St Moritz

Interrailing 2022: the route

Following on from the previous post with tips for using a Global Interrail Pass, here is my first month’s Interrail route that made good use of a flexible Europe-wide pass. On the whole it avoided countries that require seat bookings and supplements. All journeys were free with the pass apart from the the short ride from Jenback to Fügen (Austria) and the Swiss Bernese Oberland mountain railways/cable cars (the Interrail gave a 25% discount though).

Travel day 1

From Devon to Namur, Belgium. This was as far as we could comfortably travel whilst avoiding an expensive overnight in Brussels and the routes into Germany that are currently somewhat unreliable. Namur is cheaper than Brussels and has a bar with 47 beer pulls!

Travel day 2

Namur to Luxembourg. Back when I was a tour guide in the 1990s, our coaches often diverted to Luxembourg to fuel up with cheap diesel. In frustration I’d gaze out at the city clustered above, below and along the edges of a deep river gorge, unable to leap off and explore. Now, after all those trains, it was a pleasure to walk this charming city.

Travel day 3

Luxembourg to Strasbourg (France). Strasbourg was a morning stop on our 1990s coach tours, although there wouldn’t be time for more than a quick stroll around the waterways and 16th century buildings of Petite France and a glimpse of the Cathedral’s astronomical clock. Today Petite France was busier, but no less enchanting . . . even when the peace was broken by a guitarist practising Wish You Were Here, the chords flying out of an open window on the upper floor of a half-timbered building.

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Interrailing 2022: ten tips

A long time ago in Lisbon, on what I thought would be my final Interrail trip, I celebrated my 26th birthday. According to my diary, the hostel wardens gave me a beer and a group of Australians bought me a glass of port wine.

Back then the month-long Interrail pass was limited to youngsters. Not any more! And now you can buy a pass limited to specific countries and lengths of time. You can even get Interrail to plan your trip for you, including accommodation.

But I’ve always dreamed of returning to the freedom of a ‘global’ pass that’s valid across Europe. This year, celebrating 50 years of Interrail, the global Interrail pass was briefly discounted to half price. And adding a second month cost a mere £22 extra for a senior!

Two months of rail travel gave me the freedom to visit new places as well as embark on a memory trip. As well as interrailing in my youth, I’d also worked as a travel guide/ski rep in Europe. I used the rail pass to revisit a few places I continue to dream about some 30-odd years later.

The second month was used to revisit Poland 50+ years after my Polish father drove us there for holidays.

10 tips for smooth Interrailing
Here are some practical tips that I picked up for using the mobile pass (the next post gives a brief guide to the first month’s route). Some people swear by using the old paper Interrail pass, but I’m a fan of the mobile pass, which uses the Rail Planner app.

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Zakopane in the Polish Tatras

I first came to the Polish Tatra village of Zakopane in 1971, when my father drove us from England to Poland for a holiday. I remember the wooden buildings that lined the streets, and the time my father drank from a mountain stream that gave him a severe stomach upset; grey-faced, he lay on the hotel bed while my mother fretted that we’d miss the Ostende ferry back to England. But the image that clung most tightly to my memory was of a mountain peak looming over the town.

How fitting, then, that the highlight of my return 50+ years later was to stand alongside the iron cross on the summit of that very peak: Giewont. Not the highest (at 1894m) but an icon of Zakopane and a well-known profile of the Polish Tatras.

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Five ways to learn the Ukrainian language

I’ll be honest, I wrote this post after seeing Amanda Holden’s role as the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest jury spokesperson. Holden said Good evening in French and Dutch, followed by although I’ve got absolutely no idea which is which.

Whoever came up with that lame idea of a joke? They clearly misread the room – even the Brits perceived it as embarrassing or arrogant. It’s bad enough that the UK is hellbent on wiping out our language education, but why make out that being monolingual is some kind of cuddly national characteristic?

The first time I went to Western Ukraine, I used an interpreter to visit my father’s village. We found the family of my father’s first wife, a young Ukrainian woman who died in the 1930s. Despite these people not being related to me, they welcomed me and invited me back to stay next year, to look for my other family. I was up for that! But none of them spoke English. What to do?

One: Listen to the language
Ukrainian Lessons Podcast is my all-time recommendation. The podcast itself is free, but I subscribed to get the lesson notes, to see what I was hearing. There’s also a handy set of flashcards for the most common Ukrainian words, with each word shown in sentences for context. The ULP blog has useful information on almost everything you can think of. Using this site I learned c.150 words for my first trip. Useful stuff, the kind of thing you might use to ask WTF is going on in this courtyard in Lviv: The Yard of Lost Toys, Lviv

Two: Converse with people
Some universities run online classes, such as Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. There’s a time commitment, but it’s great if you enjoy learning with others. The Ukrainian Language Academy in Lviv also runs residential courses and offers individual Skype conversation.
Most valuable was being able to ask questions about customs in the rural villages. ‘No’ can sometimes mean the opposite! Useful if you find yourself staying in a village house where the only English word you hear is selfie.


Three: Listen to Ukrainian music
People claim they learned English through listening to music. Why not learn Ukrainian the same way? The lyrics may not be the most useful for conversation, but you’ll start recognising common words. Even better, search for the song on the Lyrics Translate site, and you’ll get the original lyrics along with a translation. One of my favourite Ukrainian bands is Okean Elzy, but I’ve also discovered the wonderful Один в каное (Alone in a canoe). Useful if you find yourself by the River Smotrych chatting to strangers, who then invite you on an actual canoe or kayak:
Kayaking

Four: Get out there and talk! To anyone!
Bus stations in Western Ukraine are the best places to talk to random strangers. I learned to recognise the call to a stranger: звідки? — where are you from? — and off we would go. Useful if you find yourself again and again at bus station no.3 in Ivano-Frankivsk, where I heard many life stories. If you’re lucky, someone might invite you into their garden to drink apple juice.  

Five: When all else fails, try a translate app.
You can speak into translate apps, such as Google Translate, and the app will speak back in the other language. My current favourite app is Say Hi, which Ukrainians tell me churns out much better translations. When I was travelling in Ukraine, elderly people in the villages didn’t bat an eyelid when I whipped out the smartphone. Could be useful if you find yourself looking for your grandmother’s grave and a local person shouts something unintelligible. Google Translate told me the woman was suggesting I gate-crash a funeral and ask the mourners if they knew where my grandmother was. I did say could be useful.

Remember, although you might see this1 Kolomiya


and this2 in Western Ukraine, it doesn’t mean you can get away with doing an Amanda Holden.

Enjoyed reading this post? You can download my ebook Travels in a Young Country: Discovering Ukraine’s past and present – it’s free from most platforms.

1 = British Club, Lviv

2 = The Underground Pub, Kolomiya

View from the Great Bell Tower Pechersk-Lavra

A nudge further east: Kyiv in December

People in Ukraine were surprised that I hadn’t yet visited Kyiv. It’s true that Western Ukraine has drawn me ever since I set foot there, one reason being that it’s where my father’s family and descendants are from.

But I was asked to travel to London to pick up a dog, and I decided I’d make the journey more interesting and go from Devon to London via Kyiv.

Illogical? Not exactly; I had a hunch that going further east would help me understand the west. You get a different perspective on something by seeing what it isn’t. I’d also been assured that members of my late father’s former in-laws, who lived in the city, would be happy to meet me.

The taxi from the airport made me homesick for the local bus from L’viv airport that weaves past the trams and ancient Ladas. Ruslana, sitting next to me on the plane, had warned me about Kyiv’s dangers, which I tried to take with a pinch of salt, but her story about an ex-neighbour found dead in the forest had set me on edge.

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Haystack Rakhiv Carpathians

The Ukrainian Centre of Europe: a visit to Carpathian Rakhiv

“Don’t forget to look after your bag and watch out for thieves!”

I reassured my cousins that I’d take care and I boarded the bus to Rakhiv, wiping condensation from the window to give one last wave. I fought an urge to haul my backpack off the bus and ask if I could stay another day or so. But I had a reservation in the mountains of Transcarpathia that could no longer be cancelled.

One of the best things about Rakhiv is the journey in and out. I was on a bus heading south from the Ivano-Frankivsk region and we were soon winding through the forests and open pasture of the Carpathians, past traditional wooden structures. More surprising was the billboard for Erotic Massage and the bizarre row of brand new terraced houses painted in primary colours that wouldn’t be out of place in Bristol.

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Enjoy the region and take your time: The Interrail diaries

A speedboat cut across my vision and pivoted when the owner caught sight of me sitting on the rocky shore. It was the mid 1980s, in Savonlinna, Finland, and Scandinavia was sweltering under a midsummer heatwave. The boat pulled up and I kept my eyes on the man’s face, trying not to look down at his turquoise Y-fronts as he talked and shrugged and made suggestions. Yes, I was Interrailing. No, I didn’t want to join him on his boat. No, I really wasn’t tempted to stay another day and join him at ‘a country house’

These memories surfaced recently as I read an article in the Guardian about the resurgence of Interrailing. Like the author, I’ve also kept the diaries from my trips across Europe. Little grey spiral notebooks purchased from Boots, with detailed itineraries and page after page of vocabulary and pronunciation notes for Portuguese, Greek, Norwegian, Finnish and Czech.

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Sète canals

Sète: where the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean for a spot of jousting

The two boats moved towards one another, one blue, one red. From each boat rose a ladder, with a boy perched on a platform at the end, high above the water. As the boats became parallel, each boy raised a 2.8 metre wooden pole and I watched, perplexed, as they tried their best to dislodge each other, until the boy from the red boat lost his balance. Cheers and jubilant music drowned out the noise of the splash

This is marine jousting, a tradition that began in Sète in 1666 to celebrate the opening of the town’s port, and which continues today with its own training school. That night I must have been watching the juniors, but it’s also an adult sport, where bachelors (blue boats) fight the married jousters of the red boats. Traditions aside, it felt weird watching the town’s people egging on their children to poke each other into the canal.

At least the water looked clean.

The layout of Sète was shaped by Louis XIV’s decision to end the Canal du Midi here; streets face each other across the canal grid lines, with the tables of fish restaurants close to the water’s edge. The odour of fresh bream, salmon, oysters and mussels follows you as you walk down one waterfront, cross a bridge and then walk up the other side. Moored boats line the frontages, and at one point were broken up by the looming bulk of a visiting tall ship.

The town is overshadowed by the slopes of Mont Saint-Clair. Above the narrow terraced streets of the upper town are hundreds of steps that lead to the summit, where you gain a view that encompasses not only the port of Sète behind you but also the Thau Lagoon that stretches 20 km inland. You’ll see the 800 or so shellfish farms in neat grids across the inland sea, but not the other thing for which the lagoon is renowned – its seahorses.

Walking westwards down the Mont Saint-Clair, the palm-lined roads contrast with the cramped terraces of the eastern side; houses remain concealed behind long driveways and broad gates. Back down on the main corniche coastal road we followed a parallel path above small coves, where succulents cling to cliffs that are themselves overshadowed by holiday apartment blocks.

Sète is an open air museum of street art, with artists encouraged to cover the town’s walls. Murals range from an impressive one covering the wall of the Lycee de Paul Valery, to a slightly unnerving mural on the outer walls of a primary school with strange marine creatures celebrating tielles, the spiced octopus pies that are a speciality of Sète.

I don’t know what it is about tables set out along a waterfront, but they often generate an urge to just sit down and spend the rest of my life there, reading, writing, painting and gazing out at the water and the fishing activities. The Pointe Courte peninsula has more streets of coloured terraces than you’d think was possible on such a tiny spit of land, and I was drawn to a string of metal tables and chairs on the narrow waterfront. It wasn’t a café, as I’d first thought, but an outside living space for the houses on this side. Fishing nets were hanging everywhere, and an elderly man sat fixing one in a lean-to. More nets were piled up in a type of sentry box, where a sleek black cat watched the antics of the peninsula’s cats with disdain.

La Pointe Courte is also the name of the unofficial first French New Wave film: the self-funded 1956 debut of Agnès Varda. The film documents the hardships of the fishing community, and when a young man wants to romance a neighbour’s daughter, how must he prove his worth?

By none other than showing his prowess in a marine jousting tournament.

Carcassonne citadel

A stopover in Carcassonne: oui ou non?

Need to buy a replica medieval helmet and sword? Fancy flouncing around in costume like a Kate Mosse character?  All this can be done whilst visiting the fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s up there at number 20 of France’s most visited sites.

In summer, the main town has a vibrant feel, with plenty of outdoor cafes and a stream of tourists eating ice cream as they wander to and from the fortifications of la cité. Boats will cruise you along the Canal du Midi and I once spent a couple of wonderful days cycling in both directions along the towpath – very bruised from bumping over the tree roots, but happy.

Now, on a Sunday in April, I zigzagged to avoid the dogsh*t as I walked through the shuttered town, and wondered why I’d come back. The town was dead, but did I really want to join the throngs of visitors up in the fortress?

Of course I did. From the Pont Vieux over the River Aude, the outer ring of the concentric fortifications looms up ahead on the opposite bank. There’s little indication that a portion of the 360,000 or so annual tourists are swarming around inside.

As I ducked past the costumed soldier at the Porte Narbonnaise,  the atmosphere became transformed from dead Sunday to Disney wonderland. Here almost everything was open, with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Marseille soap, furs, and more jewellery. Like many must-sees, Carcassonne is a casualty of what it offers in terms of impressive heritage. These fortifications date right back to the Roman occupation, and fans of Kate Mosse novels will know that the cité has an ominous history as a home of the persecuted Cathars, who were nevertheless expelled from there in the early 13th century. Perhaps some visitors are particularly drawn by whatever lies at the end of the ominous signs that point the way to les tortures.

Of more interest to me was a poster proclaiming that Carcassonne is the only town in Languedoc-Rousillon where Occitan is taught from Primary right through to High School. The term Occitan, or the langue d’oc, came into being in the 14th century to differentiate between the languages spoken in the south and the north of France. The langue d’oc, spoken where oc was the word for yes, is a legacy of the region’s proximity to Spain and Italy.

As a linguist, I view Occitan as an umbrella term, rather than a clearly defined, individual language. There are a number of related varieties within southern France, such as Languedocien and Gascon, all with the same Latin root, and all with few contemporary speakers. As I noted in my book, over 90% of the Ariège population in 1864 were speakers of Gascon, rather than French, yet hardly anyone can speak it there now.

But here in Carcassonne, pupils can choose from an entire curriculum in Occitan. And it’s about more than just maintaining the language of their ancestors. The similarities of Occitan to Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mean that it’s a bridge to learning those other languages.

So, with all the crowds and consumerism, is Carcassonne worth a visit? It’s true that the narrow inner streets are crammed with people, but few seem to venture the short distance to the outer ramparts, where you gain a true perspective of the size of these fortifications.  From here there’s also a view that stretches across the terracotta rooftops of Carcassonne, and, if you’re lucky, a close-up of a banking Ryanair plane as it prepares to land.

Similarly, if you can pull yourself away from the busy Place Marcon, there are quiet squares where few venture, such as the Place St Jean, with its view across the ramparts. And as the darkness descends, so does the magic; the floodlit ramparts have an eerie quality, and there are restaurants on the side streets that’ll transport you from Disneyland back into gourmet France.

Best of all, responsible dog owners are greeted with free bags on arrival at the fortress. That means clean pavements.

In search of Dordogneshire: Bergerac in the time of Brexit

Back when I was researching English incomers in the Ariège Pyrenees, many people cited Dordogne as a kind of benchmark. It was a way to disassociate themselves from that stereotype of Little England:

‘I think people come here because they don’t want that Dordogne thing. They want to take part in the French culture. They don’t want the English on the doorstep all the time.’

So if Dordogne didn’t exist, perhaps it would be necessary for the English to invent it, to have something to identify against. We also appear to have invented an odd pronunciation – Dordoyn – that rhymes with groin rather than Sonya. I wonder where that came from?

Anyway, my pursuit of Dordogneshire began with just 32 euros for a five hour journey from Carcassonne to Bergerac. After a heart-sinkingly dull approach to the famed wine town, my spirits picked up as soon as I wandered around the half-timbered buildings that line the narrow alleys of Bergerac’s medieval centre.

The Musée de la Ville tells how the Brits were once the principal buyers of the area’s wine, with a preference for a rather weak rosé. That was until the 18th century, when the Dutch market replaced the British and led the vintners to produce stronger reds.

On hearing I was from England, the museum officer immediately asked if I was one of the 8,000 Brits who lived in the Périgord region. Apparently they mostly live in the hilltop bastide towns rather than Bergerac itself. Predictably, the second question was about Brexit – pff! – which gave me an opportunity to use all six of the words for crazy I’ve learned.

Being early April, many restaurants remained closed, but I found one that was sufficiently intimate to strike up a conversation with the woman at the next table: a Dutch woman who’d just begun a 10-week hike to Santiago de Compostela. She was walking the pilgrim’s Way of St James.

“And you, you’re fleeing Brexit?” I ignored the snorts of laughter from the other tables and asked her about The Way. She described it as a metaphor for living: how you cope with the walk can reflect how you live your life.

According to her, Le Brexit is also metaphorical; we can’t physically leave Europe, as Britain shares the same tectonic plate as the continent.

The next day I joined the Pilgrim for a Dordogne river cruise on one of the old gabarres boats. Sadly, we waited in vain for enough people to turn up to make the required number. But the guide entertained us for a whole hour with a commentary on just about everything, such as the lift in the river to help the salmon get upstream, and les Anglais, of whom he seemed fond. Mais le Brexit, pff!

The next day, standing in the airport queue, I wondered if he’d come across the English man in front of me. Mr No Deal smiled vacantly while another, very patient, English man tried to explain what ‘trade’ is, and why the local police force not being any good isn’t a reason to leave the EU. I had an urge to tell Mr No Deal about the tectonic plate, as I had an idea he’d turn up with his tools to dig us to victory, I mean freedom. Let us take back control of our tectonic plate, so we can float away into a sovereign sunset!

In summer Bergerac must feel very different when the narrow cobbles ring to the footsteps of the visitors, but it’s not Dordogneshire. Almost all of the very detailed heritage information signs were in French only, and so were those in the museum. There wasn’t an English menu to be seen either. The only English I heard was in response to the Pilgrim asking for tea in a wine bar: Madame, you’ve come to the wrong place!

On the last night I hugged the Pilgrim goodbye and wished her luck, feeling envious. I liked Bergerac and I didn’t really want to leave, and that was probably because I hadn’t found Dordogneshire.

But there, at the tiny airport, were the clues. A large estate agency instead of a duty free shop, and posters advertising relocation services and English renovation architects. The English are all upstream, like the salmon. That gives me a reason to come back. Pff!