Robert Fyfe

Joined June 2017
  • Day28

    Home Sweet Home

    July 1 in the United Kingdom

    Brussels’ city centre railway stations are numerous and confusing. I was staying near Brussels-Luxembourg, and the train circled the city - Brussels Schuman, Brussels North, Brussels Central, before arriving at Brussels Midi which confusingly is also known as Brussels South. I had worked out that the Eurostar departed from Brussels Midi (or was it South), and on arrival I was relieved to see the Eurostar trains were running in spite of the Belgian train strike. A bit of panic however when I printed out my ticket to get a note saying my seat had been changed and, more alarmingly, I was now assigned to the 09.38 train instead of the 10.52. As it was now 10.00 you can understand my concern. However a very laid back Belgian Eurostar official told me ‘relax, cheel man - eez no problem, sometimes zees appenz.’

    I ‘cheeled’ as best as I could, though I wasn’t happy, but sure enough all was well - they had just had to change the train for some reason. I was still in Standard Premier Class so was soon tucking into my 2nd breakfast of the day. I still found it amazing to be transported from the centre of Brussels to the centre of London in only 2 hours 10 minutes. It can take longer than that for me to get to Drumchapel.

    Back in Blighty after my four week sojourn, I passed a pleasant hour in the 1st Class Lounge at Euston, grateful to escape the heat and heaving masses outside. It never ceases to amaze me that, in spite of notices that refreshments are for consumption in the Lounge only, some folk seem to take pleasure in sneaking out food in their bags. I spotted one very small woman who stuffed no less than 4 bananas, 3 apples and a handful of plums into her backpack. I was certain she must have been the proprietrix of a fruit and vegetable stall at Covent Garden.

    My InterRail pass allowed me one final journey in my home country, so I ‘cheeled’ some more on the 14.30 train to Glasgow - 1st Class, of course.

    Well, what a time I’ve had. Four weeks of having the freedom of riding the rails all over our great continent of Europe. What fantastic places I’ve seen - from big capital cities to deserted beaches; great cathedrals to mountain tops; experiencing accommodation from hostels to 5 star hotels; travelling on a variety of trains - Express, Inter City, Regional and Local; utilising other transport including ferries, buses, trams, trolleybuses and funiculars; travelling across mighty rivers and oceans; and enjoying food from gourmet cuisine to McDonald’s.

    It is a thought undertaking such a journey alone. I have to say I never felt threatened or afraid, and was lucky not to have been robbed, cheated or assaulted. I can honestly say I was never lonely, but I often longed for someone to be with me to share some of these amazing places. One of the great things about going solo however is that it forces you to communicate with people from different cultures, often with no common understanding of each other’s language. It’s amazing how you can usually make yourself understood.

    So what, if anything, have I learned? To be patient and accept that things are done differently in different countries. To be open to new ideas and experiences and not be afraid of taking risks. To plan everything carefully, but not to get uptight when things do not go exactly as I had hoped. To be wary of shaking and nodding my head in case it is misinterpreted. To be aware when dealing with condiments that the salt is not always the one with one hole - or you can get a very peppery soup.

    Thanks for your support in following my blog - it’s been fun writing it. Now, where to next year…
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  • Day26

    Brussels

    June 29 in Belgium

    Well, just as I was thinking everything had gone so smoothly and as planned... I had even avoided France due to planned industrial action on the railways (apart from passing through Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon at the start of my trip). I awoke however to hear of a strike affecting most of the trains in Belgium. Luxembourg Station was in great confusion as train after train to Brussels was cancelled. Eventually I took the bull by the horns and managed to get a bus there. The indignity of it all - a First Class Inter Rail Pass Holder having to go by bus! In fairness, it was a clean, comfortable luxury coach, and it made it up the motorway in 3 hours - the same time as the train would have taken.

    I had decided to check in at the new Radisson Red Hotel in Brussels for my last night. It was a good choice, right next to Brussels-Luxembourg Station, with a lovely big comfortable bed. I see they now have one in Glasgow and can recommend it - a bit trendy and pop-arty but very friendly.

    Had a walk round the magnificent Grand Place - packed with folk eating frites and mayonnaise, waffles with a variety of toppings, Belgian chocolates and drinking beer. I didn’t want to offend by not joining in. A visit to the Mannekin Pis statue was a must - what a lot of fuss over a tiny wee statue of a boy peeing. Clearly there was no sign saying ‘Pee not here’.

    Well, let’s hope the Belgian train strike does not affect Eurostar tomorrow or I’m really stuck!
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  • Day25

    Luxembourg

    June 28 in Luxembourg

    Retraced my train steps a bit this morning to return to Koblenz and spotted a few more Rhine castles en route. Changed here for another train to take me down the lovely Moselle Valley. Calmer with river traffic than the Rhine, this was another beautiful trip in the morning sunshine, with vineyards lining the rolling banks of the river. I remember staying at a B&B here with Mum and Dad. Dad was in his element sitting in the garden facing the Moselle with a glass of wine made on the premises. As usual, I was keen to push on and he said ‘just you go ahead, you can pick me up here on the way back’.

    Visiting this area reminded me of another place we stayed at on our German trip. It was getting late and we stopped at the first ‘Zimmer Frei’ (rooms vacant) sign we could see. It was a small hotel unfortunately named Hotel F…k. In the morning I asked my Dad if the hotel had lived up to its name and he replied with a big grin ‘oh yes’. Mum just smiled and shook her head and said ‘see that man!’

    We passed through Trier, the oldest city in Germany, and soon arrived at the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. One of the smallest sovereign states in Europe, it came across as a charming place, easy to walk about and see the main sights. I visited the vast underground system of passages and galleries known as the casemates which are one of the major tourist attractions. Then had a lovely walk along the Corniche - nicknamed the most beautiful balcony in Europe. Had a nice local Luxembourg dish for dinner - some kind of boiled ham with roast potatoes and broad beans. I had forgotten how much I like broad beans. And all washed down with a refreshing Luxembourg white wine - delish!
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  • Day25

    Heidelberg

    June 28 in Germany

    Another loud American guy at breakfast (sorry, Sadie, I know not all Americans are loud, but there are a few!). He was big, heavy guy with a grey beard who was holding up the queue, eating as he was going. ‘Mmm… these bread rolls are so fresh and delicious, you must bake them on the premises.’ ‘Nein’ said the expressionless waitress, ‘I gets them from ze Lidl’.

    My train trip this morning from Cologne left from the main station in the shadow of the huge, gothic Cologne Cathedral. I remember making Mum and Dad climb to the very top of it. Not sure if even I could do it now. Pleased to see the station has still the same advert for 4711 Eau de Cologne which I first saw on a school trip in the 1960s. Had a lovely train journey down the Rhine valley passing castles and pleasure boats, the Lorelei Rock and charming riverside towns. On the way I thought I’d read some guest reviews of my next hotel. One said: ‘The staff are so friendly. I had an unexpected early visit from Aunt Flo, and the staff gave me some free sanitary products.’ Now, I didn’t know who Aunt Flo was, but I do now, and all I can say is ‘TOO MUCH INFORMATION!’

    Before I knew it, I had arrived at today’s destination - Heidelberg. I remember Sadie and Christine were here. It was just like The Student Prince with students drink, drink, drinking beer - only Kathy was missing. Did a 2 hour walking tour of the Old Town as suggested in my guide, which was hard going in the sweltering heat. Took the funicular railway up to the top of the mountain and visited the castle on the way back. The guide suggested another walk on the opposite bank of the River Neckar - the Philosopher’s Way - where lecturers used to walk up and down. It was so steep it nearly killed me, but you did get a good view over to the castle. Tonight I attended a classical concert in the lovely Stadthalle. No less than 90 musicians in the philharmonic orchestra - what a fabulous sound, and not bad for 20 Euros for the front circle.

    Well the carousing in the town has gone strangely quiet tonight now that Germany has been put out of the World Cup. Anyway, after all that walking I’m sure I’ll sleep tonight…zzzz...
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  • Day23

    Hans Christian Andersen

    June 26 in Denmark

    The Hotel Royal, Gothenburg offered a delicious breakfast, including several varieties of my favourite pickled herring - tasty. I made my way to the Stena ferry terminal to catch the 08.00 ferry to Frederikshavn in Denmark. The ferry was very busy and the ship well equipped with facilities including a discount store and duty free shops. I tried out a liberal spray of the Dolce and Gabbana eau de toilette spray, only to discover it was the ladies version. Well hello, honky tonk!

    It was a cooler, cloudy morning and the first time I’ve had to use my zipper, but the sun came out during the 3 hours 15 minute crossing to the top of Denmark. I caught the connecting 11.33 train to Odense. I couldn’t be in Denmark and not visit the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen could I? Again I was glad to have a place in 1st Class. The stewardess brought a flask of hot water and left it for us with a variety of coffee and teas (even green tea, Anne), and delicious violet flavoured chocolate marzipans. You don’t get that on ScotRail.

    In the warm evening sunshine I had a lovely walk around the old town and a delicious steak dinner with a large glass of Merlot. Denmark, like the rest of Scandinavia, is certainly not cheap. As I walked back to my hotel I spotted a sign saying ‘Pee not here’. How did they know I was about to?

    Odense really is Hans Christian Andersen town. With a dedicated museum, his birthplace and his childhood home all there to visit, I really enjoyed this charming town on the island of Funen, bang right in the middle of Denmark. It brought back happy memories of being in the show Hans Andersen with the Apollo Players at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow in 1987 - can you believe it was 31 years ago! John Sinclair was Hans, Jim French was Otto, Jane Macdonald (Waterfield) was Jenny Lind and I was Max Claus. My niece Jennifer appeared as one of the children singing Thumbelina. Happy days.

    The lady in the birthplace museum was delighted to hear I was from Scotland. She smiled and recalled how she had had a happy school camping trip there in the 1970s. ‘We stayed at the beautiful village of Luss’ she explained ‘and every day I would stare at the lake, but I never did see her. I never saw my Nessie.’ I hadn’t the heart to tell her that that would be hard as she was at Loch Lomond.

    Well time for the off again and continue my train travels down through Denmark and then via Hamburg, Germany to Cologne. It’s been nice, Odense - thanks for all those lovely reminders of these great fairy tales.
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  • Day21

    On checking at Munich Central Station, I was advised that there were no 2 or 4 berth sleepers available. All I could get was a couchette in a 6 berth compartment. The thought of sharing a small compartment with 5 big Germans full of the joys after their World Cup match win did not appeal, but it was either that or sleeping in a train seat. I was pleasantly surprised therefore on boarding the 22.52 Nightjet train to be told by the attendant that, because of a mix up over booking, I had a 6 berth compartment all to myself - ya dancer!

    I enjoyed a good night’s sleep in my couchette compartment, as we thundered through the night from Bavaria in south Germany to Hamburg in the north. ‘Thundering through the night’ was an expression my good friend Jean McCormack used whenever we were driving in the dark, and she used to say it followed by a girlish giggle. She was a bit eccentric at times, but I still miss her.

    The attendant brought a welcome simple breakfast of coffee, crispy rolls and butter and jam. We arrived at Hamburg Hauptbahnhof exactly on schedule, and I was in ample time to make my next connection to Copenhagen. Similar to my experience in Sicily (which now seems ages ago), the train actually rolls onto the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany and crosses to Roedby, Denmark in 45 minutes. Another exciting experience. Everyone had to leave the train for security reasons. This time however the ferry was much more upmarket, with restaurants, bars and duty free. Elegant, blonde Scandinavians sat on deck and opened their neatly packed Ikea lunch boxes nibbling at carrot batons and the like, while I tucked into my grilled sausage on a bread roll with potato salad and lashings of ketchup and mustard - yecannaewhackit.

    An hour was all I had in Copenhagen before catching my next connection to Gothenburg. However I did manage to see some of the Tivoli Garden rides from the station platform. Some passengers passing through Copenhagen obviously had not changed any currency into Danish Kroner and were stumped at the entrance of the pay-as-you-enter loo. ‘It’s ok’ announced the efficient lavatory attendant ‘we take the credit card’. Well, I know Scandinavia is expensive, but who’d have thought you needed a credit card to spend a penny. I just hope it was Contactless for hygiene reasons.

    Less than half an hour after we left that Wonderful, Wonderful city, we were crossing the famous Oresund Bridge, at almost 5 miles long the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe. I was particularly excited as the Oresund Bridge was the setting for the Nordic noir TV series The Bridge. (I meant to say that Split, Croatia was boasting it was one of the main locations for Game of Thrones, but I don’t watch that). A couple across from me, who were not in their first flush of youth, were very lovey dovey, and were constantly taking photos of each other on their mobiles with the bridge as a backdrop. I asked if they would like me to take a photo of them both, to which they reddened and explained that they shouldn’t be seen together. I decided not to press the matter further.

    Most of the trains I have been on have been very busy, and I was glad I had purchased a 1st Class ticket, as you were always guaranteed a seat, and sometimes extras like power sockets, free WiFi and refreshments. It was another sunny day as the railway hugged the coast as we sped up the Kattegat. On arrival at Gothenburg, I checked into the charming Hotel Royal, the oldest hotel in Gothenburg and family run. Complimentary coffee and cake was available in the foyer - a nice touch and very welcome.

    Had a nice walk about the city in the evening sunshine. It’s been many years since I was last here, and the place has changed quite a bit. A lot of folk were watching the World Cup on big screens. As I am only in Sweden for one night, I had brought some notes I had at home from my last visit, only to be told that they had been withdrawn last year! I therefore had to withdraw some cash from an ATM. When I tried to buy a bottle of water to get some change for the tram, I was told the shop did not accept cash. Swedish people pay everything by card I was told. Ah well, you live and learn…
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  • Day20

    The Eagle's Nest

    June 23 in Germany

    As I emerged from the Munich S-Bahn at Marienplatz, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I remembered having been at this exact spot with Mum and Dad during our trip to Germany many, many years ago. We sat outside under an umbrella in the square opposite the famous glockenspiel Clock Tower enjoying a German beer. Mum was so taken with the fine lager glasses that she put two in her handbag and I believe still has them. Munich was busy with Friday night revellers, but I resisted, and had an early night at the comfortable Blauer Bock Hotel nearby.

    This morning I set out on a trip to visit the Eagle’s Nest - part of Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. After a pleasant train journey from Munich, I arrived at the charming town of Berchtesgaden. From there a bus took us to Obersalzberg location of the now demolished Berghof, which in the 1930s became, surprisingly, the 2nd seat of the Nazi government after Berlin. Then a further specially constructed bus to cope with the steep climb up the mountain to Kehlsteinhaus (The Eagle’s Nest), where, with its panoramic views, Hitler entertained special guests. It is virtually the only building not to have been bombed or demolished, and now serves as a restaurant / bar.

    To reach the summit you had to walk through a long tunnel constructed in 1938 and take a beautiful copper decorated lift to the top. What fabulous 360 degree views over the Bavarian Alps and Lake Konigsee. It is hard to imagine in this idyllic mountain setting that Hitler and his followers made world shattering decisions on war, persecution and genocide.

    I enjoyed bockwurst and potato salad and a cool, German lager in the main reception room, featuring a marble fireplace gifted by Mussolini, although it was a bit unsettling to see photographs of Nazi leaders and dignatories pictured in the same room. The excellent museum Dokumentation Obersalzberg provided a great insight into the Nazi takeover of this hitherto quiet mountain community.

    I did contemplate making the very short train journey over the border to Salzburg, Austria for some pink lemonade. Some light relief in The Sound of Music city would have been welcome. However I headed back to Munich for dinner and to get ready for the next part of my trip - the overnight sleeper train to Hamburg. Another very special day, sobering in part, but with breathtaking scenery.
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  • Day19

    So long, farewell Austria

    June 22 in Austria

    The overnight SNAV ferry Aurelia from Split to Ancona was clean and comfortable and I was lucky to have a good sized 2 berth cabin all to myself. After dinner on board, I had an early night as the ferry docked in Italy at 06.30. With typical Italian inefficiency we then all stood in a Passport Control line for over an hour - and that was in the speedy European Union line - heaven help us after Brexit! After all the hanging about I was desperate for the bathroom, but I have to say the facilities at Ancona Ferry Terminal would not have won Loo of the Year Award. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that some fellow passengers must have overindulged in curry and lager last night!

    I took the train from Ancona to Bologna and changed for Venice on the impressive new Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) service with leather seats and complimentary coffee. Most of the passengers were smartly dressed business men except for 4 loud Americans sitting opposite with their bare feet up on the seats. The two women were painting each other’s toenails and massaging their partners’ feet while shouting at every stop ‘are we at Venice yet?‘ The conductor tried to clarify ‘are you looking for Venezia Mestre or Venezia Santa Lucia?’ ‘Who cares’ yelled the older woman ‘all I want is a ride on a goddam gondola!’ Such finesse in Business Class.

    We dramatically travelled on the causeway over the lagoon before finally reaching Venice Santa Lucia. A few more metres and the train would have ended up in the Grand Canal. Regrettably I had no time to spend here, but had fond memories of a holiday Campbell and I had enjoyed in Venice some years ago.

    With 2 minutes to spare, I caught the once daily smart Austrian EuroCity train which leaves Venice Santa Lucia every day at 13:50 and arrives at Munich at 20:25.  It uses comfortable Austrian coaches with a proper waiter-service restaurant car, and travels via the beautifully scenic Brenner Pass. What a spectacular journey on a clean and well organised train. The scenery was outstanding. I was travelling in a 4 seat 1st Class compartment. One of my travelling companions was a heavy middle aged woman dressed in Austrian National costume, like a chorus member from St Wolfang Amateur Operatic Society’s production of White Horse Inn. She busied herself with sheafs of paper and an elaborate Kardex system - a sort of Susie B doppelgänger, taking bookings perhaps for the Society’s next production. The other person in the carriage was an IT manager from Padua who was very funny and sociable, telling jokes which were generally lost in translation, and insisting we shared his apple pie and wine. Susie B however was having none of it ‘can ye no see I’m oan a diet, and anyway you’re putting me aff ma tickets’ I think she was saying.

    The sun was splitting the trees as we headed over the spectacular Brenner Pass and through the Tyrol to Innsbruck on our way to Germany. A real highlight of my train trip so far.
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  • Day18

    Split

    June 21 in Croatia

    Although the train was late in the evening arriving, the front of the popular Croatian seaside resort of Split was bustling with bars and restaurants as I made my way to my lovely modernised studio apartment in the old town. What did we do before Google maps? The town reminded me of a very upmarket Blackpool, busy mainly with young people from all over Europe on holiday.

    After a good night’s sleep I set off to find the main attraction of Split - Diocletian’s Palace - built as a retirement home for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD, only to find it was virtually on my doorstep. I enjoyed a guided walking tour of this fascinating place from a somewhat zany guide, who seemed like she had had had too many years on the wacky backy.

    Given the heat again, I headed for the city beach in the afternoon, only a 15 minute walk away and enjoyed a lovely swim in the sea. Two British lads were showing off their sporting prowess in the water - throwing a frisbee to each other while holding a can of lager. Then in the evening off to cross the Adriatic once again, only a bit further north, this time from Split, Croatia to Ancona, Italy.

    Farewell Croatia, it’s been nice getting to know you, even although it’s been all too short.
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  • Day18

    More Zagreb

    June 21 in Croatia

    Did I say what a beautiful city Zagreb was? Had a lovely walk around today again in the warm sunshine. Took in Ban Jelačić Square - the main meeting point; the twin towered Cathedral of the Assumption of our Blessed Virgin Mary - the emblem of the city; the Dolac fruit and vegetable market; the Botanic Gardens; and some of the lovely Art Nouveau buildings that dot the city. Took the world’s shortest passenger cable railway up to the Upper Town and it was even prettier, with its cobbled streets, St Mark’s Church and the Stone Gate.

    Not one for museums when the sun is shining, I couldn’t resist the Museum of Broken Relationships. This very unusual museum was recommended to me by my friend Lorraine Wilson, in her book Facing Forwards, about her 3 month solo train trip round Europe which has been an inspiration for my trip. Well worth a read. The exhibits have been donated by members of the public and each have a short explanation of how it related to the end of a relationship. It was powerful and I was in floods more than once. To console visitors, the attached café offered ‘beers as cold as your ex’s heart.’

    To recover from all that emotion, I treated myself to afternoon tea at the fabulous Esplanade Hotel, built in 1925 to provide top-notch accommodation for passengers on the Orient Express, which made one of its stops at Zagreb. Apparently the locals were shocked at a performance by provocative dancer Josephine Baker in 1929.

    All too soon it was back in the rails and off to the Croatian coastal resort of Split, with beautiful lush scenery all the way. But I loved Zagreb and will be back.
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