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Welcome

Welcome to Europe Explored. This website was set up at the beginning of 2020 to record my travels around the continent of Europe. I’ve always enjoyed exploring new places, but realise I’ve been very bad keeping a chronicle of my visits. This blog intends to change that. I’ve now reached a stage in life where I have the opportunity to travel more frequently and I will be posting about my trips.

My aim is to publish a new post every Friday – let’s see if I can stick to that.

Over the next few years I hope to take a number of trips (mainly by train) exploring the length and breadth of the continent. My inspiration for planning these trips has been the wonderful guide Europe by Rail by Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. In planning, I must also acknowledge the invaluable assistance provided by the Man in Seat Sixty-One. Although, the Internet is great at providing up-to-date rail timetable information, for initial ideas I still like to use the hard copy European Rail Timetable.

** – UPDATE (20 March 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic means that Europe Explored expeditions are postponed until further notice. As this blog was planned to provide reports from these trips, for the time being, new blog posts will only appear on the last Friday of each month. – **

City visit – Dublin

[In the absence of any travel being possible for the foreseeable future, I continue with another look back to a flying visit from a couple of years ago.]

In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.

This month’s blog post recalls a two day trip to Dublin I made in September 2018. I subsequently revisited Dublin nine months later for a longer stay, as part of a family holiday to Ireland, which I may blog about on a future occasion.

Wednesday 12 September 2018
I followed my now usual pattern for these flying visits of getting up early and making my way to Stansted Airport for a breakfast time departure. Shortly after I arrived at Stansted, the airport descended into rather more chaos than usual, as the shuttle train, which which links the main terminal to many of the gates, broke down. This required a hasty arranging of replacement buses and long queues for them. My flight to Dublin was not from a gate which was served by the shuttle train, but did require a bus to access the plane. Presumably, because of the sudden demand for buses elsewhere in the airport, there was a long wait for a bus to appear to take the passengers to the Dublin plane and our departure was about half an hour late.

Just over an hour and a half after leaving Stansted, I arrived at a very busy Dublin airport. The first surprise was that arrivals from the UK were not segregated from those from other international destinations. The UK and Ireland form a Common Travel Area, and if you arrive by plane in the UK from Ireland, you are routed at the airport so that you miss immigration control, but not customs. However, in Ireland you just go through the same immigration controls as everyone else. In law, the Common Travel Area rules mean that a British or Irish citizen does not have to show a passport to enter Ireland, but the only way that you can easily prove that you are a British or Irish citizen is to show your passport – a classic Catch-22 situation.

I caught the bus to the city centre, alighting at O’Connell Street. The first thing I noticed was the 120 metres high needle-like structure, the Spire of Dublin, which had appeared since my previous visit to the city. This monument was erected in 2003 on the spot where Nelson’s Pillar had stood until it was blown up in 1966. I walked down O’Connell Street, pausing to have a little look inside the General Post Office, where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had made their headquarters before finally surrendering to the British army.

I crossed the Liffey and made my way to the National Gallery of Ireland. I spent about an hour in the Gallery, which has a few interesting exhibits, but it is not really in the same class as galleries in other major European cities.

Next stop was lunch consisting of a sandwich and a pint of Guinness in an old fashioned pub, with added entertainment of listening to a couple of the other customers arguing about Irish politics.

I had pre-booked a guided tour of Dublin Castle for 2pm. This had cost me nothing, as the Irish Office of Public Works which manages the castle has a reciprocal deal with English Heritage, so that English Heritage members can book for free. Originally the seat of of British rule in Ireland, the castle is now used for ceremonial occasions, such as the inauguration of Irish presidents, and EU Council meetings. The tour started in the ruins of the medieval undercroft at the base of a now disappeared Norman tower. We then went to the Chapel Royal, which was the private chapel for the Lord Lieutenants of Ireland and had remained unused for many years following the end of British rule. The tour finished in the main state apartments, including the magnificent St Patrick’s Hall. When the tour was over, one could wander round the state apartments by yourself to look at things in more detail.

Courtyard of Dublin Castle

From the castle I walked across Dublin, crossing the Liffey at the Ha’penny Bridge.

River Liffey

My next visit was to EPIC, the then fairly newly opened Irish emigration museum. Calling it a museum is a slight misnomer, as it has virtually no original exhibits. Instead it is an extremely whizzy interactive multi-media exhibition spread over 20 rooms telling the story of the Irish diaspora. Epic is not a misnomer in terms of its size, as the amount of material presented would require many hours to fully experience. When you enter you are presented with a ‘passport’, which you self stamp in each of the rooms visited. Its claims about who should be considered Irish seemed a little tenuous for some people – for example, did you know Che Guevara was Irish? (His great-great-great-great grandfather came from Galway.) I just about managed to finish visiting all the rooms by closing time, when I was asked to leave. However, I had left my bag in a locker in a basement, which after I had retrieved it I discovered the signed exit route was now roped off. I suspect that I may have set off the alarms in my attempt to leave the building.

I then made my way to the hotel in the north of the city where I had booked a room for the night. While I was in my room contemplating where to eat that evening, I heard a lot of noise outside. There was an large demonstration passing by which brought traffic in the centre of Dublin to a halt. The demonstrators were protesting about the lack of affordable housing in Dublin, but specifically about the role of the Garda in assisting bailiffs evict squatters from a disused building the previous day.

Once the bulk of the demonstration had passed the hotel, I set off to find dinner. The streets were still closed to traffic and there was long jam of stationary trams at the top end of O’Connell Street. I found a busy restaurant where I ate lamb chops with onions. After my dinner, before retiring for the evening I visited a pub for a postprandial pint of Guinness.

Thursday 13 September 2018
I got up relatively early and after breakfast walked across Dublin to Trinity College. There I booked myself onto the the first student led tour of the day at 8:45am. An engaging final year law student took a small group of us round the campus, giving us anecdotes about student life past and present.

When the tour concluded, I was then free to visit Trinity College library. By this time it was already very busy with a queue to get in. Compared to my previous visit many years ago, the Book of Kells is now housed in its own exhibition space underneath the library – the library is housed from the first floor upwards to protect it from flooding. The impressive main gallery at the time of my visit was hosting a special exhibition on Erwin Schrӧdinger’s What is Life – most of the other tourists didn’t dwell on this, unlike the Book of Kells, giving me space to look at it properly.

After leaving Trinity College, I walked along the Liffey to the National Museum of Ireland (Decorative Arts and History) located in the old Collins Barracks. Unfortunately, because I had a timed ticket for my next stop, I did not have the opportunity to explore most of this museum. I only had time to look at the comprehensive special exhibition on the 1916 Easter Rising.

On leaving the museum, I had a short walk to Kilmainham Gaol. As with Dublin Castle, I had used my English Heritage membership to pre-book a tour for free. You can only visit by pre-booked tour, which sell out in advance – because I had only tried to book a few days before my visit, the only available slot was a bit later than ideally I would have liked. Our guide took us on tour to all parts of the prison, giving us information about its history from its opening in 1796 to its closure by the Free State government in 1924. Particularly poignant was the Stonebreakers’ Yard where 14 of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had been executed by the British. (Our tour guide glossed over that the Free State had subsequently executed a larger number of Civil War anti-treaty prisoners in Kilmainham.) At the end of the tour, which lasted about an hour and a quarter, I was free to explore the Gaol’s museum – I did not have time to do this thoroughly, as I needed to leave to catch my flight back home.

I caught the airport bus outside Heuston station to the west of the city. The bus crawled through central Dublin rather more slowly than I had anticipated, meaning that I arrived at the airport less than an hour before my flight was due to leave. I was dismayed to find an enormous queue to get through security and I became worried that I might miss my flight. However the queue kept moving and within half an hour I was at the gate for my flight, which was just about to commence boarding. The flight actually managed to depart from its stand a few minutes early, but because of the number of planes waiting to leave it spent over half an hour in a queue taxiing to get to the runway, resulting in a late arrival at Stansted.

City visit – Copenhagen

“Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen” (Danny Kaye song)

After my successful trip to Hamburg in April 2018, a month later I went to Copenhagen. Not only a new city for me, but also a new country, as I had never been to Denmark before.

Wednesday 23 May 2018
The flight to Copenhagen departed from Stansted over an hour later than the one I had caught the previous month when I went to Hamburg, so I had a slightly more relaxed journey to Stansted. I arrived with plenty of time to spare and acquired some breakfast at the airport. The flight departed shortly after 9am, touching down in Copenhagen 90 minutes later. Copenhagen airport is enormous – its catchment area includes southern Sweden (thanks to the Øresund Bridge, Malmö in Sweden is nearly as quick to reach as downtown Copenhagen) and it also acts as hub airport for flights from across Scandinavia. My plane spent an age taxiing to a far flung terminal, seemingly just for budget airlines, which was still in the process of construction.

Once I had made it from this remote outpost to the main airport terminal building, the first thing I did was to purchase a Copenhagen Card which provided free public transport in the city and admission to a large number of attractions.

To get to the city centre I had a choice of taking either the S-tog or the Metro from the airport. I chose the metro and travelled to Nørreport Station. In a recent ranking of Europe’s 50 busiest railway stations, Nørreport came next to bottom. I think this is rather unfair and I can think of many worse examples – Norreport is a busy subterranean station served by the Metro, S-tog and some mainline trains – equivalent to London’s Farringdon station, for example. It seemed quite functional and less dingy than some other underground railway stations.

My first port of call was Rosenborg Slot, the renaissance royal castle built by Christian IV. Although no longer used as a royal residence, it is still protected by the Danish Royal Life Guards. My Copenhagen Card gave me free entry and I was lucky that I did not have to wait several hours for a timed slot, as can happen at busy periods. The main part of the castle consists of many small rooms over three floors, laid out with original furniture and other objects. Before entering the castle I was required to leave my backpack in a locker, but, having only just arrived in the country, I didn’t have any change to operate one – the understanding woman at the ticket desk lent me the required coin once I promised to her that I would pay her back. After visiting the rooms of the castle, I descended into the basement in which there is the Treasury, displaying the Danish Crown Jewels.

Rosenborg Slot

After finishing at Rosenborg Slot I walked through Kogens Have (Kings Garden), the park which surrounds the castle to the Amalienborg, the palace which is the current residence of the Danish Royal family. I had a look around the rooms which were open for viewing at the Amalienborg, which provided a potted history of the Royal Family. I was particularly taken by the wedding photograph of the current Crown Prince, Frederik, to his Australian bride Mary. She is the daughter of a Scottish maths professor, John Donaldson. In the picture the proud father was wearing full highland dress, seemingly upstaging most of the crowned heads of Europe in their regalia. The British Royal family only sent Prince Edward, so he was relegated to the back row of the photograph poking his head round a rather tall individual standing in front of him.

Next stop was SMK (Statens Museum for Kunst), Denmark’s National Gallery. It specialises in Danish and Nordic art, but also has a good collection of European art up to 1800. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit the galleries devoted to French art (1900-30) were temporarily closed.

After visiting the SMK, a short walk towards the city centre brought me to the Rundetårn, the astronomical observatory contained in a tower built by Christian IV in 1642. My guidebook said that it was built for Tycho Brahe, which cannot be the case as Brahe died in Prague in 1601, having left Denmark fours years earlier after falling out with the young Christian IV. The tower is impressive in having a spiral ramp all the way to the top, wide enough for a horse and carriage to be driven up. There were extensive views of the city from the top.

I then decided it was time to check in to my hotel near the Central station, but having so far only travelled by Metro, I thought I would try the S-tog for a change. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, as a signal failure turned what should have been a five minute journey into one lasting half an hour. I carefully researched where to eat that evening, as Copenhagen’s restaurants are notoriously expensive, eventually choosing one near the Slotsholm Canal, where I had an interesting dish of pork and beetroot.

For my post dinner entertainment, I thought I would go the the Tivoli Gardens, the amusement park and pleasure gardens that have been in the centre of Copenhagen since the mid-nineteenth century. I made my way to the nearest entrance shown on my map, only to find that this just had automated turnstiles at which I could not use my Copenhagen card to gain free entry. The only entrance I could use for free was in the diagonally opposite corner of the park, nearly fifteen minutes walk away. When I got there, there was a queue to get in and the group ahead of me had some form of discount vouchers which required extensive negotiation and validation, delaying my entry further. I was not sure what to expect, but my overall impression from wandering around the park was of unredeemed naffness, such as you might find in the tackier bits of an English seaside town. However, there was a jazz concert scheduled to start in the open-air auditorium, which I thought might provide some entertainment. When I found the venue just after the performance had started, nearly all the seats had already been taken by a predominantly geriatric audience, so I just stood at the back. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a musical event where the performers looked more bored than the band playing that evening – to my eyes, they just seemed to be going through the motions to pick up their fee and would far rather have been somewhere else. After a short while, I decided I had had enough and left the park.

As it was still not very late, having checked the reviews (and applied for a second mortgage), I headed to a bar near the City Hall which had an extensive selection of beers. As most of the beers on offer had a similarly expensive price tag, I thought the best strategy was to buy one which was strongest in alcohol and drink it very slowly. Shortly after I sat at a table, a group of what appeared to be young professional types arrived and sat at the next table. They were having a lively conversation in Danish, of which I could understand none, when one of them in mid-stream inserted the English phrase “it takes one to know one”. It’s odd which foreign phrases make their way into languages.

Thursday 24 May 2018
I got up early and after a quick breakfast was on a bus shortly after 7:30am. Being in Copenhagen I could not leave without seeing the Little Mermaid. It was not as I expected in the centre of the city, but on the waterfront some way out to the north. By going early, I hoped to achieve two objectives – to not waste valuable time when other attractions would be open and also avoid the hordes who would be viewing it later. In this I succeeded, as the tour buses were starting to roll in as I was leaving.

Little Mermaid

As it was still early, I walked back along the waterside towards the centre of Copenhagen. It was now the busiest time of day for commuting and the broad cycle lanes (as wide as the carriageways for cars) were completely filled with phalanxes of cyclists.

I headed to the Christianborg Slot, the heart of the Danish Government and Parliament. I knew that I would not be able to visit the main state rooms, as they were closed for an official function that day, but I had hoped to see some other parts of the complex. Unfortunately, I had been misinformed about the opening times and when I arrived discovered they wouldn’t be opening until much later. Instead, I had to content myself with an exhibition of Danish political cartoons from the last hundred years or so, which was on display in the Parliament’s courtyard. It gave me a good overview of Danish political history, of which I had previously largely been unaware. Leaving the Christianborg Slot, I was able to see the horses of the royal stables being exercised.

Christianborg Slot (and horses from the royal stables)

Next stop was the the Nationalmuseet, Denmark’s national museum. For me, one of the more surprising finds, tucked away on a stairway, was part of the Parthenon frieze – most of which controversially resides in the British Museum as the Elgin Marbles. There were extensive galleries devoted to the history of Denmark, from prehistoric times to the present day, which I found more interesting than the sections devoted to classical antiquities. The Danes seem particularly proud of their win in the 1992 European Football Championships, in which they only participated in the finals as a last minute replacement for war-torn Yugoslavia. These Championships came shortly after the agreement of the Maastricht Treaty which granted Denmark exemption from the more integrationist European projects (such as the Euro), the Danes at the time coined the phrase “if you can’t join them, beat them”.

Cushion embroidered with 1992 Danish football chant on display in the Nationalmuseet

After a brief pause to buy a licorice flavoured ice cream, I walked the short distance from the Nationalmuseet to Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This architecturally stunning gallery which is funded by the foundation established by the Carlsberg brewing family, houses a major collection of sculpture, as well as Danish and French art. It has more Rodin sculptures than anywhere outside France and a large exhibition of French 19th century painting with many pictures by Monet, Degas and Gaugin.

Before returning to the airport, I had time for a quick look inside the City Hall (Rådhus) which has a large enclosed courtyard where a number of wedding groups were congregating before and after their ceremonies.

I then wandered through the shopping streets to catch the Metro to the airport after a successful 26 hours or so in Copenhagen. One stop after I got on the Metro, a woman boarded and sat in the seat next to me until she also got off at the airport, where I did not see her again. When I boarded my plane, I thought that I might be lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me as it remained unoccupied until shortly before departure, when just before the plane doors closed the woman who had sat next to me on the Metro came aboard and sat in the spare seat next to me.

[Due to the Covid-19 epidemic, my current travels are on hold, depriving me of intended material for future blog posts. For the time being, future posts will only appear monthly at 8am on the last Friday of each month. I hope, but do not expect, that normality can return soon.]

Europe unExplored

A Journal of the Plague Year (novel by Daniel Defoe)

This has been a difficult post to write. I normally start preparing each Friday morning’s blog post two to three weeks in advance. I was due to depart on the first trip of my Europe Explored project this Sunday, 22 March 2020. However, due to the rapidly changing situation regarding the spread of Covid-19 in Europe, when I started writing this post I did not know whether, or where, I would be going. Of course, by now I know that I am going nowhere.

This first trip of Europe Explored was planned (and largely booked) in November 2019. This was before the idea of Europe Explored was formulated. So rather than fitting into my larger scale plans for systematically exploring the continent, this journey was planned to visit nine European cities that I had never properly been to before, over the course of 12 days.

The route was going to be:
London – Dijon – Basel – Zurich – Innsbruck – Verona – Trieste – Ljubljana – Bled – Regensburg – London.

It is startling how rapidly this crisis has escalated – just over two weeks ago I thought that the whole trip might still have been possible, then I thought I may have to skip Verona, then both Verona and Trieste became off limits. But as at that stage Slovenia was virtually unscathed by the virus outbreak, I planned re-routing to pick up my existing bookings in Slovenia. Obviously, now with virtually the whole continent in lockdown it is not possible to travel anywhere.

Compared to the human tragedy that is now unfolding, worrying about whether or how I can reclaim the nearly £1,000 that I had paid out in normally non-refundable advance train tickets and hotel bookings is the least of my concerns. Suffice to say that some companies have been admirable, whereas others have behaved despicably. I won’t name them now, but I may do so later once the full picture has emerged.

It now looks almost certain that Trips 2 & 3 of Europe Explored, already booked for May and June/July won’t be happening either.

It is not clear when freedom to travel round Europe will be restored and, when it is, how much Europe will have changed. It’s impossible at this stage to think about planning future explorations.

I had planned the blog posts over the next few months to largely feature reports from my current travels. As this will not now be possible for the foreseeable future, with great reluctance, for the time being posts will now appear only on the last Friday of each month.

Stay safe.

City visit – Hamburg

“I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” (John Lennon)

I had for a number of years been exploring the cities of Britain travelling by train for day trips (or in the case of Scottish cities having one overnight stay). My personal circumstances precluded being away for longer. In 2018, I decided to extend this by starting to visit cities in Continental Europe, with the intention of having an intense explore while being away for about only 36 hours.

The first city I chose was Hamburg, where I went in April 2018, utilising the very cheap flights available from Stansted Airport. A standard train fare from London to Stansted is often more expensive than the flight, but booking ahead you can usually find an advance fare to the airport for under £10.

Day one – Tuesday 17th April 2018
As my flight from Stansted to Hamburg was at 0750, an early start was required. My plan was to catch the first tube of the day at 0525, to connect with the Stansted Express to get me to the airport about an hour before departure, which given I had minimal luggage, I hoped would be sufficient. I left my house shortly after 5am for the short walk to my local tube station. However, when I arrived there I discovered that no trains were running because of a signal failure. With a bit of quick thinking, I worked out that I could catch a couple of buses which would get me to Tottenham Hale to catch the Stansted Express that I had been planning to catch (or even the one before). This worked perfectly, and is now my preferred method of getting to Stansted for early morning flights.

I had assumed that Stansted would be less busy at that time of the morning, but in fact it is peak departure time and there were long queues to go through security, but they moved quickly. I had time to buy some breakfast before proceeding to the departure gate, where boarding had already started at 0720 when I reached it. My plane left the stand early and actually took off at the advertised departure time of 0750.

With the one hour time difference, the plane arrived in Hamburg at around 10am. Getting off the plane and through immigration was quick and easy. The first thing I did at the airport was purchase a Hamburg Card which provides free public transport in the City (including from the airport) and discounts of up to 50% on admission to museums and similar attractions.

I caught the S-Bahn from the airport, where after one stop at Ohlsdorf the train waits to be coupled with another from the Poppenbüttel branch of the S1 line. At this point, two plain clothes ticket inspectors got on and checked that my newly acquired Hamburg Card was valid. I was heading to the International Maritime Museum, so changed on to the U-Bahn at Berliner Tor. Less than an hour after my plane touched down on the runway at Hamburg airport, I was walking through the doors of the museum.

International Maritime Museum This enormous museum is located in a former warehouse in the Speicherstadt area of the city. The exhibition is spread over nine floors, and tells the history of Hamburg as a port, as well as more general exhibits on ships and the sea. The are literally thousands of model ships on display. I could have spent all day in this one museum, but after three hours I decided I had better move on to see some more of Hamburg.

Speicherstadt

I walked to the city centre, where a bought a tasty filled roll from a bakery for lunch, which I ate sitting by the Alster lake. I contemplated taking a boat ride along the Alster, but concluded I probably did not have time if I was to visit everywhere else I wanted. So instead I walked up the side of the lake to the Hamburger Kunsthalle

Alster lake

Hamburger Kunsthalle is an enormous museum of art spread over three connected buildings. Its collections range from medieval to modern art. I had been particularly been looking forward to seeing the paintings by Caspar David Friedrich – including his Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
Included in the admission price was the special exhibition of Thomas Gainsborough’s landscapes they were showing at the time, with its own audioguide. Perhaps the most famous of these was Mr and Mrs Andrews, normally on display in London’s National Gallery. It seemed a bit ironic that I was viewing in Hamburg an exhibition comprised of paintings largely on loan from galleries around Britain.

After finishing at the Kunsthalle, I made my way to my hotel, which was a few minutes walk from the Hauptbahnhof. After freshening up, I went to dinner in a very pleasant pub/restaurant near the station. After a couple of courses washed down with lots of beer, I contemplated having a dessert, being tempted by the apple strudel. I had by this stage run out of beer, but did not want another half litre. However, I noticed chalked up on a blackboard just the word “Salvator” and a price of €3.50. I assumed this would be a small 25cl bottle of the strong (8% alcohol) Paulaner Salvator Doppel Bock, which I thought would go nicely with the strudel. I was right about which beer it was, but wrong about the quantity, as it came in a 0.5l bottle. I drank this very slowly, and was feeling rather merry by the time I came to ask for the bill. I had intended to do a little more sightseeing of the centre of Hamburg after dinner, but in the end thought it safest just to wobble back to my hotel.

Day two – Wednesday 18th April 2018
After having breakfast, I travelled into the Altstadt. The main square is dominated by the rather ornate Rathaus (Town Hall). I had read that tours of the town hall were sometimes available, so I went inside to enquire if there were any that day – unfortunately, there weren’t, but I did manage a little look around inside.

Rathaus

I caught a U-Bahn to visit the Hamburg City Museum (SHMH) located in a park in the St Pauli area of the city. As I got there a little before opening time, I took the opportunity to look at the top end of the notorious Reeperbahn, but at 0930 in the morning it seemed rather tame.

Museum for Hamburg History This splendid museum, as the name suggests, presents a history of the city from ancient times to the present day. There are re-creations of the interiors of historic houses from various periods. There was also an exhibition on the Jews in Hamburg. The extensive 20th century gallery brought home to me how comprehensively the city was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. On the top floor there was a working model railway based on an area of the Hamburg docks – I got there in good time to see one of the hourly displays of it working.

After the City Museum I walked to St Michaels Church, carefully timing my visit to avoid the lunchtime daily service. I climbed the tower for some great views of the city and its docks.

After lunch I went to the Speicherstadtmuseum (Warehouse district museum). I think that it had changed location since my guidebook had been published, and it turned out to be nowhere near as big as I was expecting. It was still interesting, mainly telling the history of the coffee trade in the surroundings of a renovated 19th century warehouse.

As I managed to see all I wanted in the Speicherstadtmuseum in about 40 minutes rather than the two hours I had allowed, it gave me time to visit one more location.

MK&G (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe) is a museum of applied arts, in some respects similar to London’s V&A museum. Although I had It not originally planned to visit, it turned out to be more interesting than I expected. At the weekends they sold tickets to view a Japanese tea ceremony in a mock-up building in the Japanese section of the galleries. I was fortunate to look in there when they were having a practice session, so got to see it for free.

From the MK&G museum it is just a short walk to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, so when I had finished I made my way there to catch the S-Bahn to the airport. I calculated that I just had time for a final beer in one of the several reasonably priced bars at the station. As the S1 train would divide before it reaches the airport, I had to ensure that I got on the right portion of the train.

Although busy, I got through the airport fairly quickly. The flight back to Stansted was on time and I was back home by the early evening, little more than 36 hours after I departed.

Interrail 1983 – Part Four – Yugoslavia to London

“I’m sitting in the railway station
Got a ticket to my destination

Homeward bound” (Paul Simon)

Monday 12th September 1983
Not having a bed for the night on the train from Bucharest meant that I did not manage much sleep. At about 7am the train reached Timișoara, the city where six years later the Romanian revolution first began. Many people left the train here, but the young Romanian woman and the three East African students that I had been sharing with since Bucharest did not – they were going all the way to Belgrade. This train was the only train of the day to make the border crossing between Romania and Yugoslavia (whereas now there are no trains at all).

The young woman told me that she was on her way to Rimini in Italy for a holiday. I thought that she must be very well connected, probably related to a senior government official, to be allowed such a privilege. Once we left Timișoara she produced a packet of cigarettes and proceeded one-by-one to empty the tobacco from each cigarette, then roll a large denomination US Dollar bill inside the paper case of each, before replacing the tobacco. When she had finished only close examination would reveal that this was anything other than a normal packet of cigarettes. Nonetheless, I was astonished that she should do this in full view of strangers and I had nervous anticipation of what might happen at the border.

We reached the Romanian border station of Stamora Moravita about an hour after leaving Timișoara. Here Romanian border guards entered our compartment. First they checked that everyone’s papers were in order to leave Romania – the visa I had obtained on entering the country was duly cancelled with another illegible stamp. Then the compartment, its occupants and our bags were thoroughly searched. I had placed my most disgustingly smelly dirty washing at the top of my bag, which made my searcher recoil when he first opened my bag and proceed rather more gingerly than before. Despite a lengthy search, my travelling companion’s stash of US Dollars was not discovered – she must have had nerves of steel, as she showed no emotion as her handbag containing the compromised cigarettes was rummaged through.

We eventually left Romania and a short time later crossed into Yugoslavia at Vrsac (now in Serbia), where further border formalities were to be conducted. Unlike for Hungary and Romania, I did not need a visa to enter Yugoslavia, so after a few questions an entry stamp was placed in my passport. The young Romanian woman’s papers were carefully scrutinised, but they were all in order. However, it became apparent that the three East African students did not have the visas that they required. A lengthy argument ensued and when it appeared that they might be escorted off the train, one of them delved into his belongings and produced a number of bags of coffee and offered them to the border guard. The border guard looked shocked and stormed out of the compartment. Some considerable time later he reappeared, accompanied by another official that I assumed to be the top man (judging by the amount of gold braid and ribbons on his uniform), with two armed guards either side of him. I thought that things might turn rather ugly at this stage. The original border guard seemed to be relating what had happened to his superior, who asked for the bags coffee to be produced again. The top man opened the bags and carefully smelled the contents – after some consideration he pocketed the coffee and gave the order that the necessary papers for the East Africans could now be issued!

After a lengthy delay we eventually left Vrsac and proceeded to Belgrade Danev station where we arrived at lunchtime about two hours late. Danev station was some way from the centre of Belgrade and my original plan was to catch a bus to the centre and have half a day exploring before catching another train that afternoon to Zagreb. However, the first problem I encountered was that despite Danev having a daily international arrival there was nowhere to change money at the station, so without Yugoslavian Dinars I was unable to catch a bus from there. Instead, I started walking towards the city centre, hoping to find a bank on the way where I could get some local currency.

After a while, I came across a bank which I was pleased to see did not seem too busy. It operated the old-fashioned system, whereby you had to go to one counter to initiate your transaction and having been given a chit then take it to a different counter for cash to be dispensed. Although there was only one person ahead of me in the queue, it transpired that he had about thirty different passbooks each one of which seemed to involve lengthy discussion at the first counter, followed by a very precise amount of notes and coins being counted out for each of the thirty chits at the second. By the time I had obtained my required Dinars I had spent about 90 minutes in the bank.

When I emerged I was somewhat concerned about catching my mid-afternoon train to Zagreb from Belgrade Central station. I made it just in time, but my sole sightseeing of Belgrade was just the visit to the bank.

My train to Zagreb left just after 3pm and I shared the compartment with a Yugoslav family. The contrast with the Romanian family I shared with a couple of days previously was striking. The Yugoslavs seemed much more jolly. Their clothes were more modern and brightly coloured, they had brought along a plentiful and varied picnic for the journey and the mother of the family was reading a glossy magazine with pictures of scantily clad women, which appeared to be a Yugoslav equivalent of Hello magazine.

Unfortunately, the train became delayed and got progressively later and later. So rather than arriving in Zagreb at about 7:30pm it was nearly 10pm before I eventually arrived. I had been planing to spend the night in Zagreb before catching an onward train the following lunchtime. Due to the late hour, the tourist office at the station had closed, so I ventured out into the still busy main square to see if I could find a hotel. The first hotel I tried said it was full and because of the trade fair taking place in Zagreb at the time they knew of no other hotels with vacancies.

I was left with no option but to return to the station, where fortunately there was a train to Italy due shortly. I had been looking forward to catching up on my sleep after not having much the previous night, but this now looked unlikely. I found my assigned compartment and discovered I was supposed to be sharing it with a couple who were clearly in the early stages of a relationship. Having thought that they were going to have the compartment to themselves for the night, they were understandably not enamoured that I had joined them. To make matters worse, the woman was Croatian and the man Brazilian, but their only common language was English, which neither of them spoke very well. As they tried to exchange lovers’ endearments in broken English, I wasn’t sure if I should try to help translate for them. After a while of suffering mutual embarrassment, one of them went looking for a spare compartment which they found, so they decamped there, leaving me with the compartment to myself for the rest of the night.

Tuesday 13th September 1983
Despite now having the compartment to myself, I found it difficult to get any sleep as the train made frequent stops as it travelled through Croatia and Slovenia, before halting at 3am for an hour at the Yugoslav/Italian border. I again used the trick of putting my smelliest dirty washing at the top of the bag to reduce the enthusiasm of the border officials rummaging through my belongings.

Once in Italy, the train continued via Trieste to Venice, picking up lots of passengers on the way, so by the time it arrived in Venice at about 0930 it was a packed commuter train. Part of the train was comprised of carriages which formed the Moscow to Rome express – though, as was common at the time, the train was continually being re-formed as through carriages to and from various destinations were added or detached. This necessitated lengthy stops to allow for these operations to take place – so in my view calling it an express was a misnomer. At Venice a stop of nearly an hour was scheduled, so I decided to stretch my legs by going for a short walk outside the station, leaving my bag on the train. When I returned, I had a slight panic as I could not not at first find my carriage where I had left my bag, as it had been shunted to a different platform – a section going to Milan remained where I had left the train, whereas the bit going to Florence and Rome had been moved.

Once reunited with my carriage, I travelled across northern Italy without further incident. There is only so much time one can spend looking out of the window, so by now I had moved on to read the second book of my trip – An Unfinished History of the World by Hugh Thomas.

The train arrived in Florence shortly before 3pm. I used the facilities at the station to secure a hotel room for two nights, which I went to straight away. The room was high ceilinged and airy in a rather old building, and I after I checked the bed by lying down on it, the next thing I remembered was waking up a couple of hours later. Falling straight asleep was not surprising, as I had had two consecutive nights travelling with little sleep. Once I did wake up it was early evening, so I ventured out to find something to eat.

Wednesday 14th September 1983
Given that I had been unable to spend Monday night (and Tuesday Morning) in Zagreb, I had gained a day compared with my original planned itinerary. I decided to use the extra time by going on a day trip from Florence to Pisa.

Pisa’s main claim to fame is its leaning tower, where Galileo allegedly confirmed that cannon balls of different masses reached the ground simultaneously when they were released at the same time. I headed straight to the Leaning Tower (or Campanile) after my hour long train ride from Florence. While the top of the tower was enclosed by railings, on the way up it was possible to walk along the outside of various levels which were completely unenclosed. As someone with no great head for heights, I found this scarier than being at the top. From the top there were good views across to the distant Apennines in one direction and the sea in the other.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

After visiting the tower, I also had a look at the adjoining Cathedral and its free standing Baptistry.

View of Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry from the Leaning Tower

After lunch, I looked round round Pisa a little more before catching a train back to Florence to begin my exploration of that city.

Thursday 15th September
Florence was the focal point of the Renaissance under the Medicis and it still probably has a greater concentration of art than in any other city in the world. I first went to the Duomo and climbed the steps to the roof for great views over the city.

Florence (from the Duomo)

I then visited the Galleria Dell’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David, followed by the extensive collections of the Uffizi, including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Having a break, I recall eating my lunch while in the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace.

The Duomo – from the Boboli Gardens

After lunch, I think I visited the Pitti Palace and walked across the Ponte Vecchio.

Ponte Vecchio

I had booked myself a couchette place on a train that was not leaving until just after midnight, so I had plenty of time that evening to ensure that I was well fed and watered before the next stage of my journey.

Friday 16th September
I was heading for Lucerne in Switzerland, but then (as now) Swiss hotels had a reputation for being extortionately expensive, so I had decided to finish my trip with two consecutive couchette nights. This would mean that I could have a full day in Lucerne without having the expense of a hotel.

Having left Florence just after midnight, I think I woke up briefly as we passed through Milan at about 4am. The train’s eventual destination was Stuttgart (via Zurich), so to get to Lucerne, I would need to change at the little junction station of Arth-Goldau at just after 9am. I remember while waiting in the train corridor as we approached Arth-Goldau overhearing a conversation between an American guy and an Italian woman. The woman said she was reading something by Goethe and asked him whether he had read any Goethe. Clearly nonplussed by this, yet trying not to look totally ignorant, he asked her to spell Goethe. After it was spelled out for him, he confidently announced “Oh, in English, he’s pronounced ‘Go’-‘Eth’.” At this point, I think I may have exchanged glances with the Italian woman to share our amusement of this display of self-confident ignorance which some Americans manage to perfect.

My connecting train was waiting at Arth-Goldau and it departed straight after the Zurich train had left. Just over half an hour later I arrived in Lucerne.

The first place I visited was the Swiss Transport and Postal Museum, which was a little way out of town along the lake shore. It had the advantage of offering free entry if you held an Interrail ticket. There were several locomotives and other rolling stock on display, as well as a model railway. In the postal section there was a working mock-up of a letter and packet sorting machine.

Sorting machine at the Swiss Transport and Postal Museum (Lucerne)

After I finished in the museum I returned to the centre of Lucerne by catching a boat along the lake. Unfortunately, the weather changed for the worse and the views of the surrounding mountains were obscured by low cloud and drizzle.

Lucerne (from the lake)

While the weather was bad I looked around the city, but by the late afternoon the cloud seemed to be lifting a little, so I risked going for a walk high above Lucerne to look down on the city and the lake.

Above Lucerne

I returned in plenty of time to find somewhere to eat, as my train, on which I had booked another couchette place, was not due to depart until 2215. The meal was good, but my wallet was thankful that this was the only dinner I would be having in Switzerland.

I got to Lucerne station in good time to find where my carriage would be, which would take me all the way to Calais (Maritime).

Saturday 17th September 1983
I think must have perfected the skill of sleeping on trains (or, alternatively, by this stage just been totally exhausted), as I slept fairly soundly until a very noisy French family disembarked at Lille at about 0745. The Lille station we stopped at was that which is now called Lille Flandres (to distinguish it from Lille Europe when that opened in 1993).

We reached Calais shortly after 9am and embarked on the Sealink ferry which departed at 0940 for the short crossing to Folkestone. Gaining an hour on the crossing, the boat docked at Folkestone Harbour at 1030. There then followed the usual queues to get through British immigration, before the connecting train could leave, slightly late at about 1115. (I revisited Folkestone five years ago in 2015 and I was saddened to see the harbour and its station in a state of dereliction – I wandered through the ruins reminiscing about how this had been my point of re-entry to Britain after many foreign trips. However, since my last visit I understand that it may have been redeveloped.)

After going up the hill after leaving the harbour, the electric train reversed direction before proceeding non-stop to London Victoria where it arrived at lunchtime. By 3pm I had arrived home at my flat in the suburbs.

I had only been home a little while when the phone rang. It was my best mate, with whom I had been out drinking the evening before I departed, checking that I had returned safely and suggesting that we meet up for a drink in central London that evening. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be able to tell someone the stories from my trip so I readily agreed. Looking back I am amazed at the stamina I must have had as a 25 year old in 1983 – I’m sure that now I would just want an early night.

Interrail 1983 – Part Three – Romania

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” (Henry Miller)

Wednesday 7th September 1983
The train from Budapest crossed into Romania at about midnight. The first noticeable difference was that the beer crate that had been freely dispensing all evening had to be locked away, but not before the Romanian borders guards who had now got on had each helped themselves to a bottle. A visa was also required to enter Romania, but unlike for Hungary, this could be obtained at the border. After a little bit of confusion about what needed to be done, various forms were filled in and a mandatory minimum amount of hard currency was exchanged for Romanian lei, resulting in my passport being returned with three 50 lei paper stamps being stuck on a visa page all overprinted with an illegible impression from a rubber stamp. After hanging around for over an hour at the border the train eventually moved off and I settled down to try to get some sleep.

We arrived in Sighișoara in Transylvania at about 7am, where I alighted. The first thing I did was to check the timetable at the station to confirm the time of the train that afternoon on which I intended to depart. However, there was a notice next to the timetable which I didn’t fully understand, but it seemed to imply that my intended departure may not be running, but that a departure a couple of hours earlier should be.

Walking into the centre of Sighișoara from the station was like stepping back in time. It was a misty morning and very few people seemed to be about, which added to the eerie atmosphere of the place.

Sighișoara

As nothing yet seemed to be open in the town, I decided to climb up above the town to visit the church on the hill. As I climbed, the mist thinned and as I approached the church, around which sheep were grazing, I could hear organ music from inside floating down the hill.

Despite there obviously being an organist playing inside the church, the door was locked and I had to content myself with listening from outside.

On my return to the town, it was noticeable that every shop and other public building had a picture of a youthful looking Nicolae Ceaușescu in the window. In the case of the shops, the picture of Ceaușescu was about all they had and I found it quite difficult to buy anything to eat. (It took me a little while to realise that the youthful picture seen displayed in every building in Romania was of the same person as the pictures of the rather more elderly individual which adorned the front page of every newspaper each day.)

I returned to the station about lunchtime and caught a train for the two hour journey to Brașov, where I arrived mid-afternoon. Unlike the bigger cities I had visited, there was no tourist office at the station to assist with finding accommodation, so I walked to the town centre and enquired at the only hotel I could find, using my best phrasebook translation, about having a single room for the night. The initial response from the person at the hotel desk was was that they had no rooms and that there were no other hotels nearby. However, after some persistence from me they eventually reluctantly disclosed that they did have double rooms and I could have one of those if I was prepared to pay the double room price!

That evening when I went looking for somewhere to eat, I discovered that restaurants in Romania at the time did not have written menus, which makes ordering slightly tricky if you and the waiter don’t share a common language. (A few days later, when talking to a waiter with whom I could communicate a little, I was told that since restaurants did not know from one day to the next what food, if any, they would have, there was little point in preparing written menus.) I eventually did get served a meal in Brașov, but I remember it being rather sparse and unappetising. The contrast with its communist neighbour Hungary, where the choice of food was plentiful and portions generous, was striking.

Thursday 8th September 1983
Brașov is dominated by Tampa mountain which overlooks the city. In the morning I decided to go to the top using the cable car which departs from the edge of the built-up area. I arrived when they were just opening up and I was the only passenger for the ride to the top. However, good use was made of the space in the cable car in which I rode, as I shared it with a crate of fish which was being sent up to a restaurant at the top of the mountain. Having admired the views from the top, I walked back down to Brașov by following a marked hiking trail.

Brașov (from Tampa mountain)

In the afternoon I caught a train for the three hour journey to Bucharest. At Bucharest Nord station there was an accommodation finding service which secured me a small room for two nights in a rather dingy hotel not far from the station.

Friday 9th September
In the morning I travelled a little way from the city centre to visit Herăstrău Park (now renamed the King Michael I park) where there was a Village Museum which consisted of a collection of peasant houses in different styles from around the country.

Lake in Herăstrău Park, Bucharest

In the afternoon I went to the National Museum of History, which had a couple of galleries devoted to the Ceaușescus. Amusingly, among the exhibits on display in these galleries were various knick-knacks picked up by the Ceaușescus on their foreign visits, including, for example, an ashtray from British Aerospace’s Filton works and a towel bearing the British royal insignia from Buckingham Palace. There was a whole section devoted to the achievements of Elena Ceaușescu as a chemist, including various honorary PhD certificates awarded by universities from around the world. The exhibition suggested that Elena Ceaușescu could expect to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry imminently, which, of course, for some reason, never happened.

That evening, for the first time since I arrived in Romania, I found a restaurant which had a menu and I ate a substantial meal. Unfortunately, my constitution had become unaccustomed to eating well, so after I left the restaurant and was walking through Bucharest I felt a sudden need to visit a toilet. There seemed to be no nearby public conveniences and I realised that I would not be able to make it back to my hotel, leaving me with no option but disappear into a small unlit park adjoining a large public building. Part way through doing my business there, all of a sudden floodlights came on illuminating the whole area. In my haste to make myself decent, and not wishing to have to explain my business in the park to the authorities, I managed to leave behind my underpants. I was thankful to make it back to my hotel without further incident.

Saturday 10th September 1983
In the late morning I made my way to Bucharest Nord to catch a train to the coast. The train was packed, mainly with families apparently setting off on late summer holidays, so I was glad that I had a reservation. I shared my compartment with a smartly dressed Romanian family – the father, who was wearing a suit, spent the journey intently reading a densely typed newspaper – it looked rather dull, the few pictures in it were of Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Just before 4pm we reached Constanța, a large port city on the Black Sea, where the family I had shared with from Bucharest got off. They were replaced by a Romanian couple. As the train travelled along the coast in the beautifully warm late afternoon, the couple tried to engage me in conversation, with only limited success due to language difficulties.

Just before 6pm the train reached its final destination of Mangalia. There was no tourist office at the station, so I walked a couple of blocks down to the seafront and enquired at a modern looking hotel whether they had a room for the night. Fortunately, they did – I was given a key, so I went to the room and left my bag, before immediately heading out for a quick explore of the town, as the hotel would be providing dinner shortly. Upon my return to the hotel I asked for the key to my room, but the receptionist refused to give it to me – he said that the room was broken and gave me the key to an alternative room instead. It took much persuasion to let me return to my original room to retrieve my bag. I was not allowed to do this unaccompanied – the original room looked exactly as I had left it and everything seemed to be working normally. My replacement room seemed identical, so I can only suppose that the difference was that my new room had functioning bugging equipment and that the Securitate wished to keep tabs on me.

I went down to dinner, which was generous and good quality. The main course consisted of steak and chips – the only downside was that the steak was served topped with a fried egg, and I have a life-long revulsion of eating eggs. At dinner, I discovered that all the fellow residents appeared to be elderly East Germans on a package holiday, and men formed a very small minority of the group. The East German grannies seemed delighted to have a young western man among their midst and were keen to associate with me during and after dinner. Once dinner was over, after a while I made my excuses and left.

I walked along the seafront and came to a bar where a number of people were drinking outside. I tried to order a beer, only to find that they had run out. All of a sudden, most of those in the bar got up and started running down the road. I realised that they had spotted a beer lorry and were running after it, to see where it was going to deliver to next. I followed and saw a number of crates of beer were being delivered to another bar a little further along the seafront road. I managed to buy a beer from the newly unloaded crates at this bar, which I drank before returning to my hotel to go to bed.

As I was convinced that I had been moved to a bugged room, I provided a running commentary as I got ready for bed saying that it was for the benefit of those listening.

Sunday 11th September 1983
The Sunday morning was not quite as warm as the previous day had been, but still pleasant enough for me to fulfil the objective for the whole trip – to sit on the beach and swim in the Black Sea.

Mangalia

Mangalia is very close to the Bulgarian border and on the horizon to the south one could see various Bulgarian industrial works.

After a morning on the beach, I returned to the station at lunchtime to catch a train back to Bucharest. This train, although reasonably busy, was not as crowded as the previous day’s train to the coast.

I arrived in Bucharest in the early evening, in good time to catch my next overnight train at 2230. I ventured into the city to find somewhere to eat. After dinner, I found a bar (with beer!) on the main square opposite Romania’s flagship hotel, the Athenee Palace. Observing the world go by in this area, then called Republic Square, one could just about see why Bucharest was called the Paris of the East. The square is now called Revolution Square, as it was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Romanian revolution which overthrew Ceaușescu in 1989.

I returned to Bucharest Nord with plenty of time to catch my 2230 departure to Belgrade. I was somewhat surprised to discover that you were not allowed to enter the station at that time of the evening unless you could show that you had a valid ticket. Even the socialist paradise that was Romania had a problem with rough sleepers using the station at night. The train I was catching to Belgrade only had seating or sleeper compartments, not convertible couchettes like those I had used on my overnight trip from Budapest. When I had first arrived in Bucharest a few days earlier, I had tried to book a bed in the sleeper for tonight’s trip, but none were available, so I just had to make do with a seat reservation. I discovered that I was sharing the compartment for the overnight journey with a young Romanian woman travelling by herself and three male East African students. Shortly after departure we all settled down to try to sleep as best we could.

Interrail 1983 – Part Two – Austria and Hungary

“Vienna is a handsome, lively city, and pleases me exceedingly.” (Frederic Chopin)

Thursday 1st September 1983
That morning a I caught one of the frequent trains from Munich for the 90 minute journey to Salzburg. Upon arrival, I found that Salzburg station was divided into separate German and Austrian sections and that to leave the German part of the station one had to go through immigration. As Austria was not part of the EEC (as it was then called), the immigration checks were more formal than there had been between Holland and Germany.

I have to admit that Salzburg is the one city visited on this trip that I remember least about. I do recall that it was very touristy and that the same image of Mozart was ubiquitous on the streets and in the shops. Looking back at the photographs I took of the views of the city, I must have been up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, but it left no abiding memories.

Salzburg

However, I do remember that evening catching some of the television news in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying – which appeared to be leading with a plane crash in Asia. I didn’t think too much about it at the time – but its significance would become apparent a few days later.

Friday 2nd September 1983
I left Salzburg in the morning for the very scenic three hour journey to Vienna, initially following the narrow valley of the River Fishach, arriving at Westbahnhof (now supplanted in importance by the new Hauptbahnhof) around lunchtime.

After finding somehere to stay for two nights, I spent the afternoon exploring the sights of the Altstadt and visited the Belvedere including its gallery of modern art.

Grounds of the Belvedere (Vienna)

Saturday 3rd September 1983
In the morning I visited the Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg’s summer residence, with its extensive gardens.

Schönbrunn Palace (Vienna)

By the afternoon, I had tired of city bustle, so I caught a 38 bus out to the Vienna Woods, which rise high above the city to the north. Being a Saturday afternoon, many Viennese had the same idea and the cafe near the bus terminus was busy. However, the woods are large and it was easy enough to lose the crowds by following one of the many paths leading from the summit.

Sunday 4th September 1983
I returned to Westbahnhof to catch a Sunday morning train to Budapest. This would be the first time I had visited a communist country. After the train left Vienna, I found a discarded copy of an English language newspaper. The news was dominated by the shooting down of a Korean passenger jet (KAL 007) by a Soviet fighter, the first inklings of which I had picked up in Salzburg. Rather alarmingly for me, the newspaper also reported that, in a major ratcheting up of cold war tension, Ronald Reagan was threatening to isolate the Soviet bloc by “sealing the iron curtain” – I read this just half an before I was about to cross the border and made me wonder how I would get out.

The border was reached late morning, where the train stopped at Hegyeshalom station for about half an hour so that Hungarian officials could board and carry out their necessary checks. The visa I had obtained in London was inspected and stamped – fortunately everything was in order and the formalities were fairly painless. We then proceeded to Budapest, where I arrived at about 2:30pm.

Hotel beds in Budapest were in short supply, but the tourist office at Keleti station would happily arrange accommodation in private houses. I was given the address of a house where I could stay for the next two nights. I went straight there from the station, being at the end of a bus route deep in the suburbs of Budapest. Going there straight away was a mistake, as when I arrived at the house there was nobody in. So I returned to the centre and spent a bit of time exploring the city. The first noticeable difference with the west was that on busy streets there was a strange fuel smell, which I presumed was due to the predominant two-stroke engines not fully combusting properly. After no difficulty in finding a good evening meal, I returned to the house in the suburbs, where fortunately my hosts had returned. The house was a fairly small bungalow and my bed was in their front room, which I think that they sometimes also used as a dining room.

Monday 5th September 1983
I awoke early and while waiting for my breakfast to be prepared I took the opportunity to scan the well stocked bookcases in the room in which I had been sleeping. I can never resist looking at other people’s book collections, even if they are in a language I don’t understand. Among the books I was surprised to find a photographic record of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, clearly not written from the then communist party perspective. I imagine it would have been unthinkable to find such a book openly on display in a similar East German or Czechoslovak household.

As it was a nice sunny day, I decided to go on a day trip to spend the day at the beach. As I was in a landlocked country in the middle of central Europe, the beach would have to be on Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe and a pleasure ground for Hungarians.

To get to the south shore of Lake Balaton I caught a train that morning from Budapest Deli and travelled for a couple of hours down to Siofok. On the the train, a rotund Hungarian carrying three carrier bags of food sat opposite me – during the course of the next two hours he proceeded to consume without pause the contents of his carrier bags. I think I heard it said that the Hungarians eat the largest breakfast of any nation in Europe, but that it is the smallest of the three meals that they consume each day.

I arrived in Siofok (or possibly one of the other towns nearby, I can no longer remember exactly). It was just like any seaside resort with sandy beaches and the usual garish seaside facilities. I spent most of the day lounging on the beach and swimming in the lake.

Lake Balaton

Once I had had enough I caught the train back to Budapest, arriving in the early evening, where I had something to eat before heading to where I was staying in the suburbs.

Tuesday 6th September 1983
After my day at the beach, today would be the main day for exploring Budapest. Up until now I had largely seen Pest, the government and commercial heart of the city. On the other side of the Danube is Buda with ancient streets set among rolling hils. On Castle Hill there was Matthias Cathedral and the main historical museum.

Budapest

I was intrigued to note that the main bridge across the Danube (the Szechenyi bridge) had an inscription carved into the stonework commemorating its opening in 1849, but with a hammer and sickle integral to the design. As far as I was aware, the communists were not in power in 1849, but some research revealed that the bridge had been completely rebuilt as a faithful copy after being destroyed in the Second World War. It was a faithful copy apart from the addition of the hammer and sickle. Incidently, the bridge was designed by an Englishman William Tierney Clark, who also designed the similar chain bridge across the Thames at Marlow.

That night I was going to make my first overnight journey by train, having booked, when I first arrived in Budapest, a couchette place for the trip to Romania. So having eaten early, I made my way to Nyugati station (the third of the main Budapest stations) for the 1850 departure.

I found the coach in which my couchette place was located and when I arrived at my allocated compartment, I discovered that I would be sharing it for the night with a Romanian woman (of Hugarian descent) with the physique of a shot putter. She had already spread her belongings all over the compartment and to say that she was not totally pleased to be sharing with me was probably an understatement. All attempts to engage in any conversation with her were met with complete frostiness. The journey to the border was made more bearable by a woman attendant who came round regularly dispensing cheap bottles of beer from a hand held crate. My consumption of these bottles gathered more disparaging looks from my compartment companion.

The train arrived at Biharkeresztes shortly after 10pm, where Hungarian border police got on and my visa was duly stamped to show that I had left the country. After about half an hour the train proceeded for 10 minutes (but gaining another hour on the clock) to enter Romania.

(Next weeks post will all be about my experiences in Romania.)