“Trains and boats and planes are passing by
They mean a trip to Paris or Rome…”
It’s been a while since we last left this sceptered isle and so we put that right this month by taking a trip to Croatia. The timing meant that we’d be missing the Eurovision song contest and the Royal Wedding…one of them the cultural highlight of the year and the other a chance for people to dress in outlandish outfits and be seen by gazillions of television viewers, but I leave it to you to decide which is which. Katie came to stay at our house to look after George and Dave (the cats); we insured the car for her (which cost the crippling amount of £1:12) and assured her that we didn’t mind in the least if she had friends to stay.
All times local…
Thursday, 10th May
Abergavenny – Hereford, 09:35 – 10:30
A gentle start – and free, courtesy of our over-60 bus passes. It’s a quirk of our railway system that a trip to London would normally involve a train from Abergavenny, cost upwards of £35 for the two of us (one way) and require a change at Newport, but this journey from Hereford to London at the same time of day is costing us only £8. And no need to change trains, either. The bus and train timetables don’t quite get it together but this is solved by spending a leisurely hour over breakfast in the supermarket just across the road from the train station.
Message from Katie, who’d dropped us at the bus station: Home safely, parents!
Hereford – London Paddington, 12:09 – 15:27
And so we’re off, with no mishaps so far (unless you count the one last month where I forgot that I’d bought the Hereford-London train tickets and wasted money on another two. Let’s not dwell on that because there’s plenty more opportunity for taking the mick out of my organisational skills).
London Underground. Ugh. There’s something unnerving about those dark tunnels and the way that herds of people rush through, like crowds of demented lemmings that have discovered smartphones. It becomes difficult for the lemmings if one of you is pulling along a suitcase, but heigh-ho. We reach the flat before Alex gets home from work, which means we get to make the evening meal from the contents of the fridge: hummus, bacon, Greek yoghurt, various types of cheese, two courgettes, radishes, three small sweet potatoes, eight red onions, two apples that have gone soft, and plenty of garlic.
Scenes from Day One: on the left, tea at Abergavenny Bus Station and a pretty column at Great Malvern. On the right, Hereford Station; the view from the train as we passed through Worcester; St Matthew, Brixton reflected in the windows of a building opposite, taken from the bus
Friday, 11th May
05:20, Brixton Underground Station.
The doors of the station are locked. It’s only the presence of several dozen other would-be lemmings looking unconcerned that reassures us that the whole enterprise isn’t going to fail before it even gets off the ground. Or under the ground. Sure enough, at 05:30 precisely, the doors slide open and we’re in. The Victoria Line takes us directly to Euston/St Pancras, an encouraging start.
Eurostar: London St Pancras – Paris Nord, 07:01 – 10:17
St Pancras is delightful, even at 06:00. Gare du Nord, on the other hand, is the pits. Huge, noisy, smelly, crowded and scarily different, it’s an awful introduction to the French capital. It’s also full of dodgy characters who scurry around with malicious intent. This time no-one tries to persuade us to go with him around the corner where he knows of a less busy machine from which we can buy metro tickets. Though not even we’ve ever been daft enough to fall for that one, and sensibly Eurostar sell metro tickets on board the train.
Message from Katie: Pics please and what’s the weather like? I’ve had to put the heating on for a bit
Metro to Gare de Lyon, and the luggage is stashed in the lock-up. We leave the station and settle down just across the road at a pavement café to enjoy a cold beer, before realising that we’re doing exactly what we worry about the girls doing – sitting at a pavement café in a European city enjoying the sunshine (later this evening we hear that there’s been a terrorist attack in Paris, just a few hours after we’ve left). We finish off the beer toute-suite and set off to explore but go no further than Place de la Bastille before we lose our nerve and head back to the station to wait for the train to Turin.
Early into Day Two, enjoying the Parisian sunshine during a train break:Time for lunch – a baguette, of course. At the moment they are a novelty. A sign of the times is that Parisian stations are patrolled by heavily armed security: soldiers who look young enough to still be at school carry weapons almost as big as themselves, whilst groups of gun-totin’ police stalk the site with an air of stylish menace.
Paris Lyon – Torino Porta Susa, 14:41 – 20:18
We’ve stayed in Turin once before, close to the station. This time we’ve opted to go a little further away and have a walk of about a mile to our hotel. It turns out to be in the San Salvario part of town, an area full of students/young people with the bars, clubs, restaurants, cafés that are essential to life. To say it’s lively is an understatement – it’s the noisiest place we’ve ever spent a sleepless night (though my friend Elsa, in an impressive piece of one-upmanship, says later: “But you’ve never stayed in Kathmandu”).
Message from Katie: all fine here! Binge watching House of Cards and had paella for dinner
As all is clearly well with the world, we go out for dinner. And a drink.It’s not long before Mishap Number 2 raises its head. When I’d been buying online train tickets ready for the holiday, I’d decided that as Turin wasn’t too far from our next stop in Venice, there was no need to pre-arrange anything and that we would simply be able to turn up at the station and use the ticket machine.
It’s over 260 miles from Turin to Venice. In the grand scheme of things, and compared with the Trans-Siberian Railway, South Africa’s Blue Train or the coast-to-coast North American trips, this may seem trivial. What it means though, is that I’ve understimated not only the time it will take us to reach Venice but also the number of shiny euros we’ll have to part with.
By the time we realize the magnitude of my sloppiness we’re in bed. The internet is telling us that the tickets available for the following day are going to be financially painful and that it’s likely to take us at least 5 hours to get to Venice. Stuffed with pizza and (probably) a little too much wine, we get out of bed, throw some clothes on over our pyjamas and hit the noisy streets of downtown Turin. We walk to the nearby Porta Nuova Station in the forlorn hope that there’ll be a ticket office open with an English speaking salesperson who can sort us out.
We do the best we can and buy train tickets that will send us on our way in three separate stages: Turin to Milan, Milan to Verona and finally Verona to Venice. It’s sort of crucial that we get to Venice by a certain time: Alex is flying out to meet us and then we’re all catching a ferry to Croatia. The only ferry of the day…
…The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it
Saturday, 12th May
Torino Porta Nuova – Milano Centrale, 05:54 – 07:46
Milano Centrale – Verona Porta Nuova, 08:25 – 10:15
Verona Porta Nuova – Venezia Santa Lucia, 10:21 – 11:48
Alex is due to land at 11:55 so this is ideal, isn’t it? We choose not to worry about the fact that there’s just six minutes at Verona to get off one train with our bags and find the other platform. As things turn out it’s completely irrelevant because we don’t get to Verona until 11:00. What to do now? Well, obviously we rely on information from a member of the public, a young Italian whose plans to travel on to Vincenza have also been scuppered. He stops speaking to his phone for long enough to tell us that there’ll be a replacement bus at the front of the station which will take us to Venice. We traipse outside to the forecourt, acquiring a young Russian woman on the way. Her approach to travel problems appears to be similar to ours.
No buses outside, so (seeking reassurance and moral support) we ring Katie, who tells us that on no account should we get the bus (even if it materializes) because it will take hours to reach Venice (ha!). Back inside the station the mob outside customer service convinces us that the Italians (God bless ’em) are completely unfamiliar with the concept of an orderly queue so instead we find an agency that sells train tickets. Here we’re informed that our tickets will be valid for the next regional train at 12:30, which will get to Venice at 14:55. Our third option is to buy a more expensive ticket for the faster 12:50 train, which would get us to Venice at 13:59.
Now I’ve never been very good at making decisions which involve time. You know all those quizzes or puzzles on TV shows which are set against a ticking clock? Not for me. My brain goes into some sort of melt-down. At this point Michael has also lost his power of reason, which explains why we buy new tickets for the faster train, on the basis that it will get us to Venice an hour earlier than the train for which we already have tickets. One full minute after this transaction has been completed to the tune of 42 euros we look up at the board to see that this ‘fast’ train is running thirty minutes late.
Message from Katie: Dad, will you ask Mum a crochet question – for the largest elephant it says I need a size 8mm hook but 6.5 is the biggest I have – shall I just use that then it’ll still be slightly bigger than the one size down?
By now we’ve lost the Russian girl, though we spot her sometime later wedged in the centre of the crowd outside customer service. Just before 12:50 the information board tells us that the fast train is now running 40 minutes late, so we hop onto the 12:30 and cross our fingers. And toes.
Alex’s plane lands at Marco Polo airport half an hour early. Our original agreement had been to meet at the railway station but the way the day’s going it’s too much to hope that she’ll sit and wait; she walks into central Venice and sits just off Piazza San Marco, eating garlic chips and drinking a cooling glass of wine.
Meanwhile back in la-la land we’re fielding phone-calls from both Alex and Katie (who’s acting as virtual supervisor). By the time we reach Venice we’re hot, tired and agitated as it’s now 15:15 and we have to be at San Basilio dock by 16:15. Though I manage to take a quick snap as we emerge from the railway station, which makes Michael a bit cross.The only picture taken on Day Three (apart from hopeless snaps from a moving train window). The Chiesa di San Simeone Piccolo
Now all we need to do is find our missing daughter…
Message from Michael to Alex, who we guess is still languishing in St Marks: Be there in about 20 mins. Meet by bell tower
Message from Alex in return: How very Robert Langdon
She’s clearly not feeling our pain.
We wade through hordes of tourists overdosing on ice-cream and renaissance architecture and finally get together. We now face a route-march of epic proportions in which we mow down an old lady or three and assorted Japanese tourists, but we make it to the port check-in with two minutes to spare. Then we remember where we are – I’d like to be kind and claim that the fifteen minutes that pass whilst the two check-in staff leisurely go about their business is due to slow intenet connections; in reality it reminds us that even officials in this part of the world are a little laid back when it comes to timing.
Message from Katie: Parents, do you have anything to clean blood out of the carpet?
Venezia San Basilio – Poreč, 17:15 – 21:30
Time to try out my basic Croatian at the bar, which results in two bottles of chilled beer and a revolting fizzy drink for Alex, as well as a friend for life in Ingrid, the lady behind said bar. Also more sandwiches.
A slightly weird thing happens at border control, otherwise known as Poreč jetty, when the official on duty squints closely at Michael’s passport before taking it into his shed and poring over it with his colleagues. They appear to be comparing it to a photograph on an A4 sheet; this turns out to be a wanted diamond thief…
Somewhat disappointingly they decide he’s not their man so we open up Google Maps and find our way to our rented apartment, which turns out to be a fifteen minute stroll from the beach. We’ve all stayed in the town before, which was one of the reasons we chose to come. After all it’s too long and convoluted a way to travel if you end up somewhere you don’t like.
Poreč – the tiny white building on the stone jetty to the left is the border control point
In common with several other Adriatic coastal towns, Poreč was founded by the Romans, although there was already a local settlement on the peninsula. It later belonged to the Venetian Republic, the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy and the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to name but a few. The streets are laid out to the original Roman plan (including the main thoroughfare, Decumanus) and most of the buildings are Venetian.
Some impressions of Poreč:
What can I say? The weather is glorious, the surroundings even more so. We send plenty of pics back to Lizzie (who’s studying hard) and Katie (who’s busy burying small rodents in a mass grave).
Message from Lizzie: Don’t get burnt. Hope Dad is wearing a hat
Yup, he is.
The cherry on Poreč’s cake is definitely the Euphrasian Basilica, which dates back to the 6th century and is built on the site of a 4th century church. It’s worth a visit for the mosaics alone, dating from both these eras, and is undoubtedly one of the world’s treasures.
Inside the Euphrasian Basilica
One of the reasons that people take a holiday from the UK is to enjoy slightly better weather than we get at home. It appears that we’re out of luck because on Monday we get this:
Though actually we’re not too unhappy…
A few days later we visit another Roman town at Pula. There’s a wonderful arena but Michael and I agree with our personal ancient historian and museum professional when she voices her disappointment at the way the site is managed. There are so many possibilities here which just haven’t been realised. We’re lucky to come from a country where engagement with the public at heritage sites is considered of such high importance; a pile of amphorae and a few signs just doesn’t do enough.
There’s an incredible number of Roman artefacts scattered throughout this dilapidated port. We’re all dismayed at the state of the ruined theatre with its litter and graffiti on the ancient stone walls and seats but maybe there’s hope in that the building next to it is being renovated with a sign announcing that it will be the cultural and historic office of the town. Who knows?
We cheer ourselves up with lunch in a tiny café in a small side-street, going against Rick Stein’s maxim that you should eat somewhere crowded, because crowded means popular means good. We have what is probably the best meal of the holiday – local ingredients presented with very little cooking and a minimum of fuss.
Food, glorious food: on the left are the ‘Istrian Platter’ and ‘Fish Platter’ we enjoyed in Pula. On the right, kebabs, grilled mackerel and a traditional favourite, Škampi na Buzaru
The last day of our holiday week we have another excursion. There are trips sold up and down the quayside at most resort towns and Poreč is no exception. This trip to the town of Rovinj costs about £20 each and includes a substantial meal of grilled mackerel/chicken/sausage (there’s a vegetarian option but I’ve no idea what this is), salad, bread and seemingly unlimited wine. And there’s a comedy show of sorts when we sail past a local nudist colony. Right on time, a young, naked man appears out of the trees. The ship’s captain sounds the hooter and the man makes a great display of bouncing up and down and waving to us all…no photos here, sorry!
Message from Katie: Can we talk about the teapot?
Ah – we’ve done it again – gone away and forgotten to empty the teapot…we’re really worried about this…
All taken at Rovinj
Saturday, 19th May
Poreč – Venezia San Basilio, 07:15 – 11:00
The high point of the crossing back to Venice (apart from being reunited with Ingrid) is the sight of three dolphins arching through the water. At least I’m calling them dolphins – Michael (who knows more about these things) says they’re porpoises. Whichever, it’s a real thrill to see them. Venice is just as hot and crowed as ever and after a lunch of lasagne (which I swore never to eat again in a restaurant after the food poisoning I’d suffered in Scotland last year) followed by calamari, we escort Alex to the bus station so that she can keep her assignation with Easyjet. That leaves us with just two hours before our train, which we fill with some picture-taking and gelato-guzzling.
By the way – Michael-who-knows-Venice-like-the-back-of-his-hand has admitted that on our frantic dash to the ferry a week ago his brain had short-circuited and instead of taking a direct route from the station to the dock (25 mins or so and through quiet streets) he led us in a roundabout odyssey that took us to the most congested parts of the city. He was wise to keep this to himself until now, though he had no choice if he wanted to avoid the same awful trek again.
Some of the quieter parts of Venice
Venezia Santa Lucia – Milano Centrale, 16:20-18:55
Once again we travel through Verona and past Lake Garda but this is an uneventful journey. And luckily we’re staying in Milan overnight so there are no worries about connecting services.
Milan has four metro lines which makes it easier to navigate than some I could mention. The confusing thing is that you have to leave the station and access the metro from outside but we manage it with aplomb. After all, if you’re going to have aplomb anywhere, it should be in Italy’s most fashionable city. Katie lived here for nine months after she graduated and her opinion is less favourable. Our hotel is less than a minute’s walk from the metro station, which is very welcome. Even more welcome is the very stylish but reasonably priced restaurant next door, with its very stylish and very tasty food. By the way, the hotel provides the biggest bed I’ve slept in ever.
Sunday, 20th May
Milano Centrale – Zürich Hauptbahnhof, 09:25 – 12:51
Zürich Hauptbahnhof – Paris Lyon, 13:34 – 17:37
Milano Centrale is a very impressive place, full of smart shops and smart young things. The thing which catches my eye in particular is an enormous image, high up on an arched wall, of half-a-dozen voluptuous, scantily-clad women. Not Titian or Raphael, but an advertisement for Calvin Klein. It’s typically Italian, as is the system we fall foul of in the café. Michael sits at a table whilst I go off to get us some breakfast pastries and coffee. Now, what you do is this: you pay for your goods before you get them and then present the receipt to the server who hands you your food and makes your drinks. Of course to do this you have to know exactly what you want, which means you spend time at the serving counter checking to see what’s on offer and trying to commit the names to memory before then going across to the cash-till. I manage this successfully and carry off the prize to our table. But there’s another challenge awaiting and as I sit down a man in café livery sidles up to the table, muttering out of the corner of his mouth: “Excuse me, are you English?”
I resist the temptation to say “No, we’re Welsh” because I’m pretty sure it would be meaningless in this situation, and wonder why he’s acting like a minor character in ‘Allo, ‘Allo. I regret to say that instead of offering us a portrait of The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies he mutters again: “You cannot sit here. You must go outside or stand over there, the other side of the barrier.” This isn’t because of our nationality, of course – I remember now that in Italy you pay one price if you are going to stand, and a higher price if you want to sit. I’d clearly paid the lower price, through no choice or awareness of my own, and so we have to move. We eat up and move directly to the train, which deposits us on time at Zürich, after passing some spectacular if grey and water-logged scenery.
We buy and eat yet more sandwiches and enjoy an uneventful ride to Paris, apart from a slight disagreement with two other people over seat numbers. In effect they throw us out because we’re in their seats, though in our defence, our seat numbers are nowhere to be found.
Paris, Gare de Lyon again; across to Gare du Nord, which is no better than it was the first time. Though there are compensations.
Eurostar: Paris – London, 20:43 – 22:00
We’ve time here to eat but as by now all we want to do is sit somewhere and chill out without worrying about times of check-ins we go straight to the Eurostar lounge. This means that all we can get to eat, yet again, is a sandwich. C’est la vie. The train leaves on time and we’re in St Pancras almost in the blink of an eye.
Where we again rejoice in the Victoria Line. We’re back in the flat with Alex, Katie (today returned from the outback to civilization) and Garth by 22:30. Alex offers us bacon sandwiches (…), which we’d agreed yesterday as we were putting her on the bus to the airport though at this moment if I never see another sandwich in my life it won’t be too soon.
Monday, 21st May
Bucking the trend a little we ignore the underground, mostly because a bus comes along the road that’s on its way to Marble Arch. This is much better than being in those awful tunnels filled with eerie screeching noises and thousands of lemmings, especially as the sun is shining. The bus takes us across Westminster Bridge, past the Palace and Abbey of Westminster, along Horseguards and around Piccadilly Circus. We consider stopping for something to eat as it’s way past breakfast time, but the sight of Pret a Manger and Pain Quotidien full of their pastries and sandwiches is enough to keep us going all the way to Paddington station.
London Paddington – Abergavenny, 12:45 – 16:01
So where better than The Mad Bishop and Bear, a bar that must be familiar to anyone travelling west by train out of London. I don’t usually have ‘a full English’ but after two days of nothing but sandwiches and flaky pastry, this is exactly what I need. Somewhat bizarrely as I stand at the bar waiting to order, I heard my name being called very loudly. Looking around I’m delighted to see Vee, who I used to work with. She’s just as I remember, exuberant and full of life and with hair dyed several shades of blue and green. Her train out is earlier than ours but there’s enough time to chat and catch up on gossip.
Hmm. A surprise at Newport where, instead of changing trains to travel north, we’re put on a replacement bus to Cwmbran…
…but then back onto a train to take us the rest of the way to Abergavenny, where my lovely sister is waiting to collect us. She stayed last night to look after the cats, who completely ignore us when we get in. Well, we did desert them!
So now it’s time to empty the case and sort out the washing…then a glass of wine, a plate of chicken and bed. Tomorrow we’ll deal with other chores, do some shopping, and keep an eye on our now murderous cats who’ve begun to terrorize the local population of small rodents…and check to see if Katie managed to get the mouse-blood out of the carpet…
It’s good to be home.
In case you’re tempted to let the train take the strain or to visit any of the places we stayed at, you might like to look at the following:
The Man in Seat 61 a fantastic site with everything you’ve ever wanted to know about train travel, including advice on how to buy tickets – take note!
Trainline and Trainline Europe are my preferred websites for buying train tickets on-line, for the UK or Europe. I’ve also used Deutsche Bahn in the past, who have an office in London. This has been useful when we’ve taken less straight forward journeys and have needed help – they’re an English speaking office and really helpful
Direct Ferries This is an easy site to navigate, which allows you to buy ferry tickets on-line anywhere in Europe, and elsewhere in the world
booking.com I use this site to book all our accomodation, partly because they include places that have a free cancellation policy up to a day or two before your stay. Plans often change so this is useful. I’ve also used Interhome in the past, which has thousands of properties to rent if you want to book self-catering accommodation. It’s easy and reliable
Croatia Tourism This is the official Croatian tourist site, with plenty of advice and information
Little by little, one travels far