Barbecues, riots and the romantic Rhine: Everyday life in and around Entre-deux-Eaux, February to July 2023

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And few photographs of
Boppard, the Rhine, Schloss Stolzenfels, and other castles and the
Chagall stained-glass windows at St Stephan’s Church, Mainz

On evenings in our tranquil French village, we watch a lot of crime dramas. Our images of the deprived suburbs of Paris come from dramas like Engrenages (or Spiral), with their desolate backgrounds to the crimes tackled by Captain Laure Berthaud, Gilou, Tintin et al. We were on holiday in Koblenz (more about that later) at the end of June when the rioting broke out across towns and cities of France following the killing of seventeen year old Nahel Merzouk by a traffic police officer. So we did not see the TV images of Nanterre, to the west of Paris, but could picture the scenes of anger and violence.

At a distance, we read about the burning of cars and attacks on government buildings spreading to other towns and cities in France, the closest to Entre-deux-Eaux being in Strasbourg and Colmar, though we later learned that there had been a few cars burned in Saint Dié too, as young people (mainly of North African descent) showed their anger against police and government.

Earlier in the month we had met up in the centre of Strasbourg for a peaceful lunch by the canal with friends who live outside the town. After the events in Paris, their friend who lives near the cathedral rang to warn them not to come back into town as she had been so frightened during a night of rioting, close to all the explosions of firecrackers, tear gas grenades and shouting. And a shoe shop owner described how she had managed to close the shop and get the protective grilles down in time, although tear gas came in round the door and filled the shop, but she could not leave because of the rioting, so had to take refuge in the cellar, sealing its door against the tear gas. Other shops had their windows broken and goods pillaged and there were fires set alight.

When we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux from Koblenz, we did not hear much horror in the village over the killing of a teenager by police. He, after all, was from the feared banlieux or suburbs, whose youngsters of North African descent are perceived as a constant threat to civilised society. Previous violence and destruction on the streets of Paris and other towns by the Gilets Jaunes pension protestors, who seem to be mainly white, while deplored, had not created the same level of aversion and fear.

Local sympathy was not with the youths of the banlieux but rather with the mayor of L’Hay les Roses, whose house and family in the southern suburbs of Paris were attacked by protestors with a burning car. People throughout the country were encouraged to show their support for him by assembling peacefully at midday at their town halls. On her way to the nearby pharmacy and post office in Saulcy, Helen saw about twenty people gathered around their mayor in his sash on the steps of the mairie there, while a hundred were reported to have gathered in Saint Dié. Far more money came flooding in to support the mayor of L’Hay les Roses, than did in support of the bereaved family of Nahel Merzouk. So much for Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Helen remains more troubled by the counter-productive destruction of libraries and schools than of parked cars.

The situation continued to simmer. Here there have been minor deterrents to village rioting and rampaging. When John went to get petrol for the car and to fill up a can for the ride-on lawn mower, a prefectural notice on the fuel pump forbade the filling of cans (potentially for Molotov cocktails?) Also we could not buy private fireworks for Bastille Day (though we do in fact possess some elderly bangers). Because of the sécheresse or drought, there was also another prefectural order forbidding firework celebrations where forests were within 200m. Would our village celebrations on the evening of 13 July be modified?

A couple of weeks before Nahel’s killing you would have seen a very different image of French life if you had investigated the sounds of mirth and merriment emanating from a nearby copse encircling a pond. No, it was not the day of a teddy bears’ picnic, but was the day the pensioners of Sainte Marguerite have their annual barbecue. It is a few years since we have been to one of these bucolic feasts, and everyone was looking a bit more battered by life. The former club president, amiably clutching his glass of sangria, has retired (but was toasted for continuing to lend his fishing pond for the feasting), the new president had both his knees bandaged, the sporty cyclist was on crutches after a hip replacement, and the elegant 86 year old at our table was knocking back a small heart-shaped pill, one of her ten daily regime.

The men in aprons masterminding the BBQs were a new generation of cooks, but there were still a couple of the founding members of the group serving the food. The impromptu choir serenading the former president were old faithfuls, but the comedian was a more recent vintage (though we still failed to understand the punchlines). The tent was larger than the old one, which was just as well as there must have been fifteen or so tables of 8-10 merrymakers. Its shade as welcome, but it was not challenged by rain this year. The leisurely lunch lasted about five hours.

People had already bagged their seats and some were queuing for their glass of sangria when we arrived, but members of the games and the brain-teaser groups shuffled along the hard benches to make room for us, then found an extra plastic chair for John to preside at the head of the table. He had to take care not to tip back on the uneven ground and join the fish in the pond.

One of the new chefs, with an unreal looking tan, confided that he had personally made the pâté which would be served first, with salad. We had all brought our own plates, cutlery, glasses, water, wine and coffee, so set them out in readiness. As we had only recently returned from England, we fielded the usual questions about the coronation and Queen Camilla, before agreeing that the pâté was indeed very peppery.

The BBQ pork, when it appeared after the sangria and nibbles and then pâté, was perfectly cooked, and served with potato salad and grated carrot. Large boudins blancs (white sausages) appeared next. After an interval, during which John showed our companions photos of the kestrel chicks on our windowsill following a query, slices of pork belly bacon were brought round, followed by large chunks of Brie and baguette. Things went quiet after that, so people started sharing the coffee they had brought. Then a car made its way cautiously on the narrow track around the pond bearing the desserts – the îles flottantes would never have withstood the heat if they had sat around while we ate our way through the previous spaced-out courses.

Age, however, had caught up with the pensioners at our table, and we were all (except John in his chair) finding the wooden benches extremely hard. So after the new president had circulated with his unlabelled bottle of spirits (probably an overproof pear or plum liqueur, drunk neat by the men and drizzled over a sugar lump by the women), our table started packing away their plates, cutlery and glasses and making their farewells. So we are not sure when the revelry finally ended at other tables.

There have also been the annual events, which we have written about before, like the Entre-deux-Eaux flea market on the football pitch at the beginning of June, and the meal and amateur drama production in Saulxures village in February. “Oui”, the drama at the latter was about the frustrations of a wedding planner and a young engaged couple, and was performed after the cast had brought round large plates of food to the audience (instead of leaving them to queue up as in previous years).

A novelty this year in February was the Chorale and Karaoke in the village hall. Unlike the last concert in the village hall, this one was packed (was it the lure of karaoke?) The Chorale opened with gospel songs in English, which sound rather different with no “h”s pronounced and “th”s transformed to “z”s as in cartoons of the French. One singer in the back row was particularly expressive, swaying and waving his wine glass. But there was also a very good young female soloist. In the interval Helen was introduced to one of the singers who was keen to have some English conversation practice (her reading skills are very good, but speaking is more difficult – we have included practice pronouncing “h”s and “th”s during a few afternoons a month). Helen left before the second half began, so cannot report on village karaoke talent.

Our neighbour, Daniele, had accompanied Helen to the concert, as a diversion before her forthcoming shoulder operation. Unfortunately the unexpectedly large audience may have been the source of the Covid which then kept her isolated in her hospital room, unable to receive visitors or leave. Helen saw her husband on the road one afternoon, and asked how she was. He was very perturbed as he had been looking everywhere for her missing cherished cat; he dared not tell his wife, as their previous cat had been run over last time when she was away convalescing from the operation on her other shoulder. It was a great relief to learn next day that he had eventually heard a famished miaowing in their cellar (where he had already looked). Soon after that, Helen and another friend drove over to Baccarat to see Daniele in her convalescent home, the grandly named Chateau Baccarat, where an entertainer was strolling the corridors playing an accordion. Daniele had acquired the nickname la marcheuse, as, being the most (or possibly only) mobile resident, she would walk several times round the grounds each day. We admired the grounds as we joined her for a circuit.

It was around this time in mid-March that our thoughts turned to the garden and we discovered that the floor of the small potting area inside, at the back of the second barn, was covered in white polystyrene granules. The lerots (dormice) had been spending the winter months tunnelling through the polystyrene insulation above the plasterboard ceiling and it was dropping down between the unplastered board edges. So John took down the plasterboard, and put down little plastic bags of pink rodenticide pellets both in the potting area and nearby boiler room (where the pests had nibbled the glass fibre in the casing). Helen swept the shelves clean (taking the opportunity to throw out quite a lot of accumulated containers), and the industrial vacuum cleaner gathered a huge quantity of polystyrene granules. It was gratifying to see the bags of pink grain torn open, pellets scattered, and later to discover corpses.

On the more pleasant subject of human rather than rodent nibbling, one March day we decided to try a newish restaurant, Le Valtrivin in Hachimette, Alsace. Its website explains that its name is a contraction of Valeria, Tristan and Vin (or wine) and that the chef Valeria is of Russian origin, while Tristan is an experienced sommelier. John was intrigued by their huge wine list – 54 pages of wines. This seemed at odds with the dated, bare dining room in a modest hotel and bar, which the couple were running unaided. It still had the feel of those cheap French hotels where back in the seventies and eighties one would turn up unannounced around 4 o’clock to get a room and meal on a first-come, first-served basis. Valeria’s food, as in the old days, was well presented, though not very exciting. We only wanted a glass of wine each but there was no wine-by-the-glass in the list to choose from. We asked, and Tristan was prepared to open any of his many bottles, though without quoting a price. The local Ammerschwihr bottle of pinot gris he opened for our two glasses was good as was a bottle of red he opened for a single glass (and both were reasonable when the bill came) and the remaining wine in the bottles was offered to another table. Perhaps his bottles were all discounted ends of series (the couple had previously run TrioVino, a wine-tasting for tourists enterprise in Lyon).

It was while we were relaxing over a meal at our favourite restaurant, L’Imprimerie (which alas has increased its prices considerably) that we began to discuss how to celebrate Helen’s 80th birthday. Helen had always said she didn’t think the excitement of 80th birthday parties was a good idea, as various friends of her mother had died shortly after their celebrations. However, it felt a long time since we had seen many of our friends, what with Covid and other health problems, so we decided not to be superstitious and began to make plans for a “do” in mid-May.

As a result of lots of e-mails and our preparatory trip to Letchworth over Easter, on 12 May the Train Gang and partners met up for the first time in several years, and in the evening joined family and helpers for tasty tapas-style dishes and interesting-looking cocktails at a restaurant in Baldock. The next day we were delighted by how many people made it to Letchworth for the party, despite rail strikes and miserable weather. Those who braved the garden was grateful that Alistair ignored our firm instructions not to get logs or risk lighting a fire in one of the gazebos! Indoors, John, Leila and Ann continued to be busy in the kitchen, while the rest of us gossiped over food and drinks and Toby and Derek kept the younger guests amused with games. Bruce wandered round taking photos of everyone, though sadly Helen’s cousin and her husband arrived after the family photo was organised. The next day was lovely and sunny, as the gazebos were taken down and the workers relaxed under the parasol eating and drinking left-overs. The following days were also warm and sunny – and would have been ideal for an outdoor party. An unexpected trip to see the musical Hamilton in London was Toby and Rachel’s birthday gift to Helen, who also took the opportunity to catch up with some London friends who hadn’t made it to the party. We had well and truly celebrated the milestone.

The male brings a vole

There have been births as well as birthdays to celebrate. A lot of you have been following the return of the kestrels at the end of January (several months earlier than previous years) to our attic windowsill for the third year running. If you missed that, you can catch up on the 2023 kestrels website. By the end of April, six kestrel eggs had been laid, and while we were in Letchworth in May, we were able to follow their progress, thanks to the new cameras John had hurriedly installed after the earlier than expected return and he was able to update the website and YouTube feeds. We were glad of that, as all six eggs hatched at the end of May, just a few days before our return to Entre-deux-Eaux. We were then able to watch their growth as the males brought mice and lizards for the female to feed to them until they were ready to fledge. This occurred at the end of June when they were 32-35 days old, which is later than the usually reported 28-30 days, possibly due to the extreme heat. Sadly their departure was again while we were away. So, alas, we were to return to an empty nest – or windowsill. But there have been occasional return visits of the juveniles or the parents to the nest in early July.

After a while back here, we began to feel restless. The river Rhine between Cologne and Mainz is promoted as “the romantic Rhine” with its castles, gorges, vineyards and Lorelei legends. Phrases like “melodramatic panorama of nature” and “backdrop for the portrayal of human passions and destinies “ abound, along with mention of the music of Wagner, the literature of Goethe and Heine and the paintings of Turner. The area is also a World Heritage Site. So during a very hot spell of weather here at the end of June, the idea of spending a few days drifting up and down that stretch of the Rhine on an old paddle steamer or on local ferries, was appealing. We are only an hour’s drive from the Rhine, and it is easy to cross into Germany from here. We decided to head north and base ourselves in Koblenz (four hours drive from E2E) after stopping overnight on the Sunday in Mainz (which we had to remember to call Mayence to our French neighbours) to see the cathedral, Gutenberg museum, Chagall windows, and meet up for dinner with a friend, Heide, who lives in Frankfurt am Main.

Chagall windows, Mainz

Our cheap hotel in Mainz was on the far side of the railway line, and on that very hot day we slogged past the main railway station four times in and out of the city; it seethed with travellers, local buses, police and drinkers. It was the weekend of Mainz’s Johannisnacht festival (which we did not know about until Heide mentioned it when we suggested meeting up), so we had to inch through the big squares near the cathedral which were packed with people celebrating Johannes Gutenberg in the hot sunshine. Few people were honouring his achievements in the rather disappointing Gutenberg museum, where there were special demonstrations on a replica printing press. Perhaps his legacy was being toasted in beer, lurid ice cream, candy floss and curry wurst, among the bands, stilt-walkers and fairground rides, which lapped up to the cathedral. We may have been jaded, as we found the interior of the cathedral lofty, dusty and soulless – like a railway terminal. However, after a further hot walk to a hill (where better to place a church), we were revived by the hushed and prayerful St Stephan’s gothic church with its dramatic blue windows by Chagall. Chagall, who was Jewish, made them at the end of his life as an acknowledgement of the need for reconciliation, and they were completed after his death by others. In the background musicians tuned up, people gathered in the cloisters, and a concert began. Sadly Heide was unable to join us in the evening because of the heat.

Boppard Sesselbahn chair lift

Next day we drove slowly along the river and through hilly vineyards to Koblenz, During our four days we were to see the Romantic Rhine by car, boat, train, cable car, chair lift and on foot. But, for us, its mystique seems to have vanished under the pressures of mass tourism. We saw none of the hazy scenes that Turner painted nor sensed the dramas, chivalry or warfare of the ruined castles. We both felt that our most enjoyable view was during an afternoon ride on what felt like a family-run ski chair lift from the valley to the surrounding hills followed by a short walk through the woods to a café with a loud, bossy waitress; there we relaxed over coffees and enjoyed the view down over a huge bend in the Rhine near the small town of Boppard.

Rhine ferry

That morning had seen us perched on rocks at the feet of the Loreley (or Lorelei) statue, unmoved by her allure or the clouds of gnats, but more fascinated by the series of very long, fast-moving freight trains on tracks on both sides of the river as they plunged into or emerged from the ornate railway tunnels through the gorge. We also watched goods moving along the river more slowly in barges, including a laden scrap metal one. We (and the Loreley) were passed by the regular tourist boats, including the Goethe paddle steamer which we had travelled on the day before. (The young waiter on the Goethe had been unmoved by the series of castles we were passing – an every day background to his work – he just wanted to discuss John’s Olympus camera as he hoped one day he might be able to afford something similar, though it would cost over a month’s wages). We never established the priority rules for barges and boats going up and down the Rhine and the frequent nippy little car ferries crossing from bank to bank (there being no bridges across the Rhine between the outskirts of Mainz and Koblenz). For us, crossing on the busy little ferries was more entertaining than lazing on the pleasure boats (and we had to do several as the valley road on the eastern side had sections closed for repairs).

As well as boat and car trips, we travelled by train along the Rhine back to Koblenz, having taken the paddle steamer journey one way. We also joined young people returning home from school or college on the “picturesque” Hunsruck Railway from Boppard to Emmelhausen in the hills. It is the steepest adhesion railway in western Germany, climbing 336 metres in eight kilometres, through five tunnels and over two viaducts. But because of the forest on both sides, the promoted picturesque views were much more limited (apart from the last minutes of the return descent) than those from our single track railway over the Vosges from Saint Dié to Strasbourg.

Schloss Stolzenfels

As for castles, we looked at various silhouettes from a distance, strolled round the outside of the Sankt Goar ruins (as it was closed on Mondays), and, after slogging up its long and winding drive, joined a guided tour of the interior of the Schloss Stolzenfels summer residence of the Prussian Royal family. We must have helped to polish the Stolzenfels wooden floors as we shuffled round wearing enormous slippers over our outdoor shoes. Next day it would be closed for a film crew. We also spent time looking round the huge Ehrenbreitstein fort, one of several surrounding Koblenz, which had been rebuilt in 1801 after the French revolutionary army destroyed the old castle/fortress (we realised again how little we know of European history and the wars between the various states and provinces, which bear little resemblance to modern-day Europe). The journey to and from it was by cable car, with great views as it crossed over the Rhine and, on the return trip, of the whole of Koblenz (but we still thought the chair lift at Boppard was more intimate and dramatic).

Saint Alexius

We also visited quite a few churches and for the first time saw a large fresco of scenes from the life of Saint Alexius (the one who lived under the staircase in his parents house, unbeknown to them, doing good works, and whose name we first encountered in a little auberge restaurant St Alexis and chapel in Alsace). The fresco was in the Carmelite church in Boppard, which also had some magnificently carved choir stalls. In the nearby church of Saint Severus there were ceiling paintings as well as vibrant modern stained glass windows by a local artist.

Every morning started with a filling German breakfast at our Koblenz hotel (again close to the railway station and overlooking the bus station), though we were amazed by how much some of the portlier German guests could stuff in. Breakfast lasted us all day and by the evening we were usually too footsore to want to go far afield. So, apart from a good meze bar in the centre, the other evenings we ate at nearby at Greek, Italian and Croatian restaurants, at all of which the portions were still pretty large for those of us brought up on strict instructions to eat everything on your plate. The Croatian restaurant was especially good, and the chef even emerged to apologise to John as his sea bass, being rather large, was taking a long time to cook; it was skilfully filleted at the table and John happily ate it all. At the end a small glass of plum and pear liqueur unexpectedly appeared with the bill.

On the drive back to Entre-deux-Eaux on the Friday we stopped in Worms to see the Romanesque red stone cathedral, the museum’s Martin Luther room and the old Jewish cemetery. Once over the NE border of France (where the narrow, wooded German road turns into a wide French motorway), the heavens opened and rain pelted down. Helen inadvertently drove onto the new Strasbourg outer tolled bypass, guided by Waze (as she points out, that choice was not there last time we drove that way), but at least it avoided the busy inner bypass at rush hour.

Next day, back home, we agreed that we felt underwhelmed by the glories of the Romantic Rhine. Is increasing age (Helen is now rather self-conscious about that) responsible for an increasing loss of wonder? In Paris the funeral of Nahel Merzouk was held, and rioting continued at night.

During July we have settled back into the quiet of Entre-deux-Eaux and picked quantities of raspberries, loganberries, tayberries, blueberries and wild strawberries which had ripened in the heat while we were away. The vegetable patch, unlike the fruit cage, is sadly bare this year, with three beetroots, three courgettes, two squash and some straggling broad beans the only survivors of our various absences during dry weather conditions. It has continued to be hot here, with occasional heavy rain and storms, though it has been worse on the plains of Strasbourg, where our friends report up to 37°C in the shade. But still, fortunately, not as bad as the extreme temperatures that are being experienced by residents and holiday makers in southern Europe.

And, given the riots, were there any Bastille Day fireworks?. Various communes especially in Ile-de-France and le Nord cancelled their 14 July fireworks, but Paris went ahead with theirs around the Eiffel Tower. Next day newspapers triumphantly reported that in Paris and its suburbs there were only 62 fires (a drop on last year of 70%) and 53 arrests (an 80% drop) and that throughout France that night only 255 vehicle were set fire to (as opposed to 423 last year). Moreover only 7 police, gendarmes and firemen were injured compared to 21 in 2022.

Entre-deux-Eaux has its feasting, fair and fireworks on the evening of 13 July. At the end of a hot day we felt a bit apathetic about walking down to the village and standing around for ages, so stayed at home with the fan on, watching TV. But when we heard the first bangs, we went out on our balcony and saw a short, defiant display above the trees, which looked as if all the different fireworks had been set off simultaneously in one glorious multicoloured outburst. Next evening on the fête nationale itself, we responded to more bangs around 11pm by dashing again onto the balcony. In the opposite direction from the previous evening we could see Saint Leonard’s rather sedate sequence of fireworks. Entre-deux-Eaux’s, however brief, had definitely been more spectacular. From male voices down our road came a rather tuneless rendering of the Marseillaise.

a juvenile returns

The Great Train Journey – the last week (Erzurum – Istanbul – Vienna – Entre-deux-Eaux) and an answer to all your questions

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week4.pdf (four A4 pages)

Clicking on any of the small photographs will open a larger version in another window

Did we get back safely from our 10,000km Great Train Journey, you ask? Yes, thank-you. Our Inter-rail pass lasted 30 days, and on the evening of the 30th day our taxi from Saint Dié station was duly approaching our shuttered-up house. The grass had grown lush and tall since our departure, and the house and garden looked like they used to in their early days as a holiday-only retreat. And oddly there were no cows.

Were our dreams fulfilled? In terms of a rail journey across Europe and east to Lake Van, as follow-up to our long-ago rail journeys round India, it was every bit as much fun, though perhaps less elegant than I’d hoped. 1903_building railway lineWe were in Erzurum when we last wrote. And as we waited at Erzurum railway station for the delayed train back to Istanbul, there was an exhibition of large sepia photos of the building of the railway line from Istanbul to Medina (never quite reaching the goal of Mecca), which gave an impression of earlier Ottoman and German dreams of grandeur and empire. T E Lawrence (of Arabia) was also there looking heroic and menacing, as was a film-still of a wrecked train. Sadly, the glamour of rail travel is in danger of vanishing along with the steam engines. Most of the Romanian and Turkish rolling stock was shabby and grubby and dining cars were only occasionally present. However, the new high-speed trains should restore some of the glamour and excitement. We travelled alongside the completed section of the Ankara to Istanbul high-speed track. And later during the return journey, some of the new Austrian and German trains restored the excitement and comfort of rail travel.

Vienna Wiesel double-decker train

Vienna Wiesel double-decker train

The buffet car of the Railjet between Vienna and Munich, with its curving blue seats and pink walls was almost as seductive as those long-ago glimpses of the Golden Arrow dining cars. And in Vienna itself, where we spent a whole morning riding the trams (with the excuse of a 24 hour ticket and John’s injured ankles), we spotted a double decker “weasel” train, so changed onto that and I fulfilled another dream of travelling upstairs on a train. (It was from there that we had a view every bit as dramatic as that in The Third Man, of the famous Ferris wheel).

Another dream had been to sense the fabulous Byzantium/ Constantinople lurking beneath modern Istanbul. We’d been fired up by the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibition back in January. But it was hard to piece together a picture of the old city. The archaeological museum is magnificent, but even that did not provide an overall picture. It feels as if over a thousand years of Byzantine history have little relevance to Turkey. The city walls, first spotted from the train, were striking reminders of the size of Constantinople. But unfortunately the building of the same railway line had destroyed some of the ruins of the old Bucoleon Palace by the sea (and former harbour). Bucoleon palaceWhen we were first in Istanbul, we enjoyed the restored Byzantine churches we’d seen. On our return from eastern Turkey it was good to have more time in Istanbul, to look for further remains of the old Byzantium. Our guide book warned that ruins of the Bucoleon Palace are now the haunt of tramps, and indeed, as we approached, one gentleman was spreading out his washing to dry on the old stone palace walls.

As we were finding our way round the modern city, three obelisks and columns kept looming up in unexpected places, making us realise that we weren’t quite where we thought we were, but were back on the site of the old hippodrome. It got quite comical in the end. But somehow, with all the big white tourist coaches waiting outside the nearby Blue Mosque, and the throngs being guided round the obelisks, it was hard to get a sense of the old hippodrome (though it would have been equally packed). But as we walked back from the remains of the old palace walls, our eyes sharpened, we Hagia Sophiacame across a huge curved wall above a street market, which must have been the semi-circular turn of the old race course. Another fragment of former grandeur. And of course the uncovered mosaics in the remaining Byzantine churches were glorious, especially with the glowing golds. Maybe one day the depressingly unloved Hagia Sophia will also be restored to glory.

And there were unexpected pleasures in Istanbul. It took a while to work out the ferry boats with all their different quays, but they were a picturesque and cool way of getting around. Returning from the east in the very late evening, it was great to come out of the railway station, step onto a ferry, and realise that the skyline was this time a familiar one in which we could almost pick out our hotel in the streets below Hagia Sophia. We later spent a day going up the Bosphorus and back. Wandering the narrow streets between our hotel and the sea front Bucoleon Palace was another pleasure, with the old wooden (former merchants’) houses jutting out over the streets. CaravanseraiAnd the scale of the old caravanserais between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar was stunning. Most of them are very ramshackle now. Dark crumbling staircases lead up to rooms off the cool, arcaded corridors. Through open doorways men can faintly be seen in the gloom, machining trousers and raincoats or hammering away at silver dinner services or trophies. It was easy to imagine all kinds of dramatic film chases through these arcades, or sinister murder stories.

And did I get my special birthday meal on the train from Erzurum to Istanbul? The sleeping car promised well as we got on the train, for it was the most modern so far, a soothing pale grey colour, and even equipped with a small fridge. And for the first time the attendant presented us with some sustenance, – sour cherry juice, biscuits and chocolate. The scenery that evening was spectacular as we left behind the snow capped mountains, following the Euphrates through gorges, plunging into tunnels (there must have been over 150), and even having the sky briefly radiant with a double rainbow arching behind us above the gorge tunnels. The journey of a couple of our travelling companions made ours seem quite tame, as they were en route from Japan to Austria. But sadly the omelette and chips or kebap and rice, washed down with Nescafe in the dining car did not feel over-festive. So after spending our first day back in Istanbul at the Topkapi Palace and its harem, we dined in style on a roof-top restaurant overlooking Traditional starters and Sultans Tastethe Sea of Marmara on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other. The tray of traditional starters were all delicious, the Sultan’s taste (lamb cooked in five different ways) arrive in an elaborate lidded copper dish, along with a salad. The desert was a succulent selection but the crowning glory was the home-made cherry liqueur which was so delicious that we commented on it, so more was immediately brought. That definitely beat omelette, chips and Nescafe!

In general, Apple teawe found it surprisingly hard to find good restaurant food, especially at reasonable prices, and in the Sultanahmet area where we stayed. However occasional dishes like vine leaves stuffed with cherries or lamb and sour plum casserole were a wonderful exception to the ubiquitous kebaps and pideci (pizzas). And we did relish stopping for an apple tea and baklava in the afternoon heat. Not to mention the large rooftop breakfasts which provided a great start to the day.

How about a birthday present with a difference? Well, a large rug would have been tempting. But we must be loosing our stamina for the hassle of bargaining and the patter of men trying to lure you into their unique emporium. You could fritter away a lifetime with carpet salesmen and cups of tea. And we never spotted the perfect rug (and never saw any being sold). The other temptation was a tile. Topkapi tileYes, just a single tile. We’d seen such wonderful tiles in the mosques and fountains and the Topkapi Palace, that it would have been fun to incorporate one of the Iznik tiles into our bathroom back in Entre-deux-Eaux. But with such ridiculous starting prices as 100 euro, it was hardly worthwhile to open the bargaining. So I shall content myself with ordering some more Orhan Pamuk novels, and try out Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul crime stories.

So had we enjoyed Istanbul despite the bazaar hustlers and the partial neglect of the Byzantine heritage? We really had. It was a great time (especially on our return when it was quieter than our stay a few weeks earlier when much of Europe seemed to be visiting during the public holidays) and we were sad to leave on the night train. Appropriately our parting views from the train were of the old city walls, and the illuminated Byzantine harbour excavations (discovered when tunnelling for the new metro).

We’d chosen the return route via Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna, rather that the more usual Belgrade and Sofia (Orient Express) route, as we’d heard there were often long delays in Bulgaria that way (and indeed we later heard that the Austrian couple we’d met earlier ran into delays and missed their connections on that line). Vienna would have been sacrificed had we too gone that way.

Meanwhile, had John bought new shoes in Istanbul? And what about the Sultan’s Revenge? Well, our medicine chests of diarrhoea remedies remained untouched, which was good. But the lack of footwear was (literally) John’s downfall. He’d already slipped on a wet ramp in Romania and rain-soaked cobbles in Istanbul despite the grip of his walking boots (so his wrist had been bandaged ever since). The temperature had shot up since we left Erzurum, so John was now wearing the battered sandals he’d packed at the last minute (after reading travellers tales of filthy showers and toilets). Having arrived safely at Vienna Westbahnhof, John realised he’d left his glasses on the train, so ran back to retrieve them. Maybe it was the sandals, maybe it was the forty hours of inactivity on the trains from Istanbul, maybe the lack of salt after the heat of Istanbul, but both his Achilles tendons gave way. And his glasses had gone.

We stayed in a curiously old fashioned pension in Vienna, with a huge brass bed, huge wardrobes, huge dining room table (and correspondingly huge breakfast) and a landlady with a walking stick and a resigned dog. She seemed most perturbed that John did not leave our room that first day, apart from hobbling to the restaurant over the road in the evening, which was a Hong Kong Cookhouse. (I’d in the meantime got over-baroqued by all the city’s white and gold buildings). There were no other customers at the Cookhouse, but the young woman was harassed, and frenzied shouts came from the kitchen as delivery men appeared and disappeared with freezer boxes. The next day we embarked on our tram trip from the end of our road, culminating at St Stephen’s cathedral in the centre, with an open air café, a large coffee and cake (traditional Sachertorte for John). More trams and we got out at the Upper Belvedere, to see the Klimts. But even better was the temporary exhibition in the Lower Belvedere of Alphonse Mucha. And that evening John limped down to the nearest pub/stub where we had a more typically Austrian meal – and beer. Despite John’s injury, I’m glad we didn’t miss out on Vienna.

Day 30 and our last day on the trains. Eleven hours of trains, starting with the elegant Austrian Railjet (with its buffet-car) from Vienna to Salzburg and Munich, then an inter-city from Munich to Karlsruhe. The regional express from Karlsruhe was more packed than we could have imagined at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, even allowing for schoolchildren. But the next day was Ascension Day and, given the hot weather, everyone seemed to be taking their bicycles into the Black Forest for the weekend. Our carriage somehow fitted at least 8 bicycles and panniers in between other people’s knees and luggage – and several had to be taken off and put back on at each halt so other passengers could alight. On our penultimate train (a regional all-stations) from Appenweier to Strasbourg, the German commuters got off at Kehl at the border and the French got on, and it was surprisingly exhilarating to hear French again. Safely over the Rhine, we caught the last of our trains, from Strasbourg to St Dié. Alas, taxis no longer bother to meet the trains at Saint Dié on the off-chance of trade, so we stood forlornly, before ringing for a taxi.

And the cows, which mysteriously weren’t grazing in the Entre-deux-Eaux fields? The shock news when we collected our post from Mme Laine, is that Dominique Duhaut has sold them all! He and Olivier have not managed to work harmoniously together (perhaps no surprise) and are dissolving the partnership at the end of the year. For now the cows have been sold and the fields lie uncut. It sounds as if two brothers from Taintrux and other farmers from Corcieux may between them take over the land.

And since then, our doctor has said that Achilles tendon injuries take a long time to mend, so John, like Farmer Duhaut, is taking life easily. Perhaps a different form of the sultan’s revenge so near the end of a wonderful journey?

The Great Train Journey – First week’s travels

copy of an e-mail sent 27 April 2009

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link The_Great_Train_Journey-week1.pdf (two A4 pages)

There are now photographs of the Romanian Painted Monasteries we visited

Our travels have been good so far. Dorinda and Roger started us off in style with a lift to St Die, where we took trains to Stasbourg then Offenburg. The German trains were all very punctual, so all our first day’s 10 minute connections worked smoothly, via Munich and Vienna. The Hungarian express was very new and swish, and felt the right way to travel internationally. From Budapest to Romania was not so stylish, and our sleep in the station waiting room just over the Romanian border was fitful. The second morning our 1st class upgrade on the Romanian train northwards was the shabbiest we’d been on, with smelly loos with only occasional water. It was a dreary start through the drab, uncultivated plains north of Arad with seedy concrete blocks of flats even in the middle of the countryside, rusting old gas pipes and derelict industries. Later the landscape in Transylvania was pretty, with its mountains and small plots of land still being ploughed with the aid of horses. It seemed to be the day for sowing potatoes, just before St George’s Day (maybe he protects potatoes as well as beautiful princesses).

We spent 3 mainly sunny spring-like days in the north of Romania, based in Suceava, within travelling distance of the painted monasteries of Bucovina. The  paintings are all over the outside as well as the inside walls – all the Bible stories and lives of gruesomely martyred saints, many we’ve never heard of, were there in wonderful colour and we had a very enthusiastic guide, who loved the monasteries and their paintings (though I think she was a bit disappointed that we weren’t in the league of Michael Palin who she also showed round for his New European programme). And St.George’s day was being celebrated at the first, Voronet (no dragon, though, just a special service with the Archbishop of Suceava). We had Romanian food one night and another day we had lunch at one of the monasteries (excellent blueberry aperitif!).

Then, it was up for the 5 a.m. train to Bucharest, and the last leg of the journey on to Istanbul. Alas the fake Orient Express was way beyond our means, but the serviceable old Romanian sleeper we were on, which kept getting hooked onto other trains in Bulgaria, was a great night’s sleep, apart from the obligatory stop and descent at the Turkish border around 3 a.m. to obtain visas and police stamps.

We arrived in Istanbul reasonably on time, the train running between the sea and the old city walls for much of the time – very picturesque. The stylish old Orient Express restaurant on the platform alas didn’t stoop to morning coffee, with its tables all set with damask cloths and wine glasses beneath the portrait of Agatha Christie and film stars. But we found a great patisserie cum Turkish Delight shop a short distance from the station and treated ourselves to coffee and pastries in its blue tiled splendour to build up our strength before cramming into a tram (almost as bad as Indian transport – but no one on the roof) and then lugging our cases along cobbled streets to the Hotel Alp, (in the Sultanahmet area below the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Topkapi palace), perched on the edge of a rock face overlooking the port in the distance. Then the rain started.

We had various practical things to check in the afternoon, but after doing those, our footsteps almost inevitably led to the huge covered grand bazaar, with its carpets, lamps, antiques, fabrics, leather goods, ceramics etc. Great fun. And there’s still the spice bazaar to try another day. We hadn’t meant to buy anything, but we were forced to linger over the men’s shoes as John’s feet were feeling very wet and he realised the sole of one of his only pair of shoes had split right across, and the rain was getting harder. What timing! However the slim pointy turquoise or silver patent contemporary styles didn’t appeal to him! We saw one or two more sensible shoes on the way back here, but had had enough by then. Off shortly to look for food.

More later.