Although this all looks good on paper, continuous train journeys do take their toll and right now as I write I am once again settling in for a long ride across Northern Italy towards France for the final leg of my trip, tired, a little bit hungover, but feeling positive after my experience in Venice and all I’ve been through over the last week and a half. Tuesday morning was spent in Timisoara, killing time, and I ended up arriving in Budapest seven minutes after my train left for Austria, and had to wait another two hours for the next connection.
This in itself wasn’t a real problem, as Budapest is one of my favourite places on the planet, and in the eight years since I first went there on the way to Exit Festival back in 2006 a lot has changed making it a real cosmopolitan hub, and not the slightly dirty and run down city I remember the first time we all arrived and drank Dreher beer in a pokey little underground bar off the main high street. Like me, the city has grown up. It has forgotten its old past, cemented in the world’s mind as a long-past-its-due-date relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and has woken up to the reality it faces: it’s time to get with the program. Also like me, it has developed its individual sense of being and sprouted into something much bigger and better. Gone are the ideas that it can only be what it was, and in come the new ideas that it can paint its own future. This is of course all subjective, and just the way I see it, but I like to see the changes making a positive influence on the country and its image in the eyes of the rest of the world. A few beers outside the newly re-opened Keleti Metro station which seemed to have been under construction for ever and ever and I was back on my way again on a fast moving night train to Vienna. Got into the hostel at around 12.30am, for just four hours sleep and back up, showered, and into Wien Meidling station to begin the most exciting part of the trip.
We left Vienna 6.30am and headed south through Austria and the guide books didn’t lie. There is a quicker way to get to Venice, if I had stayed in Budapest for the night, but as we snaked our way up into the mountains the lack of sleep began to pay off. Surrounding the train in all directions are some of the best views I’ve ever had the chance to see, and they didn’t stop for several hours. Vienna down to Klagenfurt comes well recommended by me after all this. We climbed slowly into the clouds, and then seemed to stay up there, travelling through man-made tunnels inside the cliffs each time surfacing to another beautiful vista and another set of snow-capped peaks and traditional Austrian villages. Having lived up on Kilimanjaro for three years, I never thought that my memory bank of mountains both there and all the way down to Zambia would ever be topped, but I was wrong. Austria is, in my mind, the most beautiful place I have ever been. One particular part that grabbed my attention was a little town called Semmering. I am already making mental plans to go back there one day, and drive those roads myself. I have some photos and videos taken from the train, but that’s not what I care about, the pictures in my mind will stay with me forever, and I’m thankful for giving myself the opportunity to experience them on my own and with such clarity.
Seven hours into the journey we were finally in Italy, crystal clear water trickled down mountain run off streams over bright white limestone and under the train’s elevated tracks to flow out the other side into vast blue lakes at the foot of lush green mountainscapes. Sounds romantic huh? You had to be there! When we finally got to Venice Santa Lucia after crossing the open sea on this very long and narrow bridge I wasn’t disappointed in what lay ahead of me. Venice sits in its own lagoon, surrounded by sea on all sides, and when you really take that in, it becomes even more amazing when you do finally step off the train and see the intricate maze of canals and bridges. In true stereotypical fashion, a lady running through the train station nearly knocked me over shouting “Mario, Mario” calling after her boyfriend and I felt like it all made sense. I walked through this wonderful city and got horridly lost before I found my hotel, an unmarked and unremarkable door leading up a winding staircase to a rooftop balcony overlooking a small street on the main island. The room wasn’t all that great, but for the money paid I wouldn’t have expected much more. It was clean, hot water in the showers, and the friendly bunch of people running the place made me feel very welcome. After a “wash and brush up”, in the words of Peter Sellars: “a little wash and brush up, a bit water on the back of the neck, makes you feel marvellous” I headed back into the narrow streets and took my camera out for its first real foray since leaving Zanzibar. Venice is a beautiful little place, and when I say little, I mean it, it’s tiny. I managed to walk almost the entire circumference in less than two hours. I drank my first real Italian cappuccino, spoke my first ever words of Italian, and tried to relax and soak up the atmosphere. That in itself wasn’t that easy, as it seemed to me that only established couples and young newly-weds go there, and once the huge number of tourists subsided in the early evening it became apparent that I would have to look quite hard to find a party or any kind of conversation given my lack of Italian or real-world French ability. I found what would be considered in Bristol or Amsterdam to be a quiet little bar, but here in Venice was the only place with people milling around outside together, and got myself a table to start watching the England-Ecuador match being shown on the TV. Lamenting the fact I was on my own, I kept myself to myself and just carried on with my people-watching until enough was enough, and at half time when I overheard a Scottish lad and a couple of Americans near me speaking in English, I popped over and joined them. All of a sudden there were about ten of us all exchanging our own versions of how train-wreck it felt to be in Venice and not with the love of our lives, and various other travelling tales of woe and wonder, and before I knew it I was chasing whiskeys with a lovely Scottish lass until the early hours of the morning, finally sneaking into the dorm with her and pretending to be 18 again. I suppose it’s fitting that I ended my Italian stay with really good sex, albeit at the behest of those trying to sleep around us. The excitement of it all just made it even better and sneaking back out this morning to go get a coffee didn’t feel like a walk of shame, more a stride of pride! Yep, Italy, I went, I conquered, and now I’m leaving!
As I write this, I am heading west towards Milano, where I shall get another awesome Italian cappuccino before my connection to Ventimiglia and finally on to Monaco. I still can’t believe that this is coming true, that I am actually going to walk along the very streets that Ascari, Fangio, Hill, Brundle, Schumacher, Button and all my heroes have raced on and where most of them live. It’s a shame I can’t stay, but the guidebook (well, Wikipedia) says that Monaco has the highest GDP in the world, at over $180,000 per person, comparing that to Tanzania which is more like $180, you can understand that there is more money in that little principality than I could ever imagine. So much money that the House of Grimaldi don’t need to collect income tax! I don’t deserve to be there any longer than a couple of hours, indeed I don’t think I could afford it anyway, the cheapest hostel or hotel I could find was over €150 for one night at short notice. In contrast, my room in Nice tonight will cost me less than €30.
Off to practice my French, get a real comparison on whether French or Italian cappuccinos are best, then its TGV time and the epic 500kph plus train up to Paris tomorrow. I don’t have much time there, and don’t really need it, I’m really looking forward to another weekend out in Amsterdam, and another little personal test – If my brother can do it, then so can I – I haven’t smoked any weed since leaving the dam last week, and really hope I can keep that up and start this next chapter of my life with a clear conscience and sober outlook. Well, there’s nothing stopping me downing a few Heineken’s on the way I suppose is there?