Yeah, yeah, two and a half months, I know. So where were we?
I didn't mention it at the time, but our journey between Hamburg and Amsterdam was another Deutsche Bahn production. It could potentially have been a messy affair, with two changes of train at Munster and Oberhausen: but it all passed off with the efficiency we've come to expect from DB, and I even managed to get my laptop batteries recharged on the final leg's ICE train. The trainspotter in me hopes that our Amsterdam to Paris journey will be via Nederlandse Spoorwegen, just so we can say we've spent time on the national railway of every country we've visited. But no: we're on a Thalys train for four-and-a-bit hours instead. Apparently Thalys is some sort of rail Europudding, a collaboration between Belgian, French, Dutch and German railways. Their door stickers do at least remind us that we're undertaking this trip during the 50th year of the EU's existence. We try to pretend that this was the plan all along.
The Thalys is passable as trains go, but it's showing its age a little, even though the service has only been running for a little over a decade. Europe may be well ahead of us Brits in terms of high-speed rail - and as we discover from the banners all over Gare du Nord when we arrive, there have been some serious developments on that score in the two weeks since we were last in France - but it means that their once-revolutionary TGVs are starting to look a bit old and tatty now, and certainly lacking in modern comforts like laptop power sockets.
Nevertheless, the journey's fine, really. Passing through Brussels allows us to tentatively add one more country to the list we've visited, and results in one more text message from Vodafone telling me who their preferred partner is in that country. Interestingly, it's only as we enter Belgium that the Thalys announcer starts warning us to keep an eye on our personal property. After all, you know what those Belgians are like.
A three-hour stopover in Paris gives us time for a cliched brasserie meal in Terminus Nord, over the road from the station. I decide that this is no time to break with tradition, and so go for a steak-frites and - as The BBG is fretting that I've not had any over the holiday - a bouquet of no fewer than three creme brulees. The restaurant is obviously used to people arriving in the middle of a train journey: we've dumped our bags in the station prior to lunch, but there are plenty of people in Terminus Nord with suitcases propped up by their tables, where they can get under the feet of a team of waiters who, friendly though they are, appear to be even clumsier than Donald Sutherland.
C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la gare, as some tosser in Oxford University admissions told me nearly thirty years ago (I think it's safe to call him out on it by now), so it's back over the road again for our final train, the Eurostar from Paris to London. Not one of our best journeys, unfortunately: and that probably goes double for the inhabitants of the coach two down from ours, in which people are almost melting owing to an aircon failure. The climax is a 15 minute wait in one of Clapham's less picturesque spots before the train finally crawls into London Waterloo. This is the same length of delay we had on the Thalys earlier, but in that case a) they covered it up by just running slowly rather than stopping, and b) they didn't keep apologising for it every few minutes. It's too much of a cliche to suggest that the British train journey is the only one in nearly 48 hours of rail travel to go seriously wrong, but it does look like that, doesn't it?
Still, we'll hold off on any European Railway Death Matches for the moment, and let The Belated Birthday Girl give her considered opinion on the food and drink side of the tour.
Six cities, five countries, four of them wine-producing, lots of variety in food and drink, and locations for the consumption thereof. It all added enormously to the pleasure of a zip around Western Europe in two weeks. Overall, Italy provided the best culinary and viticultural highlights, although that may also be in part because the length of time we spent in each place didn't leave a lot of time for finding interesting little places to eat. I would have liked to have found more nice little spots in Paris, but Au Pied De Cochon would be my favourite of the places we did eat at there. It's open 24 hours a day, conveniently located by Les Halles, and just on the edge of the Marais, and as well as specialising in all the bits of the pig you could imagine eating (and probably some you couldn't), it catered very well for fish and seafood eaters, with oysters as another speciality. The service was great, the staff friendly, and the food pretty good brasserie fare.
Moving onto Milan, I loved the aperitivo tour, with all the little bits of food to sample, along with a glass of your favourite tipple - I decided to be traditional and stick with Prosecco - but maybe it would have been a bit livelier, and more fun, nearer the weekend. Cracco-Peck was all I would have hoped for. The fabulous food - special mention for the octopus amuse bouche, the mango and Fisherman's Friend sorbet palate cleanser, and perfectly cooked sea-bass (Spank was equally pleased with his pigeon) - and the incredibly special atmosphere made this definitely feel like the most high-class restaurant experience I've had. The wine we chose from the recommendations of our sommelier - the menu was way too daunting to navigate on my own - was the Tenuta Guado al Tasso 1999, which I believe is what is known as a "super Tuscan". It was a stunning wine, but made entirely of French grapes, and tasted more like a top Bordeaux (only bigger) than an Italian red. Still, with an aim in my mind that we should stick with wines from the country we were in, and even the region, where possible, it fitted the bill.
But terrific though Cracco-Peck was, my favourite meal and restaurant of the trip was provided by Venice. Corte Sconta, as recommended by Francesca, was a lovely fish and seafood restaurant, tucked away near Arsenale. The restaurant had a friendly, family-run feel to it, although as we were the only people in the front of the restaurant, with everyone else in the packed rear section, we probably missed out on some of the atmosphere. The food was excellent, with a wonderful variety of seafood in the antipasto - you don't get told what exactly you are getting, so you just have to wait and see as each delicious dish arrives - and perfectly cooked pasta for the primo piatti. My one regret is that we arrived too late in the day to go for the full four courses, as I am sure their fish secondi would have been terrific, too - but we did have desserts, with mine being the most gorgeous runny warm chocolate pud, and Spank's being the very attractive stack of 3 little tiramisu in the picture. As it was lunchtime, we decided just to have glasses of house white, but it was excellent wine (unfortunately I can't tell you what it was), and we had a second glass each.
Vienna, famed for schnitzel and coffee houses, was never going to be a culinary highlight for me, and although we did visit the pretty decent and mostly interesting veggie restaurant Wrenkh, probably Café Central would be my pick of eating and drinking there. The coffee list was wonderful and Viennese (the guidebooks helpfully have a section on Viennese coffee terminology), the space itself was grand and beautiful, and the home made apfel strudel warm and delicious.
Although Germany as a whole is more known for meaty cuisine, Hamburg, being a port, specialises in fish dishes, which is useful for me. And a particular speciality is eels, which I am quite partial to. So the Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher was a planned-for food destination from the minute I heard about it, and it did not disappoint. Although I didn't have the nerve to go for the house speciality, where you eat the eel with your hands and have them washed at the table afterwards in brandy, I did go for eel, and it was very good. We washed the food down with a German Reisling, Schloss Vollrads, 2005 Kabinett trocken, which went nicely with the food.
Finally, to Amsterdam, where I was disappointed not to get the opportunity to have something local or associated - such as Indonesian or Surinamese - and we had a poor experience at The Star Ferry. But for a friendly Italian, you could do worse than Teatro.
Me again. So, it's all over bar the holiday snaps (conveniently tagged on The Unpleasant Moblog under monkeyeurope07 and bbgeurope07). We've visited six of the grandest cities in Europe in just over two weeks. We've entered some of the world's most extraordinary buildings, and eaten in some of its finest restaurants. We've been undressed by kings, and we've seen some things that a woman ain't s'posed to see. But what have we learned?
Thinking about the holiday while we were sat in Clapham on the Black Hole Of Eurostar, I recalled a discussion I'd had with The Belated Birthday Girl a day or two earlier. For the last couple of years - since our 2004 visit to Japan, I guess - our annual Big Holiday has involved a collection of very short stays in a number of geographically diverse places, with a lot of travelling in between (see also Hong Kong in 2005 and Japan again in 2006). It's fair to say that when so much of your holiday time is spent just getting from one place to the next, you lose the chance to explore anywhere in depth. But I happen to like the wild buzzing you get in your head after two weeks of relentless New Stuff - when every couple of days brings a complete change of scenery, of food, of language. (Not a complete change of currency, though, and thank God for that. Imagine what a bitch a tour like this would have been to organise just ten years ago.)
Sure, there's an element of familiarity in visiting countries that are more or less on your doorstep. (Unlike our recent trips to the US and Asia, this time I didn't come back with sackfuls of CDs and DVDs as souvenirs that I had to sneak past customs, because I can get pretty much all of that back home.) But all that stuff we've taken in over such a short time! Blogging as we went certainly helped the business of processing it, and also helped me draw a definite line between one country and the next. Still, for several days after we got back, I was still feeling a little breathless at everything we'd done.
And doing it all by train was an adventure in its own right, not just for the ecological reasons that inspired us - though it's interesting to see that just a few days after we got back, Eurostar announced their own programme for carbon-neutral travel by the time they move to the new St Pancras terminal. Obviously the whole process was made easier by internet booking (although the OBB site doesn't make it easy, and our Austrian trains ended up having to be booked through Deutsche Bahn). To be honest, DB came out best overall in the train companies: best equipped trains, friendliest staff, most reliable service, just great all round. Worst? Well, the least pleasant journey was on the overcrowded Trenitalia cattle truck between Milan and Venice: though to be fair, it was a local service to one of the world's busiest tourist destinations, in the week leading up to Easter. One thing, though: a couple of operators (DB and OBB) laid on laptop power sockets in their carriages, but none of the ones we travelled on have gone so far as to provide wireless internet. (The Thalys site suggests they might, but it wasn't advertised on the train we used.) GNER can do this back home, why can't anyone else?
I'm prepared to do comparisons between national railways, but not between cities. An anti-globalisation campaigner could take issue with the similarities we found: every city had the same adverts for the Police and Rolling Stones European tours, and the same posters for Epic Movie (though it's had a peculiar title change in both French- and German-speaking markets). Each of our 2-3 day visits could only really be considered as a sampler: nevertheless, every city had its own distinct charm and its own distinct highlights. (And the same goes for our hotels too, be they high designer style or otherwise.) We've made a note of places we want to revisit, and at some point in the future we certainly plan to - probably taking advantage of those new facilities at St Pancras. And if you feel like following in our footsteps/traintracks, hopefully this blog has given you some ideas on how to go about doing that.
The European Union, as the stickers on the Thalys reminded us, is fifty years old this year. I'm rather pleased with the way we've managed to mash that down to five minutes in the video above. Being a monkey, and all.