy arranged for a woman- probably his mistress- to drive us to our hotel, about five km for 25 euros (subsequently we discovered the bus was 2). Then we had to interrupt the hotel owner’s evening to check in. It turns out the ‘hotel’ is a sort of agricultural co-op, with cute little cabins surrounded by all manners of fruit trees and other greenery. And served by a superb restaurant.
All’s well that ends well. We spent the next few hours eating Italian style- 5 courses, each a meal in itself- at a table with a wonderful view of the Mediterranean, wafted by a warm breeze under a moonlit sky. Impossible to describe the beauty of the three evenings in Pisciotta. Paradise!
Did I mention weather? Perfect from day one, on the hot side especially in Pisciotta. Next morning we enjoyed a fine breakfast of croissants, dark bread, fruit and cappuccino again on the restaurant terrace. Then we figured out the bus schedule. I had found the nearest stop, just down the road. For 2 euros each we reached the train station in a few minutes. Problem was, the schedule of this bus never synchronized with the schedule of the next bus we wanted, to Marina di Pisciotta. So had to wait maybe 40 minutes to bus down the steep slopes, on serpentine roads, to our old hideaway on the sea. But there it was! Modernized, built over and touristized a bit- but the old port and the sea wall still there.
We originally got to Marina di Pisciotta in 1972 through a series of happenstances. In London, I had finished collecting my thesis data- and Y had given up on English lessons. We wanted to escape English winter so we gathered a few friends and headed to Zermat in Byndon, my 1961 VW van, for a ski trip.
We wanted to head south for a tour of Europe, to visit my colleague Pedro in Milano, then Y’s sister in Vienna, then look for a place to languish while I wrote up my thesis. Pedro’s prof was on an academic visit at the University of Milano (tho it was shut down by strikes). Pedro had filled in for his prof to deliver a conference paper down the Italian coast in Palinuro, a tourist town not widely known outside Italy. Pedro recommended we look for cheap accommodation there. So after Vienna and Venice, we headed south.
On the coast, after Napoli, Vesuvius, Amalfi and then Salerno, the towns become smaller, often isolated on sharp peaks, loosely connected by treacherous roads- an improvement from Medieval times when they were joined by boat. Pisciotta is one of them, a medieval town high above the sea. But there was a narrow road down to its Marina. As we emerged on the sea wall we had the same thought: this is it, our hideaway. So as I started to turn the van around to look for a place to stay, some guy started shouting from one of the balconies lining the breakwater. He ran out of the building and started talking to me excitedly. Somehow I figured it out- as the local lawyer, he thought we were there to get a divorce. Not yet. Instead I asked him about an apartment. He had that too. So in quick order we had a place to stay for the next month, overlooking the sea, with few responsibilities beyond writing my thesis by day and helping our neighbours fish for sardines by night.
Our old neighbourhood, greatly moderized
Fifty years later began a search for our old apartment. We had a few clues, like the narrow stairways where our former neighbours lived. We chatted with a few locals, but found no conclusive evidence.
No matter. It was lunchtime. We settled on a seafood restaurant that highlighted octopus. We had a fine meal, then rented an umbrella and beach stairs and spent the afternoon lounging in the sun and sea. Paradise extended!
Repeat cycle. Bus, another exquisite meal on our patio, next morning back on the bus to Pisciotta itself, where we explored the ancient town. Hard to imagine people building a massive town on an isolated peak and then organizing the resources needed for everyday life. And they still do!
Repeat cycle, excellent seafood lunch and an afternoon on the beach. This time at the end of the day there was a religious parade, Ave Maria, with marching bands and half the town following as pilgrims.
After the bus extricated itself from the crowd, we were back at the station with an 80 minute wait for the bus to our cabin. We decided to walk. On a treacherous road with zany drivers. In the dark. No matter, I knew the way. Despite Y’s counterintuitive sense of direction, we made it in 40 minutes.
Yay, time for another fine dinner on the patio. The only problem we had with the restaurant was that it did not change the menu from day to day, so we had to choose from a diminishing array of alternatives. On the first night Y satisfied her passion for Italian spaghetti (first piatti, more than a meal in itself). I discovered the ravioli with a marvelous sauce and had it two nights in a row.
Alas, it came time to leave our paradise. A bus back to the station for the 09:54 train for Milano then Zurich to visit Pedro and Helga. PA announcement: rail strike, trains delayed. Why not?
Expected delay got progressively longer- 30, 40, 50 minutes by the time the train arrived. Uneventful trip across the enchanting Italian countryside, green field and slope dotted with charming little towns, some with modern versions of the traditional style. Uneventful until we reached the magnificent Milano Centrale, an hour late for our 18:00 connexion to Zurich. With thousands of Italians thrown by the rail strike into the same boat so to speak. Actually it was the same station hall, packed to the eyeballs. If we could not contact covid in this shambles we never would.
The next available train was at 19:10, for which we theoretically would have to get a new reservation. There were probably 200 tired people in the queue at the ticket office, with a red-headed fireball barking military orders to keep everyone in line. We decided if we were not served by 19:00 we would run for the train, come what may. We inched forward, not optimistically. Lo and behold at precisely 19:00 we were first in the queue. Quick decision: request the reservation or run for train. We went for the reservations, then raced to the train…which was 15 minutes late.
As you see, trains were uniformly late, no matter where we were. But the other regularity was the train people bent over backwards to help us back on track.
As we rolled up the beautiful route past Lugano and Bellinzona, unfortunately in the dark, the train man came along, looked at our pass and informed us that the QR was invalid. It was in fact a ticket for our first trip on 31 August. Suddenly I realized the QR I thought was the pass ID was actually a ticket for a specific train trip. Enlightening! We had traveled on 9 trains and only presented one proper ticket. Train people had not looked at our QRs at all. We could go on travelling forever on a 7-day pass! Tempting.
I sat down and finally figured out I had to press a little box on the iPad display to legitimize a ticket for a particular trip. From then on we were legal!
Anyway we reached Zurich around 22:30, two hours later than planned. Fortunately I had told Pedro not to expect us at night, but to meet us the next morning. Unfortunately our hotel shut its doors at 22:30 so by the time we got there it was black. I knocked on its giant wooden door. A man appeared in the distance, looked at us, went away. What to do? I noticed a large black box next to the door. Digital registration. Very Swiss. And so was the protocol, all kinds of information, passport capture, etc., etc. Fortunately, yet again, a Spanish guest appeared, probably attending a medical conference, also attempting to register. So two highly educated people and their spouses managed to convince the digital machine to let us all off the street before midnight.
After another fine European breakfast we met Pedro and Helga at 10. Pedro was one of my favorite classmates at Imperial College, 1968-72. Helga was a flatmate in Mayfair. Then I introduced them to one another. So especially close friends since.
Not hard to spot them, they look like Pedro and Helga always looked. We set off on a fine walking tour of Zurich, a beautiful city that I really love. Nothing like having a local guide.
Eventually we ended up at a tour boat dock and started a trip down the river to the great lake, a side of Zurich I had enjoyed on previous visits, even taking a swim. We landed in delightful parkland and had a very Swiss snack, then finished our tour and took a tram to their apartment, the very interesting place I had visited at least once before. Designed by an award-winning architect it has some quirky and some wonderful features, like the semi-circular glassed patio off the living space. In a land of very scarce habitations they are fortunate to have such an exceptional one- mountains on one side, the city on the other. It is threatened by development of the building into condos but they seem safe for the present.
Later we went for a very fine dinner in a nearby medieval mill. Pedro had schnitzel, naturally, Helga a salad, Y schnitzel too… and me a cordon bleu pork. And lots of wine. We walked back thru the local forest to their place- then bid adieu.
A perfect day. Fine weather, memorable sights, and hours of warm conversation, as if we had not been apart for 15 years or so. This was the whole point of the Grand Farewell Tour!
Next morning, on to Paris. Uneventful trip across the glorious French countryside, past Basel and Belfort and the broad French prairies. I think we were on time, arriving at the Gare de Lyon in late afternoon to be challenged by the extremely user-unfriendly Paris Metro. But eventually it gets you there, in this case the Marais, long my favorite part of Paris. Around 1970 I visited another Imperial College classmate there, Maurice Goldberg, whose in-laws, Jewish refugees from WWII, ran a raincoat factory. At the time the Marais was quite run down, but in the interim it has blossomed into a trendy area full of restaurants and bars and fancy shops and fashion spots. But it was always full of historical buildings from the pre-revolutionary period and its aftermath. Glorious architecture.
Our Caroline claimed it has become the gay area. Probably right. The bars were surrounded by dozens of lively drinkers, mostly men, mostly standing in the street in dense crowds, some oddly sitting at tables but facing outward instead of one another. The place to be seen, I guess…
Our little hotel hid close to the Metro on a busy square, aptly named ‘the Pratik’ because of location and simplicity. Typical old style Paris hotel as I recall from my first visit in 1966. Rooms totted up with modern facilities, but still the steep narrow stairway-five flights for us, no elevator- and a tiny room making the big bed the only occupyable space.
We had a fine night wandering around the historical buildings and lively bar scenes, typically not able to make a decision on where to eat. Very late we ended up in a sushi joint run by a loud Chinese family. After our appetizer the waitress forgot about us despite our location so close to the sushi chef our ears were at risk. But we had a leisurely evening observing the local scene as others came and went.
Next morning, on the Metro again across the city to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar for London. Eurorail advised us to be at least an hour early to clear all the checkpoints. So after wandering around the famous Gare du Nord area we started the process two hours early. Good thing. Ticket check. French passport check. British passport check. Customs check. About 90 minutes in the queue. But finally onboard for the dash thru the Chunnel. Pretty much on time to St. Pancras station. Eurorail suggested a bizarre transfer to Paddington thru Liverpool station by bus and whatever- but I knew the stations were close, so by the Tube we were on time for the train to Tiverton.
The West Country
Unfortunately one update the Pratik hotel failed to install was functional internet, so my many messages to Barry, our host in the West Country, failed to arrive. We arrived on time in Tiverton station, but Barry was of course not there. I did not have a phone number or a precise address. But we found a taxi driver who knew the general area- Burlesombe. As we approached this rural outpost I started to recognize some things, particularly the church behind Barry’s, and then the house- Town Farm.
And there was Barry peering out of a window. Again, no trouble identifying Barry and Sue.
Soon we were settled into the ultra comfortable guest suite Barry had created from a derelict industrial farm for the visits of his kids and grandkids from the surrounding region. And then we joined Barry and Sue for a long evening of stories and wine and a Salmon Wellington that Barry forgot to put into the oven after carefully calibrating the cooking time and temperature. No matter, anything to extend the great time we were having.
In the morning we had a tour of the grand manor Barry had created out of a derelict cow farm. I had visited several times, from the very start, sometimes helping with the day’s task, so I marveled at the accomplishments- including a whole new building devoted to wine making! We visited some local shops and a market place- Y picked up more sausages. After a rest, we went to their favorite restaurant in Tiverton for the 5:30 specials. Excellent salted squid, ……
On the way back to Burlescombe Barry remarked that this might be the last visit for the 5:30 specials because he did not fancy driving in the dark. Maybe the specials can be advanced to 3:30.
Another wonderfully nostalgic visit, re-living some of our favorite memories, again making the whole long trip worthwhile.
Next morning back to London on a comfortable express to Paddington and a quick transfer to South Kensington and a hike to our hotel, the Montana, on Gloucester Road. Very familiar territory, a couple of blocks from Imperial and our infamous subterranean flat on Cornwall Gardens. Not unlike the Pratik the Montana was a modest makeover of older lodgings, in this case outwardly posh apartments. Rickety elevator. But a good room with modern facilities.
We had some lunch fixings- pork pies- so we headed over to Imperial to sit among the bustling students in fine sunshine. Imperial is much the same and greatly changed at the same time. Elec Eng building, Linstead Hall where we first met, student commons still there- but grand new buildings, new campuses and whole new schools in medicine etc. Sadly no trace of our beloved Professor Cherry in the halls of Elec Eng.
Royal College of Art, favorite haunt for vegge lunch and chicks
Once again, a lengthy march to find a place for dinner. Very late we chose a very humble Indian restaurant that had a decent set dinner. Pretty good.
In the morning, after what was now my de rigeur breakfast- croissant and latte- I set out to retrace my steps to Soho, where I regularly went to shop in Berwick market. Also the site of the Amalfi Restaurant where, as Y tells it, on our first date she sat watching me eat cannelloni, starving because she thought I was a poor student. Also the first occasion of a long march in search of a place to eat. Slow learners, both.
Despite the visible new developments I was largely able to spot the old haunts- the location of Foyles giant bookstore (now gone), Barry’s wine bar (also gone), the market streets, Liberty’s historic store, the film-making area, and so on. But something very new: in those old days there were a few Chinese restaurants in Soho, but now there blocks and blocks of them, maybe 50, across Shaftesbury street. Now we had a focal point for our dinner search!
Grosvenor Square, site of the US Embassy and famous ’68 riots
And then, the start of the trip home. A new experience, leaving from City Airport thus avoiding the long travel and hassle of Gatwick or Heathrow. Pretty good experience except- plane late. In all our flying events there was a problem with the plane we were supposed to board not completing its previous flight on time. Like the situation with the trains, each small delay snowballs into a major problem. So we arrived later than expected in Berlin.
By now we had mastered the Berlin transit system, which is ubiquitous and easy to understand, So on a S train towards Spandau and a U tube to Stadmitte station by around 18:00. It was cold and drizzlish, but we managed to find our hotel, The Wall, a modern high rise building with art works on otherwise austere hallways but very modern rooms- a fancy bathroom almost the size of our whole room at the Pratik. The hotel adjoined the popular ‘Check-point Charlie’ tourist site, esteemed by Americans, not far from our first hotel at Potsdamer Platz. We were also near ‘The Museum of Disgusting Food’, which did not bode well for local cuisine, but we found an interesting, intimate sort of Turkish nightspot with a one-man band/singer. Once again we gorged on some really rich stuff amongst a gaggle of Turkish girls being plied with drinks by the management, what looked like a bridal shower and some local heavies. Colourful!
In the morning we started the long trip to Montreal, back on the U and the S train to the massive Berlin airport. Really spacious, elegant, lots of wood framing.
First leg to Munich, a very busy airline hub, more or less on time, tho walking from our arrival gate to the exit one ate up most of the connexion time. I was determined to have a beer before departure- Munich, after all- and might have missed the flight because Y lined up in the boarding queue while I was guzzling. In the end, German and European beers not worth missing a plane; I prefer my imported Beck’s or Heineken.
Long 8-hour flight to Montreal, on an A350, large capacity but large leg room so as restful as possible. In the huge array of videos available I found a hilarious send up of the infamous Stasi secret police that terrorized East Germany. A suitable bookend to our trip largely behind what was once an Iron Curtain.
Back home, ten minutes early, for a warm welcome from Caroline. And our own secret police failed to find Y’s dozens of Gendarmes!