Piccadilly, Central, Circle – most of us are very familiar with the London Underground. But there’s another subterranean railway and it links Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west. Long before the DLR was operational, it ran without drivers and guards. It carried freight beneath the streets of London and kept an industry efficient despite the capital’s heavily congested streets.
That railway is MailRail and though it was closed by the Royal Mail in 2003, the good news is that last year, specially adapted, it opened for visitors as part of the new Postal Museum. If you haven’t been, I’d urge you to go. From small children to the elderly, this is a true family attraction with something to interest everyone. Last week I was lucky enough to be offered a complimentary visit courtesy of Made and enjoyed a fun afternoon at the Postal Museum as their guest.
We began at the Postal Museum Exhibition. I expected to want to rush this part of the visit in my excitement at having the opportunity to ride MailRail. In fact, the exhibits have been very well thought out and I was soon engrossed. Many of us don’t realise that the postal service in Britain began as a private service for Henry VIII. The term “the post” referred to the horses that were used as transport. But the King’s couriers took on covert work to supplement their income and soon the notion of sending something through the post was commonplace – amongst the wealthy at least. Ironically, most of the post boys couldn’t read and letters bore the symbol of a hanged man as a stark warning not to steal the letters’ contents. The advent of the mail coach reduced the risk of robbery and increased reliability.
In the Victorian era, the Royal Mail as we know it was born. Rowland Hill submitted his proposal for postal reform in the 1830s. He suggested the introduction of uniformly low prices based on weights rather than distance, as well as the system of prepayment which we take for granted today. His ideas met with a favourable response. In 1840, the Penny Black was introduced and for weightier letters, the Twopenny Blue.
The museum features plenty of interactive exhibits. You can dress up in vintage mail uniforms and create your own stamp with your picture on it. There were also plenty of surprises. I learnt that pillar boxes were originally green. They were road tested in the Channel Islands in the 1850s before being rolled out across the UK soon after. But the colour was thought dull and dreary, so red paint was introduced a couple of decades later.
Blue airmail boxes also existed and on them were lists of last posting times for key cities around the world. The inclusion of Algiers is a reminder that places become more and less important to others as times change. Colonial names like Tanganyika, Persia, Siam and Ceylon can still be seen on this 1930s box. If you’d have wished to send a letter from London to Brisbane at this time, it would have taken 12 days to arrive. With a journey length of 12700 miles (when you take into account the many stops), it was the world’s longest air route at the time it was launched, in 1935.
Engaging though the museum was, the highlight of the afternoon was to be found across the street: MailRail. The Post Office Railway was rebranded on the occasion of its 60th birthday in 1987 to this catchier brand name, but in actual fact, the idea of a railway for the postal service had been mooted as early as 1909. The route linked the six big sorting offices with two mainline train stations over 6.5 miles of track.
Sacks of mail were transported on these trains and an army of employees manned the platforms unloading the precious cargo. The trains ran for 22 hours a day, six days a week. An estimated 4 million letters passed through the system every day. A series of lifts, chutes, conveyors and elevators were used to avoid “laborious man-handling of bags” which would slow the whole process down. Automatic train control was in operation, leading some employees to comment that it was like having their “own giant train set to run”. With as many as eighteen mail cars speeding around the system at any one time, they needed to keep their wits about them.
The mail was sent by overground train to the different parts of the UK and postal workers sorted it by destination while on the move in what was called a Travelling Post Office. This part of the museum has a mock up of such an onboard sorting office which you can use to file “mail” – as the carriage rocks it’s not easy to keep your balance if you’re not used to the motion.
The ride itself lasted about fifteen minutes, completing a loop under the Mount Pleasant section of the railway beginning and ending at what was once the maintenance depot. When operational, express trains would have taken the same amount of time to run between Liverpool Street and Paddington – try doing that on the Tube now! It was well done – from the cramped compartments we listened to an informative commentary and enjoyed some interesting audio-visual projections along the route.
Though you might struggle if you’re claustrophobic, spare a thought for my father. A retired engineer, he once carried out a survey of some of London’s sorting offices and was sent with his bags via MailRail. That would have been a very tight squeeze. At least now you get to leave your stuff in the lockers provided!
The Postal Museum and MailRail are open all year except for 24-26th December. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm with the last train departing at 4.35pm. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. As you need a timed ticket to ride the railway, it’s best to buy your tickets in advance. Details of ticket prices and other information can be found on the Postal Museum’s website here:
The thrill of seeing animals in the wild in Africa’s national parks is one of life’s great travel adventures. But sometimes you can’t wait for Africa to get your travel fix. A visit to Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, owned and managed by the Aspinall Foundation, provides an opportunity to go on safari without leaving the UK, but how does it compare to the real thing?
The organisation’s credentials are good: known for its work breeding rare and endangered species, the park is home to 25 painted dogs, 17 Western lowland gorillas, 15 Eastern black rhinoceros and 5 Rothschild giraffes. The park’s animals are housed in a variety of ways, with some roaming freely across acres of rolling fields and others in purpose built enclosures.
It’s possible to visit for the day but for a special occasion, Port Lympne has a range of overnight accommodation. We chose to rent a cottage, but could equally have spent the night in a glamping tent, hotel or even a treehouse suite. Further accommodation is planned, as is a spa, expected in around 18 months time.
Our cottage slept eight and was very comfortable for our party of six. Each of the four bedrooms was a generous size, in particular the master suite, which had a huge bathroom attached. Attention to detail was evident throughout, such as finding cute little elephant hooks for the bathroom robes. We enjoyed the services of a personal chef who cooked us a three course dinner and came back to serve up a full English the following morning. It was an impressive set up which pleased everyone.
From the windows, we looked down over fields grazed by some of the park’s animals, though admittedly from a distance. If you’re serious about wildlife spotting from your bedroom, you’re going to need to bring binoculars. There was something almost surreal about hearing the shout of “Quick! I can see a rhino from the bathroom window!” when your brain is protesting you are so close to home. Less fun was finding the nieces had hidden the resident oversized gorilla plushy with the spooky eyes in our bath as a joke, though they found my screams hilarious.
But it was the safari experience that set the trip apart. Our guide, Rebecca, was knowledgable without being preachy and supplied enough anecdotes to prevent the whole thing turning into a Biology field trip. She explained about conservation and environmental pressures on creatures in the wild in the context of the animals’ own personal histories. We didn’t see the new born giraffe that was resolutely hiding inside, but we did meet the extended family from our Land Rover vantage point.
Larger safari trucks ferry passengers around Port Lympne’s extensive site, but the advantage of being in a smaller vehicle was that we could go off road from time to time to get a closer look at some of the grazing herds.
The Bactrian camels looked somewhat scruffy as they were blowing their fur coats, and somehow wildebeest always do, but the small herd of Chapman zebra looked to be in fine condition. Save for the distant view of the English Channel, we could have been on that African safari.The morning safari was shorter, but took us to different parts of the park to see ostrich, eland, baboons and more.
Afterwards, we spent a few more hours wandering the pedestrian paths that looped the animal enclosures, timing our visit to the gorillas to coincide with feeding time and watching a Siberian tiger hunt out meat that had been hidden in her patch.
It felt slightly odd to be seeing primates in cages after our safari, but obviously it wasn’t going to be safe, practical or possible for a silverback to be mingling with the crowd.
How did I feel about the trip? Well I came home and booked a flight to Uganda. I’m going to be taking my third African safari in early 2019.
One of the most remote and most overlooked corners of Europe, the self-governing Faroe Islands might be part of the kingdom of Denmark but they believe in doing things their way. A long weekend is just sufficient to see why those who find themselves there can’t get enough of the place. In part, it reminds the traveller of Iceland, Norway, Scotland and even the Yorkshire Dales, but in truth it’s all of them and none of them.
Flights are operated by two airlines: Atlantic Airways and SAS. There’s a twice-weekly direct flight from Edinburgh to Vagar Airport. Flight time is around an hour. However, if you have onward connections, particularly on the inbound leg, it’s wise to allow a longer than usual layover because flights are often affected by bad weather. All other flights from the UK are indirect, with the greatest number of connections via Copenhagen as you’d expect.
If you have plenty of time, or are happy to be constrained by public transport routes, it is possible to get around without your own vehicle. An airport bus connects Vagar Airport with the capital Tórshavn. In town, the centre is compact and walking between the main sights is easily doable. In addition, there’s a free bus that links Tórshavn to historic Kirkjubøur. Ferries are as reliable as they can be given the wild weather, but cheap, particularly if you walk on. For instance, foot passengers travelling from Gamlarætt to Skopun on Sandoy Island pay just DKK 40 return (less than £5) while a car costs under £20. Multi-day travel cards might work out cost effective if you are travelling around a lot; they cost DKK 500 for four days and are valid on all buses and most ferries.
For timetables, visit the Strandfaraskip website:
Car rental is best if you wish to get off the beaten track. We rented from 62°N which is affiliated to Hertz, Europcar and Sixt, but there are several other agencies. Typically, prices start at around DKK 600 (£70) per day for a small car. In my experience, roads were good quality and drivers courteous, but the buffetting wind can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it. The Visit Faroe Islands website has plenty of sound advice about driving conditions and rules of the road as well as this useful graphic:
Helicopter rides are also possible if the weather is playing ball, which sadly it wasn’t during my trip. A community initiative means that transport is subsidised, meaning you can be airborne for a tenner. A chopper transfer from Vagar to Tórshavn bookable through Atlantic Airways costs DKK 215 (about £25). Fares between other islands cost from DKK 85 to DKK 360. More here: https://www.atlantic.fo/en/book-and-plan/helicopter/fares/
What to see
The Faroese capital is a delightful, quirky little place with much to recommend it. Begin between the twin harbours at Tinganes, seat of the Faroese government. The russet-painted government buildings with their verdant turf roofs are impossibly photogenic and unusually accessible.
The fish market on the quayside is also worth a look, and you may be able to blag a sample or two. There are plenty of cafes and a burgeoning bar scene; I can vouch for the hot chocolate in Kafe Husid and a beer in Mikkeller. There are also a clutch of good eateries in town including the excellent Barbara Fish Restaurant, where the broth for its bouillebaisse is poured from a vintage china teapot and the deconstructed lemon meringue pie is to die for.
KOKS, the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the Faroe Islands, deserves its own entry. An evening here doesn’t come cheap – the tasting menu is an eye-watering DKK 1400 (about £165) with the wine pairings another DKK 1100 (approximately £130) on top. It might just be the most memorable and adventurous meal you ever eat, however, and is not to be missed. Your evening begins in a lakeside hjallur, or drying house, with some tasty nibbles of fermented lamb and dried kingfish. Next, you jump on a Land Rover for the short hop up the hill to the restaurant itself (this is not a restaurant for posh heels). From the opener of scallops served in a shell encrusted with live and very wriggly barnacles to the final mouthwatering dulse (red seaweed) and blueberry dessert, it was incredible.
The historic village of Kirkjubøur is home to the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, the largest mediaeval building in the Faroes. Next door, is the simple but beautiful whitewashed church of St Olav which dates from the early 12th century. It’s still in use today and 17th generation farmer and churchwarden Jóannes Patursson rings the bell to announce a service. Opposite, lies the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe, the 11th century Roykstovan farmhouse built from stone and logs weatherproofed with black tar. It began its days in Norway, before being dismantled and shipped to its present location. Today it remains the Paturssons’ family home and is fascinating to visit. On the walls hang traditional whaling equipment, now obselete; Jóannes will explain and defend the long tradition of hunting pilot whales if asked. Whatever your personal views, it’s interesting to hear a Faroese take on the practice.
To reach the tiny village of Saksun, you’ll need your own transport (or be up for a lengthy hike) but the reward is a super hike alongside a tidal lagoon to the sea. The folk museum within the Dúvugarðar sheep farm is managed by the farmer himself who apparently isn’t too keen on tourists visiting, so don’t plan on gaining access. The setting’s the star here, though, and you won’t be disappointed by the walk along a sheltered, sandy beach hemmed in by steep cliffs. At low tide, and in good weather, it’s surely got to be one of the prettiest spots in the country. I visited in the pouring rain and on a rising tide. Despite the low cloud and the slightly wet feet it was still worth the effort.
Weather killed my boat trip to the Vestmanna bird cliffs but I’m told the sight of the towering rockfaces crammed with puffins, guillemots and razorbills is an impressive one. If rain stops play as it did for me, the SagaMuseum, housed inside the tourist information centre, is an interesting detour, if a bloodthirsty one. Prepare for some pretty explicit waxworks; the creators didn’t hold back when telling the stories from the sagas of the Faroes’ Viking past. Decapitation, torture and drowning are all depicted in the gruesome exhibits. An audio guide is a must to learn about the fascinating tales behind the exhibits.
Even if you’re only in the Faroes for a long weekend, Sandoy and Streymoy are only a half an hour apart by ferry so it’s a tempting excursion from Tórshavn.
Vast empty beaches lined with sea stacks and grazed by sheep who munch on the plentiful seaweed are a big draw, even in the shoulder season. Quaint harbours full of colourful fishing boats, yarn-bombed rocks and even the odd art gallery all offer pleasant diversions. With more time you can journey further afield to the other islands. Highlights include Hans Pauli Olsen’s sculpture of the seal woman on Kalsoy, picturesque Gjógv – the most northerly village on the island of Eysturoy – and a solitary hike to the lighthouse at the end of the the islet of Mykineshólmur on Mykines, an island where puffins greatly outnumber people.
I bought the Bradt guide to the Faroe Islands a month or so before I travelled and as ever, it’s an informative and eminently readable guide. If you are planning an independent visit to the Faroe Islands it will be invaluable to your preparations.
I travelled to the Faroe Islands on a press trip as a guest of Atlantic Airways who were efficient, friendly and best of all laid back about seat swaps so we could all grab a window seat. Visit Faroe Islands and Visit Sandoy arranged a diverse and memorable itinerary, so much so that I’m already planning a return visit at some point in the not so distant future. Their accommodation choices, the Hotel Føroyar overlooking Tórshavn and the Hotel Sandavik on Sandoy, were comfortable, contemporary and classically Scandinavian.
Though I paid for my connecting flight, I’m grateful to Holiday Extras for taking care of my airport parking at London Stansted, particularly as they chose the very convenient Short Stay Premium option.
Raindrops splattered the windscreen like sound effects in a kid’s comic. The summer storm had intensified and visibility was quickly changing from irritatingly poor to downright dangerous. From the back of the car came a half hearted grumble. Einstein didn’t much care for rain at the best of times. This current assault had triggered the rear wipers he detested and he was making his feelings clear.
We’d done a lot of car trips, Einstein and I. My parents had a house on the Mosel and we were regular visitors. We had an understanding. In silence, Einstein would endure the ferry crossing and the many hours in the car. As his reward, we took long, companionable walks. I would order a tub of ice cream at one of the riverside cafes and he would bury his nose into it and lick it clean. Together, we explored castles and bought wine. Not once had his wagging tail knocked a bottle over. He revelled in the fuss he invariably received. In turn, I delighted in the jovial salutations that followed when the locals learned his name: Ein-schtein! Back at the house, Mum and Dad spoiled him rotten, indulging his every whim and fussing him on demand.
This trip was a little more ambitious. We’d spent the night at the house, as usual. But today, instead of snoozing lazily in the sun (me) and flopping across the kitchen doorway in the hope of scraps (him), we’d packed up the car and hit the road again. Golden retrievers are a stubborn breed. It had taken some persuasion to prise Einstein from the breakfast dishes and into the boot of the car. Grumpy didn’t cover it.
So now we were on the autobahn bound for Austria, Einstein’s eyes fixed resolutely on the road behind us. Somewhere near Munich, I thought, but it was hard to see the car in front, let alone the road signs. Not that the weather was slowing down the local drivers, who appeared in the rear view mirror out of nowhere and overtook as if we were standing still. A lone woof nudged above the sound of the engine. It was time to pull off the road and take a break. Spotting a motorway service station, I slowed the car and swung into a space in the middle of the car park.
Raising the tailgate, a doleful face greeted me. In protest, Einstein made no attempt to get out. I waited. Ever since he was a puppy, he’d done things at his own pace and there was little point in trying to hurry him. Finally, he got to his feet and jumped down. A wince crossed his face as his paws hit the asphalt. As he moved forward, there was a pronounced limp. Einstein had been known to fake such a limp for effect, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. I wondered, though, if it might be a slight touch of cramp and figured a gentle walk might do him good. Einstein thought otherwise and after a few steps, laid himself down in the middle of the car park, blocking the traffic. I rummaged in my pocket for a treat but found only crumbs.
It was still raining heavily. Droplets of water dampened my hair before percolating slowly and persistently to the nape of my neck and down to the small of my back. On the surface, Einstein’s thick cream curls were slick, his waterproof overcoat perfectly suited to keeping him dry. My rain jacket was somewhat less effective and as a result, my patience was wearing thinner than a gossamer stocking.
“Come on, get up doggo.”
No response. I tried a lighter tone.
“Einy, sweetie, up you get.”
Defiant, Einstein rolled slowly and deliberately onto his side, exhaling deeply. It wasn’t the first time he’d decided to do this. At the park, my usual tactic was to walk away and wait for him to follow, which he did, eventually. Here, I couldn’t risk leaving him, even to grab a treat from the car.
Trying a different tactic, I knelt down and attempted to lever his dead weight upright. It was hopeless. When he was this uncooperative, I simply wasn’t strong enough. I could lift his head and shoulders off the ground, but as soon as I switched to his rear end, he rolled back again. It was a battle of wills and I was losing. Defeated, I began to look around for someone who might help. A couple of passing Dutchmen brushed me off. I couldn’t blame them. What sane person wanted to lift thirty-odd kilos of wet dog? Beneath all that stubbornness he was sweet natured and gentle, but they couldn’t know that.
Time passed at a crawl. Drivers manoeuvred carefully around us and motorists returning to their vehicles took elaborate detours lest they were called upon to assist. I was just going to have to wait for Einstein to move, however long that might take. I allowed myself a wistful daydream of the holiday we could have been enjoying further north and muttered a silent prayer to the Tyrolean gods that the Alps would be worth all this stress – if we ever got there.
After what seemed forever, help arrived in the form of a rotund German with extravagant facial whiskers. His car was parked next to mine. Scanning the scene, he understood my predicament. Without speaking he lifted the boot. Inside was a cool box. And inside that was a fat heap of sausages. My spirits lifted. At last, something to determine whether Einstein was genuinely in pain.
It didn’t take long to get my answer. Spying the sausage, Einstein raised his head and leapt to his feet. He trotted over to the man without a backward glance, miraculously cured. Stiffly, I got to my feet and smoothed down my wet trousers in a vain attempt to look presentable. I walked over, relief mixed with exasperation, as the dog wriggled himself into a perfect sit in front of his new best friend and sneezed with excitement. Gazing up with adoration, Einstein wolfed down the first tasty morsel. With a cute tilt of the head, he raised a damp paw in anticipation of the next.
I grinned. We’d be hiking those Alpine trails after all. Red cheeked, I enticed him to our car and high-tailed it to the border.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Germany’s excellent Christmas markets, then why not head over the border to Austria? Salzburg is one of Europe’s most elegant cities, and during the run up to Christmas, it’s bedecked with festive lights and crammed full of stalls. I spent the weekend exploring its Christmas markets and experienced Advent Austrian-style. Here are my tips for getting the best out of a pre-Christmas trip.
Make the most of public transport with a day pass
An extensive network of buses and trolley buses makes getting around easy. Day passes are available, as is the more expensive Salzburg Card which includes free admission to visitor attractions as well as free transport. It does cost 24 euros for the day, however, so you need to be sure you’re going to get your money’s worth for the extra 20 euros you’ll be spending per person. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the markets it’s unlikely the Salzburg Card will represent good value for money.
But if you buy regular, transport-only day passes from a machine they cost just 4 euros a day, compared to 5,70 euros if you purchase them from the driver of the bus. If you’re arriving in Salzburg by train or plane, you’ll find these machines in the main bus station or at the airport. They are valid for a complete 24 hour period rather than by calendar days, so you’ll most likely be able to use them the following morning too – good to know if you’re going to be starting your day somewhere there’s no machine. Print off or download maps before you go to make sense of the network; there’s also an app featuring timetables and mobile ticketing.
There’s an English option available, but if not these are the maps you’ll find most useful:
City: Liniennetzplan Stadt Salzburg Region: SVV Zonenplan
Wrap up warm
You might not get a dumping of snow as I did, but if you’re visiting Salzburg in December, it is likely to be very cold. Temperatures during my visit hovered just below freezing, but if like me you’re tempted out onto the Wolfgangsee, the wind that blows across the lake is a chill one. Pack accordingly, and layer up with hat, scarf, gloves and thermal underlayers. If all else fails, drink gluhwein!
Plan your market trips
As you might expect, there’s more than just one market in the city, as well as some delightful markets in the surrounding towns and villages. I took a trip out to St Gilgen and Strobl on the shores of the Wolfgangsee. Strobl’s market featured livestock in the form of sheep, goats and reindeer and boat trips were possible too between the lakeshore villages. St Gilgen’s market was bigger and had a lot of character. A day pass on the #150 bus meant I could hop on and hop off all day for a fare of 17,60 euros.
In the city itself, the largest market is the Christkindlmarkt in Domplatz. As the name suggests, it’s right by the cathedral in the Old Town. It has its origins in a market that started in the 15th century, though in its present incarnation it’s been going since 1974. Just around the corner you’ll find an ice rink. The Christkindlmarkt had a huge concentration of stalls but as a result was packed; if you’re not so keen on crowds, I’d recommend visiting this one during the day.
There is also a smaller market at Mirabellplatz, which is handy if you need to kill time or grab a hot drink before your bus leaves as it’s right by the stops. This year the market up at the Hohensalzburg fortress is closed due to renovation work, but well worth checking out next year.
My favourite of all the city markets was that at Hellbrunn, a short ride away by #25 bus and included in the 4 euros day pass. Nestled in the courtyard of this attractive palace, there are plenty of artisan stalls so a lot of choice if you plan to do some gift-shopping. The inclusion of hundreds of trees festooned with red baubles and the use of the palace shutters to turn the palace into a huge Advent calendar makes this one extra special.
There is a 3 euros entrance charge at the weekend (it’s free on weekdays) but this is redeemable for a mug of Gluhwein which would have cost 3,50 euros. If you have kids with you, it’s good to know that this is the place where they have the trick fountains and although they used to be a summer-only attraction, for the last couple of years these have been opened during Advent too.
To check opening times and other details, this is the link you’ll need:
Don’t just visit the markets
Space them out and punctuate your visits with other activities. There are carol concerts and muscial recitals at many of the markets; you’ll find schedules online, though not all sites are in English. For something completely different, I caught a train out to Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit the Silent Night chapel, a memorial chapel in the village where schoolmaster Franz Gruber and pastor Josef Mohr composed and performed the popular carol for the first time. In the company of a band of actors and local dignitaries, I participated in a themed walk that crossed the Salzach River into Laufen, Germany. there, at the Salzachhalle, watched a play which recounted the tale of the history of those twin villages as well as the story of how Silent Night came to be. I won’t pretend I understood a lot with my schoolgirl German, but the music was heavenly.
Attending a Krampus run is also good fun and it’s worth checking out where the nearest is during your visit. If you haven’t already seen the blog I wrote about Gnigl’s Krampus festivities, check out the post here where you’ll also find some useful links if you plan to go yourself:
If you’ve already been to Salzburg’s Christmas markets and they’ve given you a taste for more, why not try these alternatives? Last year I blogged about Copenhagen and Regensburg, both of which can be visited in a day from London:
Wherever you are this Advent, have a safe and happy time!
I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy. This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide. But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?
A task of epic proportions
Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking. As a consequence this book acts as an overview. While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive. The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers. The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent. Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.
An inspiring guide
The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform. So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages. Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured. While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy. If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.
Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona. The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.” Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore. Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.” Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.
What could be improved?
Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title. Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way. It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not. It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.
Each route features a map. The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable. While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way. This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps. I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text. Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.
There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality. I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix. These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.
The verdict: would I buy this guide?
For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion. Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date. Don’t wait until you leave to buy it. The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like. If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…
The bus is packed and tempers are fraying as those who can’t fit are left to wait on the snowy pavement. On board, spirits are high. Childish excitement is contagious. At Gnigl station, the bus spews its pasengers onto the street and the pace quickens as I follow the crowd up the street. A fire engine blocks the road and the scream of labouring engines marks the point where the trolley buses unhook and divert to continue their journey under their own power. Behind metal barriers, the crowd is already four or five thick. I squeeze past and make my way along the street until I find a space next to three youngsters of primary age. I take a few test shots with the camera and the little boy next to me tells me sternly to use the flash.
Soon, the parade gets underway. The Krampuslauf has a long history in Austria, its origins in pagan rituals dating from the Middle Ages. While St Nicolaus rewards good children with sweets, those who have been naughty have to face the consequences of their actions. Chains and claws set the Krampus apart from the evil Schiachperchten, who are also masked creatures with shaggy pelts and curved horns. Traditionally, the perchten weren’t seen during Advent, instead being associated with the period between the Winter solstice and Epiphany. These days the once defined lines between the two have become blurred, though no one seems to mind.
The costumes are elaborate, with no visible trace of the human inside. Hand carved wooden masks are painted in garish colours. From head to toe a suit of shaggy sheep wool, plus tail of course, tops shoes hidden behind hooves. The jarring sound of the bells on their backs marks their arrival. The children next to me fall silent, their fearful eyes widening. They’re young enough still to believe. A six foot beast runs at the barrier and clambers up, rearing over the children’s heads to great effect. Their shrieks pierce the night and they shrink back, momentarily afraid. Even as an adult, it’s a frightening moment, and I can’t help myself as I jump back too.
One child finds the courage to roar back at the Krampus and the monster ruffles his hair in a good-natured response. Everyone plays along, and the atmosphere is one of family fun. But there are more terrifying figures behind him. As they dart up the street, they twist this way and that. The cow bells on their backs clank heavily and they swish whips fashioned, I’m told, from a horse’s tail. I’ve heard that it’s common for them to thrash spectators’ legs and it makes me a little nervous.
From time to time, there’s an injection of humour. One group stop and perform a dance routine, though they’re as far removed from a boy band as you can get. Another pair face off as if in a boxing ring, before dropping to the floor and doing press ups. The children next to me giggle, at least until they jump to their feet. But St Nicolaus isn’t far behind and their pleading cries gain the desired result: sweets. They stuff their faces, eyes bright, their fear of Krampus forgotten.
The frigid air bites my cheeks and I wrap my scarf tighter around my face. The parade’s only about half done, but there’s a gluhwein stand within sight and it’s time to warm up.
Where to see the Krampus in or around Salzburg
Tonight, 5th December, is St Nicolaus Eve and you can attend the Krampus run in Salzburg’s Altstadt. There are also many other parades that take place throughout the Salzburg region, from its suburbs to tiny mountain villages, as well as throughout Austria and the neighbouring German state of Bavaria. The following two links will help you plan which Krampus or Perchten parades coincide with your visit:
If you plan to head to Gnigl next year, it’s an easy ride on the #4 trolley bus from Mirabellplatz in the centre of the city. Alight at Gnigl S-bahn station and follow the crowd a couple of blocks up to Turnerstrasse or Schillinghofstrasse to claim your spot.